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Mondavi Enters High-End Rhone Market With Io

Dana Nigro
Posted: September 6, 1999

After dipping its toes into the growing market for Rhone varietals with some small-production bottlings, Robert Mondavi Winery has plunged in fully with the creation of a high-end Rhone-style blend. This month, the company is releasing Io [pronounced "EYE-oh"], from Santa Barbara County in California's Central Coast.

Like Mondavi's Opus One Bordeaux-style blend, a single Io wine will be released each year, with variations in the blend depending on the vintage. From the first vintage, 1996, Mondavi has produced 1,700 cases. Io carries a substantial price tag, at $40 per bottle, putting it among the most expensive Rhone-style wines from California.

Io is made by Ken Brown, winemaker, general manager and vice president of Byron Vineyards & Winery, which he founded in 1984 and sold to Mondavi in 1990. While Byron is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Brown has been experimenting with Rhone varietals in Santa Barbara County since 1981, when he was winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery.

"The inspiration for Io comes from my love and appreciation for Rhone-style wines; my favorite wine types have been Pinot Noir and red Rhones," said Brown. He explained his belief that Santa Barbara County is especially well-suited to Rhone blends because the cool-climate Santa Maria Valley offers a long growing season suited to slow-ripening Syrah. Also, the lean soils keep the productive Rhone varietals' yields low, for more concentrated wines.

Io has been in the works for several years. Brown made Rhone blends from the 1993, 1994 and 1995 vintages, but said he waited until he had something "really special" for the first release. The 1996 Io, which earned 92 points in a Wine Spectator blind tasting, is a dark, rich wine with the dark fruit flavors and spicy notes characteristic of the red Rhone varietals.

Brown called Io "a Northern Rhone-style wine with a Southern Rhone influence, because we are blending some other grapes." The 1996 Io consists of 64 percent Syrah with 19 percent Grenache, to smooth out the tannins, and 17 percent Mourvedre, for more complexity. The grapes came from Byron Vineyard in the cooler Santa Maria Valley and Stolpman Vineyard in the slightly warmer Santa Ynez Valley.

For the next four or five years, production will remain under 2,000 cases, said Brown. But that will increase when 1998 plantings come into use, including 9 acres of Australian Shiraz and a new French clone of Syrah on the Byron estate and 4 acres of Syrah from the new White Hawk Vineyard in the Los Alamos region. The Stolpman vineyard added 5 acres of Syrah earmarked for Io this year. Next year, Brown plans to plant about 15 acres of clones of Syrah, Grenache and Grenache Noir.

Io takes its name from a Greek mythological figure, a beautiful princess who was seduced by the god Zeus, who then turned her into a cow to hide her from his jealous wife, Hera. Io fled to Egypt and gave birth to a future king of the country. One of the moons of Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus) is also named Io. The label represents Io as both the moon and the mythological woman, who is positioned against an I and an O designed to look like elements of a Greek temple.

For ratings of other Byron or Robert Mondavi wines, check the Wine Search.

To learn more about the making of Io, check out our California Slide Show

For past news about Byron:

  • Oct. 15, 1996
    Byron Winery's Sleek New Home in California

    To learn more about California Syrah:

  • April 30, 1999
    Syrah Arrives in California

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