1974: California’s first Syrah made by Joseph Phelps from a 4-acre plot.
1978: Estrella River plants Syrah in Paso Robles
1982: Qupe produces Syrah from Santa Barbara County
1984: First Cigare Volant made by Bonny Doon, from Central Coast
1989: Rhône Rangers Organized; 350 acres of Syrah exist
1994: Tablas Creek develops vineyards on west side of Paso Robles
2005: Market glutted as Syrah acreage soars over 17,000
2010: Regulations improve to permit interstate shipping
The commonly held view is that California’s Rhône grapes remain ‘a tough sell’. But as we approach 2020, the plot and the characters have changed within the Rhône world.
In 1989, when Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard appeared on The Wine Spectator’s‘ cover and announced the advent of Rhône Rangers, only five or six wineries were involved. Syrah and Viognier were the favoured grapes among the Rangers, but both proved difficult to grow and sell.
Before 1989, consumers confused Syrah with Aussie Shiraz and even with Petite Sirah. Growers mistook Roussanne for Viognier. Winemakers in Santa Barbara lined up with Grahm favouring cool Central Coast sites. Others in Paso Robles disagreed. Fred Cline explored Syrah in the cool Sonoma Coast. Bill Easton, who now makes seven different Syrahs at Terre Rouge, prefers high elevation sites with volcanic soils in the Sierra Foothills.
In that same year, Tablas Creek, disappointed with the available clones, imported cuttings of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Marsanne from its partner, Château de Beaucastel.
In 2003, co-owner Robert Haas worked out an agreement with UC Davis to bring in the other varieties (Cinsaut, Clairette Blanche, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc and Picardan). With that, Tablas Creek nursery became the prime source for Rhône varieties with more than five million cuttings sold to more than 600 wineries.
As new vineyards were planted to better clones, winemakers debated the merits of cool climate versus warm climate for Rhône varieties. After 35 vintages, Randall Grahm says: ‘Syrah still presents many challenges in the vineyard.’ Easton says it demands vigilance and a long élevage in the cellar.
As winemakers debated site location and explored other varieties, a funny thing happened: the wine market changed.
First, rosé wines began to gain respectability and sales soared thanks to young wine drinkers. That created a big opening for classic rosé-making grapes: Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and, yes, Syrah. In some combination – or on their own – the Rhônes, led by Grenache Rosé, are looking good in pink.
Secondly, with giant companies like Gallo, Constellation, Treasury, and Jackson Family controlling wine distribution, the 4,000 or so small, family-owned wineries had to create another outlet, That is now the ‘DtC’ world, direct to consumer in the form of wine clubs.
Within the wine club world, Syrah, GMS (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah) blends, and other varietals took on a new role as exclusive, small batch wines for ‘members only’. Mailing lists filled up and waiting lists were soon added at Alban, Saxum, Pax, Denner, Bedrock, Peay, Stolo and Donelan Family, all Rhône specialists.
Whether the new generation of wine drinkers is fickle or simply willing to experiment, Rhône varietals and blends benefit. Grenache Blanc is gaining in popularity, as is Cinsault. As consumers seek alternatives to Merlot and Cabernet, Grenache and Mourvèdre are getting another look.
In 2020, the Central Coast is where the action is. The Sierra Foothills and Western Sonoma remain key regions for Rhône grapes. With Syrah and Viognier no longer headliners, the scene is changing as several young winemakers are excited about the prospects of Picpoul Blanc. Tablas Creek has been working with Counoise and Picardin, and there is new excitement at the winery generated by the first harvests in 2019 of Vaccarese and Bourboulenc.
So the plot thickens… Stay tuned here to find out more!
Rhônes on my 12 Day shopping list
2017 Tablas Creek Mourvèdre, Paso Robles
2015 Epiphany Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard
2018 Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Volant
2018 Cline Cellars Marsanne-Roussanne, Sonoma Coast
2018 Alara Grenache Blanc, San Benito County
2017 Stolo Vineyards Estate Reserve Syrah, San Luis Obispo
2012 Terre Rouge Ascent, Sierra Foothills
2016 Jonata, La Sangre de Jonata, Ballard Canyon
2016 Justin Vineyards, Trilateral, Paso Robles
2017 Nelle Syrah, Coastview Vineyard, Monterey
2017 Sarah’s Vineyard Grenache Rosé, Santa Clara
2017 Melville Estate Syrah, Donna’s Block, Small Lot Collection
Norm Roby has been writing about the California wine scene for over 30 years. From Vintage Magazine he moved to The Wine Spectator with his ‘Inside California Wine’ column; he then became the California Correspondent for Decanter magazine.