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John Alban on the Evolution of Hospice du Rhone and Surge in Rhone Variety Popularity

This is part two of my interview with John Alban of Alban Vineyards regarding the history of Hospice du Rhone and the rising popularity of Rhone variety wines over the past two decades. The first segment of the interview is here.

The Viognier Guild Moves to California and Changes Its Name

The 2nd annual event was still small and its success far from assured. Given the tiny U.S. market for domestic Rhone variety wines in 1994 — and the scant number of producers — “the idea of having a Rhone-focused event was really ludicrous,” according to Alban. “We were at best a garage band. So to envision a multi-band concert and think anyone would want to go to it was really absurd.”

Whereas John Alban had no role in planning the very first event, he was very actively involved in organizing the second. “I had to believe it could happen because I had committed everything I had in life to Rhone varieties. I had to believe they could reach a point where people were excited about them and wanted them and appreciated them. Part of what I realized was I had to involve producers from all over the world, especially from the Rhone. Because those were people who were truly invested in Rhone varieties and not any other varieties.”

“That was part one of where Hospice du Rhone really diverged from most other wine events in the United States, or really anywhere. Because most wine events throughout the world tend to be country specific. If you go to most any event you can think of that’s focused on a group of varieties, they tend to be dominated by California producers if they’re based in California. We really are an international celebration.”

The second “Hospice du Rhone,” was held at Alban Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County. Like the first one, it was called “The Viognier Guild.” However, the name “Raising Rhones,” was appended to make the event more interesting to producers who made little or no Viognier.

“I loved the name Viognier Guild,” John Alban chuckled during my interview with him. “I found it hysterical. I still find it hysterical. Who would join such a guild? Especially in 1994. Mat Garretson even made bumper stickers that said ‘Drink Viognier.’ He printed hundreds of them. I gave them to everyone I could find. But when we talked to producers, we got the same response. “Well, I’d like to come but I don’t make any Viognier.” We said, “Well, it’s about all Rhone varieties.”

With it’s broader Rhone-variety message this second meeting attracted some serious California producers. “It was really a who’s who of future Rhone heavy hitters,” says Alban, still somewhat surprised. “Even people who hadn’t really jumped in yet, but were clearly thinking about it. For example, Manfred Krankl was here, he hadn’t yet started Sine Qua Non. Bart and Daphne Araujo had some Syrah on the property. They were getting ready to look at Viognier. It was just very cool, the group that came to it.”

“It’s hard to say how much the evolution of Hospice du Rhone was a swelling of all these people who went on to produce Rhone varieties and how much it was that Hospice du Rhone sparked an interest that caused people to believe in it and do more of it. I believe it’s really the sound of two hands clapping. I think they reverberated off of each other.”

Despite the challenges and no consistent venue, Viognier Guild: Raising Rhones gained gathered momentum each year. But it was clear the event needed a permanent home. “The nomadic thing was very cool in spreading the gospel,” Alban remembers. “It was a great way to be missionaries. But if the thing was ever going to take off it needed an identity and a locale, a little more fixed.” It also needed a more space and the opportunity to become a multi-day event.

In 1997, the event moved to the San Luis Obispo County Fairgrounds in Paso Robles. It is still held there today. According to Alban, there’s no other place in the county — including in the town of San Luis Obispo — large enough to hold Hospice du Rhone. Fortunately, the site is more than suitable. It’s wild west theme is also amusing — and somehow more fitting for the gathering — than would be generic convention hall.

Of course, Paso Robles, and San Luis Obispo County in general, is not a typical location for large, international events. Initially, the region was intially chosen because John Alban and his wife, Lorraine, lived nearby. It would have been impractical for them to organize the event effectively if it were someplace farther away such as San Francisco, Los Angeles or Las Vegas. But the spot has worked out very well and I believe the smaller community and relative isolation have been beneficial for Hospice du Rhone.

Alban agrees. “The people who are at Hospice du Rhone in Paso Robles are here for Hospice du Rhone. They are Hospice du Rhoners. They are not travel people looking for a great city full of whatever. They are here for Hospice du Rhone. So they bring a different passion, a different spirit. Over that weekend, you can go by the craziest little place — even the park — and see people popping open Domaine de Marcoux and Palacios wines from great vintages — fabulous Rhone variety wines from all over the world in a seemingly humble or subdued setting. [Being in Paso Robles] puts a bigger spotlight on the wines and the event because there is no distraction.”

By 1999, it was clear that the name Viognier Guild had to go altogether. Despite the “Raising Rhones” suffix, the implied Viognier focus still made it difficult to sell some producers on participation. “I can’t tell you how many times producers would look at us after a 45 minute discussion — invitating, begging, pleading that they come and help — and  they'd say, ‘Oh, I’d love to, but I don’t make Viognier.’ So Mat and I agreed Viognier had to be dropped from the name. We needed something that encapsulated Rhone varieties. Out of that came Hospice du Rhone.”

That same year, Vicki Carroll joined John and Mat on the organizational team. These three changes in concert — venue, name and the addition of Vicki — fueled much more rapid growth. John Alban explains Vicki’s importance, “The evolution of Hospice du Rhone is ultimate proof of the saying, ‘anything really worth doing is worth doing poorly.’ We did it so poorly for so many years and it still just kept growing, because people knew we were only well intentioned.”

“We [John and Mat] were really like two people thinking they could run Disneyland without other staff. We’d run from ride to ride and we could see ‘Wow, this could really be something!’ We just weren’t effective. There was no malice. We had volunteers who were wonderful and who did help, so it wasn’t really just two people. But there wasn’t enough organization among the chiefs and there weren’t enough ‘Injuns’ to make it go. Vicki Carroll changed all that. So this really tremendous diamond in the rough was handed over to Vicki to clean up and she did that spectacularly.” She is now the director of Hospice du Rhone.

wells-carroll-alban-1000
Faith Wells, Vicki Carroll and John Alban of Hospice du Rhone in 2011.

 The Rhone Variety Market Evolves

The growing success of Hospice du Rhone was simultaneous with increasing popularity of Rhone variety wines in the United States and stepped up production of those wines by producers here and elsewhere. It is difficult to separate the success of one from the other. There was a synergy driven by passion, evangelism, improving wine quality, consumers’ thirst for something new and greater recognition by critics of Rhone variety wines made outside of France.

Steady progress was made in the U.S. market, but Australian Shiraz really took off in the 1990‘s. Decanter Magazine had named longtime Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert, the inventor of Penfolds Grange, their Man of the Year in 1988. The 1990 Penfolds Grange was Wine Specatator “Wine of the Year” when released in 1995. Overall sales of Aussie Rhone variety wines surged.

John Alban was thrilled by this development and sees it as one of the most significant advances for the Rhone varieties in the past 20 years. “Before Hospice du Rhone started, the acreage of Shiraz was dwindling. And they [Australian growers] were pulling out all their Grenache. There was no respect for it at all. They had really started to think they were supposed to be Cabernet producers. Then came all this appreciation for the old vines that they had and all the unique terroirs. It was a transformation from ‘these things are weeds in the way of our Cabernet’ to ‘wow, these are national treasures and we should treat them as such.’ And they did. Of course the reason it [was possible] is that there was a core group that clung to [Shiraz and Grenache] and knew this. But watching it turn around and resurrect itself was huge.”

The easiest way to see the surge of popularity for Rhone varieties in California is to simply look at the increase in acreage under vine for the grapes. The table below shows that data for 1997, when Hospice du Rhone was starting to gain traction, and 2005 when the event was reaching full participation. The final column shows the percentage of increase in acreage.

 

 

1997

2005

Increase

Grenache Noir

6110

7578

24%

Mourvedre

519

853

64%

Syrah

6987

18257

161%

 

 

 

 

Grenache Blanc

33

101

206%

Marsanne

44

69

57%

Roussanne

44

177

302%

Viognier

1222

2217

81%


Statistics from NASS

Hospice du Rhone Exposed Consumers and the Trade to “New” Wines

There are many ways that Hospice du Rhone has worked to increase sales of Rhone variety wines. One of the most important was introducing attendees to categories of wine they have never before experienced. John Alban remembers one seminar as a shining example.

“We did a seminar called “Blinded by the White” that will always stick with me as one of the great, great seminars we did. It was just spectacular. There’s a prejudice against white wine and, because of certain biases and some people having never had a great Marsanne or a great Roussanne, they had no idea how [good it could be]. They were moved and wowed by something that they knew nothing about. I find that sort of experience very gratifying. The eye opening, the expanding of horizons and watching people leave a seminar knowing they’re now going to drink for the rest of their lives a group of wines they had either never heard of before or never gave the time of day to before.”

The next installment of my interview with John Alban will cover more highlights from past Hospice du Rhone’s, including a spectacular Guigal tasting seminar,  and the enthusiastic participation the event has won from producers in the Northern Rhone overall. There will also be discussion of the 2012 tasting seminars.

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

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Photo by Fred Swan. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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