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by Ken Zinns

Ken is a Bay Area architect with a passion for wine. After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension, he started becoming more "serious" about wine in the early '90s. Ken has been taking wine-tasting trips to the Central Coast since early '92, and has come to love the area - not only for the wines, which just get better year by year, but also for the people. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been volunteering his help at several urban East Bay wineries since 2001 - and in fact was recently named assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

11th Annual RHONE RANGERS - March 16, 2008


Rhone Rangers - 2008
11th Annual San Francisco Wine Tasting

Report on the 11th annual wine tasting presented by the Rhone Rangers, on Sunday, March 16th, 2008, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The event focuses on current releases of Rhône-varietal wines from the western part of the United States.

The event included a winemaker dinner and auction on Saturday evening, a tasting seminar on Rhône whites on Sunday morning, and the Grand Tasting on Sunday afternoon. The notes below are from the Grand Tasting.

The Rhone Rangers organization is a non-profit group which promotes the enjoyment of Rhône varietal wines produced in the United States. Although the term "Rhone Rangers" has been used since the 1980s to describe some of the early champions of Rhône-style wines in the US, the organization itself was not founded until 1997. There are currently almost 200 wineries that are members of the Rhone Rangers.

Overall impressions:
Many of the most noted producers of Rhône varieties on the west coast – mostly from California but a few from Washington and Oregon – poured their wines. Nearly 140 wineries were represented. A few barrel sample and library wines were poured in addition to the current releases and previews of soon-to-be-released wines.

Some Favorites

Edmunds St. John "Heart of Gold"
Epiphany Grenache Blanc
Michaud Marsanne
Holly's Hill "Patriarche Blanc"
Peay Marsanne/Roussanne
Wellington Roussanne

Beckmen Grenache
Outpost Grenache
A Donkey and Goat "Three Thirteen"
Ampelos "Gamma" Syrah
Lagier Meredith Syrah
Peay "Les Titans" Syrah
Spicerack Syrah

The Rhone Rangers tasting has a much more relaxed and civilized atmosphere compared with more crowded events at Fort Mason like the always-packed ZAP tasting. Everything was nicely spread out through the huge hall, giving the impression that the crowd was smaller than it actually was (ticket sales were up a bit from last year). There were few tables where there was much of any wait at all to get a pour. In addition to bread and cheese on hand, a number of exhibitors offered tempting tastes of other fine cheeses, sausages, olive oil, chocolates, and many other treats.

I teamed up with Grape-Nutz veteran Al Osterheld for the tasting. We decided to hit the whites and rosés first, and then make a second circuit around the hall for all those teeth-staining reds. Seemed like a good strategy, but we found enough good whites being poured that we ran out of time before we were able to get back to all the reds we would have liked to.

We visited the tables of a number of familiar names in addition to many that were either new to me or that I'd had limited experience with. Among the ones new to me, Wellington and Spicerack showed particularly well. The Michaud Marsanne was a very pleasant surprise and may have been my overall wine of the day. My only real disappointment was not finding more Syrahs with much of that distinctive black pepper component – I found relatively few of these (not surprisingly most of them from cooler-climate vineyards). But that may have had to do with the limited time we left ourselves for tasting reds as much as anything. And that was a minor quibble in what was, all in all, a very enjoyable tasting.

Selected Tasting Notes

A Donkey and Goat
2007 "Isabel's Cuvée" Grenache Rosé, McDowell Valley. Strawberry and stone fruit aromas, with more richness on the palate than most rosés and refreshing acidity.
2006 "Three Thirteen," California. 38% Syrah, 34% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache. Sweet plummy fruit aromas, touches of earth, meat, and black pepper, and a smooth texture with medium tannins make this a particularly appealing wine.
2005 "Vieilles Vignes" Syrah, McDowell Valley. Field blend that includes small percentages of Durif, Carignane, Pelourcin and Aubun, from 60+ year-old vines. Ripe blackberry, herbs, and hints of pepper lead to a rich mouthfeel and moderately tannic finish.
2006 "The Recluse" Syrah, Anderson Valley. 3% co-fermented Viognier. Lots of black pepper, dark fruits, and light floral and herb notes, good acidity and some mineral character on the palate.
Comments: If you enjoy black pepper in your Syrah, "The Recluse" has it in spades - terrific cool-climate character in this wine.

Adelaida Cellars
2006 "Version," Paso Robles. 74% Grenache Blanc / 26% Roussanne. Citrus and apple aromas, touch of earth in the flavors, with moderately rich mouthfeel.
2006 Schoolhouse "Crush,"Paso Robles. From Adelaida's Schoolhouse label, 50% Viognier, 38% Roussanne, 12% Muscat. The highly aromatic Muscat tends to dominate here, and the slightly sweet apricot/peach flavors make this a good candidate for a summertime quaffer.

Alcina Cellars
2005 Syrah, Connell Vineyard, Bennett Valley. Lots of blackberry/plum fruit and black pepper aromas with an overlay of spicy/stemmy whole-cluster character. Full-bodied with good structure and fairly big tannins, yet still displaying a subtle touch of minerality.
2005 Syrah, Las Madres Vineyard, Los Carneros. Ripe blackberry with distinct olive and spice overtones, plus some earthy and savory notes. Very well-balanced, with medium tannins and a long finish.
2005 "The Sorceress" Petite Sirah, North Coast. Very flavorful, with dense, dark fruits, and touches of spice and pepper. Full-bodied on the palate, the tannins are big and chewy but not harsh.
Comments: Didn't try too many Petite Sirahs at the tasting, but "The Sorceress" was up there with the best. Both Syrahs were quite good, and representative of their respective vineyard sources.

Ampelos Cellars
2006 Rosé of Syrah, Cuatro Vientos Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley. Bright strawberry and cherry fruit, a touch of spice, and refreshing acidity
2005 "Syrache," Santa Barbara County. 27% Grenache, 73% Syrah. Raspberry and darker fruits, floral notes, smooth mouthfeel and finish.
2005 "Gamma" Syrah, Estate, Sta. Rita Hills. Packed with black pepper and blackberry aromas, along with mocha undertones. Nicely balanced, with fairly firm tannins and a long finish.

Anglim Winery
2005 Viognier, Bien Nacido Vineyard. Ripe peach and a touch of orangepeel in the nose, smooth mouthfeel with overtones of sweet vanilla/oak.
2005 Roussanne, Paso Robles. Apple and pear fruit with hints of spice, very viscous on the palate.

Arrowood Vineyards & Winery
2007 "La Rose", Rosé, Lasseter Vineyard, Sonoma Valley. GSM-based Rosé. Very concentrated strawberry aroma with lightly floral notes, long smooth finish.
2006 "Cote de Lune Blanc", White Blend, Saralee Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier. Strong stone fruit character in the nose, along with some vanilla/oak, and a rich creamy mouthfeel.
2006 Viognier, Saralee Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Citrus and pear aromas, good acidity, nicely balanced.

Beckmen Vineyards
2006 Marsanne, Purisima Mountain Vineyard. 20% Roussanne. Fresh straw and citrus on the nose, the focused acidity leads to a long, juicy finish.
2006 "Cuvée Le Bec", Santa Barbara County. 50% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, 7% Counoise. Raspberry, plum, and spice aromas, with a touch of herbs, smooth mouthfeel and good balance.
2006 Syrah, Estate. Dark fruit with an undercurrent of sweet vanilla/oak. Medium-bodied, with a hint of minerality and moderate tannins.
2005 Grenache, Purisima Mountain Vineyard. 20% Syrah. Intense strawberry and raspberry aromas, medium tannins, and lively acidity on the finish.
Comments: Beckmen's PMV Grenache is often one of my favorites and the '05 was showing particularly well, and should age very nicely. The "Cuvée Le Bec" blend is always a bargain at less than $20.

Blair Fox Cellars
2005 Viognier, Paradise Road Vineyard. Ripe apricot and floral aromas, viscous on the palate, long finish.
2006 Rosé, Rodney's Vineyard. 52% Grenache, 48% Counoise. Strawberry and hints of darker fruits, fairly rich and smooth mouthfeel.

Cedarville Vineyard
2006 Viognier, Estate. Citrus and stone fruit aromas with a touch of sweet oak. Medium-bodied with a smooth finish.
2006 Grenache, Estate. Raspberry, spice, and a hint of earth, good acidity and moderate tannins.
2006 Syrah, Estate. Opens with savory notes, along with blackberry and a touch of vanilla/oak. Nicely balanced with medium tannins and a long finish.

Columbia Winery
2006 Viognier, Yakima Valley. Ripe peach and tropical fruit aromas, smooth mouthfeel but a bit short on the finish.

Concannon Vineyard
2006 Viognier, Central Coast. Very aromatic ripe peach and floral notes, simple easy-drinking style with slightly sweet character.
2006 Rosé, Central Coast. Cinsault-based Rosé. Sweet strawberries with a hint of spice lead the way in the aromas, and the touch of residual sugar would make this a nice picnic wine.

Copain Wine Cellars
2006 Roussanne, James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles. Citrus/lemon, honey, nice weight on the palate with balancing acidity and a long finish.
2007 Rosé, Mendocino County. Grenache & Pinot-based Rosé. Bright berry fruit with a lightly floral note, very crisp and refreshing.
2006 Syrah, Harrison Clarke Vineyard. Spicy and somewhat stemmy whole-cluster character, blackberry fruit, hints of black pepper, full-bodied and tannic, good acidity.
2005 Syrah, Thompson Vineyard, Santa Barbara County. Ripe blackberry/plum fruit offsets the slightly green whole-cluster character, some herbal notes, richer mouthfeel than the Harrison Clarke, tannic.
2006 Syrah, Brosseau Vineyard, Chalone. Dark fruits, spices, hint of iodine, medium tannins, nice acidity with some mineral notes on the finish.
Comments: I always have a tougher time tasting young wines made with significant percentages of whole-cluster fruit. Copain's wines have a great track record of aging well and I have little doubt that their new Syrahs will blossom into completely different wines five years from now.

Core Wine
2006 White Blend, Santa Barbara County. 75% Grenache Blanc, 17% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne. Upfront apple and pear aromas with a touch of tropical fruit, smooth and rich, good finish.
2006 Red Blend, Santa Barbara County. 49% Syrah, 33% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre. Black cherry and raspberry, with a hint of herbs, nice balance with a smooth mouthfeel and mild tannins, moderate finish.
2005 "Hard Core," Santa Barbara County. 60% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Plum, cherry, and herbs on the nose, medium-bodied on the palate with moderate tannins. The Cab seems to stay in the background more than earlier vintages.
2005 "Ground Around," California. 40% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 30% Tempranillo. Plummy, smoky, fairly smooth mouthfeel and medium tannins.
2005 "Mr. Moreved," Alta Mesa Vineyard. 83% Mourvèdre, 17% Grenache. Dark fruits, earthy, nice acidity, with fairly big tannins.

2007 Roussanne, Westerly Vineyard (barrel sample). Ripe tropical fruit aromas, medium-bodied with a smooth mouthfeel.
2007 Marsanne/Roussanne, Saralee Vineyard (barrel sample). Recent lees-stirring had this wine looking quite cloudy at the tasting. Aromas of stone fruit are a bit subdued, with brighter acidity in the mouth than the Westerly Roussanne.

Eaglepoint Ranch
2007 Grenache, Estate (barrel sample). Bright raspberry fruit, smooth mouthfeel with mild tannins.
2006 Grenache, Estate. Strawberry aromas with savory and spicy undertones, long finish.
2005 Syrah, Estate. Very spicy blackberry and grilled meat aromas, with hints of black pepper in the aromas. Medium-bodied and nicely balanced, with a touch of sweet oak and moderate tannins.
2005 Petite Sirah, Estate. Concentrated blackberry/blueberry with some pepper notes, full-bodied with big tannins.

Edmunds St. John
2007 "Heart of Gold", Wylie Vineyard, El Dorado County. 54% Grenache Blanc, 46% Vermentino. Bright citrus and green apple aroma, well-balanced with juicy acidity and a lingering finish.
2005 "Shell and Bone", Paso Robles. Viognier/Roussanne. Peach, apricot, and spice, with mineral notes on the palate.
2004 Roussanne, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles. Honey, citrus, and lightly floral aromas, weighty and slightly waxy mouthfeel with mineral notes and great structure for aging.
2005 "Rocks and Gravel", California. GSM blend from 11 vineyards. Raspberry and strawberry, along with earth and spice, mild tannins and a long finish.
2005 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah, El Dorado County. Darker fruits with notes of meat, pepper, and iodine in the aromas. Good balance, with medium tannins and a hint of minerality on the finish.
Comments: Always a strong line-up, the "Heart of Gold" was one of my favorite whites of the tasting, and the '05 Rocks and Gravel might be the best rendition yet of that blend.

Edward Sellers
2006 "Blanc du Rhône", Paso Robles. 46% Marsanne, 27% Viognier, 15% Roussanne, 12% Grenache Blanc. Apple and white peach, spices, fairly rich mouthfeel and a long smooth finish.
2006 Viognier, Paso Robles. Ripe peach, pear, and floral aromas, hints of citrus, medium-bodied and nicely-balanced.

Epiphany Cellars
2006 "Inspiration", Santa Ynez Valley. 35% Roussanne, 15% Marsanne, 35% Viognier, 15% Grenache Blanc. Tropical fruit aromas with stone fruit undertones, honeysuckle, spices, rich mouthfeel.
2007 "Purité" Unoaked Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley. Made in 100% stainless steel. Intense floral and peach aromas, with slight citrus and grassy undertones.
2006 Grenache Blanc, Camp 4 Vineyard. Fresh, clean, apple and tropical fruits, very appealing.
2006 Grenache Rosé, Rodney's Vineyard. Cherry, strawberry and raspberry intermingle with some floral notes.
2005 "Gypsy," Santa Barbara County. 30% Syrah, 30% Mourvèdre, 20% Grenache, 10% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane. Plum, spices and vanilla/oak are prominent in the aromas, medium-bodied on the palate and a smooth finish.
2005 "Revelation," Santa Barbara County. 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 10% Petite Sirah. Ripe dark fruits, smoke and vanilla, with a touch of pepper, rich mouthfeel and moderately tannic finish.
2005 Syrah, Hampton Vineyard. Brighter fruit aromas with smoky, meaty overtones, medium tannins.
2005 Petite Sirah, Rodney's Vineyard. Dense, ripe blackberry/blueberry fruit, hints of chocolate, quite big and tannic.

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards
2005 Syrah, Rodney's Vineyard. Smoky blueberry and blackberry aromas with meaty overtones, medium tannins.

Gregory Graham Wines
2006 Viognier, Lake County. Tropical fruit nose, with a touch of sweet oak, smooth mouthfeel with a long, clean finish.
2004 Syrah, Crimson Hill Vineyard. Ripe plum and spice with floral hints, medium-bodied with moderate tannins.

Holly's Hill Vineyards
2007 Viognier, Estate. Concentrated peach and apricot aromas with slight floral notes, richness balanced with good acidity.
2006 "Patriarche Blanc", Estate. 75% Roussanne, 25% Viognier. Less fruit-forward than the Viognier, with touches of spice and earth, richer mouthfeel and slightly waxy texture. Good balance and a long finish.
2006 Roussanne, Estate. Subtle stone fruit/tropical fruit aromas with honey undertones, refreshing acidity
2006 Grenache, Estate. Bright cherry/berry fruit, touches of earth and spice, mild tannins.
2006 Mourvèdre, Estate. Earthy, plum and black cherry fruit, with moderate tannins
2006 "Patriarche", Estate. 40% Mourvèdre, 36% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 9% Counoise. Plum and darker fruit aromas, with hints of earth and herbs. Richer and rounder than the Mourvèdre, with a long, smooth finish.
2006 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. Blackberry, pepper, and mocha, along with a touch of smoked meat. Well-balanced, with medium-full tannins.

Hug Cellars
2006 Viognier, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco. Peach and pear aromas, with moderately rich mouthfeel and a touch of oak in the finish.
2006 "el Pape", Central Coast. Mostly Grenache and Mourvèdre with a little Syrah. Slightly floral, strawberry/raspberry on the nose, with notes of spice and grilled meats. Well-balanced, smooth finish and mild tannins.
2005 Syrah, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco. Bright blackberry fruit, with savory undertones and a touch of sweet oak, nice acidity.
2005 "Rena Block" Syrah, Bassetti Vineyard. Concentrated blackberry aromas with a touch of black pepper, richer than the Cedar Lane with more vanilla/oak notes, and still-youthful tannins.

JC Cellars
2006 "First Date", Santa Barbara. 75% Roussanne, 25% Marsanne. Stone fruit and citrus aromas, an opulent mouthfeel with the waxy character common to Roussanne.
2005 Syrah, Caldwell Vineyard, Napa Valley. Ripe plums, herbs, and smoke, with overtones of vanilla/oak, and moderate tannins

Ladd Cellars
2005 Syrah, Las Madres Vineyard, Carneros. 30% whole-cluster, 0.5% Viognier. Opening with ripe dark fruit aromatics and hints of the black olives typical of this vineyard, the whole-cluster component shows as mildly stemmy/spicy. Smooth on the palate with medium-full tannins and a long finish.
Comments: Very nice first effort for this new winery.

Lagier Meredith Vineyard
2007 Syrah Rosé, Mount Veeder. Very light color, bright strawberry flavors and a lively finish.
2004 Syrah, Mount Veeder. Blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and herbs in the aromas. Full-bodied and fairly tannic, but well-balanced with a very long finish.
2005 Syrah, Mount Veeder. Similar to the '04 but slightly less-developed in its youth, this has loads of dark fruits and a savory, meaty note. Mouth-filling, with firm tannins and a lingering finish.

McCrea Cellars
2006 Roussanne, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain. Apples are predominant in the aroma of this Roussanne, with slight spice and honey notes, and nice viscosity and balance.

Michaud Vineyard
2005 Marsanne, Estate. Citrus, melon, fresh straw, and spices combine in the bright aromas, medium-bodied on the palate, great balance with crisp acidity and mineral undertones in the long finish.
Comments: Stunning wine, probably the best young California Marsanne I've tasted. Must be something about that limestone soil in the Chalone AVA.

Opolo Vineyards
2005 Viognier, Central Coast. Maybe the most floral Viognier of the day, along with ripe stone fruits, and a creamy texture.
2005 Roussanne, Central Coast. Spice, honeysuckle, and pear, medium-bodied.

Outpost Wines
2006 Grenache, Howell Mountain. Although light in color, this wine displays intense black cherry and darker fruits, distinct grilled meat and herb overtones, mouthfilling richness and moderate tannins.
2005 "The Other" Petite Sirah, Howell Mountain. Dark fruits, smoky oak, mineral notes, a full-bodied wine with big youthful tannins.
Comments: The Grenache was among the best of that variety I tried at the tasting, very complex and distinctive.

Peay Vineyards
2006 Viognier, Estate. Citrus aromas with a touch of apple/pear, hints of spice and a crisp finish.
2006 Marsanne/Roussanne, Estate. Honey, spice, orangepeel, and a slight nuttiness intermingle in the complex character of this wine. Nice balance and a touch of minerality in the long, juicy finish.
2006 "La Bruma" Syrah, Estate. Blackberry and pepper, with some floral and savory undertones, medium tannins.
2006 "Les Titans" Syrah, Estate. More intense aromas than the "La Bruma", more pronounced meaty character with some olive and black pepper along with the dark fruits, more full-bodied and tannic than the "La Bruma", but well-balanced with a long finish.
Comments: Peay continues their run of excellent cool-climate Rhône-varietals, consistently one of the best in California.

2006 Syrah, California. Deep plum aromas with distinct grilled meat notes, smooth mouthfeel and mild tannins, very nice wine for under $20.

2006 Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley. 13% Roussanne. Subtle white peach and citrus aromas, good acidity and nice balance.
2006 Roussanne, Bien Nacido Vineyard. Concentrated aromas of tropical fruit and spice, more weighty on the palate than the Marsanne, with some mineral character on the finish.

Saddleback Cellars
2006 Marsanne, Clarksburg. Straw, spice, hint of ripe apples, long finish
2006 Viognier, Clarksburg. Intense ripe peach aroma with vanilla/oak overtones, rich and mouthfilling.

Spicerack Vineyards
2006 "Punchdown" Syrah, Sonoma Coast. From the sister label of Pey-Marin. Plum and roasted meat, with a touch of pepper on the nose. Medium-bodied with fairly mild tannins, great QPR wine.
Comments: Beautiful cool-climate Syrah, on the more elegant side as might be expected from a producer best-known for Pinot Noir, and a steal at the $25 price.

Terry Hoage Vineyards
2005 "The 46" Red Blend, Paso Robles. Grenache/Syrah blend. Big and ripe, showing more darker fruited Syrah than Grenache character, with a touch of sweet oak and a long smooth finish.
2005 "The Hedge" Syrah, Central Coast. Sweet ripe blackberry and vanilla/oak with some mocha notes, richer mouthfeel and a bit more tannic than "The 46", nicely-balanced with a long finish.

Truchard Vineyards
2006 Roussanne, Carneros. Vanilla and apple are prominent in the nose, with touches of citrus and spice. Medium-bodied and nicely balanced.

Villa Creek Cellars
2006 Garnacha, Denner Vineyard. Lots of bright strawberry and cherry fruit, moderate tannins.
2006 "Willow Creek Cuvée," Paso Robles. 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre, from Denner and James Berry Vineyard fruit. More dark fruit character, good acidity and nice balance.
2006 "High Road," James Berry Vineyard. 40% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre. Black cherry and darker fruits plus vanilla in the aromas, this is a big mouthfilling wine but not over-the-top.
2006 "Palenque," Denner Vineyard. Co-ferment of 50% Grenache and 50% whole-cluster Mourvèdre. Spicy whole-cluster character, savory notes, fairly tannic.
2006 "Avenger," Paso Robles. 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre. Ripe blackberry with vanilla overtones, full-bodied with medium tannins.
2006 "Onda," Paso Robles. 1/3 Syrah, 1/3 Mourvèdre, 1/3 Tempranillo. Very spicy plummy fruit, quite tannic
Comments: Impressive showing for Cris Cherry's current lineup. While still big, flavorful wines, overall these seem better-balanced to me than in some previous vintages.

Wellington Vineyards
2006 Roussanne, Sonoma County. From both Saralee Vineyard and estate fruit. Honey, tropical fruits, and spice on the nose, rich and smooth on the palate.
2006 Marsanne, Estate, Sonoma Valley. Bright apple fruit with a touch of orangepeel, surprisingly weighty on the palate, long finish.
Comments: A couple of very solid whites, from a producer that was new to me.



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