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Rhône on the range
Classic French varietals ride high in California

Wine is about quality. But, like the film industry, on some level it’s also about marketing. In the early ’80s, a bunch of California winemakers, distraught that Americans were neglecting the Rhône varietals they loved, started collaborating, sharing information as well as vine cuttings, fruit, and winemaking facilities. They called themselves the Rhône Rangers, and they set about trying to bring honor and acclaim to the so-called Rhône varietals: syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, and carignane (the primary reds); and viognier, roussanne, and marsanne (the primary whites). As a fine-wine region, the Rhône Valley had long been overshadowed by Burgundy to the north and Bordeaux to the east. But in the mid ’80s, Robert Parker, who had yet to become the world’s premier wine critic, began touting Rhônes as the next big thing. Parker was right.

Those clever, maverick California winemakers — including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Adam Tolmach of Ojai, Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards, Bob Lindquist of Qupe, and Joseph Phelps and Gary Eberle (and their eponymous wines) — met informally. Soon, the wine press took notice and gave them that catchy Rhône Ranger moniker — and, over time, the cachet to cash in on their dream.

Their dream, of course, was for syrah and the other Rhône varietals to stand on equal footing with cabernet and chardonnay. In 1997, the Rhône Rangers became an official group; its current president, Bill Crawford, believes that the dreams of the late ’80s are finally coming to fruition. The Rhône Rangers have more than 130 member wineries, and a second wave of Rangers includes the likes of Craig Jaffurs, Andrew Murray, and John Alban, whose wines are hot right now.

Crawford cites plenty of telling statistics. Looking at syrah as a kind of leading-edge indicator, he notes that 10 years ago, there were 867 acres of syrah grown in California. In 2000, this was up to some 12,700. In 2000, a total of 505,000 cases of syrah were sold in the US (including shiraz, domestic syrahs, and imports). In 2003, Crawford predicts that more than 4.4 million cases of syrah may be produced in this country. That’s astonishing growth — partly, of course, as a result of improved marketing.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Rhône Rangers tasting in San Francisco, with 125 wineries and several hundred wines on hand. Rhône varietals take well to blending, which allows the winemaker to influence the wine more than any single varietal. The versatile Rhône blends tend to work well with a vast range of food flavors. While the original Rangers and the second wave are now fairly well established, there are a lot of newcomers who bring a passionate and experimental mindset.

Certainly not all the wines I tasted were great, but across the board, there was much to like. While 1998 was a difficult year in much of California, 1999 and 2000 were both excellent vintages. The red Rhône blends tend to be fruity and assertive, but with great depth of flavor. The whites are often floral, also fruity, with viognier reminding me of apricots, while roussanne and marsanne are more reminiscent of mandarins and almonds (or other nutty flavors) on the finish. Indeed, some herald viogniers as challengers to the dominance of chardonnay. But while they make a nice and refreshing alternative, I don’t see chardonnay being knocked off its perch as the leading varietal — red or white — in the US anytime soon.

Still, since Rhône varietals aren’t as well known as the other fine-wine grapes, they’re remarkably affordable. So you’ve got passion, excitement, versatility, and affordability: what’s not to like?

Crawford makes an excellent case in point: his McDowell Valley Vineyards has been around since 1978 (and received its own American Viticultural Area designation in 1982). Currently, it makes about 18,000 cases of Rhône varietals, but over the next few years, Crawford plans to double that number. He says one reason for the success is his old vines, but another is that Rhône varietals are adaptable to many growing conditions. He also thinks that the fruitier Rhône wines appeal to many palates, and they do drink well young, which is important because most restaurants and retailers don’t want wines sitting around.

So whether their success is due to their quality, versatility, or newfound marketing savvy, ultimately it doesn’t matter: these are wines whose time has come. Try some, and you may taste that rugged individualism infusing the Rangers’ blends. Hi-ho, Silver, and away!

1999 Le Cigare Volant Bonny Doon California. One of the first Rhône blends to gain prominence, its name was chosen because of the French law prohibiting flying saucers (flying cigars) from landing in the vineyards. It’s out of this world, celestial and versatile, laced with layers of fruit, plum, red currants, and loam. About equal parts mourvèdre, grenache, and syrah; can run the gamut from tuna sashimi to porterhouse steak.

1999 Novy Syrah Sonoma County. From an up-and-coming winery, this grapey, grippy wine packs a wallop of fruit flavor, mostly blueberries. It’s on the cusp of a bomb, but would be sumptuous with a beef stew or orange-flavored beef.

1999 Jade Mountain Mourvèdre Contra Costa County. Wild and woolly, it’s hippin’ and hoppin’, popping with plum, blackberries, and a mossy redwood finish. Good with pork dumplings or chicken with cashew noodles, but lots of foods will love it.

David Marglin can be reached at

Issue Date: May 23-30, 2002
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