Hospice du Rhône 2000, Revisited

Organolepticians Number 2 (August 4, 2000)


Probably if you've visited our site before, you've noticed the announcements about and references to Hospice du Rhône, and if you have you have wondered what it was all about, and what it would be like to be there, I'll try to give you a little of the flavor, having recently returned from the 2000 celebration, which was a great event.

My experience of Hospice du Rhône; this year began earlier than it might for some. I drove from Berkeley to a vineyard a couple of miles west of Paso Robles, in the hills off Highway 46. It had been 115 degrees in Paso on Wednesday, the day before. (Wednesday, the 14th when it was 106 in Berkeley) The intense heat had been sufficient to kick on California's famous air-conditioning system, and the marine air began to blow in off the Pacific. The temperature was still in the 90's early Thursday, but by mid-afternoon it began a slow steady drop. (The vineyard I was visiting is a new one for us, and promises to be most interesting. It contains both whites and reds: Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise. I'm sure I'll be talking about this ranch a lot in the future.) By the time I went into town to meet a couple of grower friends for supper at the estimable Bistro Laurent, it was beginning to get reasonably cool.

The food at Laurent is first-rate, and it's not yet too pricey; needless to say, we ate and drank well. So when the bowling tournament (!) began, we were feeling comfortable, and not terribly concerned whether we won or not. (Anyone harboring delusions of athletic prowess winning the day in this event is strongly encouraged to have another glass or two of Viognier or Mourvèdre, in the interests of self enlightenment.) We had nine people on our lane, all on the same team (so we won) and it took us till around midnight to get through two games (without a single serious injury, mind you). There were probably two to three dozen winemakers there, from California, Australia, France, Arizona, Washington. Much camaraderie and good feeling enjoyed by all.

And all managed to recover in time for the ten o'clock seminars on Friday morning. I chose to attend a panel on Petite Sirah, headed by Karen MacNeil-Fife (who is one of this country's best wine writers) and featuring winemakers from Stag's Leap, Rosenblum, Fife, and David Bruce. A certain part of the mystery surrounding the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah was explored, and the tasting of Petite Sirahs from the four wineries made plain the profound differences between the two varieties. Those who didn't taste Petite Sirah at 10 (and they were legion) tasted Australian Grenache in the company of Chester Osborne, Charlie Melton, and a few other stalwarts from Down Under. Early reports were that it was a tasting that stood Grenache on its head, but it's not clear how reliable those reports might have been, considering what the reporters had been up to the night before. Next on the agenda was the Gigondas masterclass, featuring Pascal Roux from Chateau du Trignon, and Louis Barruol from Chateau de St. Cosme. I'd been a Trignon fan for years, (we served their red Sablet, vintage '81, at our wedding) and it was a treat to get the inside scoop. I'd never had St. Cosme's wines, so they were a revelation. The seminar was, I think, a great lesson for American wine enthusiasts, on the meaning of terroir. It was moderated by Ehren Jordan, (a brilliant winemaker in his own right -- he vinifies for Turley, Neyers, and his own Faila-Jordan wines) who bridged not only the language gap, but also the cultural differences in orientation to winegrowing and winemaking. The wines, of course, were splendid.

At the same time as the Gigondas gathering, there was also the choice of a retrospective tasting of the "Nine Popes" wines of Charlie Melton, from Australia. "Nine Popes" is a mis-translation of the name Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The Australians as you may have gathered, make a strong showing at this event.

We emerged from the Gigondas gathering to find a sumptuous lunch ready to eat at the picnic area, prepared by M. Laurent Grangien, of the aforementioned Bistro Laurent. I should explain here that this whole festival took place at the Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles, which is quite a lovely place. It's an All-American, laid-back, down home kind of venue with lots of trees, a man-made waterfall right next to the picnic area, and just a real comfortable feel to it. (I first encountered this place when I participated in the California AIDS Ride three years ago; the ride camped at the fairgrounds on the third night.) Lunch Friday was followed by several hours of tasting in a large hall. The wines being poured that day were: library wines, vintages 1995 and earlier, and the wines being offered at auction the next day -- special barrel lots made specifically to be sold at auction to benefit the Hospice of San Luis Obispo County. The library part of the tasting was really a treat -- I especially enjoyed tasting some of the older Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier wines being offered, that showed a side of these varieties that most people never get to experience.

I brought some wines to pour, too. We offered 1995 Durell Vineyard Syrah, and 1993 Les Côtes Sauvages, both from magnum. And we made a barrel of wine for the auction again: a blend from our two great Sonoma Valley Syrah vineyards, (Durell and Parmelee-Hill) that we poured as well, which drew rave reviews. (The barrel was purchased the next day at the auction by Mark Miller, for the Coyote Cafe -- it will be bottled next month, and eventually will find its way to Santa Fe, something to look for if you're in the neighborhood.) If you'd wandered over to the Edmunds St. John table to taste you might have recognized Tony Poer from the Hayes and Vine wine bar, one of my favorite haunts in San Francisco; Tony helped out with the pouring both Friday, and Saturday (at the Grand Tasting).

For Friday evening a number of restaurants around San Luis Obispo County (particularly, of course, Paso Robles) put on winemaker dinners featuring wines from producers participating in the festivities. So I spent dinner Friday evening with friends at Villa Creek, which is ordinarily a modern-day Mexican and Southwestern food venue, but for this night what they really were was Southern French, as in Provençal. Featured wines were from the Gigondas producers already mentioned, one Australian and two new faces in California who are doing marvelous things on the West Side in Paso Robles: Justin Smith and Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo Cellars. The food was awfully good, and I think there was a growing communal spirit emerging from the event. It was, in a very nice way, a three day party -- almost like a family reunion.

Saturday morning activity began with 9am seminars. Choices at 9 were: Biodynamic winegrowing in France and Australia, which was actually of great interest to me, but which I could not attend because I'd been recruited to participate in a panel, also at 9am, on Syrah in California. The panel was really enjoyable for me, because it included some of my favorite colleagues (Bob Lindquist from Qupé, Bill Easton from Terre Rouge, the aforementioned Ehren Jordan, from Faila-Jordan, and Michael Havens from Havens Wine Cellars) who are also friends, and the wines were all really nice.

The other seminars that followed were: a Condrieu/Côte Rotie class and tasting, featuring really gorgeous wines from Cuilleron, Gangloff, Villard, Gaillard, and Guigal, and if that didn.t make you salivate, there was a seminar featuring Mark Miller, of Coyote Cafe fame, pairing white Rhône; varietal wines with Southwestern food.

Lunch Saturday was spectacular, catered by the Wine Cask, one of Santa Barbara's very best restaurants, followed by the Hospice Auction. The Auction raised a significant amount of money for the Hospice program.

The Grand Tasting followed the auction; participating wineries poured a broad variety of wines. We offered '98 Viognier, '98 Rocks and Gravel, and '97 Parmelee Hill Vineyard Syrah. The event was capped off by the traditional barbecue, with lots of local beer available for those needing a change of pace, after all the wine, (it takes a lot of beer to make wine!) and accompanied by the sounds of the Austin Lounge Lizards, a really great, very funny bluegrass/country kind of band composed of some of the strangest minds in music.

The Hospice du Rhône; really came into its own this year, thanks, in no small part, to the dedication of Mat Garretson and John Alban, and especially to the administrative excellence of Vicki Carroll, the new Director of the event.

For 2001, the event will take place May 31-June 2, once again at the Fairgrounds. If you;d really like to immerse yourself for a couple of days in the wines that the Rhône; varieties produce around the world, and the people and energy involved in that production (and consumption), write down the dates, and sign up early, (participation is limited to a few hundred lucky souls) and get ready to have a really great time!

--Steve Edmunds

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(ôr'ge nl ep'tik, ôr gan'l ep'-), adj. 1. perceived by a sense organ. 2. capable of detecting a sensory stimulus. [1850-55; < F organoleptique = organo- ORGANO + -leptique < Gk leptikós disposed to accept (lept(ós), v. adj. of lambánein to take + -ikos -IC)]

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