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Au revoir, Hospice du Rhône

15 comments

I was really surprised and saddened to learn yesterday, from a Facebook post by my friend Fred Swan, that the Hospice du Rhone event is pulling up stakes. After 20 years, HdR is no more.

It was the first great varietally-dedicated event in California. I used to go to HdR every year for Wine Enthusiast. I loved it. It had its own special feeling, held at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles, where they also have rodeos and summer rock concerts. HdR really was the model, I believe, for many other California wine events, including the World of Pinot Noir: large public tastings dedicated to a single family of wines, high-level seminars featuring great winemakers, and wonderful food. The Chardonnay Symposium is a direct inheritor of this heritage.

I read Fred’s article (in the link above), so all I know about the demise of HdR is what he wrote. He quoted John Alban, one of the event’s co-founders (and a great winemaker whom I covered in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff), on one of the reasons for ending the event: “Hospice du Rhone needs to attract, respond to and employ a new generation. I really think it is that next generation that can tell us what they want. I think you’re going to see them transform it.”

Although I haven’t been to HdR for a couple years (I keep meaning to go, but something always comes up), I think I know what John means, though. The audience does seem to be an older one. I guess that’s only natural, since these events are fairly expensive: not just the price of admission, but hotels, travel expenses, meals and everything else. John is saying that these Rhône varieties have to catch onto Millennials, Xers and Yers, and perhaps HdR itself wasn’t really accomplishing that.

Lord knows, Rhône-style wines in California have their work cut out for them. I won’t even mention the Syrah-as-pneumonia jokes making the rounds. As for Grenache and Mourvedre, they can be good, but more often aren’t. I like some of the Chateauneuf-style blends, but they haven’t exactly caught fire. The whites–Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc–are gambles. The latter, Grenache Blanc, for my money is the best, overall. With Viognier, you never know what you’re getting. Sweet? Dry? Fruity? Minerally? Who knows?

I’ll miss HdR. California is poorer without it. According to the press release John and Vicki Carroll, HdR’s director, put out on the HdR website, HdR as an organization isn’t going anywhere; it’s just the annual event that’s ceasing. They say they plan to hold smaller events. I think that’s a great idea. I hope they can do a sort of road show, hitting major cities like New York, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco, maybe having tastings and food pairings at restaurants or wine bars. I don’t know exactly what the plan is to reach out to younger wine lovers. HdR has a blog, but no one seems to be keeping it current; the last post is dated Feb. 2. They have a Facebook business page, but like many FB business pages (including, sadly, my own) it’s pretty inert. You can also find them on Twitter.

I sincerely wish John, Vicki and all the other friends of HdR luck in the future.

  1. Steve, I hope you are right about the event reaching out in different markets to crowds of all (legal) ages. However, HdR has also stated that they have a three year contract with Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, one of the most praised and expensive resorts in the US. Maybe I am a skeptic, but when I read “more intimate groups,” my mind thinks more “elitist,” although maybe that is a harsh word.

    It’s too early to know though what the real plans are. I spoke to John about the future of HdR and he absolutely wants more young people involved and to use tools like social media to aid that. In fact, he said his favorite people at HdR were a couple of twenty somethings that he felt embodied the future of the event.

    I also spoke to Sam Beall, owner of Blackberry Farm and he is fully dedicated to Rhone wines and their promotion, so in that way it is a natural fit.

    At any rate, it is a sad change for the fine folks of Paso. I will be curious to see if they try to fill the gap HdR is leaving behind.

    Hope the best for them all.

  2. Wayne, you’re right abut the Paso folks. HdR was a big thing down there and brought in a lot of $$. I imagine this must come as a shock to the city’s government.

  3. Chuck Hayward says:

    From Steve:

    “It [Hospice du Rhone] was the first great varietally-dedicated event in California.”

    While HdR celebrated their 20th tasting this year, the first Viognier Guild tasting (the predecessor to HdR) was held in Georgia in 1993. The first Viognier Guild tasting held in California was in 1994. ZAP held their 20th tasting last year meaning they held their first event in 1992.

    For your statement to be correct, you would have to be saying that HdR’s event was great and ZAP wasn’t. Not sure you want to go there…

  4. raley roger says:

    Steve,
    Can you or one of your readers clarify why the event was folded by Alban, rather than just handed over to someone else to run from now on? I guess I don’t understand why it was just folded up and ended, rather than having the founders just pass the torch? Perhaps the reasons were more fiscal than anything?

    I ask because this was an important event for the Central Coast, so I’m a bit surprised that the decision to fold it up can come down to one or two people?

  5. Roger, in the account I read, the organizers stressed the closure was NOT due to financial reasons. If you want more clarity, I guess you’d have to ask them!

  6. raley roger says:

    Okay…..

    HdR Organizers,
    Why fold up the event and call it a day? Why not hand it over to another hosting entity, like the Vintners Association there? If it’s fiscally sustainable, I’m wondering why that didn’t happen?

  7. Mauricio says:

    I really liked and enjoyed the event every year. The ammount of knowledge and experiences you can get from all those winemakers getting together is huge.

    I am sure the alliances, vintners and/or growers of Rhone varieties in CA and other states will figure something out to keep the event going at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles.

    I vote for PdR!

  8. Steve, I must say I don’t think Wayne was off-base when he called the new project elitist. After all, I’d bet the majority of people who attended HDR couldn’t afford the tariff at Blackberry Farm. I know I can’t. That said, I don’t blame John Alban for keeping the name as it carries cachet and that draws connoisseurs. He did indeed found Hospice du Rhone.
    Not only that, we have so many tastings and festivals going on here in the South Central Coast, the organizers no longer bother worrying their event takes place on the same day as another popular event. It remains to be seen whether or not the younger generations will transform wine tastings. HDR was a well oiled machine that required a large staff and many more volunteers. That’s why you won’t see the vintners associations taking over, even if they wanted to do it.
    Like Chuck, I immediately thought of ZAP as I was at the first tasting in San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 1991. I like to tell people I attended when the producers outnumbered the advocates!

  9. The departure of HdR will leave a big hole in the community of wine lovers, as well as for businesses in Paso during that week. Perhaps this is an excellent time for Rhone Rangers to think about creating a more global presence at their events (already in SF, LA, NY). Sadly the SF event has not had the cache of HdR for a long time. Although their charter is Rhone grapes in America, inviting the world could be a bold stroke and retain the important component of access to consumers.

    Is it beyond reason that Rangers could slide the SF event to Paso the following week? It may take a couple years to gain traction but I would continue to go to Paso.

  10. TomHill says:

    Doug sez:”Perhaps this is an excellent time for Rhone Rangers to think about creating a more global presence at their events (already in SF, LA, NY). Sadly the SF event has not had the cache of HdR for a long time. Although their charter is Rhone grapes in America, inviting the world could be a bold stroke and retain the important component of access to consumers.”
    Since the RR.org collects $$’s from its members to promote USofA Rhone varieties, I doubt those members would appreciate their $$’s being spent by RR.org to promote Rhone or Oz wines. But your suggestion makes ultimate sense to me. Many of those RR members are close friends w/ vintners in the Rhone and other areas. Many of their wines can go toe-to-toe w/ Rhone varietals from other areas. I can see the RR.org partnering w/ other such organizations (RhoneVlly, OZ, SouthAfrica, NewZealand, etc) in putting on an event that all the World’s Rhone are eligible, be it at FtMason, or Paso, or wherever. I think it’s a great idea.
    Historically, there has been some tension between the HdR.org and RR.org; but I think that’s been at a pretty low level of late. The FtMason RR has been increasingly of interest to many RhoneHeads since they started including the three (two on Sat, one on Sun) Seminars. And, by & large, those Seminars have been quite good…of the intellectual level of the HdR seminars pretty much. Alas, they have been fairly sparsely attended.
    So, Doug…..I think your idea has great merit and I hope RR.org will take steps to pursue it and fill the hole left by the demise (though, I don’t think that’s the word they would use to describe the change) of HdR.
    Tom

  11. Steve (and Tom and Doug),

    Though I sit on the Board of the Rhone Rangers, my response here is my own, not that of any organization:

    I am saddened by the ‘passing’ of the HdR Weekend. It truly was a monumental weekend, and one in which those who love rhones were in the best company in the world . . . literally! The seminars there were oftentimes spectacular (Blinded By the White is probably the best wine related seminar I’ve ever attended), but sometimes really seemed a bit blase. And perhaps that was one of the challenges of the organization – to keep things fresh and interesting, something that is difficult to do year in and year out.

    I oftentimes say that two word which should not ever be used are ‘Never’ and ‘Always’ and to me, this applies to the Rhone Rangers moving forward. I do believe nothing will be left off the table in discussions about where we go . . . but that our member wineries will help us chart our path.

    I remain quite excited about Rhone varieties and will continue to sound the alarm whenever and wherever I can – including at this weekend’s Rhone Ranger tasting in Los Angelese!

    More later . . . .

    Cheers!

  12. One more quick thing – there is no animosity between the two organizations as far as I’ve seen . . . whatsoever . . .

    Cheers!

  13. As far as events in Paso go, Doug, the Paso chapter of the Rhone Rangers usually puts on an event in February each year that involves all Paso members of the Rhone Rangers, seminars, tasting, etc . . . And the Paso Wine Alliance puts on a few tastings each year as well . . .

    Cheers.

  14. Kim and Robert Stockberger says:

    My husband and I are wine makers from Orange County …getting our grapes from Paso each year. Our co-op goes to HdR and has really enjoyed it and been enriched by the experience. My husband lamented its passing tonight and I went to the computer to find out why. Thank you for this article / blog. I guess the organizers don’t have to serve a life sentence of chairing the event, but it will be missed. I wish there was a natural torch to pass to a younger audience, however, in general people tend to grow into wine in their 30′s /40s, and believe it or not (40 year olds) are the X generation. The “social media” crowd (Gen Y) is experiencing a tough reality. Graduating college during the biggest recession since the Great one. Wine and wine weekends are not a priority. Given all this I think the younger crowd is not going to carry the day on this one but older organizers with a savvy social media education might. I truly hope the organizers reconsider. We will miss this event. It was accessible, non-Napa, grass roots and built on good product. There was nothing like it. Fondly, Kim and Robert

  15. Kim and Robert, thanks for weighing in. I also hope HdR comes back!

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  1. Winemakers Will Come To You « notes from the winemaker - [...] has been some years since I made my way to Paso Robles for the festivities…” and Steve Heimhoff said:”…I …

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