Feature Story

Full Transparency
The New Grenache from California

The process for generating stories at Wine & Spirits often originates at our tasting table. But rarely is the process so straightforward as it was this past November when our team sat down in our Los Angeles offices to a tasting devoted to Rhône varieties, this issue’s varietal focus, which included a flight of a dozen grenaches.

Grenache tasters (clockwise from bottom left): David Rosoff, Ryan Ibsen, Taylor Parsons, Karen Moneymaker and Patrick J. Comiskey Grenache tasters (clockwise from bottom left): David Rosoff, Ryan Ibsen, Taylor Parsons, Karen Moneymaker and Patrick J. Comiskey
California grenache hadn’t excited any of us on the editorial team in years past: The wines seemed simple, front-loaded and confectionary; “a bit daft” is how I described them in my book on the subject, American Rhône, “like a large-pawed puppy that refused to settle down. While you might appreciate the exuberance, you may long for a little gravitas.”

With these wines, though, we knew something was up. They felt lighter, more transparent, more focused, with a newfound sense of moxie and composition. The wines from the Sierra Foothills, in particular—like those from Domaine de la Terre Rouge, A Tribute to Grace, Skinner, The Withers, among others—stood out, leading not with fruit but with savor and mineral-inflected tannins, an honest rusticity that grabbed the palate in advance of the fruit.

Until recently it was rare for American grenache to display much structural integrity and, when it did, it was usually overwhelmed by overripe fruit, high heat and textural bloat. This new wave of wines possessed fruit and plenty of it, but most also showed a demonstrable frame of tannins to offset that exuberance. It was as if, now that the tide of ripeness had begun to recede, grenache’s true character was being revealed.

So, curious about this new grenache and intrigued by how the Sierra Foothills in particular might be influencing the shift, we set up another tasting to consider the category in depth, enlisting a few area sommeliers: David Rosoff of Hippo, Ryan Ibsen of Bestia and Bavel and Taylor Parsons, late of Republique and now a wine-program consultant. W&S editor Karen Moneymaker collected 30 California grenaches from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, and the five of us tasted them, blind, making this by far the most comprehensive tasting of the variety we’ve conducted in many years.

This panel was, as they say, a tough crowd. Grenache benchmarks for the three sommeliers were more Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat or the outskirts of Madrid than Ukiah or Placerville. These tasters are the guys who casually employ palate memory of Charvin and Rayas, or Terroir al Limit and Comando G. But what did they know about domestic grenache? Which ones did they drink, if any?

It turned out that none of our guests came into the tasting with much of a favorable impression of California grenache. Over the years, they’d found it simple, alcoholic and prone to abusive oak treatment in the cellar. “New wood definitely stands out,” said Taylor Parsons. “The grape doesn’t keep its secrets well.”

But as we tasted through the first few flights, the wines weren’t behaving so predictably. The first clue appeared in the color scheme. Most of these wines were notably lighter and more translucent in the glass than past iterations, as producers statewide have grown less concerned with extraction. Not every wine had moved in this direction, but the ones that had were quietly impressive. “I’m happy to see how light some of these are,” said David Rosoff, “and yet they’re still quite persistent.”

Transparency seemed like a good descriptor for the best wines in the tasting, a pulling away from extraction allowing the lighter, more graceful aspects of the grape to show through. “Half the time,” said Ryan Ibsen, “my notes could be describing pinot noir.”

The Outliers

The lightest of all the wines came from one of the state’s most remote vineyards, in eastern Santa Barbara County, and, at 3,400 feet of elevation, one of its highest. It’s called Santa Barbara Highlands, and for her all-grenache brand, A Tribute to Grace, Angela Osborne purchases fruit from the vineyard’s highest point, a mesa overlooking the sandy braids of the Cuyama River, beneath a blinding desert sun and miles from civilization.

“Half the time, my notes could be describing pinot noir.”
—Ryan Ibsen
The extreme diurnal shift and solar intensity invariably results in Osborne’s palest, most ethereal bottling. The wine was bright and completely see-through, with a dark-cherry essence despite the transparent color. As Rosoff remarked, “The lack of extract sets up this tension between bright fruit and dusty tannins.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the wines of the Sta. Rita Hills, a region few would have thought warm enough to accommodate the variety. But climate change and adjusted expectations of the grape, including a greater acceptance of lighter, less ripe wines, meant that the best of the wines—from Dragonette and A Tribute to Grace—were complex in their scents, salty and focused.

As with pinots from the area, color is rarely an issue for grenache—here, cool weather, buffeting winds and long hang times contribute to a fairly dark color palette. The marginal climate seemed to result in grenache tannins with a mildly herbal tang, the fruit bright but limned with herbs. Ibsen detected a briary note that had him thinking of zinfandel while Rosoff was put in mind of south-of-France garrigue: “The dustiness here,” he said, “you can find sometimes in the Languedoc.”

Besson and the Old-Vine Connection

Angela Osborne Angela Osborne
Grenache arrived in California in the 1850s, the first of what came to be known as the Rhône pantheon in the state, when French immigrants, lured by gold, were obliged to turn to other livelihoods. They settled in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Jose, planted grenache and other varieties from the home country and crafted the modern Eden, which wine historian Charles Sullivan writes about in his book Like Modern Edens. When the Rhône Rangers went looking for grenache in the 1980s, they found it here.

The seminal source was Besson Vineyard, planted on the east-facing foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains (though just outside of that appellation) in 1910, a little more than 50 years after the first settlers established the grape in California. It’s own-rooted, dry farmed, head trained and old-school, the vines maintained by George Besson, Jr., in memory of his father, George, Sr., who is said to have purchased the vineyard in the ’20s from Italian bootleggers. Besson was the source for David Bruce’s 1969 bottling of grenache, the first to carry a Rhône varietal name in the modern age. Upon tasting this wine more than a decade later, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm tracked down the vineyard and began purchasing fruit there, employing it in monovarietal grenache wines and in Le Cigare Volant, his “Chateauneufian” blend. Nearly 110 years on, Besson is still producing two tons an acre. We tasted two grenache wines from this venerable vineyard, Birichino and A Tribute to Grace, and it’s likely that vine age accounted for the composure Parsons loved. “So seamless,” he raved, about A Tribute to Grace in particular. Both wines presented a self-possession and an effortless expression of fruit from old vines grown in the right spot, harmonious and ethereal.

The View From the Sierras

Since the Sierra Foothills was the region that had sent us down this particular rabbit hole, there were several Foothills grenaches in the tasting, and they, too, inspired plenty of discussion—as well as a retelling of recent history.

It’s certain that grenache gained purchase in the Foothills in the 19th century, as it had been in other parts of the state, though none of these vines survived Prohibition. With other Rhône varieties, it was planted during the Rhône-Ranger heyday of the late 1980s and early ’90s, though the variety took a backseat to syrah in attention, acreage and importance; even when growers did plant it, they didn’t have a clear idea of what to do with it. But grenache took on a new relevance through the work of Ron Mansfield and Ann Kraemer, whose vineyards, Fenaughty and Shake Ridge, respectively, are among the most lauded in the region.

Ron Mansfield Ron Mansfield
Like a lot of fruit growers in the ’80s, Mansfield planted grapes alongside the cherries, peaches, pears and apples at his Placerville property, Gold Bud Farms. In 1988, as the story goes, Steven Edmunds, of Edmunds St. John winery, bit into one of Mans­field’s magnificent peaches and persuaded him to dedicate more acres to wine grapes, specifically, to focus on Rhône varieties.

Mansfield did this at Fenaughty Vineyard, a high-elevation site that he now owns and on which he’s planted several acres of grenache at 2,900 feet, with a cool, north-facing aspect.

Thirty miles to the south, Ann Kraemer, a longtime grower in Napa and Sonoma, and part of the historic Yorba farming family (citrus growers in Orange County), secured about 50 acres near the town of Volcano and called it Shake Ridge Ranch. There she has planted mostly Spanish and Rhône varieties, including grenache, on a jumble of hills composed of different shale and slate deposits and studded with a significant amount of rose quartz.

These are not the only grenache sites in the area; Bill Easton of Domaine de la Terre Rouge has been working with various sites for years. Suma Kaw Vineyard is near Placerville, set at 2,800 feet, while Skinner

Vineyards, known best for their mourvedre bottlings, farms vines in Fair Play and Rescue for their Estate Grenache. Finally, The Withers’ Andrew Tow recently purchased a vineyard, partly planted to grenache, in an area ominously referred to as Mosquito Ridge.

Ann Kraemer Ann Kraemer
But what links Kraemer and Mansfield is the fact that most of what they grow they sell to winemakers, and their skillful farming has attracted clients like Edmunds, Jared and Tracey Brandt of Donkey & Goat, Kristie Tacey of Tessier, Annie Favia, Helen Keplinger, Angela Osborne and others. Their talents have brought a new visibility to the vineyards, to the region—and not least, to grenache.

As it had in tastings the week prior, the Sierra Foothills held its own. “This just feels correct,” Parsons said of Bill Easton’s L’Autre. “Balanced, natural, grenache-y.” Across the board the panel pointed out similarities in how the wines gripped the palate, how the tannins supported the fruit; Ibsen described “the leathery edges” of The Withers ’16, and Rosoff pointed to the tight rusticity and “mineral crunch” of both The Withers, from Swansboro, and A Tribute to Grace, from Shake Ridge.

Kristie Tacey’s Tessier Grenache, from Fenaughty Vineyard, arrived too late to be included in the blind tasting, but not too late for the article. She picks it on the underside of ripeness (it’s bottled at 13.3 percent alcohol), and the wine has the delicacy grenache can express at elevation. A pale ruby in the glass, it’s 2,900 feet of cool, with a scent of lavender and wild strawberries, the wine juicy and fresh, fully flavored, with more grip than the color would give up.

The Sierra Foothills isn’t the only region where California grenache has emerged from behind its gaudy veil of alcohol and fruit. But, as this tasting showed, it may well be the most distinctive in this moment. And, it may serve as a bellwether, a place where terroir expression is destined to show itself, now that these talented practitioners have taken on the task of revealing it.

This feature appears in the print edition of February 2019.
Like what you just read? Subscribe now