'American Rhone'

By Robert Whitley

November 29, 2016 7 min read

I am old enough to remember when syrah was going to be the next big thing on the American wine scene. And not just syrah but viognier, roussanne, marsanne, grenache, grenache blanc, et al.

These are the so-called Rhone-style wines championed by contrarian American winemakers attempting to break away from the crowded field that occupied the high ground of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, America's two most popular wines.

It's hard to say who exactly led the way. Winemaker Gary Eberle, for example, brought syrah to California's Central Coast. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon abandoned his passion to make world-class pinot noir to work the Rhone grape varieties that appeared to be better-suited to his climate and soil.

Both found success that reverberated around the wine world. Grahm ended up on the cover of the popular wine publication the Wine Spectator, and other winemakers drawn to the Rhone movement — Steve Edmunds and Sean Thackrey, to name just two — basked in the glow.

An organization called the Rhone Rangers was formed to promote the Rhone-style wines, and the Hospice du Rhone, a festival that draws winemakers and fans from around the world for tastings and seminars, blossomed in Paso Robles, California.

Yet somewhere along the way, the Rhone movement lost its mojo. Much like pinot noir before the movie "Sideways," syrah became a hard sell.

Journalist Patrick Comiskey, however, never lost his passion for either the true Rhone wines produced in the Rhone Valley in the south of France or the American Rhones being made primarily in California and Washington. Comiskey, a writer and critic for Wine & Spirits magazine, has penned the definitive work on the Rhone movement, "American Rhone, How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink."

Comiskey, a gifted writer and storyteller, spent the better part of six years — by his estimation — researching the topic, conducting interviews, tasting the wines and eventually writing the book.

With an exceptionally good eye for nuance, Comiskey is at his best when depicting the range of personalities — many, if not most, of them eclectic — who have put their stamp on the American Rhone movement. My only quibble with the book is the subhead on the cover. The American Rhone movement has stalled and seems to be in need of a spark. Could he be that spark?

Whether a fan of Rhone wines or not, "American Rhone" is an entertaining and educational read. It might even inspire devotees of cabernet and chardonnay to give the American Rhones another shot.

Tasting Notes

Merry Edwards 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($34) — Merry Edwards' sauvignon blanc is consistently among the top two or three produced in the United States. What sets it apart is its remarkable complexity, structure and harmony. On the first sip you may be reminded of ripe tropical fruits. On the second, citrus notes emerge. Then there is the note of white peach that is a signature characteristic of the finest Bordeaux blanc. On another sip, you might find the tangerine and Meyer lemon note that signals Sancerre. Texturally, the wine exhibits a rich, oily mouthfeel, though it has firm acidity and telltale traces of minerality. In a word, this vintage of Merry Edwards sauvignon blanc is positively brilliant and delicious. Rating: 97.

Merry Edwards 2014 Pinot Noir, Meredith Estate, Russian River Valley ($63) — Meredith Estate is generally one of Merry's most distinctive pinot noirs, and the 2014 vintage is no exception. The alluring fragrance of fresh violets pulls you into the glass. The wine offers layered aromas of raspberry and black cherry on the palate, with just the right touch of wood spice. The tannins are firm, suggesting long life. But with a bit of aeration they will soften and permit the immediate enjoyment of this beautifully crafted pinot. Rating: 95.

Duckhorn Vineyards 20122 Cabernet Sauvignon, Monitor Ledge Vineyard, Napa Valley ($95) — Duckhorn's Monitor Ledge Vineyard cabernet sauvignon exhibits all that was good from the outstanding 2012 vintage. With rich layers of ripe black fruits and aromas of blackberry and cassis, this is a muscular cabernet destined for long life. With hints of vanilla and spice and a long, intense finish with scintillating depth, this is an exemplary example of the best of 2012 in the Napa Valley. Rating: 94.

Frank Family Vineyards 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($53) — Frank Family cabernet sauvignon tends to be bold with tremendous fruit purity and generous does of wood spice and vanillin. That just about sums up this lovely 2013 vintage, which exhibits a distinctive note of clove and notes of ripe blackberry. It's ready to drink now. Rating: 94.

Frank Family Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($35) — Best known for its muscular cabernet sauvignon, Frank Family shows here it can handle wines of delicacy and finesse, such as this well-proportioned pinot noir from the 2014 vintage. With notes of cherry and spice on the front of the palate and a lingering raspberry aftertaste, it delivers excellent flavor complexity. It's well-balanced and firmly structured. Serve this wine tonight, or lay it down in the cellar for up to five years. Rating: 90.

Decoy 2014 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($25) — The 2014 vintage seems to have produced a number of pinot noirs that are lighter than usual, and the Decoy is one of them. This style will have its fans, for it is food-friendly and easy to enjoy as a cocktail wine. The 2014 Decoy pinot noir exhibits notes of cherry and spice with firm acidity and modest tannins. Rating: 87.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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