Inherent Wildness

Berkeley in the 1960s may be remembered for student sit-ins and anti-war protests, but it was also a flashpoint for shifts in American culture that went beyond politics. “With an expansion of cultural consciousness came an expansion of the possibilities in food and wine, so that by the time the seventies arrive, the climate is right for a series of seminal events that, taken together, become the antecedents of the American Rhône wine movement,” Patrick Comiskey writes in American Rhône, his book about a group of maverick winemakers who broke from tradition to introduce a new category of American-produced wines.

John Alban on his way to Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (undated).
John Alban on his way to Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (undated).
In the US, wines from the Rhône were historically a footnote to Bordeaux, Burgundy and German riesling. Then came Berkeley-based wine importer Kermit Lynch, who found a market for Rhône wines with a new generation of restaurateurs like Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters. California winemakers like Steve Edmunds, Bob Lindquist and Randall Grahm tasted the wines in the early 1980s, and were so captivated that they set out to explore what Rhône grapes—particularly syrah—might be able to do in California’s Mediterranean climate.

Comiskey, the Los Angeles-based wine critic for Wine & Spirits, gives an intriguing account of these early risk-takers, including superstars like Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non and Christophe Baron of Cayuse. He also profiles lesser known contributors to the cause, like Robert Mayberry: Edmunds and others who had staked their livelihood on Rhône varieties developed a blueprint for best practices through his 1987 book, Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins, and his lectures at UC Davis Extension.

<em><b>American Rhône, How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink</b>, by Patrick J. Comiskey (University of California Press, $34.95).</em>
American Rhône, How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink, by Patrick J. Comiskey (University of California Press, $34.95).
Comiskey offers plenty for insiders craving a detailed backstory of Rhône-style wines in the US. In a chapter called the “Purloined Rhône,” for example, he relates the story of vine material that Grahm and fellow winemaker John Alban smuggled into the United States. Some of these “lifted” vines created unintended problems when they were propagated and distributed. The winemakers have kept mostly mum on the subject, and Comiskey does a bit of detective work to unravel the full story. The result is a fascinating read.

Comiksey also traces the rise of syrah in the first decade of the 2000s, when global production soared as syrah from Australia garnered critical acclaim and consumers flocked to the highly rated wines. But, as Comiskey relates, an overproduction of benign, boring syrah resulted in a serious contraction of the market. He quotes UC Davis scientist and Mt. Veeder syrah winemaker Carol Meredith: “People don’t have a clear picture of what syrah is. It still has no history for Americans; it hasn’t had a Judgment of Paris, it hasn’t had a movie. What it has is a lot of schlocky wines that have really worked against it.”

Ultimately, however, Comiskey sees hope in a growing cadre of vintners who have learned to produce syrah in a way that reflects and celebrates the place where the fruit is grown and, as Comiskey likes to say, embraces its “inherent wildness.”

Reviewed in W&S October 2016.
photo courtesy of John Alban reprinted from American Rhone, copyright 2016 Patrick J. Comiskey. Published by UC Press.