||In the times of $200/btl California Cabernets; $80 Merlots;
and pretty little Zinfandels at $35/btl (and we won't even talk about Bordeaux
& Burgundy prices!!); where is one to turn to in California wines without
mortgaging the house or the wife??? The answer is easy.... California Rhones.
Although the first $100 Calif Syrah is now out there (which we'll taste);
the wine authorities (we're talking RP here; we're NOT talking WS here!)
have yet to fully grasp the fact that Calif is truly making world-class
Rhone-style wines. Wines they rate 90-92 would be receiving scores of 96-100
if they were Cabernets. In the area of varieties other than Syrah (Mourvedre,
Grenache, Roussanne, Viognier and Rhone/Chateauneuf blends); one can still
find some terrific wines at less than $20/btl; sometimes in the low-teen$.
As a follower of Calif Syrah and Rhone varietals from the very start
('74 Phelps Syrah, '77/'78 Estrella River Syrah); the last 10 yrs has seen
the Calif Rhone movement come into its own. And after this tasting, you
will see this to be so (and RP and WS will STILL be clueless). The following
12 wines tasted are hopefully representative of what the top Calif Rhone
producers are doing these days.
Jaffurs Santa Barbara County Roussanne '97:
Craig Jaffurs started making his first commercial wines some 3 yrs
ago, and has never looked back. Buying grapes exclusively from a number
of sources strictly in Santa Barbara County, he has crafted a full range
of Rhone varietals. Roussanne is a white variety that is still little planted
in Calif as yet. But it makes beautiful aromatic perfumy wines much like
Viognier, but usually with more richness and structure. They remind me
a bit of Zind-Humbrecht GWT's.... at half the price. The BonnyDoon '97
is one such Roussanne at a great price ($18). The Qupe is another one.
The ZacaMesa is a bit on the lightweight side, but a pleasant white. This
Jaffurs is one of the more lean an tight versions of Roussanne, but one
that I expect to age quite well... 10 yrs even.
Ojai Vnyd Calif Roll Ranch Vnyd Viognier '97: Adam & Helen Tolmach
made their first wines in an old dairy barn w/ Bob Lindquist back in '82
in Los Alamos (the dinky Calif one, not the REAL Los Alamos). In the last
4-5 yrs, they have been crafting some of the best (and most reasonably
priced) Rhones in all California. This Viognier (the variety of the Rhone's
Condrieu) comes from young (4 yr old) plantings just up the canyon from
Adam & Helen's wnry in OakView in Ventura Cnty. When Viogniers first
started coming out in Calif, they tended to make them in the same fashion
as Chard.... hardly a good model. Since then, they've toned down the oak
quite a bit and let the fruit be the primary feature. There are a lot of
terrific Calif Viogniers out there... Jaffurs, Qupe, Ojai, EdmundsStJohn,
Arrowood, Calera, Alban; to name a few of my favorites. Alas, Condrieu....
with its somewhat smokey, minerally character is still the standard that
they have not yet attained in Calif.
Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee '96: This is Bob
Lindquist's version of a Chateauneuf du Pape blend. Bob, too, started his
first production of Syrah back in '82 from EstrellaRiver/PasoRobles grapes.
He his probably, consistently, the finest & one with the longest track
record of fine Rhone varietals in California. He makes a full range of
both whites and reds; all very well made and reasonably priced, some truly
profound in character. There are a number of Calif/Rhone producers; most
of whom make some sort of red/ Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend. Most are made
w/ various %'s of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Few of them you would
mistake for Chatneuf du Pape, they don't have that earthy/dusty/slightly
roasted/funky/bretty character; most are more fruit driven, as you would
expect from Calif. But this is where some real bargins are to be found
and many (like the Qupe LOC) can age remarkably well. At the start, some
winemakers used these Red blends as a sort of dumping ground for odd and
leftover lots of wine; but I sense that this is seldome done anymore; most
are concious attempts to make a good red blend at a fair price.
Edmunds St. John Les Cotes Sauvages '96: Steve Edmunds has been
making Rhone varietals in an industrial facilities in scenic downtown Emeryville
from the mid-'80's. Sourcing Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache from a number of
North Coast vnyds; this is Steve's take on a Chateauneuf-blend. Is style
yields one of the more Rhone-like versions of wine from Calif. His early
wines tended to be pretty bretty, but the last 5-6 yrs, he's been making
some of the very best of the Calif/Rhones that tend to be more Rhonish
in character than most others. And he is still relatively an unknown, except
among the Calif/Rhone cognescenti. His DurrelVnyd Syrah is one of the very
best Syrahs made, truly world-class Syrah. Steve is now starting to have
access to more Rhone varietals from ElDorado Cnty and it will be interesting
to follow his efforts from this under-regarded area of Calif.
Sierra Vista El Dorado Cnty Syrah Herbert Vnyd '97: John & Barbara
MacCready have been producing a variety (not all Rhones) of wines up in
the Sierra foothills of ElDorado Cnty since the mid-'80's. The terrior
of ElDorado tends to yield Rhone varietals with an earthy/funky character
not too unlike their Rhone brethern. Not particularly well known, they
have really hit their stride with some absolutely first-rate Rhones in
the last 2-3 yrs. Their Viognier is also first-rate, with more minerally/Condrieu
character than most.
Terre Rouge Shenandoah Vlly Sentinel Oak Vnyd/Pyramid Block Syrah '96:
Bill Easton was a home winemaker for many yrs as owner of the fine Solano
Wine Cellars in upper Berkeley from the early '70's. He went commercial
some 4 yrs ago up in Amador's Shenandoah Vlly and has, unarguably, been
making Amador's best Rhone varietals since then. A big,burly, mountain-man
type of guy; his wine's style tend to reflect the personna. Long known
primarily for their Zins; Amador/ShenandoahVlly has real potential to make
world-class wines from the Rhone varietals. Viognier is probably their
only hope to make great white wine up there. The Syrahs that Bill and Scott
Harvey (formerly of Renwood, now of Folie a Deux in the NapaVlly) have
made have been first-rate. I expect Grenache would make stunning wine up
there, especially if done in a Banyuls style. Lots of potential.
Qupe Santa Barbara County Syrah Bien Nacido
Vnyd '96: Bob Lindquist makes 3 tiers of Syrah; Calif, BienNacidoReserve,
and BienNacido HillSide Block (since the '94 vintage). His early BienNacido
Reserves were, without doubt, the first truly great Calif Syrahs. This
is a very large vnyd up on the Eastern bench of the very gravelly SantaMaria
River. It is unarguably one of Calif's great vnyds. A number of winemakers
source their fruit from here; not just Rhone varietals but also some very
good Chard & PinotNoir; some of it going all the way up to LakeCnty
(Steele) and MendocinoCnty (Fetzer). The owners, Steve & Bob Miller,
are great growers and are willing to do just about anything you want. In
some cases, the winemaker just says "I'd like X tons of Syrah" and they'll
deliver it to him. In other cases (like Craig Jaffurs and Jim Clendennan);
they just allocate of block of their vnyd to the winemaker, who will then
make the pruning, the leaf-thinning, the crop-loading, the harvest decisions
themselves and, oftentimes, the actual work itself. They also own the Central
Coast Winemaking Coop in Santa Maria, where a number of great SantaBarbara
winemakers (Chris Whitcraft, Lane Tanner, Craig Jaffurs, John Kerr) do
their thing. The Qupe/AuBonClimat/IlPodere/GoldCoast/ColdHeaven/Makor...
wineries are all located in a large industrial strength bldg up a
side canyon on the BienNaciso property. The Hillside Block, from which
Bob Lindquist (and Ojai Vnyds) makes his HillsideEstate Syrah, is located
high atop a ridge-top on the other side of this side canyon; a spectacular
vnyd site. They have also planted Viognier and Roussanne up there. The
Qupe Hillside Syrah is one of the world's great syrahs.
Jaffurs Santa Barbara County Bien Nacido Vnyd
Syrah '97: Craig takes Syrah from some 3 vnyds in Santa Barbara
County (BienNacido, Stolpman, and Thompson) and this BienNacido is usually
his best (the others ain't too shabby, by any stretch). Craig tends to
use very traditional winemaking techniques on his wines. When young and
tasted from barrel, they are often rather reduced (stinky/sewer gas/fecal....
"riding the reductive wave" as Randall Graham likes to call it) and sometimes
make it into the bottles that way. But that eventually goes away. The wines
are big and packed w/ flavor and some of the best from Calif.
Andrew Murray Santa Barbara County Syrah Les Coteaux '97: Young
Andrew Murray made his Syrahs with the '94 vintage; huge, black, extracted,
very tannic, hard, enormous wines w/ loads of French oak. Since then, he's
learned a bit about tannin management and restraint in winemaking technique
to break into the top tier of Calif Rhone producers. His ridgetop vnyds
are probably the most spectacular vnyds in all of Calif. Andrew makes a
full range of strictlt Rhone varietals. The whites (Viognier & Roussanne)
can often be a bit oxidized and rather Southern Rhone in style. His reds
can sometimes be a bit over-the-top, as this LesCoteaux. He's even made
Late Harvest Roussanne and Late Harvest Syrah. The wines can be on the
eccentric side but they're always interestig. Maybe more of an Aussie style
than any others in Calif.
Ojai Vnyd Calif Syrah Roll Ranch Vnyd '96: Adam tends to use a fair
amount of saignee in his production of red wines; resulting in black, huge,
extracted wines with loads of fruit. This is typical of his Syrah efforts.
This was only the second crop of Syrah off RollRanch and only 3 barrels
(75 cs) were made. Not so lush and opulent as his BienNacido, it's a huge
tannic Syrah for the future.
Jade Mountain Napa Vlly Carneros Syrah Hudson Vnyd '96: Doug Danilek
probably is THE premier producer of Rhone varietals in the Napa Valley.
Hampered by the lack of a good source of Rhone varietals, he has, nonethless,
managed to enter the top tier of Calif/Rhone producers. These grapes come
from the Hudson Vnyd down in lower Carneros, a very cool region one would
not expect to produce top Syrah in Calif. It is a very good example of
what Syrah can do in cool regions. Doug is also winemaker at White Rock
Vnyds, which is where he makes the JadeMtn wines. He makes a fairly full
range of Rhone varietals and blends. His Le Provencal and Les Cotes de
Soliel blends are some of the best red Rhone blends made in Calif. The
Jade Mtn Vnyd owner, Jim Paras, has a vnyd high atop Mt.Veeder, from which
Doug makes a ParasVnyd Syrah, one of the truly great Calif Syrahs; very
Kongsgaard Napa Vlly Syrah Hudson Vnyd/Carneros '96: Same yr, same
grapes, different winemaker. This is Calif's pricyest $yrah at $100/btl.
You be the judge!! John Kongsgaard used to be winemaker at Newton Vnyd,
where he first made their exceptional Chards. He is part owner of Luna
Wnry (which is where he makes his own-label wines) which makes a very nice
Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. The wines he makes under his own label (and
the Arietta label w/ Fritz Hatton) are all.... shall we say... very ambitiously
priced.... of which this Syrah is the most egrarious example. On the positive
side..... well.... his kids ARE fencers and he likes opera!!