In Search of the Rhone Rangers

If you study the history of grape growing in California, you quickly realize that Cabernet Sauvignon was not always the name of the game. Prior to the 20th century, many of the Golden State’s best wines were composed of Rhône varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre. Their popularity was probably due, in part, to a realization that climate conditions in the state were closer to the Rhone Valley than to Bordeaux or Burgundy. Part of it was also due to phylloxera, the vine louse that decimated Bordeaux vineyards for several decades from 1870 onward.

Rhône varieties disappeared after Prohibition, washed away in a sea of Cabernet. But in the 1980s, a visionary group of California winemakers began planting Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier. Men such as Randall Grahm, Joseph Phelps and Fred Cline became known as the Rhône Rangers. It’s fair to say that the further south you go, the better the wines get, as they approach a parallel line with Vienne and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The next generation of Rhône Rangers is personified by Beckmen Vineyards, centered in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara. Founded in 1994 by Tom and Judy Beckmen, the winery is run today by their son Steve. With large vineyard holdings in both the Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos AVAs, they are continuing the legacy established by the original group of trailblazers.

Their 2018 Grenache Rosé ($20) hails from Beckmen’s biodynamically farmed Purisima Mountain Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. It has a pale salmon color and a sexy nose with whiffs of spice and red fruits. It dominates the palate with good acidity, generous flavors of red berries and an assertive yet pleasing texture, displaying a great balance between fruit and tannin. The finish is long and seductively lush. There’s a lot of rosé on the market at the moment, both domestic and imported, but this one displays more style and substance than some other famous examples (did someone say Hampton Water?).

The 2017 Cuvée Le Bec ($21) is a candidate for the American version of Côtes du Rhone, with a blend of 47% Syrah, 35% Grenache, 11% Mourvedre and 7% Counoise. It has a dense, saturated purple color and a nose redolent of black pepper, bacon fat and crushed black fruits. The wine is smooth and graceful in the mouth, with bright acidity and flavors of stewed plums and ripe blackberries. Peppered plums linger on the long finish. A few glasses of this, and you’ll fire up the grill.

Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, was released in 2016; his second novel, The American Crusade, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is now available on Amazon.

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