Before I was old enough to drink wine (legally), I spent a lot of time wondering why Europe fermented over 500 different grape varieties, while California was using about 6. The strangest part was that people only drank 2 of the six. Fortunately, I was too young to recognize that anyone seriously planning to change how many wine types were being produced in California would have to contend with the American love affair with Cabernet and Chardonnay; our wine equivalents of chocolate and vanilla.
Far into my quest for wine grapes that would make sense for California, I celebrated my 24th birthday. That evening a friend handed me a glass of Condrieu. Knowing nothing about the wine, and informed simply (though erroneously) that it was cheap, I downed what would prove to be one of the most significant gulps of my life. Instantly I could see myself producing the world's greatest six-dollar bottle of wine. I envisioned myself hanging out with the Gallo boys. The next day I researched everything U.C. Davis had on the subject of Condrieu- about 12 sentences. I learned 3 key facts: Viognier is the grape of Condrieu, it ain't cheap, and I'd soon be moving to the Rhone if I wanted to learn much more.
I frantically completed my course work and research for my Master's in enology at Davis, immersed myself in everything Rhone, and applied for a scholarship that was being offered by the Franco-American chamber of commerce. The degree "allowed" me to start re-paying my student loans, the Rhone immersion kept me smiling, and the scholarship was my ticket to France.
While apprenticing anywhere producers would let me- from Beaujolais to Provence, I also spent a good bit of time organizing climate and soil information. Everything I found indicated that Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne made more than mere sense for California. The information left me puzzling over how we ever planted Chardonnay from Ukiah all the way down to Temecula. I would have plenty of time to puzzle as my next 6 years would be spent 'picking up sticks'.
Vines are propagated from vines. Just as it's tough to get a chicken without an egg and vice versa, it's impossible to get vines without vines. Because there was essentially no Grenache Noir, Roussanne, or Viognier in California at that time, and the clones of Syrah were few and poorly documented, I would need a lot of time to make cuttings. Starting with only a handful of various selections, it took years to generate commercial quantities of the vines I wanted to grow.
Spending all those years in green houses, I lost touch with reality. At a time when there were fewer than 50 acres of Viognier in the world, I propagated 32. Perhaps the only wine more obscure than Viognier was varietally labeled Roussanne. Our release of pure Roussanne in 1991 was the second such wine produced globally and the first from the United States (what exactly Bergeron is remains in doubt).
Since reds take more cellar time, I originally hit the road pouring my two whites-Viognier and Roussanne. If I had not been so young and brash, I might have been discouraged by the barrage of folks who kept telling me that consumers haven't heard of these wines, and no one can pronounce Viognier (Vee-own-yeah is easy to say; tough to read. Anything with the word So-veenyown; as in Cabernet So-veen-yown is truly hard to say).
What I really discovered on my journeys was that compared to the amount of wine I had, there was an abundance of progressively minded folk all over the world open to the idea that delicious is more important than varietal recognition. I am forever indebted to the core group of courageous and passionate wine buyers and sommeliers who championed Alban Vineyards in the early years. The people who were driven to hand-sell and promote wines that in and of themselves were of little economic significance to them. These 'missionaries' nurtured the fledgling California rhone movement, and with it took our wine trade from black and white into the age of color. I am delighted to see Rhone varieties flourish throughout California and rather overwhelmed by Robert Parker's declaration in The Wine Advocate that I am "...the spiritual and qualitative leader of the movement..."
Many of our original customers are now my good friends. Some I have even worked with to help start wineries of their own focusing on Rhone varieties. Two moved to San Luis Obispo County to help organize Hospice Du Rhone- the world's largest international celebration of these wines, visit www.hospicedurhone.org. As the Rhone renaissance became truly international and significantly rooted in what happened here in California, perhaps the greatest surprise in my life thus far was how the story came full circle. In 2005 I was made an honorary citizen and Decurion of Cote Rotie and Condrieu. The sons and daughters of the producers who were terrified about my plans to develop their then threatened varieties internationally, believed that my efforts had actually accelerated recognition and interest in their own wineries. Being presented this distinction before the leaders of these key northern Rhone appellations, on their home turf, remains somewhat surreal to this day.
In some ways my life is still measured in sticks. As more people have discovered the world beyond chocolate and vanilla, there has been an explosion in plantings of these varieties. Alban Vineyards has provided a large portion of the cuttings needed to see California's Viognier acreage go from 0 to over 2000, and Syrah has jumped from a few hundred acres to more than 17,000. Grenache will be next. But the story has gone way beyond change and diversity. Of the 22 wineries in California included in Robert Parker's The World' Greatest Wine Estates, 10 currently make at least one 'Rhone', and 2 produce almost exclusively wines from Rhone varieties. While we Rhone producers may forever be 'garage bands' at heart, our stage is now very much international.