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John Alban Traps Philippe Guigal in an Elevator and other Tales of HdR

This is the third installment of my conversation with John Alban regarding Hospice du Rhone and the advancement of Rhone variety wines globally over the past 20 years. Don’t miss part one and part two.

Highlights among Past Tasting Seminars at Hospice du Rhone

The first two articles in this series touched on the passion of both Hospice du Rhone organizers and its attendees. Hospice du Rhoners, and I include myself among them, really love Rhone variety wines. We like to learn about new ones, meet people who share our enthusiasm and discuss the wines we taste. But passion alone cannot sustain an event such as Hospice du Rhone.

“The success and the excitement and the sustainability of Hospice du Rhone ultimately comes down to one simple fact," says John Alban. 'And that is the quality of the wines poured. You could do all the things we do. You could try to introduce all the passion, enthusiasm, the celebration. But if the wines didn’t live up to all that hullabaloo, people wouldn’t come back.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the quality that keeps Hospice du Rhoners coming back, and attracts new ones, is the E. Guigal Tasting Seminar led by Philippe Guigal in 2008. It was a remarkable tasting of nine wines, including the famous "La La's."

  • 2006 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2006 E. Guigal “La Doriane”
  • 2006 E. Guigal St. Joseph Blanc
  • 2005 E. Guigal Hermitage Blanc “Ex Voto”
  • 2003 E. Guigal “Brune et Blonde”
  • 2005 E. Guigal “Vignes de l”Hospice”
  • 1998 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis
  • 2004 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie “La Mouline”
  • 2006 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie “La Landonne”

Making this seminar happen was no small feat. John told me it took the most years and the most trips to France of any he's produced. In his opening comments at the seminar, Philippe Guigal spoke with amusement about how he reached his decision to put on a tasting at Hospice du Rhone.

He and John Alban were in an elevator in France, leaving a venue after yet more discussions. Alban reached over and pushed the emergency stop button. “We’re not leaving the elevator,” Alban told him, “until we come to an agreement on when you’re coming to Hospice du Rhone.” Smiling, Philippe said, “I think he may have been serious.”

Doing a tasting seminar at Hospice du Rhone is no small decision for a winery. Even the quantity of wine needed is daunting — these seminars seat 400 people. Alban both appreciates those who do it and marvels at what Hospice du Rhone has become.

“It’s almost unbelievable. How does Philippe Guigal wind up in Paso Robles pouring hundreds of bottles of wine that people are on a waiting list to purchase for huge amounts of money? And he’s there giving them away and talking about them at Hospice du Rhone. Just that phenomenon right there show’s there’s a certain lunacy to all this.”

Some Hospice du Rhone tasting seminars, such as that of E. Guigal, provide attendees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try highly exclusive wines. Others, like “Blinded by the Whites,” introduce people to new categories of wine. And some, including those scheduled for this year’s event, expose unique geographies or introduce individual winemakers and their passions.

The 2012 Hospice du Rhone Seminars

Each of this year’s seminars are connected somehow with the history of Hospice du Rhone. The first, 'Why Spain (Continues to) Rock,' focuses on Priorat with an ensemble of the region’s best Rhone variety specialists. It reprises a 2006 tasting that was among the most surprising ever for attendees. Once again, it will be led by Eric Solomon, proprietor of European Cellars, a prominent importer and specialist in Priorat wines.

John Alban explained the impact the first Priorat seminar had on Hospice du Rhoners and, ultimately, himself. “People went into this seminar with unpronounceable names, unpronounceable regions, unpronounceable soil types, everything was a just a garble of syllables that nobody had any experience with. In the end, people got fired up. You know, I was getting cards and emails from people a year later saying, “I’m in Priorat!” People who had never heard of Priorat before, now they were sending me cards and letters from there.” With emotion in his voice, Alban said, “It’s hard not to feel pretty pumped up about something like that.”

Christopher Baron of Cayuse Cellars in Walla Walla appeared at Hospice du Rhone in a 2004 seminar on Washington Rhones with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars. At the time, Walla Walla wasn’t on anyone’s radar. “It was so far ahead of the curve,” says Alban. “Many years later after he really came into prominence and notoriety, people would come to us all the time and ask, 'Have you ever thought about doing a seminar about Christophe.' I’d say, "Yeah, we did one.'” Fortunately for those people, he's back this year in 'The Return of the Bionic Frog.'

I am intrigued by his use of biodynamic farming and reputation for  minimal intervention winemaking. So, I’m looking forward to the tasting with Christophe Baron who John Alban described for me. “He’s hysterical. He’s engaging. He’s brilliant. He’s talented. He is this rare combination of a winemaking phenom and a showman — in all the best ways, not a contrived way, not a superficial way — and what greater treat than to be able to put someone in front of people who wows you with the wines and dazzles you with their personality and their perspective.”

Alban says that d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborne, who will lead “Research, Revelations and the Art of Being Different,” is very similar. “I would almost say that Chester and Christophe could be twin brothers from two different continents. Except they don’t look anything alike. They have wonderful senses of humor. They are great philosophers and winemakers, etc. etc. There some obvious differences. One makes a huge amount of wine, one makes a small amount of wine. But I think that’s part of that Australian-Walla Walla dichotomy. Australia really does things big. Walla Walla is small.”

Osborne’s seminar will detail studies he’s done on geology and sub-regionality in McClaren Vale. He’ll explain the corresponding changes he’s made in viticulture and winemaking. And, of course, it will feature some of the best wines of South Australia.

Several times during our conversation, John Alban referred to this 20th anniversary Hospice du Rhone as a family reunion. He did so particularly with respect to the seminars. And the hosts of “A Collective Quest” are almost as inseparable from HdR as they are from each other. Yves Cuillion, Francois Gaillard and Pierre Gaillard are the founders of Les Vins de Vienne. [For more about Les Vins de Vienne, I recommend this article by Blake W. Gray at Palate Press.] With Yves Gangloff who is not involved with that particular project, they have become known to Hospice du Rhoners as “The Four Amigos.”

The involvement of these winemakers with Hospice du Rhone goes back to the early days when John Alban and Mat Garretson were making regular trips to the Northern Rhone trying to get participation. Yves Cuilleron was so receptive to us,” Alban explained. “He wanted to know more and more about it and started laughing and giggling. We’d say, ‘Who wouldn’t want to go to Paso Robles?’ We played off of that and off of what we were, which was goofy and passionate. He got it and wanted us to meet some of his friends. They told anyone and everyone in the Northern Rhone and helped open a lot of doors for us. They’re like four angels that picked us up and continue to flap their wings and elevate us.”

Acceptance of Hospice du Rhone in the Rhone Valley

The participation of Cuilleron, Villard, Gaillard and Gangloff helped legitimize and expand HdR’s status as a truly international celebration of Rhone wines. Their enthusiasm and the dedication of Hospice du Rhone staff ultimately led to complete acceptance of the event by producers of the Northern Rhone.

One symbol of this acceptance was emulation. According to Alban, “France took on putting together an event which they now have up and down the Rhone Valley. They have it every other year and it was inspired by Hospice du Rhone. They’re very candid about that. It’s a much bigger thing and government funded. It involves all the producers of the Rhone Valley. We’d like to see Hospice du Rhone’s of sorts pop up all over the world because that’s our mission.”

Another symbol of appreciation for Hospice du Rhone among producers of the Northern Rhone came as a complete surprise to the HdR staff. “There was a very persistent request that the Hospice du Rhone gang be in Cote-Rotie for a big tasting,” John told me. There were a number of dear friends who did a great job of putting a lot of positive pressure on us to be at this thing. They wanted us to know how important it was. So we were completely unsuspecting. We just knew they were organizing a tasting and were trying to build more interest in the Northern Rhone for Hospice du Rhone.”

”What we didn’t know was that they have this society — and you know the French are big on their ancient and long-lived fraternities — The Decurion of Cote-Rotie, the organization of Cote Rotie producers. And they made me a member of this group. I didn’t see it coming. I guess they admit like four people each two years. They called me up and put the medal around me and kissed me on both cheeks and did all these things the French people do. It really was pretty overwhelming.”

"Up on the mezzanine above me were all these families, fathers and sons. The fathers had all rejected the idea of a Hospice du Rhone. Well... many had, it’s not so black and white. But I could look at so many of the fathers who had rejected this idea thinking, ‘We’re French, you’re American. How can we work together? This makes no sense.”

”But their sons [were accepting]. And now the sons were kissing us on both cheeks and the fathers were smiling. They’d gotten it by now. There were only warm feelings. That’s a moment I’ll remember my whole life. And it wasn’t about me. That’s important. They just picked someone to put the medal on and kiss. It was about Hospice du Rhone — all the people that had come, all the interest and enthusiasm, the sales that it sparked, and also about all the new relationships.”

”Throughout Hospice du Rhone, there’ve been all these collaborative wines that have emerged where French and American producers have teamed up and started making wines, started labels together. They all met at Hospice du Rhone. It’s really an unbelievable story in that sense and not one that can be attributed to any one person. It’s not my story. It’s not Vicki’s story or Mat’s story. It is purely the story of Hospice du Rhone.”

If you’d like to be part of the continuing story that is Hospice du Rhone, there’s still time to get tickets. The 2012 celebration takes place in Paso Robles, April 27 - 28. For more information and to get tickets visit www.hospicedurhone.org.

If you’d like to read even more about Hospice du Rhone, here are some additional articles:
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 

There’s more coming from my conversation with John Alban. Look for that next week, before the big event. For the remainder of this week, I’ll be posting brief articles on a range of subjects at NorCalWine. The majority of my time, however, will be spent doing in-depth research on the vineyards and wineries of the Lodi AVA for future articles.

 

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. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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