The wine world has its own version of a Star Trek convention or Comic Con. It’s called Hospice du Rhone—three glorious days in Paso Robles, California, of letting your wine geekdom fly.
The 2018 festival, which took place April 26-28, was the first I’ve ever attended, having been kindly invited as a member of the wine media. The Paso Robles fairgrounds for this bi-annual event feel, fittingly, like a throwback to another era—hearkening back to the Americana of pioneer days.
The throngs of people who attend the event, however, represent the cutting-edge of California and Washington wine production along with a hearty representation of international producers of the, count ‘em, 22 Rhone grape varieties—including the classicist and new wave producers of “Old World” France and “New World” Australia and South Africa. Prominent members of the wine press, as well as self-proclaimed stars of the blogosphere, come to gather here as well. Preeminent wine critic Jeb Dunnuck was honored as the Person of the Year, and deservedly so, as arguably no other major journalist in wine has done more to bring Rhone wines, especially those made in America, to the public consciousness.
And how about an appearance by Philippe Guigal himself, of the revered E. Guigal estate in the Northern Rhone of France, to lead a seminar showcasing the under-covered and underrated Saint-Joseph appellation? That’s superstar material as far as this crowd is concerned. There’s a mix, as well, of wineries who are responsible in a big way for putting Paso Robles and the Central Coast on the wine map, such as Saxum, Vina Robles, Eberle, L’Aventure, Tablas Creek, Melville and Alban. Not to be outshone, there’s sweet pickings of impressive upstarts such as ONX, Clos Solene, Nelle, Malene, LAW and Caliza that could fill your dance card for the entire three days and then some. Even winemakers from Napa Valley make an appearance—those who dare to break out of the Cabernet/Chardonnay box they find a bit suffocating.
More importantly, the coolest wine enthusiasts—regular Joes and Janes of the world who aren’t in the business at all—come to this event for its special and rarefied atmosphere. Who else would spend an entire weekend immersing themselves in hitherto relatively obscure Rhone wine varieties? Sure, Syrah is starting to break out from its unjustifiable inferiority complex in relation to Cabernet Sauvignon. But, once you start getting into the likes of Picpoul, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Cinsault, you’re really taking a deep dive into geekdom. It’s heaven to all of us who came to partake.
Look, there’s no valid reason for Hospice du Rhone to exist other than to have an excuse for some of the most passionate and bravest American winemakers to share their passion and bravery with an equally passionate, global consumer fanbase of Rhone wines that, happily, appears to be growing with each event. It’s wonderful to have the French, Australian and South African presence to remind us all how it’s been done for a long time and how high the bar is set as to the quality of these esoteric wines being made today—but make no mistake: Hospice du Rhone is a showcase for the best, brightest and most singularly and ruggedly American in the field of dedicated wine geeks. It feels like home.
All images courtesy of Hospice du Rhone and used by permission.
Following are short reviews of my favorite wines among the nearly 300 wines I tasted at Hospice du Rhone 2018. Yes, I could have officially called this a “Best of” list—but “best,” while it may be a more clickable term in the world of marketing copy, seems to be a word truly in apropos for such a momentous gathering of like-minded people where passion and enthusiasm is so communally shared.
So, let me make it clear that I am absolutely passionate about the following wines, and I hope you’ll spend a part of your lifetime wine journey to seek some of these out. Enjoy, and cheers! –J.M.
ANGLIM Viognier 2016 (Paso Robles, $32). Great to find a varietally-correct Viognier that’s distinctly California Central Coast—particularly from the prestigious Adelaida District of Paso Robles—that’s also from a small family winery. Gently luscious and weighty textures of tropical fruit, pear, apricot and floral notes. Exceedingly well-balanced and very attractive wine. 92 pts winery
CALIZA Kissin’ Cousins 2017 (Paso Robles, $34). Lovely aromatics of peach and white flowers to this blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. Not to mention viscous, alluringly syrupy texture and an undercurrent of floral sweetness that’s all very, very sexy. 93 pts winery
E. GUIGAL Condrieu 2015 (Rhone, around $60). Damn, now this is what Viognier is supposed to be—like a fastball down the middle, it’s right on the mark. Bright florals, viscous texture, and honeysuckle and white peach notes. So pretty and captivating, just a quintessential Rhone white. 94 pts
E. GUIGAL Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2016 (Rhone, around $25). Appealingly oily texture, luscious stone fruit quality and Meyer lemon citrusy persistence are what make this affordable Marsanne an authentic classic from one of the legends of the Rhone. 91 pts
E. GUIGAL Saint-Joseph Lieu-Dit Blanc 2016 (Rhone, around $55). Fabulous structure and texture so enticingly velvety plays off the quiet richness of white peach, pear and Meyer lemon flavors and notes of flint, mint and herbs on the nose. A wonderfully complex finish of soft tannins completes an eminently classy and stylish white. 93 pts winery
GRAMERCY Picpoul 2017 (Washington, $18). If you’re going for esoteric, why not Picpoul, right? Set aside that Pinot Grigio and try this. Lean structure, super-bright acidity, persistent lemon-lime and herbaceousness that takes you straight to Rhone—what’s not to like as an aperitif? In the hands of one of Washington State’s leading wineries, this is a must-try. 90 pts winery
KALE Grenache Blanc, Somerston Vineyard 2017 (Napa Valley, $40). To make a white Grenache in the premium vineyards of Napa Valley defines courage, and it’s a risk that pays off—this beautifully sophisticated wine is an outlier that does Malcolm Gladwell proud. Lively, refreshing, lemongrass citrus and an underlying suggestion of honeysuckle sweetness, finishing on a note of creamy butter and herbs. Love! 93 pts winery
ONX L’Autre Femme 2016 (Paso Robles, $42). Luscious and luminous Roussanne with some Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc blended in. Exotic stone fruit notes along with golden honey undertone, as well as lovely, white floral aromas. What Central Coast experimentation and freedom is all about. Gorgeous. 94 pts winery
PEAY Estate Viognier 2016 (Sonoma Coast, around $45). Bright, supremely fresh and vibrant, this is one’s ideal of what a cool, coastal California Viognier might be. Lean structure and persistently forward fruit, it’s elegantly crafted exotic white wine. Notes of orange blossom, white peach and lemon zest. 93 pts winery
SANS LIEGE Marsanne 2016 (Central Coast, $29). Bold, rich and weighty while balanced and structured, an excellent example of the kind of serious and show-offy white wines California’s Central Coast is capable of producing. Tropical fruit and white flower notes et al., very enjoyable. 91 pts winery
TREANA Blanc 2015 (Paso Robles, $25). Fun, racy and pleasurable, this blend of three classic Rhone white varietals, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, sports bright, polished and fresh textures that really appeal to the modern palate. Floral notes, sweetness of apricot and roundness of vanilla make for a surprisingly complete wine for the price. 92 pts winery
CLOS SOLENE La Rose 2017 (Paso Robles, $40). Serious in every way that matters—in pleasure, complexity and structure—I have yet to taste a better rosé from California’s Central Coast after experiencing three vintages of this one. Made from Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault, there’s no questioning the integrity behind the wine. Bright, gripping, scintillating, sophisticated and vivacious, there’s romance in the grand vision. 93 pts winery
KALE Rosé 2017 (Napa Valley, $35). Beautifully balanced, clean, structured and precise rosé yet vibrantly fruity of sweet melon and young cherry notes. Derived from Grenache and Mourvedre from the Rutherford AVA, this is high class and sophisticated stuff—quite thrilling, actually. Exceptional craft from a boutique Napa Valley winery that belongs on everyone’s radar, like now. 92 pts winery
MALENE Rosé 2017 (Edna Valley, $28). The San Luis Obispo County winery Chamisal is serious about rosé—they’ve created a second label called Malene devoted to the wine— and this is their Provence-styled iteration. Five Rhone varietals go into the bottle, all Santa Barbara County fruit, and it’s pure delight. Prominent strawberry, watermelon and sweet, young cherry notes. 91 pts
MALENE Camp 4 Rosé 2017 (Edna Valley, $28). If it means anything to you, this is Malene’s Bandol-styled rosé. Which means more viscosity and voluptuousness for that pink palate. It’s a total winner—crowd pleasingly delicious, elegant, stylish and fun. Warm notes of peach and watermelon are richly satisfying. 92 pts
MALENE Old Vine Rosé 2017 (Edna Valley, $28). This one’s for the somms. Dry and more austere than your cookie-cutter rosé, but emphasis on scintillatingly bright and luscious fruit quality that all adds up to stylish elegance. Quite an uplifting and enlivening pink. And a great food wine too (try fried chicken, mushroom quiche, a variety of flatbreads or Mediterranean lamb meatballs). 91 pts winery
AA BADENHORST “Ramnasgras” Cinsault 2016 (South Africa, $40). There’s tension here, making for deep complexity beneath the fruity surface aromas (bright strawberry and dark raspberry). Fruit quality is gorgeously attractive, wild and fresh while chalky texture and minerality derived of granite soils provide contrast. Distinctive and terroir-driven yet uniquely pleasurable and easy to drink. 94 pts winery
AUSTIN HOPE Grenache 2014 (Paso Robles, $55). Coming in at 15.5% ABV, this All-American Grenache is a bruiser (think John Riggins of the ‘81-’85 Washington Redskins), for those unafraid of its contemporary style. Very ripe and savory, with prominent dried fruit notes along with Thanksgiving spices and vanilla. Thanks to the wine’s very clean structure, this is an extremely drinkable and enjoyable big, bold red. 93-94 pts
AUSTIN HOPE Syrah 2014 (Paso Robles, $55). A huge Syrah—full-throttle, forward black and purple fruit with wonderful balance of acidity. The wine’s broad mouthfeel, density and excellent structure all contribute to its epic quality. More Raiders of the Lost Ark epic than Lawrence of Arabia, mind you. Meaning, more fun than cerebral. 94 pts winery
BEDROCK Griffin’s Lair Syrah 2015 (Petaluma Gap, around $55). The wines of Morgan Twain-Peterson are as artisanal as it gets, and the Griffin’s Lair is as good a place to start as any to venture down the Bedrock rabbit-hole. This is voluptuous expression of Syrah—savory, rich and on the riper side—abetted by cottony smooth texture and deep complexity wrung out from the notorious winds of the Petaluma Gap. 94 pts
BEDROCK Hudson Vineyard South Syrah 2015 (Napa-Carneros, around $60). Dense, chewy and concentrated—you could almost mistake this for a Cab. Notes of ripe black cherry, black olive, bacon fat and violets swirl amidst the expansive weight of body. A fresh, brambly quality makes for a memorably vivid and complex experience. 95 pts winery
BOOKER “Fracture” Syrah 2016 (Paso Robles, around $120). Aggressive, fierce, very hot Syrah. Also very sophisticated, high-end and complex in its structure and leathery tannins—beautifully balancing a multitude of dark fruit flavors. Gripping wine that can only be Paso Robles. Makes a powerful statement. 96 pts winery
CALIZA Grenache 2015 (Paso Robles, $65). What high-end Grenache is all about. Superfine tannins and awesome complexity, with generous dark cherry and plum notes so expressive and distinctive. What’s special about Paso terroir?—the answer is here. Gloriously crafted wine—pristine and classy, with a deep soul. 96 pts winery
CHRIS RINGLAND Dimchurch Cuvée Shiraz 2012 (Barossa Valley, around $120). Cutting edge Shiraz—powerful, big and cerebral. It’s Martin Scorsese-movie intense with a non-linear narrative. Meaning, absorbingly complex. A nose of wildflowers grabs you and, then, rich chocolate and dark plum notes and those intense, intense tannins. 97 pts winery
CLOS SOLENE Hommage à nos Pairs Reserve 2015 (Paso Robles, around $100). One of the essential wines of Paso Robles. A truly noble Syrah (with a dash of Grenache and Viognier), it’s beautifully constructed—commanding a presence of stately elegance and brilliant structure. Velvety textures of rich dark plum and blackberry notes commingle with polished tannins, moving towards a finish that evokes longing and other sentiment. 96-97 pts winery
E. GUIGAL Saint-Joseph 2015 (Rhone, around $32). From a large yet underrated appellation of the Rhone—Saint-Joseph—Guigal makes a perfect introduction to the magic of Northern Rhone reds. Classic nose of smoked meats and red currants makes way for delicious fruit quality that’s musical in its expressiveness. Sensuous and soft, with lilting crescendos. 92 pts
E. GUIGAL Saint-Joseph Vignes de l’Hospice 2015 (Rhone, around $100). Density, granite stoniness, plush textures, luscious fruit, fresh balance, juicy acidity—it’s all there, folks. Fascinating complexity meets gorgeously rich notes of blackberry, dark plum, cocoa and bacon—I mean, bacon makes everything taste good. 95-96 pts winery
FORCE MAJEURE Parvata 2016 (Washington, around $70). 2016 is a banner vintage for this young winery, judging from their three newest releases reviewed here. “Parvata” is a GSM blend dominated by Mourvedre, and there’s a sensuality present that’s reminiscent of E. Guigal’s finest Rhone wines. Sexy finesse all the way to the finish—it’s a rare thing to find in a fine wine. Elegant tannins, classic structure, and rich, deeply expressive bold fruit… just great. 96 pts
FORCE MAJEURE Syrah 2016 (Washington, around $70). Winemaker Todd Alexander’s dream of making great American Cornas have come to fruition. Truly a signature wine, words can’t do justice to the depth of expression of rich, dark black fruit and, at the same time, amazingly soft texture. Extra notes of cacao and savory spice, as well as gentle, super-fine tannins, and you’ve got a singular Washington Syrah of pure high class and elegance. 97 pts
FORCE MAJEURE SJR Vineyard Syrah 2016 (Washington, $NA). Astonishingly gorgeous Syrah. Surely makes the top 5 of Washington’s greatest Syrahs, whoever’s keeping track. Dark plum, black olive, lavender and violets—so deeply rich and expressive. A wine of great precision—the key to its distinguished allure and charm, as if this Syrah wore a bespoke Canali suit. And we could also mention a beautiful balance of acidity and sensual finesse. Wow, wonderful. 99 pts winery
KALE Kick Ranch Vineyard “Home Run Cuvée” 2014 (Sonoma, $49). The husband and wife team, Kale and Ranko Anderson, behind Kale Wines is what Napa should be about, and what American Rhone is all about: risk-taking and passion. Take in, if you will, all of this wondrous blend’s elegance of texture, finesse, balance and lusciousness. Great style and purity is at the heart of it. 71% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 4% Viognier. 95 pts
KALE Stagecoach Vineyard “Broken Axle” 2014 (Napa Valley, $75). Blockbuster Syrah that pulls off both voluptuous and elegant. Heartbreaking beauty like Ava Gardner’s only comes along in rare eras and is overwhelming enough to sink Frank Sinatra. The wine’s vivacious blueberry, dark plum and licorice notes, gorgeous structure and lively aromatics will steal your heart. All the elegance is incredible. 96-97 pts winery
MELVILLE Estate Syrah 2015 (Santa Rita Hills, $36). With so many powerhouse Syrahs out there, it’s really nice to have some counterprogramming. Using neutral oak in the winemaking process, the Melville is a thing of relative quiet beauty. Medium-bodied, silky, pretty aromatics of potpourri, some hints of spice, and clean structure. Some whole cluster, so stemmy complexity comes through on the finish. Fast on its feet and leaving behind a trail of fond memories. 92 pts winery
ONX Level 22 2014 (Paso Robles, $54). Vivacious, with plenty of confidence and attitude. Starts with a gorgeous bouquet of potpourri, cherry cola and dark spices segueing to forceful dark plum and black currant flavors along dusty, fine tannins. The adventurous spirit of Paso Robles winemaking is embodied in this captivating Petite Sirah, Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache blend. 94 pts winery
PEAY La Bruma Syrah 2015 (Sonoma Coast, around $52). A very cool-climate, estate vineyard brings about a Syrah of exquisite purity and freshness, possessing the cleanest kind of finesse. Fruit quality is pretty and feminine in character, with bright acidity and energy going into the finish. Everything is refreshingly moderate in proportion, but the siren’s song is persuasive and enchanting. 95 pts winery
RBJ Theologicum 2012 (Barossa Valley, around $50). For those who like to give up the funk. Very rustic wine—this is iconoclastic stuff, a blend of Mataro and Grenache. Unrelenting in its tough exterior of leather and black pepper notes and earthy toughness on the inside of bold espresso. Think of a farmer with ridges on his face from time in the hot sun. 94 pts winery
SADIE FAMILY “Pofadder” Cinsault 2017 (South Africa, $55). A sure way to fall for the immense charm of wine from the obscure Cinsault grape, especially when made with exacting craft such as this. Notes of potpourri, strawberry preserves and acidity of Bing cherry on top, with weighty rose, ripe strawberry, white pepper and soft, savory spices on bottom. Lovely balance and South African style. 95 pts winery
SILWERVIS Cinsault 2015 (South Africa, $50). A very Pinot Noir-like nose of ripe cherry, strawberry and touch of herbs introduces a plush wine of extraordinary balance that’s plain delicious and beautiful. While not full-bodied, this Cinsault is bright and richly concentrated—it’s the magic combination to great aromatic red wines. Fruit forward yet superbly structured. What balance! 95 pts winery
SOUL GROWERS “Defiant” Mataro 2016 (Barossa Valley, $60). You wonder what’s so defiant about a nose of lavender and fresh-picked blackberries, but then this Mourvedre hits you with those tough, leathery tannins and spice. The intellectually probing wine, unreserved in its masculinity, finds balance in bright acidity and clean, precise structure. 95 pts
SOUL GROWERS Shiraz, Hoffmann Vineyard 2016 (Barossa Valley, $NA). A blockbuster. Winegrower Adrian Hoffmann is a purist’s purist and fruit from his vineyard is splendid. 100 year old vines bring about a Shiraz of tremendous depth of expression, amazingly rich and dense. With intense notes of tobacco, dark coffee and blackberry, the experience of this wine is as epic as a James Cameron flick. 97 pts winery
TWO HANDS “Bella’s Garden” Shiraz 2016 (Barossa Valley, around $60). Stunning… jaw-droppingly. Eminence of class, structure, richness and concentration. Bella’s natural beauty shines through with power and great velvetiness of texture. Flowing with layers of lavender, black cherry, blackberry and blueberry notes, the gorgeous complexity and depth of the Barossa Valley speaks vividly in a kaleidoscope of colors. 98-99 pts winery
VINA ROBLES Petite Sirah, Creston Valley Vineyard 2014 (Paso Robles, $42). Maybe no finer Petite out there for the money. The key is balance, which ratchets up the level of drinkability and delight to full tilt. While the wine variety’s characteristic richness and concentration of dark fruit and chocolaty goodness is here in spades, it somehow manages to be light and fleeting on its feet. A Central Coast classic. 93 pts winery
YANGARRA McLaren Vale Grenache 2014 (McLaren Vale, $30). To get a real sense of place with Australian wine, seek the Grenache grape. Arguably, no place does this variety better, and this is a memorable one for its exceeding balance and outclassing in price point. Bright notes of violets on top, and assertive purple fruit all over the palate. Distinctive and delightful. 92 pts
YANGARRA “PF” Shiraz 2016 (McLaren Vale, $25). One of the most solid staples in Aussie Shiraz—manages to impress for the price regardless of vintage. Rich, dark fruit that you expect rendered with delightful, velvety texture and perfectly appropriate balance. From a biodynamic, single vineyard—a value with values that’s hard to beat. 91 pts winery
E. GUIGAL Côte Rôtie “La Turque” 2005 (Rhone, around $500-600). One of the legendary Northern Rhone red wines. With good reason. This has a fucking fantastic nose of bacon, smoke, black licorice, cigar box and lavender—wine to get high on by just sniffing. At 13 years in, the wine’s incredible finesse, silky sensuality and captivating complexity is pure sex, sin and temptation. Richly detailed and irresistible. 100 pts winery
LOU COUCARDIÉ (GASSIER) Costieres de Nimes 2010 (Rhone, around $28). Affordable, organic, terroir-driven Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend that’s distinctively French in its acidity, earthiness and minerality. Dark-toned and concentrated with hints of spice and Mediterranean herbs. Enjoyable, complex and, as evidenced by this bottle, long aging. 90 pts winery
MELVILLE Verna’s Viognier 2008 (Santa Barbara, around $22). It’s a shame that the 2013 vintage of one of the best wines from this great Santa Barbara County winery was the last to be made. This vivacious 10-year-old wine is undyingly persistent and viscous in floral, stone fruit and lychee notes. Great body and texture, and downright delicious. Grab whatever’s left. 92 pts winery
RBJ Mataro 2002 (Barossa Valley, around $50). Amazingly virile for an old wine. Pure Mourvedre that’s all cocky with broad, bold notes of dark spices, Indonesian coffee and tar. Almost menacing in approach, going through the Vertigo tunnel of dizzying complexity. Powerful and memorable. 94 pts winery
SAXUM Broken Stones 2009 (Paso Robles, around $150). Bam! Boom! Pow! Remember those cartoon callouts in the classic Batman live-action TV series from the 70s? Yeah, that’s this iconic Paso wine, a Syrah-based blend with Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, and Grenache. Dense, deeply rich, savory and highly intense, time in the bottle has only magnified the big, knockout boysenberry pie and licorice flavors. 95 pts winery
TABLAS CREEK Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2001 (Paso Robles, around $45). A quintessential, historically-significant Paso Roussanne-based blend that’s a testament to the ageability of a great Rhone-inspired white. Unbelievable how lively and fresh the wine is today. Lemon curd and white peach notes abound in what amounts to a very classy affair. The pioneering spirit of winery founder Robert Haas lives on. 93 pts winery