Unfiltered

Hijinks at the Hospice du Rhône (why is that man dressed like Dorothy?) and Frass strikes back
May 18, 2005

• Paso Robles' annual Hospice du Rhône, an often-whimsical gathering of Rhône varietal producers from all over the world, is anything but by-the-numbers, but two numbers this year assumed meaning both sinister and propitious. The first was 13, because 2005 marked the 13th year of the event, which happened to kick off on Friday, May 13. Creepy, eh? The other figure was 22: the number of grape varieties that can be grown in the Rhône Valley (and therefore poured at the tastings) and--here's the really sinister part--the size of a blue-and-white gingham dress worn by Paso vintner Mat Garretson to introduce the first seminar. Garretson is a hefty man, 6' 3" if an inch, and 22 was the largest size he found online. Still, a few not-so-judicious scissor cuts were needed to permit circulation to his arms. Fortunately, Garretson also wore a pair of pants, as well as a red wig with ponytails. No one in attendance will ever again see blue-and-white gingham in the same light, and Unfiltered hopes that the dress has now been consigned to eternal darkness.

• Ah, the fascination of what's difficult. Rhône vintner Yves Cuilleron, best known for the Condrieu from his domaine and the Vins de Vienne label, revealed the twisted mindset of the French winemaker at the Hospice du Rhône. During a dinner chat, Cuilleron explained that he just didn't feel right about the 2003 vintage. Those reservations were not due to the searing heat that led to the earliest harvest recorded in more than 200 years. Strange as it might seem, the real problem--brace yourself--is that it was too painless. "Afterwards, I felt like there hadn't really been a harvest," he said. "It was so early and fast. The grapes were uniform, really consistent. The wines were very easy to ferment. In the Rhône, you have to work for added ripeness, work at extra extraction. But not in 2003. It was too easy." Sorry to hear that, Yves. Maybe this vintage will supply all the challenges and misery--perhaps late August storms and runaway rot--that you crave.

• Top 10 lists were all the rage at Hospice du Rhône this year. Inspired by a trip to Australia's Barossa Valley, Mat Garretson came up with the Top 10 Australian Winemaker Pickup Lines. The few fit for publication (more or less) include: No. 9--Do you want to play hide the koala? No. 7--My fermentations aren't nearly as hot as you, babe. No. 6--I put the laid in Adelaide. And No. 1--Let me show you why Australia started as a penal colony.

• Hospice cofounder John Alban is nothing if not tenacious. He practically stalked Spanish vintner Alvaro Palacios for five years, hoping to secure his promise to come to the event. Palacios, who started his Priorat winery in 1989, has garnered international acclaim for his Finca Dofi and L'Ermita bottlings. In 2004, Alban went to the Masters of Food and Wine in Carmel, Calif., because he knew Palacios would be there. But it turned out that Palacios isn't comfortable with public speaking. So Alban promised to set him at ease. Remembering the old mantra about imagining the audience wearing only underwear, Alban went a step further—he enlisted nine volunteers in boxer shorts with W-E-heart-A-L-V-A-R-O spelled out on their bottoms.

• Hospice du Rhône tradition demands that dry rosé is the beverage of choice at lunch on Friday and Saturday. That has spawned the legend of the Pinks, inveterate men in pink (aka the Saignéenistas) who celebrate the manly virtues of rosé. Two years ago, three Saignéenistas mounted on horseback made a luncheon entrance that was particularly memorable for the hot pink leisure suit worn by one of them, Jeremy Seysses, son of Domaine Dujac owner Jacques Seysses. We hope that suit has gone to the same place of eternal darkness reserved for Mat Garretson's gingham dress. This year, inspired by a not-to-be-named-due-to-copyright-laws 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, Garretson produced Pink Gun, the story of a fighter pilot--call sign Pinky--who champions rosé, despite the opposition of his nemesis, Oakman, played by Paso Robles vineyard owner Eric Jensen. In the end, of course, it all worked out, and our hero got the girl and the pink.

• Remember that scene in Sideways when Miles drinks the spit bucket? Miles wasn't pleased to be at the fictional Frass Canyon tasting room, which he thought was crowded and over-commercialized (and the tasting staff didn't pour generous enough samples). That part of the film was filmed at Fess Parker, a winery owned by the actor who portrayed both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in the 1950s and 1960s. If the scene wasn't unflattering enough, the word "frass" actually means insect excrement. So in a good-humored jab back, Fess Parker is selling a t-shirt that depicts the rear view of a donkey and reads, "You bet your____we're not Frass." But the winery has nothing to really complain about. Sales are brisk, and Pinot Noir purchases are up 150 percent since last year. Plus, no spit bucket incidents have been reported.

• Driving around Napa these days, you'll see hundreds of yellow cards hanging from trees. No, it's not a new project from Christo and Jean-Claude. These are actually glassy-winged sharpshooter traps set up by the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner's Office and inspected every two weeks to make sure the pest hasn't invaded the wine region, spreading vine disease in its wake. The Yellow Panel Trap (YPT) has a sticky surface on both sides and is designed to catch any sharpshooter flying nearby. There are no specific foods or sexy pheromones used to lure the sharpshooter, as there are for other insects, so the Ag Commission relies on the bright color to attract the bug. Unfortunately, a lot of flying insects are attracted to yellow, so the YPTs get clogged up quickly with native bugs and have to be replaced about every six weeks. Fortunately, no sharpshooters have yet been found. But what if their favorite color is blue?

Unfiltered

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