Yes, Kemo Sabes the Rhone Rangers are for real! They are a not-for-profit 506(c)(6) educational organization. They are a group of California vintners who in the ’80’s decided to cultivate a few grapes from the south of France. They are dedicated to their ancestral home, the Rhône in France. These vintners were already getting sick of the Cabernet and Chardonnay that had become prevalent in California so they started as a small group and called themselves the “Rhone Rangers”. They are all about education; seminars, tastings and dinners. You don’t have to be a vintner or in the trade to belong to this group. You could be a “sidekick” who is a member that is interested in learning about American Rhone Wines and support the mission. They put on an event, Hospice du Rhône, at the end of April each year. 2012 was there 20th Anniversary. They have funded research projects at Washington State University, UC Davis and CA State Fresno.
Paso Robles is the heart of the Rhone Rangers “terroir” Zin used to be the thing, it’s still big but Syrah is definitely the in thing. The Rangers also prouce white wine. The group was started by Randall Grahm of Bonnu Doon but soon Robert Lindquist of Qupe was on the wagon trail. You probably recognize a few other vintners: Martinelli, Beckmen, Bogle, Ridge and Fess Parker. At the moment there are 80 wineries.
There are 22 approved varietals to be used: Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne, Counoise, Bourboulene, Vaccarese, Picpoul, Terret Noir and Petire Sirah also known as Durif in France. These wines must be 75% of the traditional Rhône grapes.
When phylloxera started to destroy many vines in the 80’s this group had become more serious. Syrah is resistant to most diseases and pests and it is also very easy to grow. It’s a reliable grape and produces greater yields than Cabernet. It does pick up the terrior tastes so it needs just the right spot.
As easy as Syrah is to grow it is a difficult grape to make into wine. It can be a power house or made into a supple wine. Its yield must be restricted and to be supple it needs to spend time in oak.
Some very famous wines in the south of France are made with Syrah: Cote Rôtie, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, and of course Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This area of the Rhone is cooler and so the grapes ripen a bit later. The yields are also kept low to ensure the quality of the wine. Wines of the southern Rhône are blends whereas the northern Rhône are single varietals. The Rhone Rangers have certainly expanded the world of California wine to include more than just Cabernet and Chardonnay – and that’s a good thing!