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4 New Wines From the Original Rhône Ranger

4 New Wines From the Original Rhône Ranger

In 1954, the producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France's southern Rhône Valley, fiercely protective of the integrity of their vineyards, got a local ordinance passed banning flying saucers from the area. The French term for flying saucer is cigare volant — flying cigar (the aliens cruising French skies obviously favored a more elongated spacecraft, while those above America preferred the round kind).

Randall Grahm, who founded his Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, on California's Central Coast, in 1983, was an early proponent of Rhône varieties in the state (among them syrah, mourvèdre, grenache, viognier, marsanne, and roussanne), and was quite possibly the winemaker to whom the punning "Rhône Ranger" name was applied. From the start, Grahm has given his wines humorous names (Cardinal Zin, Riesling to Live, Vinferno), so when he decided to produce a Châteauneuf-style red blend, he dubbed it Le Cigare Volant.

The wine has been a staple of his list for years, joined by a vin gris (a supposedly grayish rosé) and a white — Vin Gris de Cigare and Le Cigare Blanc, respectively. Recently, Grahm has been experimenting with aging the wines not in conventional 55-gallon barrels but in both smaller containers like 10- to 15-gallon carboys — also called demijohns, or, in French, bonbonnes — and larger ones, including demi-muids, with about twice the capacity of ordinary barrels, and the upright wooden tanks called foudres, which hold about 2,600 gallons.

The latest Bonny Doon releases in the Cigare line are superb, and express the kind of confident, consistent winemaking Grahm has become known for. His experiments may have noticeable results — some more vivid than others — but they don't affect wine quality at the expense of gimmickry.

2011 Le Cigare Blanc, Beeswax Vineyard ($28). A 62-38 blend of grenache blanc and roussanne from a biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, this is a rich, well-rounded wine with pronounced grenache character, reminiscent of Cavaillon melon and butter mints.

2010 Le Cigare Blanc Réserve, Beeswax Vineyard ($50). Aged en bonbonne for a year and a half, this blend combines grenache blanc and roussanne in something closer to equal quantities (56-44). At least as rich as the normal bottling, it has a slightly more floral character and, though older, tastes brighter and slightly fresher. Good acidity helps define the richness.

2008 Le Cigare Volante en Demi-Muid ($45). The '08 Cigare Volants are blends of grenache noir (45 percent), syrah (30 percent), mourvèdre (13 percent), cinsault (7 percent), and carignane (5 percent), drawn from six different vineyards, one of them biodynamic and the other in transition to same. Dark in color and medium-rich in body, this is an earthy, spicy wine with plenty of oak and enough tannin to make it sit up straight.

2008 Le Cigare Volante en Foudre ($45). Slightly lighter in color than the Demi-Muid, with suggestions of mint and rosemary in the nose and a complex, surprisingly soft character on the palate, with a faintly tart, mineral-tinged finish. Tasting this blind against the Demi-Muid, I might suspect that the former was Californian, but could easily believe that this one was French.


Veuve Clicquot truck, Rhone Rangers wine tasting, Terrazza’s spirited Thursdays

Veuve Clicquot is launching a cross-country tour of its Clicquot Mail truck with a couple stops in the Los Angeles area. The truck is named after the Clicquot Mail collection of products that includes a Champagne bottle carrier shaped like a letter and another in the shape of a mailbox. The first stop will be Sept. 4 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Guests will be given postcards from the truck to trade in for free flutes of champagne at the pool bar. There will also be a DJ and jumbo Jenga game. The second stop will be at the Westlake Inn Sept. 7 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The truck will be hosting a boozy brunch with by-the-glass champagne specials and crepes for brunch. Beverly Hilton Hotel, 9876 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-7777 Westlake Inn, 31943 Agoura Rd., Westlake Village, (818) 889-0230, www.veuve-clicquot.com/.

The Rhone Rangers, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting Rhone varietal wines produced in the U.S., is hosting its eighth-annual wine tasting at Vibiana Sept. 9. More than 50 wineries will pour more than 200 wines at the event. Attendees will also be treated to a tour of Redbird, chef Neal Fraser’s soon-to-open restaurant inside the Rectory at Vibiana. General admission tickets are $50 and include a walk-around tasting from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. VIP tickets are $75 and include a tasting from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Fraser will also prepare small plates for purchase to pair with the wines. Tickets are available online now. 214 S Main St, Los Angeles, (213) 626-1507, www.rhonerangers.org.

Terrazza lounge inside the Hotel Casa de Mar in Santa Monica is launching a new spirit hour Sept. 4. The Spirited Thursdays will take place every Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. and include a rotating series of spirit ambassadors with mixologists, vintners and more. The ambassadors will be available to offer tastings and talk shop with guests about their featured beverages including boutique wines, specialty cocktails, craft beer, etc. For every drink showcased in the spirit hour ordered, Terrazza’s chef will send out a complimentary small plate. Upcoming beverages featured in the spirit hour include Ilegal Mezcal on Sept. 4, Art in the Age unique liqueurs Sept. 11, Tequila Ocho on Sept. 18 and Chareau, a California-crafted aloe liqueur on Sept. 25. 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica, (310) 430-7144, www.bytheblueseasantamonica.com/.

More food and wine events? Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_


Nakedwines.com: Crowdfunding indie wines the Kickstarter way

Through Kickstarter and Indiegogo, people are finding projects, new products and films to fund via crowdsourcing. Now, reports KGO-TV in San Francisco, fledgling winemakers can take advantage of crowdsourced funding through NakedWines.com. “Now, the Bay Area’s seeing the rise of indie winemakers. Like so many other entrepreneurs, they’re turning to crowdfunding to get off the ground.”

No fancy bottles. Screw caps instead of corks. Labels? Meh.

“We put the money inside the bottle,” says Rowan Gormley, founder of NakedWines.com, which also has a British and an Australian site. The company basically funds independent winemakers to make exclusive wines for their customers. NakedWines buys the grapes. The winemaker makes the wine. And NakedWines sells the wine through its site to its 175,000 customers.

Angel investors invest $40 per month in a NakedWines account in support of winemakers. That $40 can be spent on any wines on the site, anytime—but the big advantage is that while anyone can buy wine from NakedWines, Angels can purchase the wines at wholesale. That means a Chardonnay that sells for $19.99 costs an Angel just $11.99. Minimum order, six bottles. For an order more than $100, shipping is free (otherwise $9.99).

Of course, since the site is highly social, customers rate the winemakers and in general wax poetic (or not) about wines they’ve purchased and consumed.

Some of the highest rated winemakers right now? Robin Langton, “UK drug squad cop turned award-winning California winemaker,” who’s worked at Patz & Hall Wine Co. and Calera Wine Co., among others, and is making a Lodi Chardonnay and a Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley. There’s Matt Iaconis, too, “rocket-scientist turned winemaker,” who is offering a California Moscato and a Napa Valley Chardonnay.

And lo and behold, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, “the iconic Rhone Ranger,” shows up on NakedWines with 701 followers. Yes, just like on Instagram or Twitter or any number of social media sites, you can “follow” winemakers that interest you. Not often, though, you can follow someone like Graham who has had an asteroid named after him.

It can get pretty up close and personal with comments. (Yes, there are comments, too, from members. “Terrible!” Re Graham’s 2012 “The(G)renache Spot Central Coast,” 77% of 75 purchasers would buy it again. Ouch. Comments include “Not bad. Just prefer Cabs.” And “My husband, who ‘despises’ reds liked this quite a bit! Or “All my heavy duty wine friends liked it.”


Attack of the Drones

The buzz starts way before the first sip these days, as drones zip around vineyards to tackle a variety of concerns. Aerial crop analysis, once done by expensive airplane flyovers, can survey 1,000 acres in a day and is the dominant service offering for companies like PrecisionHawk. Another company, Hawk Aerial, has drones that use multispectral cameras to assess vine vigor and ripeness variability, creating “vigor maps” from the findings. VineView’s equipment analyzes disease pressures from above, while Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter can spray fungicide in a more efficient manner. Even the original Rhone Ranger, John Alban, founder of Alban Vineyards in California’s Edna Valley, flies drones that project hawk squawks to scare away birds.

Uncork the tech

Chamisal Vineyards 2016 Morrito Pinot Noir (Edna Valley) $100, 96 points. This bottling from a hillside block is powerful, attention-grabbing and deliciously balanced. Aromas of candied plum and exotic black cherry meet with piles of red and purple flowers on the nose. The palate shows both impact and depth, offering acid-powered flavors of hearty red fruit and dark star-anise spice.


One Winemaker’s Quixotic Quest To Save California’s Wine Industry From Climate Change

Photo By Christy Jarvis

Other winemakers respect him. Wine drinkers of all levels know his brands. Journalists love him. But winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard doesn’t need any of it.

After more than 40 years in the industry, Graham has maintained his reputation for breaking the mold. He talks like a philosopher with the soul of a scientist, but it’s just as likely that we’ve got the two mixed up. He’s chased the perfect Pinot Noir, held the 27th largest wine company in the U.S. (which is a really big deal), and advocated for the use of Rhône varietal grapes in California. The last one, along with his reputation for going against the grain, earned him the nickname “The Rhône Ranger.”

These days, he’s riding a different horse. Now well into his 60s, Grahm’s newest project veers even farther away from mainstream wine production than anything up to this point. Usually, winemakers in California purchase rootstock from a specific type of grape vine from Europe. They then graft it onto existing vines, and cultivate the grapes.

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The world doesn’t need a copy of something, what the world needs is something original.

The goal for most California winemakers is to make wines that taste like the essential Pinot Noir or Syrah or Grenache. Working within these constraints brought Grahm to the realization that “essentially all the efforts to replicate a varietal wine in the New World are essentially doomed – or Dooned, if you will – to a kind of mediocrity or me-too-ness or derivativeness,” he says. “They’re essentially good or flawed facsimiles of an Old World paradigm that already exists in a more perfected form.”

So what does Europe do differently? Because the different types of grapes originate in wine growing regions, they strive to cultivate subtle differences in flavor that stem from the soil. “[European winemakers] can produce a wine of incredible depth and complexity and nuance that is very satisfying to consume and experience,” he says. “They’ve had centuries of iteration and observation and refinement.”

The Project

Instead of focusing on creating a great wine through sheer force of will (a vin d’effort , as the French would say), he wants to create a wine of place ( vin de terroir ). Though some winemakers argue that every wine that’s made in California has terroir , Grahm disagrees. “It’s all about discovering the strange nuanced qualities that make this place distinctive. It’s trying to figure out what this place has to say,” he says.

“The world doesn’t need a copy of something,” he says. “What the world needs is something original.” His canvas for the search for a truly unique wine is Popelouchum, a 280-acre stretch of rugged, beautiful land outside San Juan Bautista, CA. Even though the site gets less than 13 inches of rain annually, to Grahm, it seemed perfect.

Popelouchom, Photo by Ryan Woodhouse

Pronounced “poh-puh-lou-shoom,” the name was given to the land by the Ohlone natives. Its secondary meaning, “paradise,” is exactly what Grahm sees. “The Native Americans and a number of other indigenous peoples believed that places have a soul and a unique history and story to tell,” he says. “This whole exercise is an attempt to try to find out what this place has to say.”

To do so, he’s trying to create a wine that captures the spirit of Popelouchum – lack of water and all. As part of the project, he’ll be crossbreeding 10,000 new strains of grapes to test at Popelouchum. Though he chose the number at random – and hasn’t settled on a method to produce the grapes varietals – this step of the process alone will take several decades to complete. “I don’t have an infinite number of years ahead of me to see this project to fruition,” he says. “Time is definitely of the essence.”

This step will face challenges at both ends: what each parent plant contributes to the offspring is still largely unknown. Once the strains are bred, they’ll be planted as seeds, which is much more difficult than grafting rootstock.

After they’re planted, there’s no guarantee that they’ll survive. If they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make good wines. In Grahm’s words, the process is “more art than science.” Though the outcome may be “a completely new, weird, strange wine that never existed before,” it would only be a byproduct of the larger goal.

It’s really thinking of the farm as a complete organism and working on activities that make the farm as close to a closed system as you can so you don’t have to bring in external inputs or minimize your external inputs.

With some predictions for the California drought warning that it’ll just get worse , Grahm is trying to create grapes that are resistant to drought and Pierce’s disease. Since they’ll be cultivated without irrigation on land that gets very little rainfall, the grapes that survive may provide a valuable resource for future vintners.

“We’re attempting to identify and create truly more sustainable grape varieties for the future from the standpoint of disease resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance,” he says. “We’re also attempting to just create a more sustainable model for the future.”

The Approach

Part of the model is finding novel (or really old) ways to reduce the amount of water needed to farm. His choice to farm without irrigation, a centuries-old practice known as dry farming , is part of his attempt to farm the grapes “in such a way that you can transmit a strong sense of the soil characteristics.” This technique is widely practiced – and in some places, legally required–for growing wine grapes in Europe.

“You don’t want to drip irrigate the vineyard because that leads to less of an expression of soil characteristics,” he says. “Anything that encourages a vibrant soil ecology seems to be an amplifier of terroir. The various microflora and symbiotic fungi in the roots bring the micronutrient into the plants and sort of intensify the soil characteristics.”

I’m not sure if the light’s totally gone on or if it’s folly or a totally delusional system that I’ve begun to subscribe to.

Along with dry farming, Grahm’s approach to growing grapes at Popelouchum is a blend of modern and traditional techniques. It’s his hope that finding the right combination of agricultural techniques will provide a roadmap of sorts for winemakers working in drought conditions. “ Because dry-farming/minimal irrigation limits crop production, the model may well only work for more expensive wines or for sites where land costs are very very low or are considered sunk costs,” he says. “That doesn’t really describe a lot of California.”

To preserve water, he’ll use a new natural soil additive called biochar. “Biochar is essentially activated charcoal mixed with compost and allowed to cure or get conditioned over some period of time,” says Grahm. After it’s mixed into the soil, it enhances water retention capacity by as much as 35 percent, seems to increase the shelf life of produce, and may absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide for several thousand years.

Photo By Crystal Shen

He’s also incorporating some aspects of biodynamics , a school of thought that “can be thought of as being viticultural or agricultural homeopathy,” he says. One part of this practice is the biodynamic calendar, or the belief that different parts of the plant are active at different times. Another is biodynamic preparations, which include the application of small amounts of material that are sprayed on the plant or ground “to essentially stimulate or wake up the plants,” he says.

The last element is the most philosophical. “It’s really thinking of the farm as a complete organism,” he says, “and working on activities that make the farm as close to a closed system as you can so you don’t have to bring in external inputs or minimize your external inputs.”

Many other parts of the project have the same blend of old- and new school. Earlier this year, Grahm mounted a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise a first wave of funding. Despite its success, he intends to eventually incorporate Popelouchum as a nonprofit. “I think that’s going to be a more productive way to get the magnitude of funds needed for the implementation of the project,” he says.

Legacy

“As we say, this whole thing is easier said than Doon,” he says. “Again, I’m not sure if the light’s totally gone on or if it’s folly or a totally delusional system that I’ve begun to subscribe to.”

Photo by Sara Remington

Jim Clendenen, a friend of Grahm’s and the mind behind Au Bon Climat, believes that what Grahm is ultimately striving for within this project is an enduring legacy. “In the long-term, it could be a very valuable thing,” says Clendenen. “I don’t know what he’s going to get. That will be very interesting to see. He’s obviously thrilled by the idea, and that’s what makes it a thrilling idea.”

“I think [Popelouchum] will occupy him for the rest of his life,” says Clendenen. “It’s as viable as he believes it to be. The chances of him being successful in a project like this [are] certainly better than anybody else’s.”


1. Wine of the Month Club® Classic Series Membership

This IS the club that started it all--I mean really started "wine to your door." The founding feature of the Original WINE OF THE MONTH CLUB™ is the Classic Series.

Each month I taste over 400 wines. Through trade tastings, winemaker visits, in-house tasting sessions, and many other venues, I select the two wines that will be featured for that month's selections. Working in my father's wine shop in the 70's, I used to brown bag and set up the wines each Tuesday for tasting. and that is the tradition still--tasting on Tuesday.

I qualify each wine for its representation of what it should be. In other words, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County should be distinctively different from that of the same grape and vintage from Argentina.

Each month you will receive two vintages of wine (full 750ml bottles). The standard shipment includes a red wine and a white wine. Or choose red wine or white wine only. You may also opt for shipments to arrive monthly, every other month or quarterly, each chosen for its quality and value. I can tell you that of the 400 wines I taste monthly, only 15% are approved for potential club selections and then only 1% make it as selections.

Because of our tenure in the industry and our good standing with wineries, we are sought out chiefly by smaller, lesser-known wineries to feature their wines. After all, you don't need me to find Robert Mondavi or Beringer wines!

Each shipment is accompanied by our digest-sized newsletter, The Tasting Room: a 24-page newsletter packed with information for both the novice and experienced wine taster. It includes winery and winemaker history, recipes, cellaring suggestions, serving suggestions and wine anecdotes to share.

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These wines represent great value and are comparable to wines you might see at your local wine shop for $20.00-$25.00. Monthly wine subscriptions are never more than $24.96 per month for 2 bottles, plus shipping & applicable taxes.


Rhone wines at a crossroads

In May, John Alban and Vicki Carroll, directors of Hospice du Rhone, the world's pre-eminent celebration of Rhone varietal wines, issued a news release. It began with gratitude for supporters of the three-day event, held annually in Paso Robles, followed by a brief catalog of memories, achievements and milestones.

Then in the fourth paragraph, in a classic case of burying the lead, they lobbed this bomb: "As we move forward, we will be discontinuing our three-day event in Paso Robles."

The announcement was a shock for fans of the event, many of whom made the annual spring sojourn to Paso a pilgrimage. While smaller Hospice celebrations may be staged elsewhere, these are unlikely to assuage the stark realization that an event thousands of aficionados had attended over the years was suddenly history - and that unbeknownst to those at the event less than a month earlier, the 20th Hospice was the last.

"We've always wanted to move forward," says Alban, "but we reached a point where we felt that the same event in the same format isn't progress. I believe (wine critic) Bob Parker once referred to the event as an 'orgy.' But I think some of us are ready for a monogamous relationship."

All of which may be true. But it is hard not to read this development as the latest setback for American Syrah, the varietal that leads the Rhone category in production and vineyard acreage, and which has, in the last decade, experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune among American consumers. Rarely, if ever, has a grape capable of more than the occasional thrill met with such indifference in the market.

Having played a pivotal role in establishing an alternate universe in the American wine market, Syrah and other Rhone bottlings stand at an uneasy crossroads - combatting flat sales and competing in the mainstream market as their relative worth, stylistic range and uniqueness are questioned. The end of Hospice seems to be just another symptom of this malaise.

Hospice du Rhone grew out of a loose marketing entity called the Viognier Guild, founded by Mat Garretson in the early 1990s to channel his newfound love for wines made with Viognier, the Northern Rhone's exotic white grape.

The Guild was embraced by Viognier's then-single largest producer, John Alban, who became an honorary co-founder. Garretson organized the first all-Viognier tasting in Clermont, Ga., in 1993. Twenty-two people attended, three fewer than the number of wines poured. It was one of the most preposterous wine events in the history of wine events - a downright quixotic celebration of a grape variety that few had ever heard of, let alone tasted, and almost no one knew how to correctly pronounce.

Garretson, who went on to found a winery in Paso Robles, proved to be a guileless showman for the American Rhone movement. He might be best remembered for instigating Rhone 'n' Bowl, an annual bowling tournament that kicked off Hospice.

As American Rhone-style wines found a footing, the Viognier Guild quickly embraced the entire Rhone pantheon. In the late 1990s, it changed its name to Hospice du Rhone and found a home at the Paso Robles Mid-State Fairgrounds. In less than a decade, Garretson and Alban made the event a global phenomenon, persuading an impressive number of Rhone variety producers from all corners of the world to come to the Central Coast.

Among this class of wines, alternatives to staid varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Syrah was poised to command the most attention in California, not least because plantings had skyrocketed in the 1990s as growers faced down yet another threat from the vine louse phylloxera. They took it as an opportunity to plant something different, and to seize upon the antiestablishment vibe that Rhone varieties embodied.

"You know, you're trying to find that niche," says Garretson, "something to draw attention to your winery, and Rhone varieties were it for a time. But the market got flooded."

Flooded indeed. As thousands of vineyard acres came into production, many near Paso Robles, the status of California Syrah went from heterodox to mainstream. And like most wines in the age of the critic Robert Parker, the predominant style became riper, heavier, more fruit-driven, in alignment to his presumed tastes.

Brands that found his favor - Saxum, Alban, Sine Qua Non - attracted still more aspirants to the category who preferred to make wines of size and heft.

At Hospice tastings in recent years, it has been increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees among American wineries. The flood of Syrah led to a flood of brands virtually indistinguishable from one another, table after table competing for the attentions of a purple-toothed crowd mostly interested in getting a precious drop of some cult rarity.

Moreover, as American Syrah lost its outsider appeal and waded into the mainstream, wine drinkers seemed perplexed by the category's stylistic range: What was American Syrah supposed to taste like? Was it meant to be ethereal, exotic and wild, like many French Rhone bottlings, or lush, ripe and hedonistic, like Australian Shiraz?


Four Days of Rhône

La Tablée New York is a new event celebrating the wines of the Rhône Valley.

The sommelier Daniel Johnnes — who for many years has run La Paulée, a multifaceted event covering Burgundy wines with tastings, seminars and meals — is doing much the same for Rhône wines with La Tablée. The event, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, includes a three-hour walk-around tasting (open to the public for $150) on Feb. 2. That evening, a dinner, $525, will be prepared by Daniel Boulud, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, among others glasses will be filled with Rhône wines, poured by winemakers, and also wines that participants bring to share .


The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A California Red with Depth and Finesse

It was a blind tasting, like all tastings for Wine Enthusiast reviews. I knew only that the seven wines in front of me were newly released California Syrahs from regions I cover as a contributing editor. The bottles could have been made from grapes grown in Mendocino or Lake counties, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, Livermore Valley or anywhere in the Central Valley.

As the tasting began, I had no idea that one bottling would merit the first 100-point rating I’ve given since beginning to review these wines for Wine Enthusiast in 2014.

My assistant had set up the tasting. Selected bottles are hidden in bags, foil capsules removed, uncorked and poured into a row of glasses. As the tasting continued, I typed notes. Pretty soon, it was clear this was a great flight.

The scores awarded were a 90, an 89, then a 94. The wines became more concentrated, more structured and more awesome. One bottling earned a 98, which tied it for the highest rating I’ve ever given.

The next wine was, incredibly, even better: inky in color, fantastically aromatic, mouth filling and deep in the classic Syrah way. It showed profuse berry, game and spice flavors enveloped in fine-grained tannins.

It was a kind of epiphany. I was elated but engaged in an internal debate. A detailed and effusive review was already in the works. But for the score, was a 99 enough? Or did it rise to the level of a perfect 100-point wine?

Mentally, I reviewed the checklist of what one looks for in a great wine: concentration, depth, layers, creaminess, balance, finesse and structure that can promote aging. This wine had all of those.

The decision ultimately came down to this: I couldn’t think of anything that the wine lacked. It seemed to fulfill every wish or expectation one could have for a Syrah, no matter where the grapes came from. In my judgment, as someone who has spent decades reviewing wines, it reached the pinnacle of quality.

I typed 1-0-0 into my notes and hit save. Then I pulled the bottle out of the bag. It was the 2016 vintage of a familiar wine: Domaine de la Terre Rouge Ascent Syrah from the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA). The winery bottled just 400 cases (4,800 bottles) of this $90 wine.

Terre Rouge 2016 Ascent Syrah/Photo by Larry Angier of Image West Photography

Ah! It makes total sense. Terre Rouge uses their best barrels of Syrah from different vineyard sites to create Ascent. The bottling has always been near the top of my yearly reviews from the Foothills. And it ages beautifully.

What made this vintage special, though?

Bill Easton and Jane O’Riordan founded Terre Rouge in 1985. Bill has long been a leading winemaker in Amador County, where Terre Rouge and Easton Wines are based. As one of California’s original Rhône Rangers, he began to make wine from varieties native to France’s Rhône Valley, but grown on the granitic, volcanic slopes of the Sierra Nevada at elevations of up to 3,000 feet, quite high for wine grapes. His wines have made the annual Top 100 lists of Wine Enthusiast as well as other publications.

Terre Rouge 2016 Ascent Syrah (Sierra Foothills) $90, 100 points. This is a grand, ageworthy wine from consistently stellar Winemaker Bill Easton. It delivers flavors of smoked plum, dry-aged beef and blueberry-blackberry compote wrapped in a velvety structure of superfine tannins and a full feel, while lighter, intricate spice elements weave through from the first whiff to the lingering finish. Best from 2026–2036. Cellar Selection.

Easton couldn’t put his finger on what was different in the 2016 Ascent. It was the last year of a six-year drought in California, but the vineyards received nearly 40 inches of rain over the previous winter and spring. The vines produced a normal to below normal-sized crop, usually a positive sign for potential quality. Harvest came one to two weeks earlier than average, which avoided any early fall rains, also a positive.

Simply put, it was a great year.

The exact vineyard sources for Ascent in any vintage are a secret, says Easton. He adds that there was nothing very unusual about the mix or the winemaking. He produced the limited-quantity blend based on his sense of taste and long experience as a winemaker, backed by lab tests.

A Terre Rouge vineyard in the Sierra Foothills/Photo courtesy of Terre Rouge

Easton paid special attention to the aromatics, balance, tannins and finish. The blend was aged in French oak barrels, mostly new ones, made of three-year seasoned oak staves.

No miraculous twist occurred in 2016 in the vineyards or winery. But the reason the wine turned out so special is not really a mystery. Easton and his team took a grape variety well suited to a particular terroir, harvested it from tried-and-true upland vineyard properties, fermented, blended and aged it carefully according to strategies and practices refined over many years.

It wasn’t magic. What made the 2016 Ascent a 100-point wine was a near-perfect growing season, an exceptional wine region and a winemaker at the top of his game.


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Want to find a Rhone Ranger near you? Discover which wineries make an obscure varietal? Or discover American Rhone wine tours in your favorite wine appellations? Contact [email protected]

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