Two things were instantly apparent when senior editor James Laube led a panel of four winemakers onstage for a seminar on Rhône reds grown in California. First, this category has grown tremendously in recent years, judging by the lineup of wines—not just Syrah, but Grenache and Mourvèdre, grown in a diverse array of appellations. Second, women have arrived in California winemaking and will be shaping its future for years to come. Laube was the only man on stage.
The Sonoma Coast has become known for outstanding Pinot Noir, but when Failla winemaker and partner Ehren Jordan visited, it reminded him of the steep hillsides of Cornas, where he had apprenticed with Jean-Luc Columbo. Ehren’s wife and partner, Anne-Maria Failla, presented their Failla Syrah Sonoma Coast Estate Vineyard 2009 (89 points, $62), and the gorgeous wine, with its fruit and minerality, proved Jordan was onto something. It might have helped, Failla explained, that the cuttings they used to plant the vineyard were “particularly close to his heart.” Jordan had smuggled them back from France in his shirt.
Helen Keplinger found a passion for a different Rhône variety, Grenache, in Spain, where it’s called Garnacha. Keplinger has consulted for numerous top North Coast wineries, and she and her husband, Douglas Warner, own Keplinger Wines. In 2004, Keplinger spent time making wine in Catalonia, and she and Warner visited Grenache spots across Spain and France. Working in the slate soils of Priorat, she decided rocks were the secret of good Grenache. Her Keplinger Red Slope Knights Valley 2009 (93, $50), with a little Syrah in the blend, comes from a northern Sonoma vineyard with red clay soils littered with volcanic stones.
Annie Favia spent 11 years working for David Abreu, Napa’s top grapegrowing consultant. Her husband, Andy Erickson, is a top winemaking consultant. At their own winery, they make Napa Cabernet, but the wine she brought was from humble Amador County—a Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah blend called Rompecabezas, Spanish for “jigsaw puzzle.” Intriguingly, the pair ferments the Grenache and Mourvèdre together in the same vats. The resulting wine, the 2009 (95, $65), is brawny and rich.
Winemaking may now be a more co-ed profession, but some habits die hard. Jordan Fiorentini, winemaker at Epoch Estates in Paso Robles, often tastes with male colleagues from neighboring estates, and the guys tend to describe wines by comparing them to women. Fiorentini can play that game, too—she said her Epoch Veracity Paderewski Vineyard Paso Robles 2009 (93, $55), also a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend, reminds her of actress Marion Cotillard. “Get to know her and she might sing ‘La Vie en Rose’ for you,” she said. Of course, she also brings her own perspective to tasting notes. “Mourvèdre is a bit of a sweaty pool boy on its own, but it binds the other wines together.”
Actress or pool boy, the wines these talented panelists shared show that California is becoming one of the Rhône’s finest appellations.