The Evolution of Rhone Varietals in California

Many new winemakers in California are choosing to work with the Rhone varieties instead of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes commonly associated with Napa wines. Cost and the suitability of California’s climate are a couple of the reasons but the reliable track record is the driving force.

Rhone grapes have a long history in California, with immigrant families planting Carignan and Grenache as far back as the late 1800’s. The seeds for California’s current love with Rhone grapes were sewn in the 70’s when Joseph Phelps, McDowell Winery, Zaca Mesa and Gary Eberle grew Syrah. Phelps and McDowell’s plantings were in northern California while Eberle and Zaca Mesa’s were on the Central Coast.

The next generation of aspiring “Rhone Rangers” was already in place. After a couple of years working as a tour guide at Zaca Mesa is Los Olivos, an aspiring young winemaker named Bob Lindquist started a new label, Qupe, in 1982. He made Chardonnay to help get his foot in the door but won people over with the Syrah.

Randall Grahm cc WikiCommonsBy the mid 80’s he was joined by others, not least an idiosyncratic UC Davis grad named Randall Grahm. Grahm was hell bent on making Pinot Noir, and he did, in Oregon.  However, when it came time to putting a stake in the ground, he settled on a small coastal town near Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon, and got to work on his masterpiece, “Le Cigare Volant,” an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The first vintage, 1984, was released in 1986.

Further inland Josh Jensen from Calera, planted the aromatic white Northern Rhone grape, Viognier. He made his first wine in 1986. By the early 90’s, John Alban, Steve Edmunds, the earlier pioneers, and others were working not only with Viognier but Roussanne and Marsanne, too.

California’s Mediterranean climate suits Rhone grapes. From Mendocino to San Diego County, and as far east as the Sierra Foothills, there are now nearly two dozen Rhône varieties grown. Some of the most exciting new California producers including DRAGONETTEHERMAN STORY, SANS LIEGE, LONGTABLE, PAUL LATO, DUMOL, etc.  have made the Rhone varieties their focus.

Every year there are new winemakers who aspire to make their mark, not just with the better known Rhone varieties but also with Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache Blanc and others.

The Rhone Rangers has over 100 member wineries and growers, and there are dozens of other California producers that also work with Rhone varieties.  Syrah is the 5th most widely planted red wine grape in the state and Grenache is the 8th. No doubt, Rhône varieties are here to stay and even though their roots in California may not run as deep as Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, they’ve played a big part in the evolution of California wine.

If you want to try some of the new star Rhone grape wineries stop by Golden Gate Wine Cellars for our Rhone Rangers Tasting this Saturday August 6 from 1-5 PM.

For those of you living out of state, we’ll make our Tasting Selection available at a nice discount. Make sure to look for our Saturday 8/6 email for the tasting lineup.