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.
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.
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.”
photo courtesy of John Alban reprinted from American Rhone, copyright 2016 Patrick J. Comiskey. Published by UC Press.