Wednesday morning began with a "Rhones on the Rise" workshop (more on that below) at Cline Cellars in Healdsburg, followed by a tour of Cline's Rhone varietal vineyards led by winemaker Matt Cline (right). Earlier, Robert Haas (left), a partner in Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, disputed the notion that Paso Robles is a hot growing area, pointing out that in the last four out of six vintages, Tablas Creek has harvested after his Rhone Valley partner, Chateau de Beaucastel.
The morning workshop was led by a panel of winegrowers who believe in their regions' potential for the traditional grapes of the Rhone Valley: the whites Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne and the red Syrah from the cool, hilly Northern Rhone, and the reds Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Carignan from the warmer, flatter Southern Rhone. The panelists were Steven Roberto of Ste. Chapelle Winery in Caldwell, Idaho; Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino, California; Barry Bergman of EXP Rhone Wines in Dunnigan Hills, California; John MacCready of Sierra Vista Winery in Placerville, California; and Matt Cline.
Bill Crawford's family has been growing grapes in Mendocino County for more than 30 years. After analyzing the various varieties in its vineyards, the family realized that the Rhone varieties were responsible for the better wines.
After an unsuccessful venture with White Zinfandel, Matt Cline and his brother Fred are banking on Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan. Cline proudly pointed out that his 1996 Syrah won Best of Show at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, besting international varietals such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. He said the benefits of his cool-climate Carneros vineyards include better site expression as well as the ability to fully ripen Syrah without getting shriveled grapes that can result in a prune-like character, muddling the sense of place.
Barry Bergman's Dunnigan Hills vineyard has a warmer climate with daytime temperatures reaching 105 degrees Fahrenheit, but nighttime lows in the 60s help the vines recuperate from the day's heat. His Syrah showed jammy red berry fruit, such as strawberry and raspberry, rather than the dark fruit and white pepper characteristics commonly found in cooler areas.
John MacCready first planted Syrah in the Sierra Foothills in 1979. He attributed the fresh fruit flavors in his mountain-grown wines to the moderating influence of altitude on temperature, as well as the devigorating effects of old, nutritionally poor soils.
Steven Roberto of Ste. Chapelle Winery in Idaho, at 3,500 feet above sea level, has one of the most challenging growing climates in the United States. But the raging waters of the nearby Snake River mitigate the severe winter cold by pulling the cold air downstream off the vineyards; in the summer, the river stirs up the hot air that would otherwise roast the vineyards.