Rhone Ranger Relay, Hospice du Rhone
- Samsara: The only winery visit I made on my way up to Paso (outside of the BBQ extravaganza jackknifed between Pisoni vineyard & a turbulent bump of lunar road). These wines are a bit of a personal project from Chad Melville, whose namesake winery’s line is made by Greg Brewer. The stylistic choices are certainly inspired by Greg- dumping inordinate bunches of kindling into the fermenters (upwards of 40% whole cluster) & practicing abstinence when it comes to commercial yeast. The whole line is Pinot Noir & Syrah, drawing from Mencocino to supplement the Santa Rita Hills based bottlings. The 2 Pinot Noirs I tasted, the ’06 Ampelos Vineyard & ’08 Melville, both emphasize dusty notes of chalk, sea salt & moist earth in their aromas. The Ampelos was a rounder wine, buttressed by soft texture and a long, fresh finish resonate of autumn leaves & berries. The Melville was the weaker of the bunch, as its violet & plum core turned a bit desiccated on the finish, as hints of dried fruit crept into the aftertaste. 90+ & 87 points respectively. The Syrahs took the cake for me, beginning w/ the ’06 Alder Springs from Mendocino, displaying brawn & bite. The flavors were unique, spectrally blue & almost mulberry driven, whistling in a sweet tobacco and anise note on the big-boned finish (91 points). The ’07 Verna’s Vineyard, a site I’m more accustomed to sampling Viognier from, was a cool breath of fresh air, feminine & svelte, w/ a red fruit profile that flirted on the strawberry end of the spectrum (not dissimilar to that of Arcadian). The bright, rose-petal driven finish really turned on the salivary faucets (92 points). The finest Syrah of the bunch was the ’07 Ampelos Vineyard, truly fascinating in its seething, rocky texture. The flavors of black raspberry, cola and pepper were sprayed over a chalky backdrop punched by snappy tannins & a long, kinky finish (93 points).
- Gramercy Cellars: The John Lewis Reserve Syrah in ’07 is an outrageously powerful, impressive Washington Syrah (when this state gets Syrah right it doesn’t get much better for the New World persuasion). The concentration & depth of fruit carried this cuvee, from vintage to vintage, though the tarry ’06 was the shallowest of the bunch. A barrel sample of ’08 demonstrated terrific texture for such an embryonic Syrah, already laced in layers of pure, suave, polished fruit that is sure to please palates the second it reaches retail shelves.
- Herman Story: Russell From continues to axe his way through the vineyard, complete with Paul Bunyan flannel, grizzly face fuzz & easy going grin. Stylistically, the wines have behemoth girth, blasting you with flavor & wearing as much oak as they damn well please. Personally, I find oak & Grenache to be a match made for divorce, yet Russell’s ’08 is the first vintage where I found the wood relegated to shadow puppetry. The wine is all about pure fruit, round, lush, explosive. Varietal recognition is secondary to fruity bliss. The Casual Encounters, an inventive co-fermentation of equal parts Grenache, Syrah & Mouvedre, showcases the experimental side of things in the cellar, but the end result is the same- she’s one big, spicy bitch. Those that can sit on subtlety & swallow their tender sensibilities will find Herman Story’s wines to be as endearing & snug as a black bear hug.
- Hug Cellars: I’d communicated w/ Augie Hug intermittently through the cyber waves, but this was the first I’d met him in the flesh. He’s a wonderful man, with a soft grin & sugar-sweet disposition. His wines struck me as a bit of a cross between Jim Clendenon & Villa Creek, as they emphasize an almost Burgundian sensibility w/ earthy, stylish spice notes. The ’06 Cedar Lane Viognier maintained fine proportion, avoiding the hysterical highs or flabby lows seen w/ this grape in Califonian soil. A real tangerine character tugged at the palate, freshly wrapped in a balanced fist. The El Pape, a GSM Central Coast blend, was one of the more feminine, strawberry-inflected expressions you’ll see from a Grenache dominated blend. Proportion, proportion, proportion…if weighed on a scale its body mass index would be smack dab in the middle of ‘ideal.’ The ’07 Mourvedre, sourced from the Santa Barbara Highlands (not to be confused w/ Santa Lucia), had an exceptionally bright citrus tone to its chalk, briar and white pepper notes whose rusticity was complemented by sheer gentility. Sound like any Mourvedre you know? ‘She’ was one of a kind, perhaps the Crying Game transvestite of Mourvedres, which I admittedly fell for. El Jefe, an ’08 GSM blend, showcased Syrah at a louder volume than the rest, with its peppery blackberry notes forming the flesh above the lush belly of warm milk chocolate. A long tug of dark fruit sneaks up on the finish, boding well for the cellar. The ’07 Cedar Lane Syrah was a terrific tactile experience, letting iron, pepper and chalk dust notes into the fold. The ashy, slate-like mineral impression left on the palate was like no other Californian Syrah I could recall, save for Edmunds St. John. The ’08 El Grande was just as it sounds, a purple fruited, more Paso Robles-like Syrah w/ a mouth-full of sun-baked primary flavors. The least ‘Hug-like,’ as I wrote that this seemed if it came from another winery, yet its creamy textured seamlessness made it entirely gulpable. I finished off w/ El Maestro ’08, an 80/10/10 split of Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah (a common theme, chez Hug). Augie seemed to know my palate well enough to serve this one up at the end, as it was yin & yang, essentially the chiaroscuro of Grenache light & dark (who’d a thought I’d bust out a chiaroscuro in Grenache description? Thank god for Freshman English). Input your paradox here: Lush, yet seriously biting. Spicy, yet soft. All in shades, a doppelganging chameleon in shadows. To me, Augie’s Grenache has the potential to match up w/ the best in the state (which is high praise from me), but I think this particular blend was so compelling because it was seasoned brilliantly: by just the right amount and just the right type of supporting cast. Well done, and for those like myself that have a penchant for whole cluster, wild fermentation, Hug cellars is more than worth the gustatory trek.
- Cabot Winery: What is a Humbolt county and what planet is it on? Who’d a known? - A winery that carries its own appellation flag, no neighbors in sight. Unique dirt, the footprints all John & Kimberly Cabot’s. For the record, I felt like I was the ‘last to know’ in terms of Cabot vineyards (as they’ve establish a cult-wine bulletin board following of sorts via typed word), but for those in the dark like myself, Humbolt county is in the far Pacific Northwest portion of California, North of Mendocino & well on its way to Oregon territory. John & his wife Kimberly planted 12 acres of organically farmed Syrah (& sparse Viognier is dusted throughout for co-fermentation of the red blends) in 1998 and 2003. The breadth of their vineyard acerage is hamstrung by minimal availability, mainly due to dense forestation & sprawling mountain ranges that rule the Humbolt lands. From the couple vintages that I sampled through I quickly noticed a familiar theme. Tar, gravel, bramble; tar, gravel, bramble. The signature bouquet. The ’07 Humbolt County Syrah was the most floral of the bunch, awash in tapenade, soy & spicy flavors that were still a tad taut & lean, but finished strong w/ good palate penetration. The ’06 Kimberly Syrah, lifted by 5% of co-fermented Viognier, was as tarry and brambly as they came, w/ a firm, sinewy grip that finished w/ the essence of dusty pebbles. Back to ’06, an Aria’s Syrah in two faces. The first of which was brought up in 6-10 year old barrels & underwent a 50% whole cluster fermentation. The peppery, suave palate was crammed w/ dark berries, hot stones & freshly paved road tar, cloaked in a velvet robe, finishing suavely. The counterpoint, an ’06 Aria for 30 months in old barrels, was a softer, more delicate wine, w/ licorice inflected red fruit notes. This was easily the most gentle of the bunch, lacking the Cornas-like brawny tannins of the more traditionally aged Syrahs. The star of the show, an ’06 aptly named ‘The Bacon Fat,’ was a powerhouse, amped by a wealth of fruit & notes of tilled soil, violet, cola & steamy pork grizzle fresh from the pan. A full bodied mouthful of beefy, chewy Syrah seared in a rocky edge & framed by firm tannins. The Cabots have really got something here & it will be a fascinating project to follow as they continue to unearth new enological ground.
- Tercero: Larry Schaffer’s baby, Tercero, is a project from one of California’s staunch Grenache advocates who ascended to his own label by way of Fess Parker. Larry’s a passionate, yet empathetic and oddly magnanimous producer that tends to observe all sides closely before weighing in personally. His wines seem to share that similar measured sensibility about them, avoiding the dogma & obfuscation found in the triple-D top heavies or the enamel vaporizing emaciated pH rides. While Larry cheated a bit, dropping in a Gewurztraminer here and a Petite Sirah there during an exclusive Rhone-for-all (house rule my friend, consider yourself HDR hand-cuffed), I thought that his line-up acquitted itself well, particularly when considering the breadth of his project (he seems to make nearly as many wines as Tablas Creek). The big wines- big in good taste, well tailored & HGH free (the Petites were anything but, yet were honest & more about structure than bombastic fruit). The smaller wines- had pH levels well past 2, were full-flavored & generally avoided the ‘I’m small and I’m proud’ Napoleonic complex that plagues wines of certain stature fighting out of their weight class. The Gewurztraminer & Grenache Blanc, two delicious favorites, both were textbook, varietally crafted examples. The Gewurz was sheer rose water & lychee, complemented by a bright spine seen in the better examples of Anderson Valley renditions. The Grenache demonstrated that bright honeydew melon belly, w/ crunchy acidity & a bit less overt sweetness than the popular, becoming somewhat-too-pricey Curran version (of Sea Smoke fame). The Tercero Rose was pure strawberry & chalky lime, w/ an ample, plump frame giving it a bit more culinary flexibility at the table. The Watch Hill Grenache ’07, which Larry notes includes some stems, showed notes of pipe tobacco, briar and crushed berry fruit that filled out a succulent, atypically opulent palate. While more muscular than most, it is as soundly recognizable a Grenache as any from the Golden State (which is no small feat). The Mourvedre immediately became one of my favorite New World examples (alongside Tablas & Villa Creek’s), smelling of enough raw beef, animal fur, leather & pepper to choke a Bandol horse (that is of course if Bandol is home to members of the Equine persuasion). In spite of its fungal, funky fumes, the attack is spry and unfurls a juicy core of fruit, peppered w/ copious amounts of gentle tannins. The ’07 Larner Syrah had all the forward, chocolaty fruit one comes to expect from the vineyard site, wound in hot blackberry sauce & anise notes. The tannins are polished and dissolve on contact, leaving the wine w/ an easy to drink sensation on the back of the tongue. While tasty, I’m finding that Larner Syrah tends to be a bit pedestrian in terms of dimension & complexity- not discrediting the quality of fruit, but perhaps its dynamism. The ’07 Thompson Vineyard Syrah was a big ball of mouth-filling, purple fruit, finding a firm landing on the chocolaty finish. As the Petite Sirah entered the line-up, the sense of dark heft brooded over the wines one by one. The Climb, half Petite from Rodney’s Vineyard (a Fess Parker site) and the other half Syrah from Thompson’s, was a decidedly chunky, substantial red showcasing fruit of a deep nighttime shade. The force behind the ’07 Climb felt like a pile-driver, ending on a warm ganache & slate note. The ’07 Petite Sirah could only be dubbed as a ‘structure bomb,’ lambasting other such members in the category to shrivel in shame. While embryonic & a bit distorted in volume, the searing finish resonates w/ promise. To my palate, the ’08 Petite had a much more alluring floral character, fleshing out attractively as it unwound (but don’t get me wrong, it’s firmly in the burly camp). The Thread ’07 was inviting, w/ sweet licorice notes wrapped in a fine, muscular spine. The Loco, a 50/50 blend of Grenache & Syrah, wound out the Tercero portfolio w/ nice balancing tension between the softness of the Grenache & the tug of the Syrah.
- Red Car: Fans of Saxum should definitely take a spin in the Red Car, as the Syrah shares a common ‘rainbow of fruit’ like thread. The ’08 Estate, which I believe comes from a Sonoma site adjacent to the Hirsch vineyard, is as silky smooth as they come. The fleshy mid-palate unwinds its layers of hidden spice, brine & kaleidoscopic fruit over a pillowy bed of tannins that are soft as couch cushions. The Cuvee 22 slides up and down a blue-purple teeter totter of fruit in vivid, almost glossy coats, kicking in that welcome spice note on the easy finish.
- Arnot Roberts: Wineries like Arnot Roberts stir the pot so beautifully, ablating objective truths with each spin & flicker. Brewer Clifton, a winery which I unabashedly admire and regularly inflame my hepatic organ w/, primarily achieves such high alcohol levels to allow the stems enough hang-time to lignify (turn woody), as the wines are all whole cluster. From a whole cluster apprehension-o-meter standpoint- bitter, vegetal stems are as much of a bummer as goopy cream in tepid coffee. Arnot Roberts, who also goes the whole cluster route, takes a paradoxically different approach, throwing the concept of lignification right through a UC Davis grade wood chipper. Their wines are so low in alcohol that producers in Cote Rotie might even tease them for it (just imagine a European encouraging a California producer to chaptalize their wine to increase the alcohol; the bizzaro-world indeed). The Clary Ranch, Hudson North Block, Griffins Lair ’08 Syrahs range in alcohol from 11.5% to 12.2% to a titanic 13.4% (the Alder Springs vineyard apparently has done a bit of heaving lifting). Ironically enough, the winery almost uses the alcohol levels as a selling point, perhaps hinting that the counter-cultural de-alcoholization revolution is afoot. Super-sized foods, biceps, mammary glands, buildings, bank rolls, cinema budgets, viscera, waist bands, blood sugar, etcetera have all become so disgustingly stereotypical that they’re inching they’re way to taboo, is alcohol too far behind? While I can hardly imagine a plastic surgeon’s pile of breast augmentation charts to be surpassed by reduction requests for said organs anytime soon, I do look at low alcohol California reds as a bit of a groping towards equilibrium. All that conjecture aside, the wines from Arnot Roberts seemed to have no problem achieving phenolic ripeness, regardless of their weenie alcohols. The wines are intensely bright, littered in aromatic complexity so varied & vivid that they seem to be originating from multiple species. The Green Island & Bea Ranch North Coast Chardonnay, a bootlegged bottle in-HDR-cognito, had all the tang of green tea, backed by lemon candy, bitter chalk dust, sea salt & honeydew notes. It was refreshing enough to be named as the honorary palate cleanser of the event- just what the nurse practitioner ordered after sampling all ‘em inky Rhones. I joked that you could measure how far away you could smell the wine from the glass as an alternative to counting seconds on the finish (ie: ‘I could smell the wine 20 feet away’ instead of ‘it had a 45 second finish’), that should keep the numbers geeks in check. As for the Syrahs, they are not short on beloved funk & arguably have enough range to match up to anything from fish to filet. I found the Clary Ranch to be the most compelling, so light in weight yet dense in flavor, packing enough zip to please even the most jaded lover of Muscadet. As the wines progressed to Hudson & Griffin’s bottlings I found that the more alcohol they had, the less distinctive they were. Less is more- perhaps reverse osmosis isn’t far behind? Research the anatomy of a wine long enough and you’ll be left w/ more questions than answers.
Odds & Ends:
- While Grenache still struggles to find its footing in California, some of the successes I’ve seen come from (in addition to the producers already mentioned): Beckmen/Kaena, L’Aventure’s Cote a Cote, Alban, Stolpman, Copain & Villa Creek. There’s more than one way to skin & Grenache, and California’s spotty success includes dense, beefy examples as well as spry styles of the more red-fruited variety.
- Tablas Creek, arguably the preeminent producer of Rhone Ranger wines in California, deserves additional mention for their influence on winemaking, plant material & could easily be dubbed as the pioneers of Paso. In addition to the obvious, the trend to team Californian know-how w/ French sensibility seems to continue to gain steam, as evidenced by the growing number of joint venture projects in the Rhone Ranger realm.
- Arcadian’s Syrahs could be the antidote for weaning Pinot Noir lovers off their expensive habit. Joe’s ‘Pinot lover’s Syrah’ possess such delicacy and finesse that they could easily be confused w/ a wine of the Burgundy persuasion if tasted blindly. Fans of crunch acid, red fruit dominated Syrah owe it to themselves to taste Arcadian’s entire line-up, beyond the Pinot and Chardonnay.
- Foxen, a winery that’s about as rangy and unpretentious as they get, make terrific Rhone Ranger inspired wines at the heart of their portfolio. Their beefy, chewy Syrahs tend to get the most critical praise, but don’t miss the well crafted Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend (Cuvee Jeanne Marie, Williamson Dore Vineyard).
- Harrison Clarke, a new winery for Syrah loving fans to pay close attention to, has recently latched onto a terrifically exposed limestone patch atop the Ballard Canyon Road (well past Stolpman & Larner Vineyards). Roger Harrison, a South African native, has brought on Sashi Moorman, local consultant extraordinaire, to make the wine for his namesake winery. The cuvee Charlotte Syrah, from the aforementioned contiguous limestone plot, is one of the most structured, dense & layered Syrahs I’ve tasted from the ’07 vintage- keep an eye out for this one.
- The quality of these top producers was almost uniformly excellent, save for my folly of slipping in a few tastes from Rosenblum Cellars. Not to belabor any abject criticism of the winery for the few bottlings they poured at HDR, but all that can be said of the profile of said botttlings is that they tasted of alcoholic fruit punch, with all the characteristics one would expect from fermented Concord grapes. If that is what they’re aiming for, they’re better served sourcing their fruit from the Grand River Valley in Ohio, from vineyards that likely do a better Concord (Niagra, Catawba, pick your poison) than Rosenblum does an imitation Concord, and I’m certain land out there is dirt cheap compared to California. No offense to people that dig jug juice, but they shouldn’t have to pay California prices for it, much less deal w/ the faux-Syrah labeling subterfuge.