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Rhone kicks up its heels

May 18, 2005|Patrick J. Comiskey | Special to The Times

Paso Robles — It's safe to say that the Hospice du Rhone is the only major wine festival in the world that kicks off with a bowling tournament. And the bowling -- between glasses of Cote Rotie, Pic St. Loup and Aussie old-vine Grenache, or local Syrahs and Grenache roses (or bottles of Corona and the occasional shots of Hornitos) -- is extremely competitive. Participating wineries routinely bring in hotshot bowlers to work harvest just so they can gain an upper hand at the tournament the following spring. The bowling trophy is as coveted as it is garish (the winning team gets to add its own touches to the existing pastiche); two years ago it was kidnapped and retooled with beer-top pasties on its bowling-pin bust line. The culprits were never found, but certain French producers not known for their bowling skills are the prime suspects.

In an industry that takes itself far too seriously, Hospice du Rhone is a Central Coast antidote. The event, which ended Saturday, is an annual homage to the wines and the laid-back vibe of Rhone varieties.

Each spring, producers from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia and the States gather in Paso Robles for a weekend of unabashed, geeky conviviality, inspired perhaps by the wines themselves, many of which are known for their approachability. "Rhone wines are not stuck-up," says Gigondas producer Louis Barruol of St. Cosme. "They are friendly; in the glass they come to you and jump on your nose."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyard -- An article about a wine festival in Paso Robles in Wednesday's Food section said John Alban finished planting his vineyard in 1989. It was 1986.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 25, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyard -- An article about a wine festival in Paso Robles in last week's section said that John Alban finished planting his vineyard in 1989. The correct year is 1986.

In full possession of nose-jumping friendliness, Hospice du Rhone has officially hit its stride. This year more than 2,500 people attended to taste the wares of more than 200 producers with well over a thousand wines on hand, all made from Rhone varieties. Thirteen years ago, when the event got its start, most of these varieties were completely unknown in this country. "We think it's reached a point," says John Alban of Alban Vineyards, one of the event's founders, "where you can't separate Hospice du Rhone from the Rhone movement in this country."

It might be a movement now, but even in France, Rhone variety wines had long been obscure, neglected and often ignored, and marketing them to the wine-drinking world was an uphill battle. Vines have been planted in the southeastern region of the country since Roman times, but Rhone has never been the sort of place where the varieties were limited to a well-known few, as in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Indeed, more than 20 are produced here; the most famous is Syrah, but there are plenty of obscurities in the ground as well, with names like Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc and Picpoul. Even its most celebrated white, Viognier, possesses the sort of French name that most Americans won't even dare to pronounce (it's vee-own-yay). And Condrieu (con-dree-ew), the Northern Rhone appellation where that grape often achieves its best expression, isn't any easier.

But that is the wine with which both Alban and his founding partner Mat Garretson had their respective wine epiphanies. Alban was in California at the time finishing up a winemaking degree at UC Davis; Garretson was working at a wine shop in Gainesville, Ga. In Alban's case, he was so overcome that he moved to Condrieu to work with anyone who would take him, and stayed for four harvests. He returned with vine cuttings, and when in 1989 he finished planting his vineyard, a 32-acre block in the Edna Valley, he had doubled the acreage for Viognier in the world.

Garretson, meanwhile, had founded a rather vague promotional entity called the Viognier Guild. When Alban learned about it, he says, "I told him that that is positively the most preposterous thing I think I've heard all year, and can I be member No. 1? I was taken in by him because I knew he had no hope for success." Garretson threw his first event in Georgia in 1993. "There were 35 wines and 20 people," says Garretson, but one of those present was Alban, who convinced Garretson that any subsequent celebrations should take place in California, where he might find a more like-minded crowd. Garretson, who since has started a winery bearing his name, moved out west, and settled on Paso Robles as the venue.

Fanatics welcome

Trying to persuade winemakers from, say, Barossa or Hermitage to come to a cow town in Central California and pour their Reserve and Library wines -- oh, and bring your bowling shoes -- was an endeavor that met with a fair amount of derision. But, says Alban, hardship was part of the point. "It's not convenient to come here," he says. "You've really got to be dedicated. We insist upon fanaticism, but hopefully we make it worth your while."

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