From the West, here come the Rhone Rangers

Roaming the hills and plateaus of the West, the Rhone Rangers maintain their lonely mission: to sway the drinkers of America away from our safe zones of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, into somewhat spicier territory.

As their name suggests, these are wine folk committed to the types of grapes borne out of France’s Rhone Valley and transported, through no small amount of effort, to vineyards up and down the West Coast. 

Fighting to break the axis upon which the modern American wine industry was built, the Rangers’ 170 member wineries are true believers in the sorts of wine on which they have staked their mark — most notably syrah, a hallmark grape as expressive as it is malleable. Syrah can easily transform into a salty, earthy Rhone style or dazzle as a modern shiraz whose fruitiness resounds with recollections of the berry patch.

The Rangers hope Americans will follow the French, who laud their renowned, expensive Bordeaux but increasingly look to the Rhone for the wines they love on their dinner tables. The goal is to yank American taste away from the clutches of the snooty set — a populist push, adorned with cowboy hats and deputies’ pins.

'Syrah is all about sex'
It’s a passionate, fun-loving bunch.

“Syrah is all about sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Jeff Cohn, winemaker at California’s Rosenblum Cellars and for his own JC Cellars label. “Chardonnay, I get bored with it. And cabernet and Bordeaux, you have to wear a jacket and tie to drink it. The Rhone varietals, you can run around naked.”

Clothes remained on last weekend, but the Rangers rode into Seattle for what they hope is the first step of a nationwide push to spread their message. Though they have organized since 1988, with their share of attention and infighting, this is the first time they have carried their shtick outside California.

It isn’t a simple message, in part because Rhone wines themselves are anything but simple.

There are 40 or more varietals, though some take prominence. Syrah and grenache lead the reds, but mourvedre and carignane hold their own and add profound spice and depth to blends. Viognier is the most popular of the whites — though maligned and over-oaked in the 1980s during an ill-fated effort to pitch it as the “new chardonnay” — but marsanne and rousanne shine through as well.

That’s just the start. These are vintners who must retain a sense of irony, since they must embrace varietals with names like picpoul.

Plus, the Rhone is actually two regions. The 4,000-acre northern Rhone relies primarily on syrah for its reds and viognier for its whites, encompassing famed appellations like Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. The 120,000-acre southern Rhone blends grenache with other reds, and roussanne with other whites; it can claim bottlings like the ever-famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

A lot of room to experiment
In much the same way, the United States’ growing Rhone franchise stretches from Washington state down to Santa Barbara, an endless array of climates and geography for viticulturists to tinker with. That has resulted in a range of wine styles as diverse as the terrain. Winemakers find that exhilarating, if tricky. “Syrah’s kind of a chameleon,” says Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars in Rainier, Wash. “Cabernet and merlot aren’t. They don’t express their place nearly so much as syrah.”

As such, syrah has taken huge strides in the past two decades. California planted just 100 acres in the mid-‘80s; now it has more than 13,000. But even as Wine Spectator recently hailed syrah as the “next great red,” the sales pitch to Americans remains complicated, perhaps because we fall back to what we know. Top syrahs often top out at about $60, while top Napa cabernets can easily fetch $150 or more. “If you produce a really outstanding cab or merlot, it practically sells itself,” McCrea says.

Interestingly, the Rangers sell differently to each coast. West Coasters, trained on California’s bounty, seem more comfortable with a specific grape like syrah or grenache; East Coasters, more familiar with the European style — by appellations, from Saint-Emilion to Barolo — appreciate blends from specific locations.

The Rangers, who encompass just a slice of more than 500 U.S. wineries who feature these types of wines, are split as well. Some bottle each varietal on its own; others have more fun mixing grapes. Tablas Creek, from Paso Robles, Calif., opted for the latter path, perhaps because it’s the American venture of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s top names. Though Beaucastel’s preference for grenache-based blends has endured on these shores, notes Tablas Creek’s Jason Haas, “These are things that are scary to the American consumer.”

Taste will sellUltimately, the Rangers believe taste will sell. Some American wineries have morphed their syrahs into Australian-style shiraz, a big nod to that country’s role in pushing the grape forward. The fruitiness worries some Rangers (they envision echoes of merlot’s fate as an insipid also-ran). Many seek a new, American style of Rhone. “I think we’re somewhere between France and Australia,” says Mikael Sigouin of Santa Barbara’s Beckmen Vineyards, perhaps the southern-most of the Rangers.

But they insist their wines pair better with food, and many are tinkering with more affordable vintages, easier to get on wine lists and sell by the glass. Rhone tradition dictates far less use of new oak barrels, so the woodiness in so much American cabernet doesn’t extend to the Rhone-style efforts. Tannins are mellow, so the wines feel more inviting in your mouth. It is, perhaps, the makings of a new American style.

And the Rangers will keep riding, though probably not west into the sunset. “Part of this organization’s mission is to go across the Mississippi and educate the East Coast,” says Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards, the Rangers’ president.