Photography by Rimagine, Styling by Melanie Peskett
The Rhone Rangers, a group of maverick winemakers, are recasting classic French varietals for American palates.

Back in 1927, an Italian grape grower named Dominico Buchignani planted five acres of carignane grapes on his D&D Ranch in California’s Alexander Valley, only to discover years later — after his son Deno planted an additional 18 acres — that there was no market for the obscure French varietal. So for nearly five decades the Buchignanis called the grapes “mixed zinfandel” and sold them to one of California’s largest winemakers, who presumably couldn’t tell the difference.

Sample the Rhones

These upcoming Rhone Ranger
(800-467-0163, rhonerangers.org)
wine-tasting events offer the perfect opportunity to savor the flavors of the Rhone.

New York City, November 7
Wine tasting with more than 30 wineries;
in partnership with City Winery. 155 Varick Street

Paso Robles, California, February 17, 2013
Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience wine tasting with more than 40 wineries. (805) 239-1231, ext. 26

San Francisco, March 22-23, 2013
16th Annual Weekend Celebration of American Rhones, with seminars, winemaker dinner, and wine tasting
featuring more than 100 wineries.

If you join the Rhone Rangers as a “Sidekick,” you will automatically be notified of upcoming events and receive special discounts on tickets. Visit rhonerangers.org and click on “Become a Member,” and then click on “Sidekick.” There is no charge to become a Sidekick member.

In a similar case of mistaken identity, winemaker Randall Grahm of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard recalls making a wine in the mid-1990s called Le Sophiste that he describes as “amazingly great for a roussanne/marsanne blend.” The problem was the roussanne grapes Grahm had included in the mix were actually another grape varietal known as viognier. “That wine even impressed the late Gerard Jaboulet, the famed French vintner of Jaboulet Aine, who was completely knocked out. He said, ‘We cannot make wine like this in France,’” offers Grahm, noting how in the early years when American winemakers were just discovering the relatively unknown grapes of France’s southern Rhone, many of the region’s varietals were so misunderstood — and difficult to pronounce — that even the experts couldn’t tell them apart.

California winemakers have mostly built their reputations over the past 100 years on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, widely known grapes that command nearly half of all domestic wine sales (86 of the 199 cases shipped in 2010), according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. But over the past four decades a group of maverick American winemakers have slowly discovered the little-known varietals from the Rhone River valley, a region in the southeast corner of France known for growing more unusual grapes such as viognier, roussanne, mourvedre, grenache, and syrah, among others. There are 22 grape varietals originating from Rhone, which is known not only for its idiosyncratic grapes but also its innovative way of blending to create fruit-forward wines bursting with flavors that go beautifully with a wide variety of foods. Connoisseurs know the French versions of these wines as Cotes du Rhones, generally less expensive wines featuring grapes mostly from the southern Rhone, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CDP), the highest quality blends combining grenache, syrah, and mourvedre (often referred to as a GSM), along with as many as 10 other CDP-approved grapes, depending on the winemaker.

Some of these varietals, such as carignane, syrah, and grenache, have been growing in small quantities in northern California for over a century with little notice. Often brought across the pond illegally, they were blended into jug wines that rarely listed the varietals by name, or they were used to create semisweet wines that fell out of favor with most Americans’ tastes in the 1970s. However, perceptions began to change a decade later, and especially in the 1990s with the formation of the Rhone Rangers, a nonprofit group of American winemakers dedicated to producing award-winning Rhone-style wines. “These were winemakers just getting started in their careers who started going to places like Kermit Lynch’s wine shop in Berkeley that is all about French and Italian wines,” explains Cheryl Quist, executive director of the Rhone Rangers. “He inspired some of the early Rhone Rangers like Gary Eberle [Eberle Winery] and Randall Grahm [Bonny Doon], who bought these wines and loved them so much they started going to the Rhone and bringing back what are often referred to as suitcase clones — grape cuttings brought over in suitcases. So it kind of got started in a very organic way.”