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Riding the Rhones

Varietals: California growers have been trying for more than a decade to succeed with grapes from the Rhone Valley. It's a noble effort that sometimes succeeds.


The Rhone Rangers have been riding through California wine country for more than a decade, and while their white hats are dustier than they used to be, they're still in the saddle.

The term "Rhone Rangers" became widely known in wine circles after a famous Wine Spectator cover of the mid-1980s portrayed Randall Grahm, owner and winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards, dressed as Tonto's faithful companion.

Grahm and his fellow rangers are a stalwart crew of California wine producers who became convinced that many parts of a state best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay might actually be more hospitable to grape varieties from France's Rhone Valley.

As anyone who is familiar with Rhone wines can attest, those varieties are well worth cultivating. Whether on their own or in a blend, such red Rhone grapes as Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault account for some of the world's most noble wines: Hermitage, Co^te-Ro^tie, Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas and the Bandols of nearby Provence.

Still, a sampling of California's Rhone-style reds on the market shows that although the Rangers have hit some bulls-eyes, many of their silver bullets miss the mark.

At their best, these Cali-Rhones are tremendously exciting wines with distinct echoes of the wines that inspired them. But prices are high--in some cases higher than a comparable Hermitage or Co^te-Ro^tie.

Few are out-and-out duds, but many Cali-Rhones fail to establish much of a distinct character. A rough, hearty red wine of no great distinction is forgivable when it costs $5 to $8, but many of these wines will set you back $15 to $20. That's hard to excuse--even in the name of pioneer spirit.

Syrah, the greatest of the Rhone grapes, has been a particular challenge. Many wineries seem to be struggling to understand the varietal.

Mourvedre, on the other hand, has been a notable success. This varietal, a key part of the blend that makes up Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape and the leading grape of Bandol, is producing some exciting wines with clear-cut varietal character.

The Rhone Rangers also have produced a host of Rhone-style blends, usually with a high percentage of grenache.

Some of these have been inspired by Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape, and others aspire to replicate the flavors of a good, low-budget Co^tes-du-Rhone. There have been some successes but no wines that would make Rhone lovers forget Cha^teau Beaucastel.

California Rhones are very much a work in progress. It will take decades of experimentation and of matching varieties to the right vineyard sites before consistent excellence can be expected.

That doesn't mean that there aren't some producers making very attractive Cali-Rhones now. Among them:

* Sean H. Thackery: Thackery makes the best Rhone-style wines in California and some of the most expensive. His 1993 "Orion Old Vines" from the Rossi Vineyard, a wine dominated by Syrah, manages to justify its $43 price with intense flavors reminiscent of the better wines of Hermitage and Cornas. It's one of the few Cali-Rhones that you can cellar with confidence.

Nearly as fine, and priced just over $20, are the proprietary wines Thackery calls "Pleiades Old Vines." These blends, dominated by Syrah and Mourvedre, bear more resemblance to a fine southern Rhone. Of the two versions available, the 1991 vintage is marginally finer than the nonvintage bottling.

* The 1992 Cline Contra Costa County Mourvedre offers explosive flavors of herbs, chocolate, black cherry and black raspberry. It's in the class of a top-notch Bandol--a fine class indeed. At $13, it's a spectacular bargain.

* Alban Vineyards: If you can get past the aggressive pricing of this Rhone specialist from the Central Coast, you can find excellent wines. Alban's 1993 "Reva" ($22), a Syrah from the Edna Valley, is one of the few Cali-Rhones to capture the penetrating raspberry flavors and silky texture of a fine Co^te-Ro^tie.

* Cambria Vineyards: The 1993 Syrah from the Tepusquet Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley ($25) doesn't do a bad impersonation of a Co^te-Ro^tie either.

* Ridge Vineyards: Primarily a Cabernet-Zinfandel specialist, Ridge makes an important contribution to the Rhone Ranger efforts with its Mourvedre wines, which it stubbornly insists on calling Mataro (the Spanish name for Mourvedre, under which the grape was known in pre-Prohibition California). The 1993 Ridge Bridgehead Mataro ($20) from Contra Costa County is a ripe, long lush wine that comes close to the class of the Cline.

* Marietta Cellars: Dollar for dollar, Marietta may be the best red-wine producer in California. Its 1993 Syrah, offers deep black raspberry flavors and a firm structure, bolstered by 20% Petite Sirah. At $12, it's the best value around in California Syrah.

* Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Years before anyone heard of the Rhone Rangers, Phelps was all by itself experimenting with Rhone-style wines. Its "Vin du Mistral" program continues to offer excellent wines, such as its 1993 "Le Mistral" ($15), a blend of Rhone varieties with generous raspberry and blackberry flavors, seasoned with a hint of pepper.

* Bonny Doon Vineyards: A nod must go to this pioneering vineyard, even though the 1993 "Le Cigare Volant" ($21) more closely resembles a good Co^tes-du-Rhone than the Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape it aspires to be. Other vintages have been superior.

Wines that were enjoyable but pricey for their quality included the 1993 Truchard Syrah from the Napa Valley's Carneros region ($19); the 1994 Qupe Syrah from the Central Coast ($16) and the 1993 Callaway Mourvedre from Temecula ($16).

About the 1990 Meridian Syrah from Paso Robles ($16) and the 1993 Fess Parker Syrah from Santa Barbara County ($15), it would be kinder to say nothing at all.

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