Rhones on the Range: Santa Barbara Producers Prep for Crucial L.A. Visit

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/22/15

Larry Schaffer
Larry Schaffer isn’t shy about his enthusiasm for grenache.

“It’s a beauty pageant wine – and sometimes I hate to say that, because it may sound chauvinistic.  But grenache really is pure beauty in a bottle,” says the man behind Santa Barbara’s Tercero wine label.  “It’s nuances of earth and fruit and acid and aromatics, all in one.”

It makes sense, then, that Schaffer is set to star on a winemaker panel touting Grenache’s merits at an upcoming gathering of the Rhone Rangers in L.A.  The non-profit educational group aims to raise awareness of domestically produced Rhone wines – 22 grapes ranging from the better-known syrah, viognier and grenache to the more obscure cinsault, counoise and picpoul.  Their fifth annual consumer affair in downtown L.A. will take place November 6th and 7th and will feature winemaker dinners, retail in-store tastings and a Saturday grand tasting.  “Grenache on the Rise,” a seminar set at The Atelier Room at the Reef in downtown Los Angeles and moderated by Wine & Spirits Magazine senior editor Patrick Comiskey, will take place at 10:30am on Saturday.

Andrew Murray
“I’m looking forward to being there not just to promote Rhone wines but also because, we can’t have Paso Robles outshine us,” says winemaker Andrew Murray, who’ll be joining Schaffer on the panel and pouring throughout the weekend.  Murray, who’s been focused on Rhone varieties from the Santa Ynez Valley for more than 20 years and who’s won cult status as a syrah maker, admits that the Rhone efforts of Santa Barbara’s viticultural neighbor to the north has the lion’s share of consumer attention.

This writer believes that our area’s love affair with Rhone wines is bittersweet.  On the one hand, those who make it can’t tout its merits enough.  It grows well everywhere – in the sweet spot that is Ballard Canyon, for sure, but also in cooler areas like Los Alamos and Sta. Rita Hills and hotter zones like Happy Canyon and Los Olivos.  And the wines they create are, inarguably, delicious.  “The hallmark of any great wine variety is that wonderful balance of fruit and funk,” asserts Murray,” and syrah has it in spades.”

Schaffer points to grenache as the quintessential holiday wine.  “That appearance of sweetness in the aromatics, because of its fruity character, and that great herbaceous quality – they go with a lot of different aspects of a Thanksgiving meal.”

At last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A., Murray poured wines from the 2010 and 2011 vintages
But Rhones face an uphill battle in the marketplace, where consumers continue to turn in far larger numbers to counterparts like pinot noir and cabernet.  In Santa Barbara County in particular, “the area will continue to be known for pinot noir and chardonnay, at least in the near future,” admits Schaffer.

Michael Larner poured at last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A.
Marketing has a lot to do with the Rhones’ woes.  Let’s be frank: Paso Robles has out-marketed Santa Barbara when it comes to pushing itself as a bona fide producer of syrah, grenache, viognier and Rhone blends.  And the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, whose mission is to promote all local wines, has yet to find a cohesive, clear voice to promote this area’s Rhone efforts.

There are singular achievements of note, to be sure: Zaca Mesa, Fess Parker, Qupe, Margerum, Larner, Jaffurs.  But Santa Barbara’s shining Rhone stars “are still far and few between,” says Schaffer.

The key to Rhone success for now, then, hinges on education.  The Tercero tasting room in Los Olivos, for example, is one-stop shopping for curious consumers who want to taste wines like grenache blanc and single-vineyard mourvedre.

Craig Jaffurs poured at last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A.
Murray admits, “I have no problem selling syrah” – a success story that has almost everything to do with luring consumers to his Los Olivos tasting room and sleek new visitor center in Foxen Canyon to sip and discover.  “The key is getting them to visit, to taste the wine in a fun environment with a little bit of entertainment and a little bit of education, and they enjoy it,” says Murray. 

So while grueling and slow and potentially tedious, Santa Barbara’s Rhone producers cannot underestimate the power of the hand sell.

That makes next month’s Rhone Rangers events all the more relevant, of course.  The SoCal locale is key, since the L.A. market remains the bread and butter of Santa Barbara and Central Coast wines.  And the personal stories that will inevitably emerge – about the quality of the wines and about the personalities behind them – is the best PR this movement can get.

More than 50 Rhone winemakers will be featured throughout the weekend.  Along with Tercero and Andrew Murray, Santa Barbara producers participating include Bernat, Epiphany, Fess Parker, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Kita Wines, Margerum Wine Co. and Qupe.  For more information and for tickets, check out the Rhone Rangers website.

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