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As my enthusiasm for Texas wine has grown over the years, I’ve become more interested in Rhône grape varieties as we’ve seen these varieties continue to do well here. Texas grape growers have embraced these grape varieties, and we’ve benefited by experiencing a wider variety of interesting and delicious Texas wines. Mourvèdre has taken off in Texas and white Rhône varieties like Picpoul Blanc and Marsanne are getting more attention. Have you ever wondered how these grapes from the Rhône Valley of France became established in the United States? In American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink, Patrick Comiskey takes readers on a journey of the American history of Rhône grapevines and the intrepid grape growers and winemakers that have led the way for American Rhône.
Comiskey starts American Rhône with an excellent introduction to the Rhône grape varieties, then dives into how many Rhône grape varieties got a hold in California soil in the mid-ninetieth century. California was literally the Wild West back then, and so was the fledgling California wine industry. American Rhône leads readers through the early days of Rhône in the U.S., detailing the successes and missteps. As Rhône varieties continued to make strides along with the rest of the California wine industry, Prohibition and the Great Depression pushed it all to the verge of collapse. Following these events, the Rhône grapes in California sat in the doldrums for decades, further hampered by lack of organization, haphazard vineyard management and records, and a lack of interest in wines made from these grapes.
It was not until the 1980s when the American Rhône movement was revitalized. Comiskey shares the story of Gary Eberle (Eberle Winery) and his effort to plant the benchmark Syrah vineyard in Paso Robles. Comiskey goes on to profile many other leaders of the new Rhône movement, including Bob Lindquist (Qupé Vineyards and Lindquist Family Wines), the always interesting Randall Graham (Bonny Doon Vineyard), and how Manfred Krankl (Sine Qua Non) garnered the attention of Robert Parker, leading to the first American Rhône wines with a cult following. While Syrah was embraced as the lead Rhône red variety, John Alban (Alban Vineyards) championed Viognier, helping establish it as the lead Rhône white variety. Not all of the activity was in California as American Rhône also profiles the innovative Rhône winemakers of Washington State, particularly Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.
In these early days of the new Rhône movement, many grape growers were still using suitcase clones, yes, vines smuggled in from France via suitcases to get around quarantine and other laws. This sets up well the story of Tablas Creek Vineyard. Wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Château du Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape properly imported grapevines from Château du Beaucastel in their effort to start Tablas Creek. They established a commercial nursery program based upon these vines, which has led to planting of countless high-quality Rhône vines across the Unites States, with quite a few in Texas.
As the modern Rhône movement found its footing, more organization and collaboration was needed to maintain the momentum. The Rhône Rangers was founded as the leading American Rhône organization. Academia stepped up to help with education about how to grow these grapes. Hospice du Rhône was established as the leading Rhône event in the United States.
It wasn’t all positive as Comiskey shares the story of the rise and fall of American Syrah. He details how U.S. winemakers became more skilled at making excellent Syrah wines, then got caught up in the Old World versus New World style ideals, market pressures from around the globe, and waning customer interest. While there was hope that Syrah would become America’s second red grape behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir eventually established itself in this position. The modern American Rhône movement has moved from its spirited youth into well-established yet still creative maturity.
While we are still seeing a lot of exuberance about Rhône varieties in Texas, it was enlightening to learn about the history of those who established these great wine varieties on American soil. Want to learn a bit more about Rhône grape varieties? Many are covered in the great recent Texas Wine Lover post Less Recognizable Grape Varieties in Texas and Their Unfamiliar Pronunciations.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; First edition (October 11, 2016)