The expatriate vines from France’s famed Rhône River Valley were on robust display at the annual Rhône Rangers Experience at the Paso Robles Event Center on February 18. A drizzly afternoon and impending storm didn’t dampen the spirits of die-hard admirers of New World Rhônes who made this pilgrimage to Paso.

Bryan Babcock
Photos: Mira Honeycutt
Sip Savor Logo 48
Sip & Savor

This year devotees were delighted to experience a range of some 82 wineries from California, Oregon and Texas offering a whopping 300-plus wines. There were the usual suspects, beguiling Syrahs leading the lineup joined by earthy Mourvèdres and seductive Grenaches, along with the popular GSM ménage-a-trois blends. Add to these other eclectic reds such as Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise and Petite Sirah. 

The aromatic whites ranged from the popular and charismatic Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc to Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc and Picpoul Blanc. All in all, some 600 attendees savored an exciting smorgasbord of wines.

The celebration kicked off with a Rhône Essentials Seminar. Conducted by Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine Magazine, the seminar featured nine wineries presenting wines from sparkling and rosé to “obscure” white and red. 

Paso Robles was represented by Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery, Caliza, Copia Vineyards and Nenow Family Wines. Also on the dais were winemakers from Santa Barbara, Texas and Oregon.

Sonja and Greg
Sonja Magdevski and Greg Brewer

There was an intimate camaraderie among winemakers sharing stories such as Bryan Widstrand’s anecdote of his time in Tasmania working as an assistant on sparkling wine when he was surprisingly moved to winemaker position. 

With a background in music and divinity studies, he felt that he didn’t possess the “algebra” to design the liquor (the dosage) for the sparkling wine. But Widstrand learned there was no “recipe” but rather the “expression of the fruit.” Widstrand, winemaker at Steinbeck featured the 2021 Cuveé Rhóne Sparkling. The 10-case production of Grenache and Syrah blanc de noir blend, begun as an “experiment” in 2019, gets quickly sold out.

With a nod to his Indian heritage, Copia’s winemaker Varinder Sahi compared his 2021 The Cure, a GSM blend to the smoky spicy garam masala. “I want to create as big a spice box as I can.” 

Samra Morris and Maggie Tillman

Carl Bowker showed his Caliza 2020 Estate Syrah from Paso’s Willow Creek District. Caliza wines are produced from estate and purchased fruit with long hang times to capture all the essence and can include as many as six different clones of Syrah on their property. “With all six it’s the most pristine example of Paso Robles Syrah. This variety I hang my hat on,” he said of the 18-month barrel-aged wine.

Among the “Obscure Red” category, Drew Nenow of his namesake winery presented the 2022 Last of 5, a Cinsault from the Adelaida District. While most of it goes into blends, a small quantity is made as a varietal wine, with just three to four months of aging to capture its freshness.

From Berkeley, Jeff Morgan, owner of Covenant Wines, brought along the 2022 Red C Rosé of Grenache, its fruit sourced from Lodi. Jonathan Leahy of Becker Vineyard presented his 2022 Reserve Viognier from the Texas High Plains AVA. Leahy stated that while Texas once suffered from a bad reputation for making sweet wines, much has changed in 30 years.

William Chris Wine
Tony Offill and Chris Brundett

Second winery in the World to receive the Regenerative Organic Certification (Paso’s Tablas Creek Vineyard was the first) Troon Vineyard & Farms’ owner/winemaker Craig Camp poured the 2022 Amphora Mourvèdre from Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley AVA. The wine was aged for ten months in an Oregon-made amphora.

Sonja Magdevski’s Casa Dumetz tasting room in Los Olivos carries her multiple brands. On this day she presented the ultra-elegant 2021 Clementine Carter Grenache. Sourced from Robert Rae vineyard in the cool Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Magdevski called it a “Pinot-like Grenache.”  Her “mini-mission” is to figure out the Grenache profile from different AVAs of Santa Barbara.

Also from Sta. Rita Hills AVA was Bryan Babcock, a Pinot Noir guy attending his first Rhône Rangers event. He featured his crisp and tart 2022 Gracious Picpoul in the “Obscure White” category. 

French connection
Victoria Calais and Sheri Pattilo

Babcock told me as we exited the seminar hall: “I’m not trying to be a Rhône Ranger, but I guess now I am.” He coined the term “Grenache creep” to describe a grape that’s fast catching up with Syrah, especially in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Samra Morris concurred when I met her later in the Grand Tasting hall. “You’re going to see a lot more Grenache and Syrah from our region,” said the Bosnian-native winemaker at Alma Rosa Winery. Morris offered a spicy, peppery 2021 Syrah from El Jabali ranch. “It’s typical of Sta. Rita Hills.”

Renowned for its Pinot Noir, El Jabali vineyard now includes five acres each of Syrah and Grenache which was planted in 2015. “It’s challenging to grow there [in Sta. Rita Hills]. On the other hand, it’s so rewarding,” she remarked.

Copia 1 1
Anita and Varinder Sahi

At the Grand Tasting, Paso Robles wineries dominated followed by Santa Barbara County. Other California AVAs were represented by wineries from Sonoma County, Napa Valley and El Dorado County.

With an impressive selection of blends and varietal wines Paso featured some 40 wineries, among them were Alta Colina, Cass, Brecon, Bodega de Edgar, Eberle, Kukkula, Seven Oxen, Thibido, Vigo Cellars, Ultima Tulie and more.

From Santa Barbara County were such iconic Rhône producers as Foxen, Zaca Mesa, Jaffurs, Lindquist Family Wines, Tercero, Ken Brown and Samsara. 

I came across a handful of wines from Texas, fast gaining a reputation in the wine landscape. “Last year we were the only Texas winery here. We had such a great time we wanted to come back,” shared Tony Offill, winemaker at Willian Chris Vineyards, in Hye, Texas.

“We have vineyards mostly in the Hill Country [AVA]. We have 55 acres, control about 92 acres and source from 250 acres,” he said of the 70,000 annual-case production of eight different brands with a whopping 130 SKUs. The focus is on Rhône and Bordeaux varieties as well as Italian such as Aglianico, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola.

Caliza Cass
Sterling Kragten and Josh Harp

Of the eight AVAs, the Texas High Plains and Texas Hill Country are the two largest. “Texas Hill Country is up and coming. It’s a little bit warmer and 2500 feet below Texas High Plains,” added Offill.  “Stylistically they are wildly different. Hill Country wines are more extracted and High Plains brighter with more focused acidity.” The 2022 vintages of Picpoul Blanc and Mourvèdre expressed bright fruit and bracing acidity

Another scintillating Picpoul Blanc, a 2022, came from French Connection Wines also in Hye, Texas. “It’s one of those varieties to hold on to acidity — it delivers every single time,” said co-owner Victoria Calais. On the 2022 lighter-hued Counoise (its clone acquired from Tablas Creek Vineyard) she suggested: “Enjoy it chilled in summer.” 

Other Texas wines were represented by Becker Vineyards and Lewis Wines both from Texas Hill Country.

Elizabeth Kuhlemann and Chris Kern

Oregon’s Troon Vineyards poured the delightful 2022 Druid’s White, a Vermentino and Marsanne-driven blend with a lagniappe (little extra) of other white varieties; and a spicy lively 2021 Syrah. From Oregon’s Rogue Valley, Long Walk Vineyard offered 2021 vintages of Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre.

A handful of sparkling wine producers included Four Lanterns, Summerwood, Halter Ranch and PasoSecco, the latter recently launched by Paso-based industry professional Chris Kern. At a low 11 percent abv, the Grenache Blanc bubbly crafted by Elizabeth Kuhlemann, PasoSecco was a perfect palate refresher following an afternoon of teeth-staining bold Rhônes.    

The silent auction of wines and lifestyle packages raised close to $16,000, net proceeds of which benefit the national Rhone Rangers organization, which focuses on the education, production and promotion of Rhône variety wine grapes grown in the US.


Copies of Paso Robles Press Magazine are directly delivered to 23,000 readers in zip codes 93446, 93451, and 93465 and 2,000 dropped with support from advertisers and subscribers. Together, we are Making Communities Better Through Print.™

To subscribe or advertise, click here.