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Au revoir, Hospice du Rhône

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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.


Going Rhône in Cabernet country

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I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.

My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.

I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.

Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.

There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.

Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.

It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.

And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.


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