Wine Tasting 101 Rhone Varieties in the USofA
© by Tom Hill, guest host


Tom Hill has been interested in wine since the early 1970's, and participates in a tasting group in Los Alamos, N.M. (where he works as a computational physicist) that has been meeting weekly for more than 30 years. He has written about wine for various publications since the mid-1970s; you'll often find his tasting reports and "bully pulpit" editorial comments about wine on the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group and other forums; his occasional musings for the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium newsletter are archived on that excellent Central Coast wine shop's Website at Tom's other interests include fencing competitively (epee) on the national level and bicycling. In his WLDG bio, Tom adds that he is single, with two grown children in Secaucus, N.J. and Kansas City. And, he says, "contrary to what some would have you believe, NOT as old as the hills!"

It has been an exhilarating journey to watch the growth of the Rhone varietals in the USofA, from the first unthrilling Syrah in 1974, to the entire panoply of Rhone varietals now made, many of which can rival the best (save Condrieu/Viognier) from France's Rhone.


The first California Syrah was the Joseph Phelps 1974. Made more in the style of an overoaked Burgundian-style California Pinot, it was not an auspicipous debut for the variety. The first real glimpse of the potential of Syrah came in the Estrella River Paso Robles Syrah 1977. From grapes Gary Eberle planted, it had this beautiful/ethereal strawberry perfume, characteristic of what is now known as the Estrella clone, and an attractive pencilly kiss of French oak.

With Gary's departure from Estrella, the grapes were offered for sale to other winemakers. In 1982, Paso Robles Syrah was made by Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyard, Bob Lindquist of Qupe Winery, and Randall Grahm of Bonnie Doon Vineyards. Randall's was probably the best, the Qupe very close behind, and the Ojai more in the Pinot/oaky style. But all three were a giant leap forward for the variety. I had the Qupe '82 at 20 year's of age and it was amazing; much of that same smokey/espresso character found in mature Cote-Roties. While Randall lost much of his initial passion for Rhone varieties, both Tolmach and Lindquist have gone from strength to strength with Syrah and make world-class examples.

The next star performer in the California/Rhone scene was Steve Edmunds, with his Durrel Vineyard Syrah 1984. Specializing now in Rhones, Edmunds makes some of the most interesting, most French-like, and most reasonably priced Rhone varietal wines in California.

Since the mid-'80s, Syrah has enjoyed a strong steady growth, both in volume and quality, until it now makes some of the Golden State's greatest wines. Syrah seems to be a variety capable of quality wines wherever it is planted, from the torrid San Joaquin Valley to the very cold Santa Rita Hills and Sonoma Coast. Particularly very cold vineyards, such as the Bassetti, near Cambria, and Al Rago's Que Syrah Vineyard west of Sebastapol, make wines with a pronounced cracked black pepper character.

Some of my favorite Syrah producers from the various appelations:
Napa: Lagier-Meredith, Rocca, Failla, Miller Wine Works, Neyers, G.Graham Sonoma: Novy Family, Radio-Coteau, Pax, Copain, Carlisle, Havens, Peay.
Santa Cruz Mountains: Big Basin, David Bruce Paso Robles: Garretson, Saxum, Villa Creek, Linne Calodo, Tablas Creek.
Sierra Foothills: Sierra Vista, Easton/Terre Rouge, Cedarville.
Santa Barbara: Ojai, Jaffurs, Stolpman, Drew Family, Kenneth-Crawford, Margerum, Qupe, Melville, Ampelos, Santa Barbara Winery, Foxen, McPrice-Meyers, Shadow Canyon, Hug.
Edna Valley: Alban
Mendocino: Eaglepoint Ranch, Sean Thackerey.
Other: JC Cellars, Edmunds St. John.

Equally impressive, maybe more so, has been the meteroic rise of Syrah in Washington State since the early '90's. Quite terroir-driven, many of them show much the same roasted/espresso character of France's Northern Rhones. And Syrah from Oregon is also starting to make its mark.

Favorite Pacific Northwest producers are: Cayuse, McCrea, Rockblock.


By the early 1970's, Viognier in Condrieu was on the verge of extinction. There is little doubt that the growth in interest in Viognier in California, dating from the late '80s, is what fueled the resurgence of the Condrieu appellation. The growth of Viognier in California has been strong and steady, as consumers seek more aromatic alternatives to Chardonnay. They can often show a fat/oily Dolly Parton character, though with powerful pear/peach aromatics; but seldom show that incredible minerally character found in Condrieu, still the world standard for the variety.

Favorite producers are: Edmunds St.John, Alban, Garretson, Jaffurs, Ojai, McCrea, Failla, Harlequin Cellars, Phelps, Calera.


Through the early '80s, the Grenache market was dominated by jug-level Grenache Rosé from high-yielding clones; dreadfully ordinary stuff. In the early '80s, the first really good Grenache was produced by Randall Grahm, his Clos du Gilroy - dark in color, but loaded with strong juicy strawberry/Grenache fruit - produced from those same San Benito County vines that went into Almaden jugs. But the first really good California Grenache was from Edna Valley's John Alban. When Bob Senn first showed me this wine, my reaction was "Holy cow (Kansas colloquialism), this is world-class Grenache". Much more akin to Oz Grenache in style than that of the Southern Rhone, the variety has shown a steady, though unremarkable, growth as higher quality clones are propogated. Many of them have small amounts of Syrah or Mourvedre blended in.

Favorite producers are: Alban, Beckmen, Cedarville, EaglePoint Ranch, Jaffurs, Shadow Canyon, Villa Creek, Qupe.


The first varietal Mourvedre appeared under the Ridge label, bearing the California/Italian name for the variety: Mataro. Again, Randall Grahm was using Mourvedre in his Old Telegram blend. Cline Vineyards soon followed suit. The problem with many of these early Mourvedres is that thaey came from old Mataro veneyards in Contra Costa County's sandy soil. Not really bad wines, they were dominated by the Contra Costa terroir: soft, a bit flabby wines with a rather plummy, slight licorice fragrance. The first really great California Mourvedre was made by (natch) Steve Edmunds, from very old-vine grapes grown up on Brandlin Mountain Ranch, beautiful vines that were short-sightedly ripped out shortly thereafter. As more Mourvedre is planted in colder growing areas and less Contra Costa grapes are used, the potential for great Mourvedre in California is just beginning to show itself. It will be exciting to watch Mourvedre blossom.

Favorite producers are: CORE, Garretson, McCrea, and Tablas Creek.


The gold standard for Roussanne is, of course, the Vieux Telegraphe Vieille Vignes. Not all that exciting when young (in France), it's a variety that seems to need bottle age to become really interesting. However, in California, some of the young Roussannes can show very floral/fragrant/honeysuckle aromas from the get-go, yet still develop the wonderful honeyed/toasted hazelnutty character with age. The first commercial Roussanne appeared from Randall Grahm in his Le Sophiste blend (with Viognier). The single Roussanne vine in the UC/Davis plant resource block was mysteriously chain-sawed to the ground one night. Randall maintained his monopoly on the variety, from his vineyard in Bonny Doon, until Roussanne clones brought in through quarantine by Tablas Creek and John Alban were propagated. Cuttings from Randall's Roussanne were distributed widely by Sonoma Grapevines in Northern California. And now for the rest of the story ... John Alban thought some of this Roussanne planted in PasoRobles looked suspiciously like Viognier. Subsequent DNA testing indicated these Sonoma grapevines were, indeed, Viognier. Some of the wineries, thinking they had Roussanne, gamely described their "Roussanne" as a super clone of Viognier, as they scrambled to plant true Roussanne. Thus many of these early varietal "Roussannes" were, in fact, Viognier. This is probably why I struggled for years to identify the varietal character of Roussanne in California.

Favorite producers are: Alban, Edmunds St.John, Garretson, McCrea, Qupe, Stolpman, Tablas Creek.


Now this is one variety that don't get no respect and whose potential for greatness is badly underestimated. The first Marsanne was championed by Bob Lindquist/Qupe. When young, the wine displays an unremarkable/simple appley, somewhat earthy, often oaked fragrance with hard/simple appley/earthy flavors. It's not until Marsanne has some age that its greatness begins to appear, developing a wonderful nutty/toasted hazelnutty/honeyed complex character. I've had Qupe Marsannes at 20 years of age that were stunningly complex wines. However, be advised that that slightly oxidized/hazelnutty character is not to everyone's taste.

Favorite producers are: Qupe, Beckmen.

Petite Sirah

Because of its long and muddled history in California, Petite Sirah has only been lately openly embraced as a legitimate Rhone variety. DNA typing has indicated that the bulk of California's Pet is indeed the minor Rhone variety Durif. Durif was indetified as a cross between true French Syrah and an very minor variety, Peloursin. Many of the very old California Pet vineyards are, in fact, interplanted with Zin, Alicante, Barbera, and Carignane, adding to the confusion. As a varietal wine, Pet dates back to the first Concannon in the '60's.

The varietal character of Pet is often weak and a bit difficult to describe, sometimes black pepper, sometimes licorice, sometimes rather dusty/earthy and rustic. Tannin management is a difficult issue with Pet. Its primary character would be its black color. With age to tame the tannins, Pet can develop into a complex/beautiful red ... or remain forever a rough/rustic/earthy wine. The Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah '71 probably, at 25 years of age, remains one of the greatest California red wines to pass my lips. There is now even an organization to promote the variety: PS ... I Love You.

Favorite producers are: Ridge, Cedarville, Eaglepoint Ranch, Biale, Rosenblum, JC Cellars, Carlisle, Vincent Arroyo.


There are many old-vine plantings of Carignane in California. It's adherents, such as Ridge's Paul Draper, argue for its greatness along other Rhone varieties. I remain unconvinced, having had very few examples that made a convincing case for greatness. Young, the wine displays a hard/tannic/rough edge with a light black cherry fruit. When old, it can display an attractive cedary/black cherry character... or that same had/roughe/tannic/edgy quality.

Favorite producers: Ridge.

Rhone Blends

From the first availibility of Syrah, California producers have sought to produce a red blend to rival the great Chateauneuf-Du-Papes. Their success has, to my judgement, been a bit erratic. For every stunning Edmunds St. John Les Cotes Sauvage, there are dozens of other red blends that display simple/muddled/fruity character. They seldom rise to the levels that the great Syrahs achieve. Most common are the Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre blends; with no one variety the preferred dominant one. The blends tend to vary greatly from year to year. One of early versions was the Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee. It's a wine that can achieve remarkable complexity with age (10-15 years); plus it's a steal and still priced well below $20. The more famous early Rhone blend was Randall's Cigar Volante. The first ones were truly exciting wines that aged well; later ones less so. It probably need not be said that most of the red blends bear scant similarity to French Chateauneuf-du-Papes, though certainly not inferior.

The white Rhone blends have lurked even further below the radar screen. One of the first ones was the Qupe Bien Nacido Cuvee, a Viognier/Chardonnay blend. The Chard seems to dominate this blend and the wine is quite pleasant, but not remarkable. Another early blend was the Bonny Doon Le Sophiste, a wine that could age remarkably well. As with the reds, the varietal composition varies from year to year.

Favorite red producers are: Edmunds St.John, Beckmen, CORE, Garretson, Phelps Le Mistral, Ojai, McCrea, Qupe, Shadow Canyon, Terre Rouge, Sierra Vista, Linne Calado, Villa Creek, Saxum, Margerum, Carlisle, Pax.

Favorite white producers: Edmunds St. John, Garretson, Tablas Creek.

California Apellations

Many of the Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah, show a remarkable ability to produce quality wines from a variety of climates and terroirs. Some of most stunning Syrahs come from vineyards in cool climes that were regarded not-so-long-ago as too cool for the variety. The Hudson Vineyard in Carneros, Al Rago's Que Syrah Vineyard west of Sebastapol, the Bien Nacido Hillside block, and Ellis & Susan Bassetti's Paso Robles vineyard out west towards Cambria; all truly great California vineyards.

The greatest success for Rhone varieties is clearly down in Santa Barbara County; both in the very cool Santa Rita Hills, and the warmer Santa Ynez Valley; plus some of the Santa Maria-area vineyards. Second in the list would have to be Paso Robles, particularly those located in the western Santa Lucia Mountains.

I feel the Napa Valley has been a bit of an under-achiever in the Rhone varieties. Some, like Lagier-Meredith, Neyers, Rocca, and Failla, are every bit the equal of any made anywhere in California. But there are way to many that are made in an over-oaked/over-extracted/Cabernet-wannabe style, despite the high scores many of them receive from certain attourneys.

Sonoma, too, can be a bit spotty in the quality of their Rhones. Some, like Pax, Carlisle, Copain, Novy are every bit the equal to the greatest made anywhere. Yet there are many that don't deliver the greatness Sonoma is capable of.

Amador County can make some Rhones that can compete with the best. The terroir can sometimes dominate and they come off tasting like Shenandoah Valley Zins; though the Terre Rouge ones seldom show that problem.

To the north, some of the most interesting Rhones in all California are coming from El Dorado County. They often show an earthy/mushroomy character some like that of the Southern Rhone. Steve Edmunds has had particular success with these vineyards.

Mendocino is an area that has considerable potential for Rhones, capable as any area in California of greatness. Eaglepoint Ranch and Alder Springs are the only vineyards to deliver on that potential.

The Santa Cruz Mountains as produced some spectacular Rhones; like Kathryn Kennedy, Big Basin, and David Bruce. Alas, planting remain tiny and little is available.

The Edna Valley, dominated by Alban Vineyards, is also one of the greatest areas in California Rhone varieties. The very cool climate of the Valley makes fior wines with an edgy acidity that allows them to age wonderfully. In a warmer area, Dave Corey (CORE Wines) is making some impressive Mourvedre-based wines.

The Rhone Rangers?

This is a cognomen for the Rhone varietal producers. It's a bit too Randall Grahm-cutsey for my taste. Often attributed to Wine Spectator, Steve Edmunds has described the origin of the term in a WLDG post in June.

Certainly, Joseph Phelps has to be credited for his foresight to make Syrah. However, the winemaking style and unthrilling quality levels of those early ones sort of clouds his contribution. If there is a single person to credit the origins of the movement, I would have to name Gary Eberle at Estrella Rive Vineyards. I feel he does not receive the recognition he deserves for his seminal contributions, later at Eberle Winery.

The second wave of winemakers who truly raised the bar for Rhone varietals would have to be Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Adam Tolmach (Ojai), Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon), Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St.John) and John Alban (Alban Vineyards). Theirs were the first truly world-class Rhones made in California. Lindquist, Tolmach, Alban and Edmunds continue to advance the cause to even greater heights.

Through the late '80s and the '90s, others followed these five pioneers, making important advances to the genre. Andrew Murray, Craig Jaffurs, Mike Officer (Carlisle), Jeff Cohn (JC Celars), Bill Easton (Terre Rouge), John MacCready (Sierra Vista), Mat Garretson, and Steve Beckmen would certainly head my list.

Some of the new winemakers who have started to make their mark in the 2000's would include Pax Mahle (Pax), Justin Smith (Saxum), Matt Trevisan (Linne Calado), Dave Corey (CORE), Sashi Moorman (Stolpman), Gary Gibson (Shadow Canyon), Wells Guthrie (Copain), and Jonathan Lachs (Cedarville).

Up North, in Washington State, it was clearly David Lake (Columbia Winery) of launched the success of Rhone varietals there. The second wave was led by Doug McCrea; closely followed by Christophe Baron (Cayuse), Robert Goodfriend (Harlequin Cellars), and Tony Rynders (Rockblock).

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