Attend the 2009 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting March 22 in San Francisco

10. Spit in public!  The best way to appreciate samples of some of the 500 or so wines available from about 125 American wineries is to use the provided spit cups in front of about 2,000 utter strangers.  Well, it’s ok to swallow some of your very favorites.  But using the spit cups most of the time sure enhances the experience and lets you enjoy a great dinner in San Francisco afterwards.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

9. Not as crowded as ZAP.  The more established annual January tasting of the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) has become a victim of its own success.  Now spread across two of the pavilions at Ft. Mason, ZAP has become so crowded that it’s hard to get to the winery tables let alone hear yourself think.  By contrast, the Rhone Rangers tasting is smaller and more accessible.  Now is your chance to help it become too big for its own success!

8. America’s best wines are not all Cabernets and Chardonnays or Zinfandels.  Too many Americans have gotten stuck in a rut of always drinking the same range of popular varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot or even Riesling.  But just as the wines of France’s Rhone Valley are among Europe’s best, so too are the American Rhone-style wines among Americas best.  Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, Counoise and other varietals and the blends made from them have been coming on strong, both in quality and popularity.

7. Meet wine-makers and winery principals.  Unlike a lot of wine tasting events, at Rhone Rangers most of the wines are presented by the wine-makers and the winery principals.  Here’s a great chance to talk with them and ask questions.  Individually and collectively, they appreciate an opportunity to expose wine lovers to new wines and styles.  A note of etiquette:  if you do wish to chat, please stand to the side so others can approach the table and get tastes of the wines.

6. Decide if you like wines with funny names.
  At Rhone Rangers, you may taste bottlings with names like “The Recluse,” “Syrache,” “Le Cigar Volant,” “Holy Moly,” “Candy Core,” “Big Easy,” “Anarchy,” “Rhoneocerous,” “Speakeasy,” “Writer’s Block” and “Enigma.”  The producers of Rhone-style wines often use amusing names, especially for blends of multiple varietals.  A funny name doesn’t mean the wine isn’t serious.

5. Learn about varietals you don’t know.  Most tasters will encounter wine varietals they don’t know very well.  Make a point of tasting several versions until you get to know the common flavors and characteristics.  Decide if you like the varietal and think about what foods it would pair well with.  For example, if you don’t know Mourvedre very well, try tastes from different wineries and regions.  Do they have subtle overtones of earth and red meat?  Can you imagine pairing Mourvedre with garlic-y grilled lamb (one of our favorite combinations)?  When you taste an unfamiliar varietal that you find you like, try several others so you can get acquainted with the varietal itself and can decide if you want to drink more of it.

4. Try wines with no varietal in the name.  Americans have become accustomed to drinking wines with the name of the predominant (or sole) varietal prominently displayed on the bottle (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.).  But many (perhaps most) of Europe’s best wines aren’t made from a single varietal – Bordeaux reds are usually blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals, Chianti is a blend based on Sangiovese, and Riojas are blends with Tempranillo and other varietals.  From France’s Rhone Valley, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a blend of several or many varietals and Cotes-du-Rhone are blends of a similar range of varietals.  In these blends, each varietal contributes complementary qualities so the sum is greater than its parts.  While many of America’s Rhone Ranger wineries offer single varietal Syrah, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache and others, many of the best and most interesting wines are blends in the style of their French prototypes.  While at Rhone Rangers, be sure to taste a range of these blends.  We think the trend toward such blends is great – these are among the tastiest and most food-friendly wines available.

3. Marvel at the diversity of varietals, styles and places.  Unlike at a lot of wine tastings, at Rhone Rangers you can explore a vast diversity of wine varietals and blends, styles and places.  While the wineries are predominantly from California, at past editions of this tasting we have enjoyed sampling wines from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and other places, and we have seen promising signs from a wide variety of such places.  Even within California, the good wines are not just from Napa and Sonoma.  There are excellent Rhone-style wines offered from Santa Barbara County in the south up through the Paso Robles area to other Central Coast areas, Contra Costa and other Bay area sites, the Sierra foothills areas of Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado Counties, and north coast areas including Lake and Mendocino Counties.  The styles range from very “Californian” (heavy oak [excessive in our opinion] and low acid levels) to very French (subtle use of oak and bright fruit with a good acid balance).  A wide range of varietals and blends is offered.  While the wines are predominantly red, there are excellent whites and roses too.

2. Discover your new favorite wines and wineries.  When the tasting is over, think about which wines and wineries you liked best.  Have some similar wines at home or in a restaurant with food you think will be a good match.  Plan to visit some of the wineries whose wines you liked best.  Most of them are relatively small and they are fun places to visit.

1. It’s fun!  A pavilion filled with enthusiastic wine lovers and equally committed wine producers has a lot of energy.  Everyone is excited.  Strangers compare notes and exchange thoughts on not-to-miss wines.  We dare you to not have a good time.  For $65, this is a lot of education and entertainment packed into a single afternoon.
   
Details:  The 12th Annual Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting is from 2 to 5 pm Sunday, March 22 at Ft. Mason’s Festival Pavilion in San Francisco.  Tickets are $65.  Go to www.rhonerangers.org.

Hints:  Everyone will have different favorite wines and wineries.  If you are new to these wines, here’s an alphabetical list of some of our favorite producers whose wines you can taste at Rhone Rangers:  Adelaida, Beckman, Core, Curtis, David Girard, Edmunds St. John, Epiphany, Fess Parker, Holly’s Hill, JC Cellars, Mount Aukum, Peay, Qupe, Tablas Creek, Terre Rouge, Unti and Zaca Mesa.  You can read our specific comments on wines offered at the 2007 and 2008 Rhone Rangers tastings in past columns of The Rhone Report on Intowine.com.