The day’s adventure began with excited chatter resonating off the walls of a pristine barrel room almost as chilling as the Sommelier exam…
and concluded with a giddy gaggle of wine “tasters” napping here and there on the winery lawn as if it were the world’s softest blanket.
And somewhere between these two amusing bookends of the day was my first-ever grand wine tasting.
A Day as Warm as a Central Coast Zin
Feb. 16 was a beautiful, warm Sunday on the Central Coast. My parents had made the short trek from Illinois to visit for a week, thus having the pleasure of joining me for the Rhone Rangers Experience at Broken Earth Winery, Paso Robles, CA.
Moderated by Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein (author of “Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings”), the event began in the winery’s belly: the cool and austere barrel rooms, which had been partially cleared to make way for elegantly set white-linen tabletops.
There were more wine glasses at each place than silverware—a beautiful sight indeed for lovers of the vine.
Wine for Breakfast: the Seminar
Starting the day with vino is one thing I will never complain about. Except, perhaps after a grand tasting day as grand as this one turned out to be…
The “Rhone Essentials” Seminar kicked off at 10:30 AM with a series of delightful whites. I had favorites and less-favorites, but what I found most fun was marking down my own notes on each wine to see how close or far my observations were from those of the wine experts seated at the head table like a grape grand jury.
Connoisseur until proven amateur, right? And I was determined to simultaneously enjoy the wine in front of me as well as preserve the validity of my astute critiques of each wine’s unique features.
Love at First Flight
The first sip to hit my palate was of the Tablas Creek 2012 Grenache Blanc, presented by Jason Haas, the winery’s partner and general manager. This long-legged wine was fruit-forward on the nose…peach and pear, to be exact. It had noticeable oak in the middle and a smooth, buttery finish.
Now, Grenache Blanc (pronounced gruh-NOSH blonk), which is a Rhone varietal in the family of all of the wines I will detail here, combines both richness and acidity. It is known for carrying notes of preserved lemon, green apple and grapefruit, developing a hint of nuttiness with age (much like myself). Needless to say, the Grenache Blanc and I were instant friends.
The second “leg” of the first flight was a Pomar Junction 2012 Viognier, presented by winemaker Jim Shumate. This wine is fermented in actual barrels, and during this particular year, in acacia-wood barrels to bring out the body and flavor (delightful floral, tropical and citrus notes) without adding oak. Prominent to me were peach on the fruit-forward nose with a hint of honeysuckle, green apple and melon to create a smooth and tropical middle, with a warm and subtle finish.
Viogniers like this one (pronounced VEE-ohn-yay) are typically aromatic, with a nose of peach and apricot. Apparently they are known to have a hint of violet is well, which is where I’m guessing my brain was saying “honeysuckle.” Viogniers are full-bodied with stone fruit (such as peaches and plums), spice and moderate-to-low acidity.
Something funny to point out to all you experts out there is that, for the longest time in college, I thought the descriptions of a wine meant the wine was actually made of those things. For example, if I saw “cinnamon” or “melon” in the detailing of its flavor, I thought the wine itself actually contained that fruit or spice. To this day, it still amuses me that the product of a single type of fruit can parade as a host of other fruits and spices all at once, but I suppose therein lies the magic of wine. After all, I have yet to sip the juice of a peach that makes me think of Viognier. Grapes alone hold that kind of power….the chameleon of the fruit realm.
Third in the first-flight lineup was the Adelaida Cellars 2012 Version White Reserve, presented by winemaker Jeremy Weintraub. Wine-traub…easy to remember. This wine was a unique blend of 33% Grenache Blanc, 25% Picpoul Blanc (pronounced PEEK-pool Blonk), 25% Viognier and 17% Roussane (pronounced ROO-sahn).
Picpoul Blanc translates literally to lip-stinger, and consists of wines known for their acidity complemented by tropical notes in some of the older (riper) vintages. The Roussane ages very well (like my beautiful mother, no doubt) and tastes of honey, pear, honeysuckle and rose petal. In other words, it tasted like my family’s beautiful country yard in the spring, when everything was in full bloom, mixed with the late summer ripening of all our fruit trees. Yes, if I could lick that memory, this wine is what it would taste like. But to me it also had a subtle nose, very grape-firm flavor and oak in the idle, with a subtle finish. I think it left me only slightly underwhelmed, perhaps being overshadowed by the robust scent-memory I was in the middle of.
Finally, the first flight came in for a smooth landing with the Proulx 2012 Grenache Rose, presented by Proulx owner and winemaker Kevin Riley. This grape varietal is the world’s second most-planted grape, normally (in its pure red versions) producing a wine with red fruit on the nose, licorice, black pepper, cherry and spice. As a rose, this wine had higher sugar (and alcohol), lower acidity, more of a subtle fruit nose, hints of rose petals on a smooth—almost unrecognizable middle—and with a slightly oaky, subtle finish.
“Reddy” To Turn My Tongue Purple
I have always been partial to reds. Whites make me want to nap, reds make me want to dance.
Whites put me to bed, reds put me to work on chores or writing. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a great white or rose, but for me, Mourvedre is bettah…
The second flight (yay, reds!) began with a sample from our host—Broken Earth Winery’s 2012 Grenache, presented by Broken Earth winemaker Chris Cameron. As I mentioned before, this particular grape is known for fruits, licorice, black pepper, cherry and spice. For me, it was very dry and woodsy on the nose…so I could tell I was going to like it.
In the words of my dad, “I want to spit splinters.”
But when I took my first sip, there was the fruit! I savored delightful notes of fig and raisin, I sailed blissfully through a drier yet full-bodied and tannin-heavy middle, and slipped out of that first taste with a dry, fruit finish. Perhaps it was the mere transition from white to red that had me enthralled, but regardless, it was an excellent start to the second flight.
Next in this flight was my absolute favorite wine of all wines—Mourvedre. This was Cypher Winery’s 2011 Mourvedre “El Pelon,” presented by Cypher winemaker Christian Tietje. For my parents and I (to whom I had the privilege of introducing Mourvedre) this was our favorite so far. This wine was fruit-forward on the nose, very full-bodied (and therefore a good stand-alone wine that did not necessarily require a pairing) with a dark color and complex middle and a sweet yet oaky finish.
Mourvedre (pronounced more-VEHD-ruh) ripens later than all of the other Rhone varietals. It is known for aromas of chocolate, red fruit, earth and leather, which altogether give it that complexity that I find ravishing in a wine. In addition, notes of currant, plum and spice accentuate it. Should you decide to pair it with food, Mourvedres team up amazingly with gamey meat and Italian dishes that incorporate mushrooms, as an aged Mourvedre carries notes of game and truffles, even.
The third wine brings is only to the middle of this slightly longer flight, with the Eberle Winery 2012 Syrah Steinbeck Vineyard. The wine was presented by former winery proprietor, Gary Eberle. I say “former” only because, although he continues to be part of the winery, he is no longer as key a stakeholder as before, perhaps due to family differences—which I can neither confirm nor dispute, based on the limited information available in the press. All I CAN say is that Gary gave us the pleasure of his company at our table later on, which I will talk more about later…good man, great wine.
So this Syrah was also an excellent stand-alone wine, which struck me instantly with a nose of blueberry. Others at our table agreed with a “blueberries and blood” type of flavor, which was confirmed. While it sounds odd, it was delicious. It resembled a sirloin, cooked to perfection…or Carpaccio…served with a warm blueberry glaze. It was full-bodied on the nose, fruit-forward, strong and bold in the middle, with a smooth, woodsy and spicy finish. Syrah (pronounced Sur-RAH…also known as Shiraz) is the most frequently planted Rhone varietal in California. With aromas of smoke, bacon fat, black fruit, crushed rock, blue- and blackberry, black olive and spice, this wine seemed to take all of the best flavors of my past (in Iowa) and my present (in the Central Coast) into consideration with this one amazing cacophony of savory richness.
Fourth in this flight was the Zenaida Cellars 2011 Petite Sirah, presented by winery owner/winemaker Eric Ogorsolka. Now, Sirah is a challenging varietal to perfect. As we learned from Eric, you don’t crush it…you let it do its thing. This wine is the free spirit and (according to my judgment) also the “Virgo” of the Rhone varietals. With this wine, they used CO2 to prolong the fermentation, which takes approximately 30 days. In growing the grape, you must give it enough water that it won’t shrivel up, but you must also let it take its time…very much like a successful love story, if you ask me.
This wine was fruit-forward on the nose, dry, with a nutty brown color and heavy tannin. It had a spicy, warm and blackberry-essence middle and a smooth tannin finish. Pronounced puh-TEAT-sur-RAH, this wine is halfway between Syrah and Poursin, which was developed in France in 188- by Dr. Fancois Durif. The wine is very dark in color with almost bluish hues amongst its red with powerful tannins that reward those with the patience to cellar.
Finally, my tongue was totally purple and was headed gleefully into the last of the “red flight:” the Anglim Winery 2011 Best Barrel Blend (Red Rhone Blend) of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. I cannot find it anywhere online now, so I’m assuming it may have been so good, it has already sold out. Presented by the winery proprietor Steve Anglim, it is their best barrel blend. My parents and I definitely agreed…we thought it was unique, with its spice on the nose….and almost a bit heavy, harsh and only slightly bitter on the finish.
As it blended three amazing types of wine, detectable characteristics included red fruit, black pepper, hints of rose petals on aromas of smoke, bacon, blackberry, chocolate, and earth. It was outstanding. Though Mourvedre can be difficult to find on their own, a blend that includes Mourvedre very rarely disappoints. And this one was no exception.
Gourmet Food and Winemaker Chats
As we eagerly began the Vinter’s lunch, all tables at the seminar were joined by the Rhone Ranger’s principals and winemakers for a gourmet banquet lunch, with each members’ Rhone wines being passed freely for consumption among the tables.
Prepared by Chef Jeffrey Scott, the incredible meal we consumed consisted of slow-braised Niman Ranch lamb with windrose potatoes, porcini and pomegranate gastrique; grilled, free-range chicken Tagine with Israeli couscous, currants and Nantes carrot glace; winter vegetable gratinee with glazed fennel, celery root and melted leeks; thyme-roasted heirloom beet salad with barrel-aged feta, rocket greens, candied hazelnuts and Solera vinaigrette; organic watercress bisque; and hot chocolate bread pudding with cinnamon stick crème Anglaise.
Three words: my happy place.
To complement this amazing meal, Gary Eberle was pouring several Eberle wines, including the Cotes du Robles. In the midst of other cheerful conversation and excellent storytelling, Gary also told us the story behind the name “Eberle.” Apparently, “eber” means the bear and “le” means little…so “the little bear.” So neat!
The Grand “Tasting”
I put “tasting” in quotation marks, because by the time you’re done, you’ve gone far beyond merely “tasting” anything. Without even meaning to, you’ve been drinking since 10:30AM. Though incremental, it’s still going to hit you at some point that the reality of how much wine you’ve really sampled is astounding. I stopped at a point, but I am not a person to dump out the wine normally. Perhaps it’s due to my Midwest roots, where you finish everything on your plate and all of the milk in your glass. It didn’t matter if you were full, finished or on fire. You would eat and drink every last drop. So I used to be that way with wine. But I’ve finally evolved through my Central Cost living to be a “taste and tip-out” sampler. WIN.
So for the Grand Tasting, we moved out of the barrel room and into another large room filled with tables that were stationed with wineries from all over, local well-known individuals, fruit and cheese.
By the time I’d gathered enough photos and wine samples from the event to last me an eternity, I joined my parents outside where they had decided to sit and bask in the type of weather in February that has yet to hit Illinois in April.
There was a great live music performance going on outside, and people had either picked a table and cracked open their own bottle…or were napping face-down on the grass. (see backdrop of next photo lol)
Of course, they were totally fine….just wine naps, clearly. But it was nevertheless funny to see a person far beyond my parents’ ages just snoozing in the lawn sporadically. Most guests, however, were up and about and taking in the scenic ambience of Broken Earth…rather than laying ON the “broken earth…”
This is DEFINITELY an event worth attending. In my opinion, visitors to the San Luis Obispo metro can wine taste until they’re blue in the face and leave town without any real sense of what the wine is about, how to interact with it, and what type of feedback to take back with them to accompany the bottle of wine they purchase. But in contrast, events like this give patrons not only a delicious array of wines to sample and memories to savor, but they also give an education.
In addition (and a part of the event that I personally loved the most), you get to meet the people who understand the love, care, science and labor behind the wines we drink. I grew up on a farm. So whether you harvest corn and beans or wine from the vine, I respect that immensely. There is something to be said for people who make a living cultivating the land, and doing it in an attentive and tender enough way to produce the types of wines we are lucky enough to enjoy here on the Central Coast.
About Rhone Rangers
Rhone Rangers is an organization committed to advancing knowledge of American Rhone grapes, as well as how to enjoy the wine those grapes produce:
The Rhone Rangers is America’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. American Rhone-style wines are made from the same grapes that have flourished for centuries in France’s Rhone River Valley, and their growing popularity in the United States speaks to their versatility with food, wide range of rich flavors, and to the skills of American winemakers.
Our mission is to educate the public on Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and to promote the production and enjoyment of these wines, with emphasis on integration into our daily lives. For a wine to qualify as a “Rhone Rangers” wine, the winery must be a member of the organization and 75% of the wine’s content must include one or more of the twenty-two traditional Rhone grape varieties as approved by the French government for the wines of the Cotes du Rhone (including Petite Sirah/Durif).
The Rhone Grapes Themselves
With ancestral roots stemming back to France’s Rhone Valley, these 22 grape varieties’ Appelations include Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Condrieu, Chateuneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Bandol, Cotes du Rhone and more. To be considered a “Rhone Ranger,” one of these 22 accepted varieties must dominate at least 75% of the blend.
This Rhone Rangers Event
At this 2014 Rhone Rangers tasting event, Broken Earth Winery had a record turnout that included a sold-out seminar attendance of 240. which were joined later by an additional 310 people. In addition, there were 65 show representatives there to provide conversation, information and more tasting, including 45 Paso Robles member vineyards.
The event, now in its seventh year, continues to grow with each tasting, and not surprisingly so.
CHEERS! Looking forward to 2015…
For a complete list of vendors and silent auction lots, click here.
And more photos to enjoy, below!