For anyone new to wine tasting, just learning the basics can seem an insurmountable task. Few start out memorizing the wine varieties that originated in Bordeaux, much less the Rhone Valley (in France, Bordeaux is famous for seven, plus four lesser known varieties, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, while the Rhone Valley has 22 varieties). However, when you attend a wine tasting like the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience, which showcases many of California’s renowned producers of Rhone wines, you’ll find that learning is indeed pleasurable.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Many of California’s most highly touted stars make their wines in Paso Robles. In fact, Paso’s maverick winemakers want to establish the region as “the Rhone zone.” The Rhone Rangers originated in the Bay Area, but local winemakers started their own chapter, the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers, in 2007, thanks to the efforts of Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard. Since its first Rhone wine-tasting experience, it has always been enlightening for wine novices and wine connoisseurs.
Celebrating its fifth year, this exceptional tasting will take place in a new venue: the beautiful equestrian ranch, Windfall Farms, 10 miles east of Paso Robles. The 724-acre thoroughbred breeding farm was founded by Alex Trebek, host of TV game show Jeopardy for 28 years (and still going strong). Now owned by the Limoneira Company, the ranch’s website describes the company as a leader in the advancement of sustainable farming practices in the farming industry for the past 100 years. Most large events take place here now because it easily handles a crowd.
Haas explained that the grand tasting will be held in the stallion barn, with three wineries pouring their wines in each stall. But rest assured there won’t be any horse-related smells stinking up this upscale barn. You can view photos of Windfall Farms and a video about Paso’s garagiste wine event at windfallfarms.net. The Rhone Rangers tasting always attracts a crowd of wine lovers, and this year’s seminar sold out a month in advance. That’s why you’ll want to join the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers mailing list to get a jump on tickets once they’re available.
Still, it’s worth knowing about this year’s seminar as you can taste the spotlighted producers’ wines at the grand tasting or at their tasting rooms (if you missed the seminar). The “Rhone Essentials” seminar will be moderated by Sara Schneider, wine editor at Sunset Magazine, who appeared at Sunset’s popular food and wine event, Savor the Central Coast. Schneider will lead nine Paso winemakers through a tasting of their wines. The interesting part is that the winemakers earned a place in the seminar after their wines were tasted by their peers, winemaker and vintner members of the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers.
“We conducted a blind tasting to be fair. Each wine was chosen by the committee because it best represented the category for the varietal or the blend,” Haas explained, adding that the member wineries all submitted wines for the judging. “At the grand tasting, nearly every member pours wines, including those who served on the seminar panel.”
Only Haas’ winning wine, Tablas Creek 2009 Grenache, won’t be at the grand tasting because it was pre-release, but you’ll be able to try it at their tasting room in March. The other winning wines included Katin 2009 Viognier, Cypher 2010 Grenache Blanc, Caliza 2010 white Rhone blend Kissin’ Cousins, Niner 2010 Syrah Vin Gris (Rosé), Minassian-Young 2009 Mourvedre, Eberle 2009 Syrah, Clayhouse 2009 Petite Sirah Old Vines, and Cass 2009 red Rhone blend Rockin’ One.
Calling on two of the chosen winemakers, I found them both enthusiastic about taking part in the seminar and the grand tasting. Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer admitted that she had made two Rosés in 2010, one Syrah and the other Sangiovese, because each one stood alone.
“It wasn’t planned, but I made two versions because they were so interesting,” Cramer explained. “It’s much more fun when you use fewer ingredients.”
For her blend of 78 percent Syrah, 22 percent Grenache Blanc, she added more of the latter because its acidity provided more balance. That one impressed the committee. Not only will it be at the grand tasting, you can still find it at Niner’s tasting room.
The Katin Viognier, made by owner/winemaker Justin Kahler of JK Wine Company, is his brand that’s devoted to Rhone varieties. The grapes are grown in a Templeton Gap vineyard, which he prefers for the fruity aromatics and minerality in the grapes.
“It’s been very well received,” Kahler said candidly. “Viognier gets hard knocks for its high alcohol, but in the Templeton Gap, Viognier can ripen without high sugar levels, and the acidity holds really well. That’s the main benefit, the acidity. Without it, the wine becomes fat and doesn’t make you want another sip.”
After attending a wine tasting of this caliber, you walk away better informed about Rhone varieties and the passionate winemakers who made them—and that’s the experience every wine lover craves.
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