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Rhone Rangers Offer Up All of Grenache's Guises

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You might not trick anybody if you ask him or her what's the most commonly grown wine grape in the world. Most people would guess or know it's cabernet sauvignon. But you could win quite a few bar bets asking people what's the second most commonly grown wine grape globally.

Meet Grenache. A work horse in the Rhone region of France, a favorite in Australia, a cornerstone of the Spanish wine industry (some think it originated there, where it's called Garnacha), Grenache has a checkered history in the U.S. Because as much as the varietal can make delicious wines -- think Châteauneuf-du-Pape -- it also can grow prodigiously, and for years was crucial to filling millions of jugs of wine coming out of California's Central Valley. And you know how it is when you're cheap and loved by everybody -- you don't get the best of reputations.

Winemakers are trying to change all that, and if you want to hear the hard sell you can at a Rhone Rangers event on Saturday, November 7. "Grenache on the Rise" will take place at 10:30 in the morning at The Reef in downtown L.A. -- an educational seminar and tasting featuring Grenaches of all sorts (red, white, rosé, blends) from 10 California producers who will tell you their wines' tales.

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Get ready to hear the word "beautiful" a lot if you attend. "It is beautiful from the get-go," says Larry Schaffer from Tercero Wines, who will be part of the panel. "It smells wonderful during cold soak, during fermentation, and then immediately at pressing and from then forward. Its aromatics are exotically sensual and complex, and its flavor profiles make it a perfect wine to have on its own or paired with a plethora of foods. It's wonderful on its own, but plays well with other varieties in blends. And it ages beautifully."

Another panel participant from Santa Barbara, Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards, has long been a Rhone varietal enthusiast, and he's certainly keen on Grenache. When discussing Grenache Blanc, he says, "This may sound strange, but, it is also one of the most beautiful grape clusters that I have ever seen. It is a beauty that seems to make us want to take extra care to keep it so balanced and stunning."

Then again, Sam Mamorstein, owner of Bernat Wines and the Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant (and that spot where Miles and Maya have their first wine-soaked date in Sideways), who will be pouring his 2012 Grenache Blanc at the seminar, simply calls it, "A nice afternoon wine that does not knock you over and is very friendly and easy to drink. Sort of like a Sauvignon Blanc but with more flavor and acidity. I like it for the citrus fruitiness, the acidity, and the lightness of it."

Murray, however, likes taking the long view on Grenache's past and a possible future. "So many folks think of it as sweet blush or light red or over alcoholic fruit bombs or...insert style here," he explains. "To me the future will continue to see a tightening of the reins and seeking out the right places to grow Grenache and to seek out better clones that will really deliver Grenache's potential of rich and fruity yet savory wines. Grenache currently is being embraced by California's next generation of wine makers who are all about doing things differently than the 'commercial' years of California wine growing. This is exciting to watch and to see winemakers staking their claim on this variety. It will continue to be a steep slope to climb, but these sorts of journeys are always the most rewarding."

Take Petrichor Vineyards, which makes all estate and organic wines, perched on the westernmost slope of the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County. Not automatically a spot where one might think Grenache, but Margaret Bradley-Foley and her husband Jim have a love of Rhone varietals. "The vineyard was planted in 2004 to 75% Syrah with the remaining planted to Grenache," she says. "As our familiarity and love of Grenache grew, we decided in 2010 to graft over 25% of the vineyard to Grenache making it 50/50. Grenache, with its red fruit notes and underlying dried herbs is most alluring to us. Our volcanic soil and the distinct salinity from the maritime influence make it an enchanting wine."

As many have said, it's sort of the pinot noir of Rhone varietals, always seductive and able to entrance in a variety of sexy guises, if grown and made right -- from structured and lovely to bold and bodacious.

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