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NorCal Wine Blog

John Alban on the First Hospice du Rhone and the State of American Rhone Variety Wine in 1993

Hospice du Rhone is only two weeks away. I’ll once again be leading a small band of friends on the annual pilgrimage to Paso Robles for the world’s biggest event dedicated to Rhone variety wines. And I know that on the day after HdR 2012, I’ll already be looking forward to HdR 2013.

hdr_20_year_sealThis year marks the 20th anniversary of Hospice du Rhone. John Alban calls it the 20th reunion. He — and perhaps most of it’s attendees — see HdR more as a fraternal gathering than a tasting or conference. Along with being one of the United States' top producers of Rhone variety wines, John was one of the founders of Hospice du Rhone and has been its driving force for many years. Given this year’s milestone, I asked him to tell me about the history of the event. What was the context of its beginnings? How have Hospice du Rhone and the world of Rhone variety wines changed together over the years?

It’s a fascinating story. It's easy to take Rhone variety wines for granted today. They are everywhere, from restaurants to supermarkets. But that is a very recent development.

John was very generous with his time and provided barrels of great insights. I’m publishing the interview in several bite-sized segments. Part two will be published tomorrow (Saturday).

Setting the Scene: Rhone Variety Wines in 1993

Fred Swan: The first Hospice du Rhone was in 1993. How prevalent were California or American-grown Rhone variety wines then? I’m talking about wineries with a quality focus, not just someone growing Grenache Blanc to fill out some high-volume white blend.

John Alban: I was at that point the only winery in the country that was exclusively producing Rhone varieties.  I had started my winery just to do that [in 1989]. That is not to say that I was the first one to make rhone varieties. There were wineries before me making Syrah and Mourvedre, etc. But there was no winery that was making only Rhone varieties.

With Grenache Blanc, there was no one. That didn’t show up until quite a bit later. For Viognier in 1993, there were probably 18 U.S. producers. There were actually a couple in Colorado. There were some in Virginia. But while that sounds like a lot, what you also have to factor in is I’ll bet you more than half probably of them made less than 200 cases of Viognier. So if you totaled them all up, all the Viognier from all those domestic producers, you wouldn’t even equal a medium-small size Chardonnay producer’s single house production. It was truly miniscule.

Of those 18, there weren’t more than five who actually knew what they were doing if you will. I know that’s a strong statement that can be construed in a lot of ways. But It was so primitive that consumers were saying things like “Is this what it’s supposed to taste like?” And you had producers who I think if they were completely honest, would say to you, “We’re not sure what it’s supposed to taste like.” Of course that’s a tremendous oversimplification.

Syrah was much further along. There were probably 40 Syrah producers, and probably half of them had a pretty darn good idea of what they were doing or where they were headed with this, or hoped to head with it. But again, all of this was made in such small amounts that it was truly baffling.  It was a different world.

If you went to a wine tasting in 1993 and you had people there who were pretty into wine, not your cork dorks, but people who drank wine daily and would go to a wine event, and you asked them to raise their hands, “How many of you have heard of Viognier?” I don’t think you’d get one in ten. Now, I’d be surprised if you got one in ten who hadn’t. Viognier is pretty commonplace. It’s more unusual to go to a restaurant that has a solid wine list and not find a Viognier on the list than it is to find one that doesn’t.

FS: I understand there was a time when the production of Viognier in Condrieu had dropped to very small amount too, and people have said that it was on the verge of disappearing over there.

JA: Very true. By the mid 80’s Condrieu acreage was less than 50 hectares. The renaissance of Condrieu matches up shockingly well with the burgeoning of Hospice du Rhone. And I think that you would find a lot of Condrieu producers that would say that’s no coincidence. As Hospice du Rhone started to hit stride and people became interested in it, interested in its message, Condrieu exploded. \

Now, virtually the entire appellation is planted, hundreds and hundreds of hectares. And it’s not just the vines. You didn’t have the children in those families interested in being vigneron anymore. They were leaving, They would do anything else. Now you have a whole new generation. They’re young and extremely passionate about Condrieu. And I suspect they will create children who have that same passion. It’s really been a tremendous turnaround.

About the First Hospice du Rhone

JA: The very first event that led to what we know as Hospice du Rhone was called the Viognier Guild and that was organized exclusively by Mat Garretson and held in Piedmont, GA. I was one of two producers that attended the event. There were maybe 10 - 12 people who came to it. There were about four bottles of wine for every person there.

He really meant it to be the largest tasting of Viogniers, domestic and imported, that had been held in the United States to date and I don’t doubt it was. Mat assembled Condrieus and all the U.S. producers he could get. It was a luncheon. There was a little vineyard tour at the winery where it was held, and then this luncheon. And then the more serious folk, of which I think there were four of us, went back to Mat’s home in Atlanta and continued tasting some other Rhone varieties.

When Mat took me to the airport the next day, I said to him, “You know I think this is a brilliant idea and if it were held in Calfiornia, if you’re interested in doing it again, I think it would really attract an amazing group of insiders. It’s so cutting edge it will really take serious cork dork type people to want to come to it. If we make it more accessible by having it in California, I think it can grow. I think the other thing we need to do is expand it to other Rhone varieties.”

Part of why i wanted to get this event going was when I went around trying to spread the gospel of Rhone varieties at different wine events... Naturally wine is promoted and to a great extent evaluated and enjoyed, as part of a group. If you want to learn about Pinot Noir, you tend to drink a bunch of different Pinot Noirs. Over time, you develop some impression of what you think Pinot Noir is.

With Rhone varieties as I got together with other producers and we started to spread the word about Viognier, because these other producers made 200 cases of Viognier — which at the time was a lot and 18,000 cases of Chardonnay, which was obviously much more — if excitement started to build in the room about Viognier... many of these people would start to recoil. They would say, “You know this is just sort of a fun little thing, but let’s not lose touch with the real thing. That’s our Chardonnay.”

So they start to actually have a reality check and come back to “where’s our bread really buttered.” That’s what convinced me that we needed to do something that was just about Rhone varieties. When people showed up at it, even if they did other things, there would hopefully be such a critical mass about Rhone varieties and people focusing all their attention — and having come all this way to learn about Rhone varieties — we wouldn’t get caught up in that other stuff.

Part Two of this interview will be published tomorrow. In that section, John and I discuss the evolution of Hospice du Rhone, the popularization of Rhone variety wines in the United States and one of his favorite HdR tasting seminars of all time.

Don’t miss the upcoming Hospice du Rhone on April 27 & 28. For more tastes of HdR, take a look at these articles too:
Looking Forward to Hospice du Rhone 2012
10 Big Wine Events to Look Forward to in Early 2012

Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day One
Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day Two

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