It's been a few years since Paso Robles had a Hospice du Rhone, the wine event that helped really define the region as a Rhone grape mecca in the USA. But "Hopsice" is more than just an event. It really is the result of pioneering efforts by the Haas family, and their long relationship with the Perrin's of Beaucastel fame, bringing the region the Tablas Creek Nursery and then subsequently with the opening an eponymously named winery, Paso landed on the wine map. That was quickly followed by work from many local producers, growers, merchants and restaurant operators who saw the "Rhone in Robles."
But Paso really earned its stripes on the world's stage as one of the "must regions to visit" for wine lovers of all levels when HdR started. This was all made possible by founder Vicki Carroll's relentless missionary work to the wine regions of the world, where year after year she sold, seduced and secured participation from winemakers from France, Spain, Australia and across the U.S.to take part in HdR, infusing it with all the makings of a tremendous event, to bring the world the same vision that Robert Haas had when he first rooted Rhone grapes into the Tablas Creek vineyard.
Fast forward 20 some years and now rumor even has it that even Inter-Rhone, the organization for promotion and marketing of all things Rhone, has found a way to become a part of the HdR event going forward. So you can see, how one vision, that of Carroll and her husband Howard, plus John Alban and a handful of others, can change things over time. HdR and its founders have enabled a region that was once better known for Zinfandel and Cabernet to become "the converted to Rhone" as wineries, vineyards and an entire community has been built up around the event. That's called changing the game.
Take my long-time friend Cris Cherry, who I've known since before his move to Paso in the late 90's. In 1998 he sold his Vista, CA early Californian style eatery, La Paloma, and moved with his wife and children to Paso Robles. Like Carroll, in many ways Cris has been a champion of Paso long before it was "cool." It was Cris who first introduced me to Paso and its future in late 1999, and pretty much told me to get to HdR in 2003, just as I had introduced him to Rhone, Languedoc and Roussillon wines when I would BYOB on cool winter nights in Vista at La Paloma in the 90's.
Cris' vision, with Villa Creek Restaurant was to create first a local wine world friendly restaurant, something by 2000 was already happening nicely. A few years later Cris started making wines of his own, at Villa Creek Wine with his Avenger being very much a Rhone clone in every way. It was following the 2003 HdR when I called his 2001 release his "rookie" debut, writing about it first in the Del Mar Times. In that column, I opined that Cherry, Core Wine's David Corey and Ethan Wines, Ethan Lindquist, were my "Rookies of the Year" from HdR, as each had just released their own very first wines. It will be great to see all them again at what am calling the "The Homecoming."
Then there is Qupe's Bob Lindquist. Without question Bob has been, along with Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, the longest running advocate of the Rhone wine movement in the USA (see if you catch the Bob reference in Grahm's "Sub-terroir Rhonesick Blues" video.) Bob like Randall epitomize the phrase "Rhone Ranger" and for many years were the driving forces behind the promotion of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.
Having personally known Bob since 1990, and as someone who was a Rhoney at heart since my first sip of his 1985 Los Olivos Cuvee, it was Lindquist who set me on a many thousand bottle wine journey. That's now culminated in my own wines made with Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company and Wine Cask fame, to whom Bob and Jim Clendenen first introduced me to back in 1991 when I moved to California. That's why seeing Bob and Ethan at HdR is one more reason to be at the event. Some may call it Kismit but I say it's the "Wine That Binds" and yet one more reason why this year's gathering is "the Homecoming."
But there's more. Along the way I've become good friends with two of the most eloquent, intelligent and wine savvy women in the world. I'm referring to Morgan Clendenen and Nicole Sierra-Rolet.
Rolet, who guides the superb world class Rhone winery, Chene Bleu, named me the U.S. Ambassador for the Grenache Association a few years back. Her winery blends are artfully made, skillfully crafted and intelligently marketed around the world. And, perhaps, is now producing one of the best non-Tavel/Provence/Bandol Rose's anywhere on the planet. Rolet, a former management consultant, is also one of the most articulate and forward thinking wine executives around. Like what Carroll has done with HdR, Rolet's Extreme Wine and the original Grenache Symposium, has helped set the stage for so much which followed for Chene Bleu and many others.
Morgan, whom I have known since her married era to Au Bon Climat's Grand Imperial Wizard of wine, Jim Clendenen, has been if nothing more, a balancing barometer about the wine industry throughout the time I've known her. Beyond what she does at Cold Heaven, Morgan's keen sense of what makes wine that people will like, a down-home friendliness, and her absolute arcane insider wit on the wine world is unflappable. As a winemaker, she has always impressed me from that first sip, with her Viognier perhaps being the best one made in California and one that can easily hold its own with the Rhone's best.
I'm sure there will be other "friends" I'll see at this year's Hospice du Rhone, but as is any major wine event, my feeling of it being "The Homecoming" is there, and this year's will surely be one for all. That's why, in many ways, HdR is a like a gathering of promises made and promises to be kept for many. It's a gathering of friends, and a reunion of sorts, for those who are forever intertwined together by the love of wine. It's a place to taste, touch and tell stories about wine. It's where friends frolic with their most favorite label and at the same time, find their next new friend. It's where others chat and cheer about their favorite wine, but most of all it's the opportunity to sense and savor the sensation of an amazing assortment of wine in the glass, all in one place.
See you all in Paso Robles, CA April 14-16th.