Back then, if you were an American winemaker producing anything other than chardonnay or cabernet, you were taking an enormous financial risk. By concentrating on Rhones, now-established winemakers such as Bob Lindquist (Qupé), Bill Crawford (McDowell Valley Vineyards), Craig Williams (formerly of Joseph Phelps Vineyards), Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St. John), and Adam Tolmach (The Ojai Vineyard), among others, “were bucking the trend. They were almost like the Lone Ranger ... champions of the greater good,” says Quist, explaining how the Rhone Rangers got their name.
What makes Rhone wines so enticing to both American winemakers and drinkers alike are the subtle flavors and nuances that enhance, rather than overwhelm, the food-pairing experience. Some cabernets and chardonnays, for instance, have a lot of alcohol or residual sugars that tend to clash with many foods, while Rhone wines are much more versatile and better suited to American diets. Take roussanne, for example. “It’s a full-bodied white with waxy flavors, a touch of oatmeal on the nose with a creamy texture, and a nice departure from all those oaky chardonnays,” explains Ernst Storm, the winemaker at Los Olivos-based Curtis, the Rhone-style winery owned by Brooks & Kate Firestone (of the Ohio tire family), who helped introduce the wine industry to Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley in the late 1960s. By contrast, “syrahs are darker, more rustic, with white- and black-pepper notes that go well with richer meats and barbecue, while grenache showcases more high-tone red fruit, strawberry flavors that are more delicate and work well with lighter meats, duck, and other game birds,” he says, noting how the California climate is perfectly suited to the Rhone winemaking style. Which doesn’t mean they are immune to other growing regions; most recently Rhone grapes have also proven successful in states like Washington, Oregon, and Virginia, among others.
One of the first to recognize the potential for Rhone grapes in California was Tablas Creek, an influential Paso Robles-based winery launched in 1989 by an American businessman, Robert Haas, working in collaboration with the French winery Château de Beaucastel. Haas bought his first Rhone cuttings from the Beaucastel vineyard that same year and entered into a three-year USDA quarantine program to legally import the grapes into the United States. By 1992 he had enough cuttings to develop a grapevine nursery, and by 1997 he was harvesting Tablas Creek’s first viable crop.
“The nursery was important in that it helped create the category in a modern way,” explains Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek and the son of Robert Haas. In addition to planting the French grape cuttings, “we actually planted an acre of each of five California-sourced clones (already growing in the state) to have a control group, and found the grapes from California made much less interesting, rich, complex, and concentrated wines than the grapes growing next to them that we brought over from France.” At that time the Haas family made an extraordinary decision to sell the proprietary French cuttings to other winemakers interested in producing Rhone-style wines. “We ended up selling Rhone varietal cuttings to more than 400 vineyards around the U.S.,” says Haas, adding that approximately 80 percent of Rhone wines made by American winemakers today originated from cuttings supplied by Tablas Creek.
That decision to share proved beneficial, says Haas, because it helped jump-start the spread of Rhone varietals in America. In the Paso Robles region alone, there are now more than 240 wineries, about 90 percent of which produce at least one Rhone wine. They vary from the rich red blends at Calcareous vineyards and Tablas Creek to the estate-grown syrahs at Venteux to the lush stone-fruit-flavored viogniers at Katin. Neighboring Santa Ynez, home to such important winemakers as Curtis, Zaca Mesa, Andrew Murray, and Qupé, is perhaps California’s fastest-growing Rhone wine region because the climate is most agreeable to growing the French grapes. Haas cuttings can be found in both regions and, with continued growth in mind, this year the family plans to expand its cutting nursery with the addition of seven new and rare Rhone varietals, including terret noir, bourboulenc, picardin, and muscardin, to round out its library of the 13 designated Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes.