Winemakers Gone Wild!

It was spring break of my last year in college (let’s just say sometime in the beginning of the previous decade). While most pleasure-seeking youngsters of my day were angling at ways to get themselves down to Cancun or Ft. Lauderdale for some serious MTV-style merrymaking, me and some fellow winemaking students at University were embarking on a journey of enological proportions. We were going to spend our spring break camping and making our way down the coast of California in search of Rhône variety growers and wine producers: RhôneQuest!

This was before there was a “Rhône Rangers” or Hospices du Rhône (or even its previous incarnation, the Viognier Guild) for Rhône enthusiasts like ourselves to convene and enjoy these types of wines. So we had to form our own band of “Rhône-heads” so to speak and seek knowledge from the sources themselves in their native habitat. We had already been on a few mini-trips to check out the early efforts of wineries like McDowell Valley, Edmunds St. John and Joseph Phelps, sort of the Mesozoic-era producers of California Syrah and Viognier. I was struck by how much it felt like we were Bilbo Baggins and company when we trooped around the ancient, hobbit-like Syrah vines at McDowell Valley Vineyards with John Beuchenstein. I remember standing around and peering down at the five dozen baby vine plants of Bill Easton’s special (read suitcase) clone of Roussanne and feeling we were on the edge of something big. We got a sense of where Rhône varieties had been and where they were headed in California. We wanted to know more.

With our cars loaded up with camping gear and the necessary provisions: cases of good wine and bags of good coffee (this was before the proliferation of Peet’s & Starbucks), we headed south. Our traveling band consisted of: me; Steve, the engineer turned business consultant, turned enology student and now presumably back to business consultant; Todd, who is currently my barrel purveyor; Oriol, an affable Catalan winemaker; and Jean-Louis, not merely a Rhône-head like the rest of us, but the real deal, making Syrah and Marsanne/Roussanne in Hermitage as his family had done for the last 500 years. It was with these guys that I would endure cramped tent conditions, arguments about how much Grateful Dead should be allowed to be played en route, loud bilingual sleep-talking, and lively debates about wine, food and everything for a week.

Our first stop: Bonny Doon. Going to Bonny Doon was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There were so many things to taste from the zingy Pacific Rim Riesling to the sticky, aromatic Vin de Glacière. We were being pleasantly distracted by the exotic aromas of a framboise eau de vie distillation in progress when we realized that we were on RhôneQuest and had to stay focussed and on task! Not only did we taste some artfully blended and very expressive new interpretations of these Rhône variety wines, but we also learned that wine bottles could wear hats like the Le Sophiste Roussanne and, furthermore, that we would never come up with wine names as clever as Cigare Volant or Old Telegram. Rhône-style wines were still new-ish to California and Bonny Doon’s Randall Graham took a blank slate approach to packaging and marketing them.

Next stop: Calera Wine Company. As with most people, one usually thinks of Pinot noir when considering Calera, Josh Jensen and the Heartbreak Grape, but Calera, however, is one of California’s oldest producers of Viognier. After driving to what we thought was the end of the earth, we arrived at a place not even close to the dot on the map called Hollister which was the winery’s address. At this remote, lonely place resembling a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter we went through their line-up of Pinot noirs because we were, after all, at Calera. At last we tasted their Viognier which proved to be intensely aromatic and perfumed, yet strangely singular and moody. It seemed to reflect how solitary this place was. We were so far away from the hubbub of the Napa Valley and the wine seemed to reflect this unique and fierce origin. Its aroma and flavor were so different, hinting at the struggle of its vinification in a seeming continuation of the exertion the vines had made to produce this exotic fruit. It made me contemplate the necessarily remote locales where people end up choosing to live in order to grow grapes of such intensity.

We continued southward and stopped in on Chuck Ortman at Meridian in Paso Robles. We came to pay homage to the famed Estrella River Vineyard from whence much of the Syrah plant material in California comes, the great mother block of today’s Syrah vineyards in the state. As the story goes, it is this vineyard that Gary Eberle in 1977 planted with vine stock from the northern Rhône which came to him by way of Australia. This vine stock is one of the clonal selections that we planted at our vineyard. It is sad to know that the original vineyard has been torn out, but the vine legacy lives on in vineyards like our own. Leaving Meridian, we wandered over to the west side of Highway 101 in an effort to find the future site of the Tablas Creek Vineyard, a joint venture between Châteauneuf du Pape’s Château Beaucastel and importer Robert Haas. The vineyard had not yet been planted but we wanted to see the beginnings of this great collaboration anyway. It was a pretty exciting time for us Rhône-heads.

From there, we headed straight south to meet Bob Lindquist of Qupé in the Santa Maria Valley. Lindquist received our motley crew so amiably, he reminded me of a favorite uncle: the nice and fun uncle that would spend the whole afternoon showing you what he does because you expressed interest and because he so loved his occupation he wanted to share it with you. At this minimalist winery, we experienced wines of such expressiveness and quality that they conveyed the very joie de vivre, passion and camaraderie so much in evidence at Qupé. After our visit to the winery, we jumped the gate at the Bien Nacido Vineyard, Bob’s neighbor and fruit source for his landmark expression of Estrella clone Syrah, and ran around to look at the vines. We were told that there was a new hillside block planted, Block Z, and we had to see it. Winemakers gone wild! I still see Bob Lindquist at wine tasting events and go up to him and say, “Hi, remember me?” When I remind him of our traveling group, he looks up, scratches his chin and answers slowly, “Oh yeah…”

The last stop on our spring break RhôneQuest was to visit the Tolmachs at Ojai Winery. I was spellbound meeting this husband and wife team who not only made wine together but also grew their own grapes. I fell in love with the place, the winery, the wines, the people, their life, the whole shebang! Now, I was not one to be romantic about working in the wine industry. I had worked enough vintages to know that winery work was pretty unglamorous and grueling at times, but at this moment I was utterly enchanted. I had not thought specifically about what my future winemaking career would be but at that moment I knew I wanted to make winemaking a life just as these folks had done. Their approach seemed so integrated and focussed, yet uncomplicated and pure, just like their wines. It was an invaluable experience for me to meet some of the early pioneers of the California Rhône movement. In talking with these people who were exploring the frontiers of these new wine types and grape growing regions, my cohorts and I had a grand adventure. We gained valuable insight into what inspired these pioneers, what was their vision, and were fortunate to be able to taste the expression of that vision. It was truly an inspiration to all of us and we had a great time spending it with people who were happy about sharing their enthusiasm with us. It would not be the last adventure for us on RhôneQuest, however, for we convened that following summer for RhôneQuest II: France. But that’s another story.

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