Sustainable Wine Review: U.S. Rhone Producers Lead in Sustainability

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It seems like the whole wine world is abuzz with talk about American producers of Rhone Varietals. Amazing vintages, high quality, reasonable prices.  But, in addition to all the typical wine buzz, I think we need to be talking about American Rhone because sustainability has been a part of the these producer’s ethos for decades. This is no more evident than in the line up for this year’s Rhone Rangers San Francisco Tasting. Produced by Rhone Rangers, the leading non-profit, educational organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines, the event seems to be all about sustainable winemaking.

The tasting is where you can find more than 100 of the top producers of Rhone Varietals gathering for seminars, a winemaker dinner and of course a ‘grand tasting.’ And the line-up of seminars shows a real emphasis on sustainability. One seminar, moderated by Jon Bonné, Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle, is called “Green Rangers.” The seminar promises a discussion of sustainability among sustainable organic and biodynamic producers and a wine tasting from each as they explore how and why Rhone producers sit at the forefront of sustainability in American wine. Participating wineries include Bonny Doon who’s winemaker Randall Grahm is really the Rhone Rangers’ founding member and one of the most outspoken advocates for biodynamic viticulture in California (at one point he suggested that the modern California vineyard practices be called the “department of terroir prevention”).

Another is called “Wild Wines and the Stories of How They Came to Be.” Moderated by Patrick Comiskey, Senior Editor, Wine & Spirits Magazine. This promises to be a discussion on “green practices” (their parentheses, not mine…) with winemakers who focus on sustainability, organics and biodynamics. Participants get to taste unusual wines from eight winemaking pioneers, as they share the inside stories on their wildest wines and how and why they headed off into unchartered territory. Tickets are $100/each and include VIP early admission to the Grand Tasting (at 12 noon, along with invited members of the trade and media).

A whole handful of wineries will be represented at the seminars.  As it turns out, looking at the list of Rhone Ranger wineries, many of the best known for sustainability are in fact on the list. This includes many of my favorites including Tablas Creek, Alta Colina and Justin.

Why all the focus on sustainability?  Jason Haas, General Manager of Tablas Creek has this to say:

I’m not sure if there’s a single reason why US Rhone producers are at the forefront of sustainability in America, but they certainly are.  It may be that the people who’ve chosen to take the route of Rhone varieties (which until recently have been relatively unknown and always required a lot of education to market) are just naturally more experimental, whether it’s the examples of some of the most visible members or because many Rhone producers have connections to the Old World, where organic and biodynamic farming have been more common.

Maggie Tillman of Alta Colina is a newish member of Rhone Rangers:

One of the reasons we joined Rhone Rangers is the other member wineries.  The caliber of the wines coming from the Rhone Rangers wineries is amazing and when it comes to stellar wines, the vineyard has to come first.  Growing Rhones is relatively new in the U.S. so all the Rhone Rangers are going out on a limb by not producing Cab. and Chardonnay!  When you’re stepping outside the box you really have to nail it and growing great grapes is the key.  Farming our vineyards sustainably is crucial to any success we may have making wine.  I think all grape growers are evolving toward more and more sustainable practices and because growing Rhones is a newer phenomenon we came into the industry already knowing that sustainability is at the foundation of a successful vineyard and winery.

To receive a $5 discount to Sunday’s tasting or either of Saturday’s seminars, or a $10 discount on Sunday’s combined seminar/tasting ticket, enter the code “PRT01” when you register. There is also a new “weekend pass” ticket, priced at $150, which gives access to all three seminars as well as VIP access to the Grand Tasting (a savings of $40, and a great excuse to make a weekend of the event!).

Not able to attend? You can always follow Rhone Rangers on Twitter at @RhoneRangers and use the hashtag #RRSF.

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