Home on the Rhône 

California's Rhone Rangers flatter through imitation.

In the storied love/hate relationship between the winemaking industries in California and France, there is one local group that comes down rather emphatically on the love side. Founded in the 1980s and loudly championed since then by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, the Rhone Rangers are a group of California winemakers focused on making and publicizing French-style wines — often blends — from the grape varietals that France's Rhône River Valley is famous for.

I'll admit that I felt dubious about what I might find at the group's 11th Annual Grand Tasting in San Francisco last week. It's not that I don't love fragrant, fruity Viognier; lush, drinkable Grenache; and rich, smoky Syrah — I most certainly do. It's just that in the past year, I've encountered so many delightful and inexpensive actual Côte du Rhônes that I wondered whether focusing on a lower price point in a room brimming with California Francophiles selling their wares for as much as $100 a bottle would leave me craving the genuine article.

Surprisingly, there were many more value reds than whites at the tasting, with the lone white under $13 being Cline Cellars' 2007 Viognier ($11). The Viognier held its own with a sweet, floral aroma and surprisingly dry mouthfeel, and I preferred it to Cline's 2007 Sonoma County Syrah ($9), which had very little aroma and tasted of dried fruit.

More pleasing Syrahs were on offer from Alameda's R&B Cellars and Washington state's Snoqualmie Winery. R&B Cellars 2006 North Coast "Saxy Syrah" ($12) had a subtle aroma that gave way to berry and spice on the palate and a big finish, while the 2006 Snoqualmie Columbia Valley Syrah ($10) was quite full-bodied, with spicy notes and a rich finish that called for an equally rich meal. But the wine of the day — for me at least — was the 2005 Brownstone Winery Syrah ($9). The cheapest red in the room, this big Syrah courtesy of Walnut Creek-based Blue Moon Wines had a lovely berry aroma and was truly a joy to sip.

Value rosés are never hard to come by, and they're a great way to experiment with Rhône varietals in restaurants where other by-the-glass options are eye-rollingly exorbitant. I enjoyed Bogle's 2007 Petite Syrah Rosé ($8), which had a strawberry aroma and a touch of sweetness to the taste. Still sweeter was the Concannon Vineyards 2007 Rosé ($12), which tasted like cookies, despite an aroma of geraniums.

I had high expectations for the only budget-friendly offering from Bonny Doon Vineyards: their 2008 "Vin Gris de Cigare" Rosé ($13). Eau du bubble gum, which stayed with me through the finish, made this slightly sweet wine overwhelming. Given a proud history of innovation in areas like packaging (Grahm was an early proponent of screwcaps) and sustainable practices, we beg of you Bonny Doon — give Rhône-curious Wineaux something to drink!


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