Wine Wednesday: Rhône in California

By Cecily G

Wine Wednesday is here and you know we want to talk Rhône! For today’s lesson we are going to be exploring the history of Rhône varietals in California.

California’s grape growing history cannot be told without the mention of Rhône varietals. Though not as dominant as King Cabernet or the ever abundant Chardonnay, Rhône varietals play an important role is the wines of California.

Ancient vine trunks of Rauser Vineyard Carignan (planted in 1906) in Lodi, CA. Image via Lodi Wine Grape Commission.

Rhône varietals have a long history in the state, with many vineyards having been planted by immigrant families in the 1800’s. Today’s resurgence of popularity for California Rhône wines can be attributed to a time more recent, in the 70’s when Joseph Phelps, McDowell Winery, Gary Eberle, and Zaca Mesa began planting and growing Syrah. These plantings spanned the state, with Phelps and McDowell planting in the north, and Eberle and Zaca Mesa planting on the Central Coast. McDowell actually had planted a Syrah vineyard in 1919, but as this was the first year of Prohibition, true varietal wines were not produced from these vines until later.

Joseph Phelps was the first to try his hand at a true varietal Syrah in the early 1970’s in Napa Valley. Unfortunately, it took many, many years of experimentation and failures, and it wasn’t until more recently that Phelps launched a successful series of Rhône varietals. By this time, many other producers were crafting exceptional Rhône varietal wines.