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Remembering a Rhône event, 22 years ago today

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There was so much hope in the air on May 16-17, 1990, exactly 22 years ago, at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals, which I was privileged to cover as my first major feature story when I became a professional wine writer.

Syrah and its fellow Rhône grapes and wines, Mourvedre and Grenache, weren’t widely planted in California, and certainly weren’t known by a large segment of the wine-drinking community. But experts understood the importance of those grapes in the Rhône Valley, and adherents were tinkering with them right here in California, and up into Washington State.

The three-day conference, which was held at Meadowood, in the Napa Valley, was organized by Richard Keehn, then proprietor of McDowell Valley Vineyards, which at the time was an important outpost of Rhône-style wines; Bruce Neyers, the then president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and, on the French side, Gerard Pierrefeu, president of the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins, and a high ranking member of the A.O.C. organization.

I was contributing short articles at that time to another wine magazine, when the phone rang one day. It was my editor. He had an emergency. The writer who had been assigned to go to the conference had fallen ill; my editor wanted to know if I could substitute in his place. When is it? I asked. Tomorrow. Well, I knew I could do a good job and that if I did, it would advance me in the esteem of my editor and publisher. So I went, and I did a good job.

The first thing a writer should do, on going to something like that conference, is sniff the air. I don’t mean literally, I mean that metaphorically. Take the pulse of the occasion; feel it out. Is there tension? Follow it. Tension means conflict, which translates to good, strong writing–if you can capture that lightning in a can.

And I felt plenty of tension. This was 1990, mind you. If I can characterize the psychology on both sides–the Californians and the French–it was this: the Californians wanted to learn (steal) as much as they could from the French, about everything from rootstocks and weed control to pruning and maceration times. The French? They felt they had nothing whatsoever to learn from the upstart Californians–rien! But they had been hearing things across the pond, rumors that these Californians were rich, ambitious, and coming on strong–and that they had great weather all the time. That was scary. After all, it hadn’t been that long since the Paris Tasting had scandalized tout France. So the French came over to see what the heck was going on.

They were a haughty, supercilious lot, those Frenchmen. I think they came prepared to do war. Pierrefeu later wrote that he had expected “hostile behavior” to ensue; that’s how heated was the potential for explosion.

Mercifully, no explosions occurred. People in general behaved themselves quite well. The point of all this is, however, a sad one. Expectations among the Californians (Randall Grahm, Bob Lindquist, Craig Williams, Kevin Hamel, John Buechsenstein, Fred and Matt Cline, John MacReady and Lou Preston) were enormous. These were men who had staked their claims, not on Cabernet Sauvignon, but on Syrah as the red wine of the future. (Well, Craig was also making top Cabernets at Phelps, so I should exclude him from that generalization.) They were as sure as sure can be that Syrah (and maybe even Chateauneuf-style blends) was the Next Big Thing. It was their excitement I sniffed in the air alongside the hauteur of the French. I tried to capture that sensation in my article.

We all know what happened. Syrah was not the Next Big Thing. In fact, some of the wineries represented at Meadowood began a decline when Syrah tanked, or failed to take off. They simply put their money on the wrong horse.

Still, I look at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals as a milestone in the history of California wine. It wasn’t as dramatic as The French Paradox episode on Sixty Minutes, or as impactful as the phylloxera epidemic (both of those events also occurred in the 1990s). But symbolically, it placed California on an equal footing with some of the greatest names in French wine, and it did so on a California stage. The French, despite themselves, by their very presence acknowledged that they had to treat the Californians as equals.

  1. TomHill says:

    Steve,
    I’ve had a somewhat casual interest in Rhone varieties for a few yrs, so would offer up a few comments.
    Though I wasn’t at that event, I think you may be overdramatizing the potential for conflict between the French & Californians. Given that the first great Calif Syrahs were produced in ’82, there was already a lot of interest in Rhone varietals (mostly Syrah and Viognier) in Calif by then. Many of those winemakers you mention had already made numerous trips to the RhoneVlly and developed strong and close personal ties to many of the noted winemakers there. Some of those winemakers had already made visits to Calif at the behest of these winemakers. Since the French representatives were high-level INAO bureaucrats, I expect they may have come w/ a bit of an attitude and had no realization of the contacts these original RhoneRangers had developed in the RhoneVlly.
    I would very much quibble w/ your characterization of Syrah (and Viognier) NOT being the next big thing in 1990. From the mid-’80′s thru the early/mid-2000′s; Rhone varietials enjoyed a brisk and sustained growth. True, it was not the next Merlot or White Zinfandel craze that some had hoped for. But I think it was a good and solid growth in that market and the Syrah market didn’t really start to tank (not sure that’s an accurate term for it) until the mid-2000′s. There were a lot of people in that era who were HOPING Rhone varietals were the next big thing and jumped on that bandwagon after it had already left the station; with no idea or vision of what they wanted to make w/ those varieties. Those were the people who most suffered when the Syrah market started to dwindle and many of them have abandoned the Rhone market now, searching for the NextBigThing (guess that would be Tempranillo and Tazzalenghe). Alas, Phelps was one of those and their presence in the Rhone market has pretty much vanished.
    I’m not sure I’d characterize that ’90 International Colloquium as a milestone in Calif wine. It was sort of a flash in the pan…a one shot deal. By then, there was already a great deal of collegiality and exchange between the adherents of Rhone varietals. I would say the real milestone for Rhone varieties in Calif was MattGarretson’s first ViognierGuild meeting in 1993. And then the subsequent founding of RhoneRangers a few yrs later. Both of those organizations have gone on to promote the growth of Calif Rhone varietials and have enjoyed considerable success and inspired many others to pursue Rhone varieties, both in Calif and elsewhere.
    If you look at the list of Californians present at that conference, only two of them are still important players in the Rhone game…BobLindquist and JohnMacCready. Bob has always been one of the true stalwarts of the Rhone movement and remains, to this day, a man just as excited about the movement as he was back in ’82.
    Tom

  2. My experience with French producers in the Rhone has been extremely positive. They are farmers and if you approach them on their own turf as one farmer to another they are open, hospitable, and there is much they have to pass on to us. New world winemakers would be wise to go to the Cote Rotie and taste new wines from the barrel. Even though Guigal has been successful with a lot of new oak, I prefer none.

    My problem with much of New World Syrah is it doesn’t taste good. It’s coarse. Just because a grape will sugar up with an abundance of tannin and color doesn’t mean you are obliged to extract it all. To me Syrah should be approached with Pinot Noir in one’s mind. Try to do everything possible to bring a soft, delicate, and silky result. It doesn’t have to be black as ink. If you do it right it will have a little more of an edge than Pinot, but only to the degree that most consumers would not be aware.

    I continue to have a lot of hope for Syrah. Particularly in Oregon and Washington, that is, if and where the grape finds it in the hands of a winemaker who understands restraint.

  3. Morton is right… again.
    No need to be a rocket scientist, though, to figure out that outstanding (varietal) Syrah only comes from nearly marginal climes (Côte Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas), with a continental influence (warm and relatively short summers with cold winters) and a limiting growing season.
    Precisely the climate patterns one finds in most WA State AVAs and at some specific altitudes of the Sierra Foothills. Cool temperatures are not a panacea after all.
    These physical facts seem particularly important for Syrah, since the balance between its enological attributes seem highly susceptible to disruption as a consequence of extended hang-time.
    No wonder it is simply a blending variety in Mediterranean climes.

  4. Olivier says:

    Dear Steve,
    Please let me introduce myself briefly: I am the Marketing Manager of Inter Rhône (the “Comité Interprofessionnel des vins de la Vallée du Rhône”, renamed Inter Rhône in 1995). First of all, I would like to thank you from the deepest of my heart for this amazing piece of (our) History. It’s the first time I had the chance to hear about this event.I would like to thank Peter, Morton and Tom for their comments as well.
    What follows is my personal view only, but I would like to say briefly what I perceive as my heritage of this long history between Californian Rhône lovers and our region, if only in terms of communication. What have we learned then?
    - Obviously, not English, as you can see if you read this…
    - First, the conviction that we share a lot with our “cousins d’Amerique” in terms of spirit, of state of mind: a laidback and friendly approach of wine, very far from (traditional French?) wine snobism. The idea that you can work seriously without taking itself too seriously.
    - As a consequence, in terms of communication, The conviction that we had to stop “teaching” wine to consumers and that we had to promote our wines in a different way, insisting more on pleasure.
    Then, we may have left the audience with the impression that we had nothing to learn, but nothing could be further from the truth.
    I will end this with this: OK, syrah was not the next big thing; however, the awareness of Rhône blend has been increasing year after year, which has clearly helped Rhône wines in the US.
    Then, as a conclusion, I would like to say clearly how much we owe to Californians!
    Olivier

  5. Cher Olivier, merci beaucoups. Thank you for reading my blog and for your lovely post.

  6. TomHill says:

    “Then, we may have left the audience with the impression that we had nothing to learn, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

    Thanks for contributing here, Oliver. That may have been the impression they left way back when, but it’s been clear to me that is not the present case. As I’ve talked to the Rhone winemakers and tasted with them at HospicesDuRhone, one of the reasons they come to that event (other than to party…and man can they do that!!) is to learn from their US contemporaries.
    Some of them (Gangloff, Cuilleron, Villard to name three) have acknowledged that the Calif Viognier movement may very well be responsible for the present-day success Condrieu and other Viognier areas. Back in the ’70′s, the Viognier acreage had dwindled to a precious few there.
    Tom

    PS: And your English, Oliver, I might add is very good.

  7. I think it’s important to distinguish between California Syrah and Rhone blends, when it comes to success in the marketplace. California Syrah was suddenly and massively overplanted relative to demand in the mid-late 1990s, based on the kind of overoptimism you mention. This imbalance cast a long shadow on the marketing of Syrah: excessive competition, heavy discounting, proliferation of styles, etc. All of which was then made more complicated by the Shiraz/Syrah labeling quandary and the dominance and then fall of Aussie Shiraz sales. Rhone-style blends, on the other hand, started with much lower expectations and less de facto supply. Despite a fair amount of Grenache and Carignan still sitting in the Central Valley, no one was rushing to put them into Rhone blends and stuff them into distribution. I believe that a more natural growth in sales and consumer perception has been the result.

    By the way, market research shows very positive trade and consumer perceptions of both Rhone wines and their California brethren. And arguably both French and California specialists in such wines have a shared interest in weaning consumers away from Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

    Tom Hill saying he has a “somewhat casual interest in Rhone varieties” is like Barbara Tuchman or Fernand Braudel saying “I’m interested in history.”

  8. Steve et al,

    Thanks for the trip down ‘memory lane’ – though, unlike Tom, I cannot claim that I have been following these things ‘from the beginning’ . . .

    I am still amazed by those who just flat out say that they do not like domestic syrahs and find them uninspired and/or rough. I wonder when tasting current vintages if it is done with an ‘open mind’ because I am finding that the variety in styles of syrah these days is providing something for everyone. Sure, there are plenty of ‘boring’ syrahs out there . . . just as, in my humble opinion, there are plenty of ‘boring pinots’ (egads! yep – I said it).

    Let’s not forget that syrah is still a relative ‘newcomer’ to domestic vineyards, and wineries, and as such, there are bound to be ‘growing pains’ in terms of where to plant, specific clones to use, etc. I remain ecstatic about current offerings from many of not only the ‘original Rhone Rangers’ such as Randall Graham, Steve Edmunds, and Bob Lindquist, but so many others, including Psx Mahle, Wells Guthrie, Mark Pisoni, Ed Kurtzman, Jeff Cohn, Craig Jaffurs, Eric Mosheni, Chuck Carlson, Sashi Moorman . . . .the list can certainly go on and on and on.

    And regarding rhone blends, the future certainly looks bright, especially based on the critical claim bestowed on many such wines throughout the state – from the Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, and everywhere in between . . .

    So as far as I’m concerned, the story is far from over and far from written on domestic rhone varieties, and I, for one, am truly excited about what the future holds for all of us involved with them. And for consumers, producers and reviewers who enjoy them, perhaps from a sales perspective, they have not become ‘the next big thing’, but from an enjoyment factor, I’d have to say that they truly have.

    Cheers!

  9. Selfishly…I’m glad people bypass perhaps the most beautiful varietal in the world. It’s kind of like following a band that never received commercial success. They are all yours…and you share them with a special hardcore group (which we do a lot down here in San Diego). The thing is, I’m not a selfish man. I wish “ITB” folk and consumers gave Rhones the proper attention. Most dynamic varietals…hands down.

    I can’t tell you how many tastings I’ve lent a hand at…and blatant RHONE tastings…and the first question out of people’s mouth…”Do you have a cab?” I always bite my lip and pour a syrah for them. Love the look of surprise.

    Steve, thanks for this entry…love ANY kind of discussion about Rhones.

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