Rhone Rangers ride for French varieties

These winemakers, as the name suggests, have fun with their Old West motif and six-pointed badge, holding tastings and sharing information with seminars, a newsletter, and a web site.

It started informally in the 1980s as a group excited about varieties originating in the Rhone Valley of France as new products outside the Cabernet Sauvignon-Chardonnay-Zinfandel-Merlot box.

In August of 1997, 13 founders mounted up and established a non-profit educational organization to promote wines made from Rhone varieties grown in the U.S. Members agreed to show only Rhone-style wines at Ranger tastings and that 75 percent of the grapes used in those wines would be from a list of Rhone varieties.

Today about 150 wineries, including a few from out of the state, are members, and directors represent the North Coast, Bay Area, Central Coast, Southern California, and Sierra Foothills regions.

Some 30 growers are among the associate members category, and the consumer group, the "Sidekicks," plays an important role in getting the word out to the wine-drinking public.

The four varieties named above are among about 20 common in the Rhone Valley, eight of which are also grown in California. More familiar in California are the venerable Carignane, Grenache, and Mourvedre (a.k.a. Mataro), long-used for blending with other red varieties.

Syrah and Viognier, two Rhone newcomers to the California varietal wine scene, are getting increasing attention as smaller wineries look for something new.

Acreage of the red Syrah in 2000, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service, was 12,700, nearly half of it non-bearing.

As growers took note of its promising reviews in Australian wines and University of California trials, planting of Syrah rose sharply in 1997 with 3,184 acres, or more than the four preceding seasons combined. About a third of it was planted in Central Valley counties.

The white Viognier, as of 2000, had far fewer acres, nearly 1,800, about one-quarter of it yet to bear, in the state. Its acreage too shot up in 1997, largely in inland counties.

Top ranger

John Hardman has been executive director of the Rhone Rangers in Sonoma since July of 1998. Formerly an executive for Nissan Motor Corp., he is a home winemaker and was for several years a principal in wine competitions at the Orange County Fair.

Hardman says the source of the group’s name has been subject to some controversy, but once the wine media picked up on it, it stuck, along with an appeal for the public. "Our mission is to educate people about the wine and the grape with our seminars and programs. When consumers understand about the wines, the benefit extends back to the growers."

It takes more than making quality wines and finding shelf space for them, and Hardman points out, "When people taste them, we gain a lot of fans. We want both the sophisticated and the average wine consumers to know what these wines are about and give them a try."

But new markets earned have to be maintained, and he said some vintners have settled on a survival strategy of concentrating on higher quality, producing less volume but doubling the price.

Still, Hardman says he doubts much Syrah grown in the Central Valley will find its way into wine selling at $35 to $40 a bottle. That category will be dominated by North Coast and other heavy-weight appellations.

Barry Bergman, winemaker at R.H. Phillips Winery near Esparto in Yolo County, currently leads the posse as the Rangers’ president. The 1,600-acre Phillips operation includes 360 acres of Syrah and 103 of Viognier planted in the late 1980s. The Rhone Rangers, he says, are on the cutting edge for acceptance of these and other Rhone varieties.

Niche for Rhones

Acknowledging California’s vineyards, estimated at nearly 570,000 acres of wine varieties, are clearly overplanted, he nevertheless perceives a niche for the Rhones, particularly for the quality potential of Syrah.

The Phillips winery sells 50,000 cases of Syrah a year across the nation, and Bergman credits the Australians, who know it by the name Shiraz, for paving the way.

"I look at it as an opportunity for us to let the American wine-drinking public buy a premium varietal for less than $10 a bottle comparable with a Cabernet Sauvignon at $20 to $50. We’ve demonstrated it can produce high-quality wines from grapes grown both in cool coastal locations and warm inland valleys. If more consumers get acquainted with it, it could catch fire across the country." Responding to highly water-stressed management and a stout trellising system, the vigorous variety will produce high color, big flavor, and moderate tannins when farmed for yields of five to six tons, suited for wines at $14 a bottle. However, Bergman cautions growers not to get piggish about crop load, since yields of seven tons or more sacrifice quality.

"In any scenario, you can produce a better Syrah than a Cabernet or Merlot in the warmer climates. Now the industry needs to grow the market," Bergman said. Wine writers are already doing their part by heralding Syrah as the "next Merlot."

In February 1998, the Rangers held the first of their annual wine tastings to raise funds for the organization. This year’s event drew more than 2,800 persons, and about 120 wineries provided wines, including 186 Syrahs and 72 Viogniers, for sampling. The next is set for the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on April 27, 2002.

Catch up with the Rangers at www.rhonerangers.com.

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