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Today’s American Rhône

For 13 consecutive years I’ve X’d out a weekend in May on my calendar to travel to Paso Robles for Hospice du Rhône, the longest running celebration of Rhône varietal wines in the country, and probably the world. This year more than 130 producers from six countries poured their wares, upward of 1,000 bottlings, an immersion that leaves teeth stained, tongues purple and livers temporarily taxed.

The festival’s evolved — dramatically — from a freewheeling, somewhat disheveled affair to one of the best-run celebrations of its kind in the country. It’s an easygoing progression of seminars, tastings, eating, drinking and revelry for two intensive days — where you learn a lot, taste a lot and get an indelible picture of the state of the Rhône from Ampuis to Barossa, from Petaluma to Paso, an irrepressibly vital slice of the American wine market.

This year’s seminar highlight was an introduction to the wines of Roussillon, which I was delighted to moderate, marvelous reds of nearly unrivaled concentration and power, wines which (if you’ll allow me to quote myself) “attack with a kind of coltish, overachieving intensity, at once fresher and more focused than most southern French wines, a grab-you-by-the-collar grip of minerals so tactile it feels like a violation of personal space.” Their uniqueness was worth celebrating, and exemplified what Hospice does so well, a global celebration of 22 varieties, some of the most ubiquitous and unique on earth.

Hospice du Rhône has changed quite a bit during my unbroken attendance string, owing in part to the participants like myself, growing older, less rowdy and less interested in postprandial tequila shots (though I admit that just two years ago I was an accomplice in swivel chair races through a motel parking lot — I don’t think we’ll ever live down the withering, How old are you? glare of the night manager, who caught us red-handed … it took us all right back to the depths of high school shame).

The participants, too, have changed. Many whose presence fairly defined the event in the past no longer attend, like Mat Garretson, Michel Chapoutier, Chester Osborn and Steve Edmunds.

But many others come back year after year, like founder John Alban, Bill Easton of Domaine de la Terre Rouge, the Haas family of Tablas Creek, French producers François Villard, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and not least, Guigal. Some members of the new guard have become fixtures, brands like Baker Lane, Big Basin, Lagier-Meredith, Paul Lato and Skylark; and it was also a good year for discovery, with excellent showings from new-ish wineries Cowhorn, Etnyre, Cabot, Broc Cellars and Fausse Piste.

This year, however, was unquestionably Paso Robles’ year. The number of wines from the region dwarfed all others and left no doubt that if there is a Rhône Central in California, it’s in these vineyards, draped upon rolling oak-studded hills, in the pockets of limestone that fleck the soils here. It reflects the settlement of the Templeton Gap, a sub-region slapped daily with the brunt of winds from the cool Pacific, yielding, in many cases, wines with a new sense of balance for Paso Robles.

This year’s unnamed hero was Justin Smith of Saxum, whose wine 2007 James Berry GSM blend was the Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year — a first for Paso Robles, and for an American Rhône wine. Smith poured at two tastings, tiny portions of his inky, powerful, high-octane reds, mobbed by fans and eager tasters. The entire region is reveling in his success, and deserves to.

In a related event, a few days after Hospice concluded, Qupé’s Bob Lindquist held a vertical tasting in San Francisco of one of his best Rhône variety wines, 15 vintages of his Marsanne, going back to the first, in 1988, from a vineyard now known as Ibarra-Young in the Santa Ynez Valley.

As a young winemaker, captivated by the white Hermitage bottlings of J-L Chave, Lindquist became obsessed with marsanne, a diffident, relatively neutral white variety grown in Hermitage and elsewhere in the northern Rhône.

So in 1987, as Lindquist tells it, a woman named Charlotte Young approached Lindquist with an offer to graft over her poorly performing cabernet vineyard. Lindquist hunted for marsanne vines and found some from Randall Grahm, who agreed to hold some cuttings for him at his Santa Cruz Mountain vineyard. Grahm, however, pruned a day before Lindquist could get there, and by the time Lindquist arrived the marsanne sticks had been mixed up with cabernet — they were indistinguishable. Grahm assured him they were “mostly” marsanne, and Lindquist had little choice but to take the lot of them, graft over the vineyard, and hope for the best. The following spring half a cabernet crop stared back at him. The error was corrected; the first varietal marsanne appeared the next year.

In its youth, marsanne makes for an inherently neutral wine, pleasantly inexpressive. But within a few years in bottle, the wine starts down a long road of transformation — mapping that road became the task of the writers and sommeliers attending. I think we all thought we had a good idea where these wines would go: they’d deepen and grow more complex, take on a commanding textural integrity, with exotic, honeysuckle, honeycomb flavors, and maybe a nutty patina of oxidation that seems to come and go mysteriously in marsanne bottlings. But vertical tastings are fascinating for their shiftiness. Good wines have their own schedule, their own individuality, presented at their own pace, without regard for vintage or bottle age.

On this day, the best wines fell into two distinct styles. The first, as found in the 2001, 1997 and 1994 vintages, more or less reflected the exotic honeyed mélange we’d predicted. But the second style, exhibited in the 2006, 1999, 1998 and 1991 vintages, was a complete surprise, at least to me, with a much more well-preserved, more youthful set of flavors, wines with the energy and drive of youth, perhaps graced with a gravitas that age bestows. The scents of lemon, lemon curd, flint and wet stone were arresting, the textures seemed age-defyingly fresh, sensuous and poised.

Why these wines were so different — they may as well have come from opposite ends of the earth — was a complete mystery to me. At the table there was some weak speculation, but in the end all we could do was marvel at how a well-made wine, as a living, aging thing, will do what it does because it is a living, aging thing, and will do so quite independent of one’s expectations.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

Photo: The scene at Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles, Calif. Credit: Patrick Comiskey

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.