Hi-yo, Silver, awaayyy Vintage Point: The red wines produced by California's Rhone Rangers don't quite hit their mark.

Vintage Point

January 24, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Rhone Rangers have been riding through California Wine Country for more than a decade now, and while their white hats are dustier than they used to be, they're still in the saddle.

The term Rhone Rangers became widely known in wine circles after a famous Wine Spectator cover of the mid-1980s portrayed Randall Grahm, owner and winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards, dressed as Tonto's faithful Anglo companion.

Mr. Grahm and his fellow rangers were a stalwart crew of California wine producers who became convinced that many parts of a state best known for its cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay might actually be more hospitable to grape varieties from France's Rhone Valley.

As anyone who is familiar with Rhone wines can attest, those varieties are well worth cultivating. Whether on their own or in a blend, such red Rhone grapes as syrah, mourvedre, grenache and cinsault account for some of the world's most noble wines: Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas and the Bandols of nearby Provence.

The white wine grapes of the Rhone can be equally intriguing and also have received the Rhone Rangers' attention. But that's a story to put off for next time.

A sampling of the Rhone-style reds currently on the market shows that while the Rangers have hit some bulls-eyes, many of their silver bullets miss the mark.

At their best, these Cali-Rhones are tremendously exciting wines with distinct echoes of the wines that inspired them. But prices are high -- in some cases higher than a comparable Hermitage or Cote-Rotie.

Few are out-and-out duds, but many Cali-Rhones fail to establish much of a distinct character. A rough, hearty red wine of no great distinction is forgivable when it costs $5-$8, but many of these wines will set you back $15-$20. That's hard to excuse -- even in the name of pioneer spirit.

Syrah, the greatest of the Rhone grapes, has been a particular challenge. Many wineries seem to be struggling to understand the varietal.

Mourvedre, on the other hand, has been a notable success. This varietal, a key part of the blend that makes up Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the leading grape of Bandol, is producing some exciting wines with clear-cut varietal character.

The Rhone Rangers also have produced a host of Rhone-style blends, usually with a high percentage of grenache.

Some of these have been inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and others aspire to replicate the flavors of a good, low-budget Cotes-du-Rhone. There have been some successes, but no wines that would make Rhone lovers forget Chateau Beaucastel.

California Rhones are very much a work in progress. It will take decades of experimentation and of matching varieties to the right vineyard sites before consistent excellence can be expected.

That doesn't mean that there aren't some producers making very attractive Cali-Rhones now. These are some of them:

* Sean H. Thackery: Mr. Thackery makes the best Rhone-style wines in California, and some of the most expensive. His 1993 Orion Old Vines from the Rossi Vineyard, a wine dominated by syrah, manages to justify its $43 price tag with intense flavors reminiscent of the better wines of Hermitage and Cornas. It's one of the few Cali-Rhones that you can cellar with confidence.

Nearly as fine, and priced just over $20, are the proprietary wines Mr. Thackery calls Pleiades Old Vines. These blends, dominated by syrah and mourvedre, bear more resemblance to a fine southern Rhone than Orion. Of the two available, the 1991 vintage is marginally finer than the nonvintage bottling.

* Cline Cellars: The 1992 Cline Contra Costa County Mourvedre offers explosive flavors of herbs, chocolate, black cherry and black raspberry. It's in the class of a top-notch Bandol -- a fine class, indeed. At $13, it's a spectacular bargain.

* Alban Vineyards: If you can get past the aggressive pricing of this Rhone specialist from the Central Coast, you can find excellent wines. Alban's 1993 Reva ($22), a syrah from the Edna Valley, is one of the few Cali-Rhones to capture the penetrating raspberry flavors and silky texture of a fine Cote-Rotie.

* Cambria Vineyards: The 1993 syrah from the Tepusquet Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley ($25) doesn't do a bad impersonation of a Cote Rotie either.

* Ridge Vineyards: Primarily a cabernet-zinfandel specialist, Ridge makes an important contribution to the Rhone Ranger efforts with its mourvedre wines, which it stubbornly insists on calling mataro. No matter. The 1993 Ridge Bridgehead Mataro ($20) from Contra Costa County is a ripe, long lush wine that comes close to the class of the Cline.

* Marietta Cellars: Dollar for dollar, Marietta may be the best red-wine producer in California. Its 1993 syrah, offers deep black raspberry flavors and a firm structure, bolstered by 20 percent petite sirah. At $12, it's the best value around in California syrah.

* Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Years before anyone heard of the Rhone Rangers, Phelps was all by itself experimenting with Rhone-style wines. Its "Vin du Mistral" program continues to offer excellent wines, such as its 1993 Le Mistral ($15), a blend of Rhone varieties with generous raspberry and blackberry flavors, seasoned with a hint of pepper.

* Bonny Doon Vineyards: A nod must go to this pioneering vineyard, even though the 1993 Le Cigare Volant ($21) more closely resembles a good Cotes-du-Rhone than the Chateauneuf-du-Pape it aspires to be. Other vintages have been superior.

Wines that were enjoyable but pricey for their quality included the 1993 Truchard Syrah from the Napa Valley's Carneros region ($19); the 1994 Qupe Syrah from the Central Coast ($16) and the 1993 Callaway Mourvedre from Temecula ($16).

About the 1990 Meridian Syrah from Paso Robles ($16) and the 1993 Fess Parker Syrah from Santa Barbara County ($15), it would be kinder to say nothing at all.

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