The Rhone Rangers Ride On ... and On

The Rhone, longest river in France, is home to notable vineyards that have produced wonderful wines since pre-Roman times. Considered to be some of the best wines in the world, the Rhone offers a Mediterranean climate and terroir that results in wines that have been described as wild. That perhaps is part of the reason that U.S. winemakers turned their attention to Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mouvedre, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. Also, just maybe, American winemakers got a bit bored with cabernet and chardonnay.

In the 1980s, encouraging results from experimentation with Rhone-style wines led several maverick American winemakers to forge ahead. By 1988, informal meetings to share information began, and in 1997, The Rhone Rangers was established with a core group of 13. Today, nearly 200 wineries belong to The Rhone Rangers, each winery producing at least one Rhone-style wine using a minimum of 75 percent of one or more of the 22 Rhone grape varieties approved in the Cotes-du-Rhone.

Every year in the spring, the Rhone Rangers holds a big tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Of the hundreds of wineries there, I honed in on the ones that are a reasonable drive from Tahoe so you can experience the Rhone wines yourself first-hand.

I’ve written before about the wonderful wines from Sierra Vista Winery in Placerville. One of the original Rhone Rangers, Sierra Vista owner and winemaker John MacCready never disappoints with his wines. His Fleur de Montagne, a red blend using fruit from El Dorado, is a personal favorite. Get it while it lasts at $23 per bottle. Visit

Black Sheep Winery in Murphys, Calif., poured a 2008 Cinsault, Dusty Lane, which won a double-gold award in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Judging. Cinsaut, an ancient red wine grape, is tolerant of heat and rocky soils. A lovely plum taste with a spice zing of black pepper and perhaps a muskiness like mushroom. 14.5 percent alcohol. Only 200 cases were produced. $20 per bottle, available only at the Black Sheep tasting room in Murphys. Visit (Photo: Liz and Steve Miller, owners of Black Sheep Winery)

The 2007 Grenache from David Girard Vineyards in Placerville brings a lot of soft flavors like watermelon and cherry to the palate, and then intensifies the taste with deep spices like clove. This is a wine that is versatile with foods. Fruit is sourced in part from their vineyards at 2,400 feet in El Dorado County, and in part from vineyards at 1,300 feet. Only 313 cases produced. 14.7 percent alcohol. $18 by the bottle. Visit (Photo: David Girard Vineyard owners)

Holly’s Hill Vineyards is in the Pleasant Valley area of Placerville, just down the road from Sierra Vista. They poured eight Rhone wines (Rhone varietals are their entire focus) and the 2007 Patriarche, a red blend of 63 percent Mourvèdre, 19 percent Syrah, 13 percent Grenache and 5 percent Counoise, is tasty with blackberry, cherry, raspberry and floral highlights. With a nice acidity, it can stand up to a rich meal. 14.4 percent alcohol. $30 per bottle. Visit

The 2006 Roussanne, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery in Oregon House, Calif., takes us to the tastes of Yuba County fruit. A lovely pale gold in color, the aroma is tropical and herbal. There’s a bit of oakiness on the palate, but taste is strongly tropical with a good minerality. Winemaker Gideon Beinstock notes that this wine will age and transform over many years, possibly 10 to 15, and he suggests pairing it now with shellfish. Only 76 cases were produced. 12.8 percent alcohol. $35 by the bottle. Visit At the same location, Clos Saron Winery prides itself on its limited production Pinot Noir, Syrah and non-traditional blends.
© 2010 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "It's Grape" in June 2010.

Watch for my forthcoming book: "Wineries of the Sierra and Its Foothills". Publication date early Summer 2011, Wine Appreciation Guild Publishing.

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