There was a time when drinking a syrah—flagship wine of the Rhone Valley in France—was a distinctly French experience. However, the dense, dark grape now grows around the world, with particularly potent varieties hailing from the Central Coast.
Today, many consider Paso Robles to be the capital of New World Rhone.
Several wine-industry luminaries helped propel the predominantly cabernet sauvignon Bordeaux-focused region into the Rhone spotlight starting in the late 1970s.
- Photo Courtesy Of Tablas Creek Vineyard
- QUE SERÁ, SYRAH In addition to syrah grapes, Paso Robles' red Rhone repertoire includes grenache, mourvèdre, carignan, cinsault, and petite sirah. White Rhone vines include grenache blanc, viognier, marsanne, and roussanne.
Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery produced America's first 100-percent syrah variety in 1978 and co-founded the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area in 1983.
Both Eberle and Haas made their Rhone clones available to other growers, and now Paso's 40,000 vineyard acres include most of the Rhone's nearly two dozen red and white varieties recognized by the French government.
According to Haas' son Jason, a partner and the general manager of Tablas Creek, Paso Robles has become "the epicenter of the American Rhone movement, whether you measure it by acres planted, wineries for whom Rhones are their focus, or critical recognition."
At the recent November 2021 San Francisco International Wine Competition—one of the world's largest and most prestigious wine-industry events—Paso's Brecon Estate dominated in both the Bordeaux and Rhone categories.
The winery, co-owned by Damian and Amanda Grindley, and Simon and Anna Hackett, garnered best cabernet sauvignon for its 2018 reserve vintage and best red Rhone blend for its 2019 Haggis Basher syrah-viognier blend. Additionally, it won gold for its 2019 reserve petite sirah.
Nearby Bethel Rd. Winery took home "best other white Rhone varietal" for its 2019 grenache blanc.
"You might say we are on a little bit of a roll," Brecon winemaker Damian Grindley said. "This is just part of a rather impressive showing by many of the Paso Robles AVA vineyards and wineries.
- Courtesy Photo By Adam Rouse
- GOOD BOY, ROY Brecon Estate proprietors Damian and Amanda Grindley enjoy a stroll with their friendly 10-year-old companion, Roy, an Australian shepherd-border collie mix who greets customers at their Paso tasting room.
"Brecon does not easily fit in one Old World genre or another," he added. "Rather, with all the wonderful microclimates in Paso Robles, we prefer to straddle the boundaries, cream off the best of each world, and make wonderful blends thereof. After all, in 20-plus years, Paso will want to be known as Paso, not a reflection of another region."
Haas concurs that American Rhones have come of age and are presently a fierce competitor on the worldwide wine stage.
"As for what differentiates us from the Rhone itself, I think it's a few things," Jason Haas explained. "One, although the Rhone is the home to 22 different grapes, it's very difficult to find one where either grenache or syrah isn't the lead.
"Here, there's so much experimentation with obscure grapes and with the Southern Rhone whites, that can be quite hard to find there.
"And since nearly everything in the Rhone is a blend—with the exception of a little monovarietal syrah and viognier in the north—it's exciting to be able to find and taste varietal Rhone Rangers' bottlings of grapes like grenache blanc, picpoul, cinsault, or mourvèdre.
"This level of experimentation within the Rhone Rangers movement—on grapes, blends, farming, and winemaking styles—makes it for me one of the most exciting facets of American wine today."
Haas adds that it's no coincidence that the American Rhone industry's two premier nonprofit organizations are headquartered on the Central Coast, with their flagship events also taking place locally.
Both were founded in the '90s—San Luis Obispo-based Hospice du Rhone supports growers and producers worldwide, while the Rhone Rangers of Paso focus on American vintners.
Hospice du Rhone will be presenting its biannual self-titled gala at the Paso Robles Event Center April 22 and 23. Highlights include wine tasting from more than 150 international Rhone producers, seminars, a live auction, and food and wine pairings.
- Courtesy Photo By Oak & Barrel Photography
- TRAIL BLAZERS Founded in Paso Robles in 1998 to promote Rhone wines, more than 100 Rhone Rangers members currently hail from California, Oregon, Michigan, Virginia, Arizona, and Texas.
The Rhone Rangers will hold its one-day Rhone Rangers Experience at the same locale on Sunday, Feb. 20.
The group got its quirky moniker when Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz appeared on the cover of a 1989 issue of Wine Spectator as "The Rhone Ranger." Later, the Rhone enthusiast joined other California winemakers in promoting the varietal under the Rhone Rangers banner.
Haas himself has played an instrumental role in elevating Paso's Rhone status as past president of the Rhone Rangers and founder of its annual event, which celebrates its 14th year on Feb. 20.
The Rhone Rangers Experience includes a seminar, luncheon, grand tasting of 200-plus American Rhone wines, and silent auction benefiting the organization's scholarship fund. The scholarship assists students in the wine industry focusing on American Rhone varieties.
The event is popular with California winemakers and will feature an esteemed panel discussing specific varieties. Participants include Miner Family Winery, Tercero Wines, Tablas Creek, Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery, Lindquist Family Wines, Jaffurs Wine Cellars, Thacher Winery, Calcareous Vineyard, and Brecon.
Brecon proprietors the Grindleys, who will be focusing on mourvèdre, say they love the event.
"There you will meet down-to-earth, passionate wine folks without any pretension," Damian Grindley said. "[They are] spiritually our kind of people, and we usually have a lot of fun.
"There is no set agenda regarding mourvèdre. We tend to go where the conversation takes us. Mourvèdre has seemingly three distinct styles—fruit forward, earthy, and whole cluster—in Paso and, of course, everything in between.
"The Rhone Rangers organization flies somewhat below the radar. It could be so much bigger, but would that spoil all the fun?" Grindley asked.
Both the Hospice du Rhone and Rhone Rangers events are open to the general public. Tickets are available online and at the door, and COVID-19 protocols will be enforced.
Grindley and Haas invite participants to join the American Rhone movement and discover for themselves how Paso "can successfully transcend these ancient lines and define its own undoubtedly extraordinary future," Grindley said. Δ
Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte prefers Rhones from home. Reach her at [email protected].