My best from 2009's Hospice du Rhône

This past spring I attended two massive tasting events: the Hospice du Rhône (May 1-2) in Paso Robles, and World of Pinot Noir (March 6-7) in Shell Beach.

As much for myself as for your possible interest, here are some of the highlights from the Hospice du Rhône – all exceptional wines, worthy of a place in any wine list or cellar – out of about 100 wines tasted, listed in order of my personal favorites:


2005 Alban Vineyards, Reva Syrah (Alban Estate, Edna Valley)
Holy cow, can Syrah can any more intense, sleek and balanced as this? Black-purplish ruby, followed by nose of smoked bacon and oak, and sweetly scented, concentrated, violet and framboise/berry aromas. Thick, full, unctuous impact; the luscious flavors unfolding in textured layers across the palate.

2007 Paul Lato, Il Padrino Syrah (Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley)
(Proprietor/winemaker Paul Lato pictured below). Stunningly intense nose of sweet berries, violets, brown (cinnamon), black (peppercorn), and exotic (ginger) spices; the spiced fruit of immense concentration on the palate; big body and tannin smoothed over by silken, sweet sensations.

2007 Baker Lane, Sonoma Coast Estate Vineyard Syrah
Shiny new star producer; the wines made by Steven Canter (who also works full-time for Quivira), and this wine co-fermented with 5% Viognier. Nose is violet/floral scented, with backdrop of smoked meats and crushed berries; juicy, round, thick and full-bodied on the palate; the crushed berry flavors mingling with dark roasted coffee and charred oak underpinnings.

2006 Stolpman Vineyards, Estate Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley)
Ultra-rich, bright and perfumed sweet berry nose tinged by vivid, exotic spices (dried herbs, black and red pepper); super-full, dense, muscular feel, encasing fleshy fruit with finely smoothed textures.

2005 Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima (Santa Ynez Valley)
Beckmen's top-of-the-line Purisima (60% Grenache/40% Syrah) is produced only once every two or three years, when vintage conditions are optimal; and you can see why the ’05 made the cut: it’s massive – a burly yet round, sleek, fleshy concentration of red berries and pomegranate, spiked with smoke and peppercorn. Despite a monumental structure of meat and tannin, the dominant note in the middle and finish is as sweet and fresh as black chocolate covered strawberries… consumed with supple, black leather gloves.

2006 Skylark, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah (Sonoma Coast)
By the sommelier/winemaker team of John Lancaster and Robert Perkins (both still active at Boulevard in San Francisco). Black/purplish ruby; sweetly intense perfumes of crushed berries, dark roasted coffee, cracked pepper and pine needles. Big, thick, plush qualities of the same on the palate; an aggressive, let-it-all-hang-out approach to Syrah.

2007 Paul Lato, Cinematique Syrah (Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley)
Compared to Lato’s Il Padrino, even more fragrant (violet, lavender and musk spices) and earthy (rosemary/raw meat) in the nose, specked with blackpepper; rounder, more finely finished, silken mouth-feel, with moderate tannin running beneath the sweet/spicy flavors.

2006 Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley)
Ripe, sweet blackberry nose with raw cacao complexity and sprigs of herby mint; thick, dense, full body, buttressed by muscular tannin overlain with the sweet, chocolaty fruit sensations.

2005 Torbreck, Run Rig Shiraz-Viognier (Barossa Valley, South Australia
Thick, balsamic notes of VA only seem to intensify the big, ripe, sweetly concentrated black fruit nose, filled out with dried Provençal herbs; dense, muscular tannins buoy the sweet, concentrated sensations, finishing with a sense of fatted flesh.

2007 Mollydooker, The Boxer Shiraz (McLaren Vale, South Australia)
Dense purple; exuberantly fruit-forward black fruit aromas tinged with smoky oak and mint; thick, layered, round feel, the luscious fruit qualities completely engulfing medium tannins and sweet oak.

2006 Justin Vineyards, Paso Robles Savant
59% Syrah/41% Cabernet Sauvignon. Multi-faceted nose of sweet herbs (rosemary and pine needles), violets, hard spices (clove and star anise), and roasted meats; velvety entry leading to big, round, fleshy body, filled with the sweetly spiced flavors.


2007 Domaine François Villard, Deponcins Condrieu (Rhône Valley, France)
As pretty as it gets for white Rhône; nose bursting with apricot and wildflowers; fine, silken entry into medium-full, finesseful body barely containing the drippy, mouth-watering, juicy apricot flavors.

2007 E. Guigal, Condrieu La Doriane (Rhône Valley, France)
Fragrant, super-fresh, juicy peach nose with white pepper and lychee-like spices; full, lush, silky textured feel, the fruit flavors lingering sweetly in round, glycerol textured layers.

2007 Alban Vineyards, Alban Estate Vineyard Viognier (Edna Valley)
Intensely fragrant, flowery nose studded with white pepper spice, honeysuckle, fresh citrus and orange peel; big and fleshy feel, yet the spiced, floral flavors lively enough to dance across the palate.


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.