Remembering a Rhône event, 22 years ago today
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.