My first time attending Hospice du Rhône (HdR) was in 2011, when the Paso Robles–based ode to Rhône-style wines — as in those based on syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, viognier, roussanne, and nearly two dozen other varieties from the Rhône Valley — was celebrating its 19th year.
I wrote in detail about that experience here, though I did not announce the funniest bit. Still a pretty hand-to-mouth journalist back then — one who was crashing in the super-Spartan, bed-only rooms above the Pine Street Saloon even though I was 33 years old — I’d assumed my attendance at the Chateau Rayas dinner had been covered by the friends who’d invited me. Only when the bills came out did I realize that I owed about $250 for the pleasure, which, at that point, was the most I’d ever paid for dinner. But I still remember the Rayas, so consider that money well spent.
Thankfully, some things have changed — I can occasionally afford such a dinner now, for one — and, perhaps, even more thankfully, some things have not. Hospice du Rhône remains one of the most fun and fascinating wine events on the planet, as I’ve witnessed multiple times since 2011, from the year that I ran a raucous panel of Santa Barbara and Paso Robles stars to the time when we hosted an even more raucous braai with South Africans at a borrowed house.
Since HdR had shifted to being an every-two-years event in 2016 — which followed a four-year break after the 20th iteration — the rise of COVID effectively caused another four-year hiatus. But this past weekend, Hospice du Rhône returned to Paso Robles, billed quite accurately as the “Rhône Reunion.” With participants returning every year from all around the world, Hospice takes on a very communal vibe with each iteration, truly functioning as a reunion while also providing endless amounts of education and indulgence.
“I feel like it’s a dream,” said HdR president Vicki Carroll to kick off the Friday morning session, “but it’s coming true.” She’s been in charge since 1999, when the event was rebranded under its current name, and endured the ups and downs of the pandemic with patience and poise.
Standing next to her that morning was cofounder John Alban, the vintner who played emcee all weekend. He quickly acknowledged that HdR was missing one of its biggest characters this year: Philippe Cambie, the renowned winemaker from the southern Rhône who died last December, just before his 60th birthday.
“There’s a noticeable void in this room,” said Alban. “He was larger than life in every way, and he’d be very comfortable with us acknowledging that.”
With that, Hospice du Rhône 2022 was in full swing. Here are a few more of my favorite parts.
Tasting Hermitage: The first panel on Friday was a tasting of Cave de Tain, which owns 22 hectares of Hermitage, one of the most coveted growing regions in the world. We were able to taste six separate plots from across their holdings, and then the 2015 final blend, called Hermitage Gambert de Loche. The differences were striking, especially since the vines are so close to each other, and you could see how they each played a role in the blend.
Our guide was David Quillin, with moderation by Kelly McAuliffe, who each taught us a few things. McAuliffe reminded us that a hectare amounts to two football fields and that drinking Hermitage earlier than seven or eight years old “is criminal.”
Quillin, meanwhile, explained that the region is surrounded in peach and apricot orchards, and that Cave de Tain was able to buy so many plots because landowners often sold when the properties were split by heirs per the equal division rule set forth in the Napoleonic Code.
But the wines really come down to hard work. “Our area is very steepy,” said Quillin, “and we do everything by hand.”
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Jeb Dunnuck Blind Cheese Tasting: The second panel of Friday morning was about Horsepower Vineyards, the property in the Walla Walla Valley of northern Oregon planted by Champagne-raised Christophe Baron in what’s now known as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. The wine critic Jeb Dunnuck was moderating, and Baron, who also founded Cayuse Vineyards, was joined by his “resident vigneronne” Elizabeth Bourcier to talk about this property that is, yes, entirely farmed by draft horses.
Baron is a character of the craziest form — see photo of us at the 2018 Wine Star Awards in Miami — and the talk focused largely on his energy and ideas. “We planted this vineyard for the horses and not the other way around,” he exclaimed of his motivation to be a “servant of the terroir,” which is mostly strewn with “inhospitable” cobbles. “The horses are 24/7 all year ’round!”
Dunnuck is a fan, explaining, “I could argue that this could be one of the most identifiable terroirs in the world.”
But Baron still had a surprise up his sleeve: a yellow scarf, in fact, in order to blindfold Dunnuck and subject the renowned critic to a blind tasting of cheese. Luckily, it was not the toughest of challenges, and Dunnuck nailed the two: a stick of mozzarella string cheese, perhaps the most innocuous thing on the planet, and then a round of Époisses, quite possibly the stinkiest and most identifiable cheese in the world.
I congratulated Dunnuck afterward, in the bathroom of all places, and he said it was a harrowing albeit hilarious experience. He also said he liked my book, which was nice to hear.
Meeting the Rocks District: Speaking of nice things that other wine critics said, Elaine Chukan Brown surprised the hell out of me at Friday night’s dinner with winemakers for The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. While introducing herself and the winemakers, she named me as one of her early inspirations for entering the wine writing world. I teared up, and did so again a number of wines later when she clarified to me that she meant it.
But the night — and one of the next day’s panels, moderated by Elaine again — was all about The Rocks District, which is what everyone calls it. I sat at a table with Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars as well as Steve, Mary, and Brooke Robertson of Delmas and SJR Vineyard, but we also learned plenty from Todd Alexander of Force Majeure, Devyani Isabel Gupta of Valdemar Estates, and Billo Naravane of Rasa.
Loaded with savory qualities like pepper, raw meat, iodine, and seaweed that I associate with so many of my favorite cool-climate syrahs, these wines are worth searching out. They’re still developing the hospitality infrastructure, and the geographic confusion of being an Oregon region in the Walla Walla Valley that most associate with Washington is annoying. (My Wine Enthusiast colleague Paul Gregutt explained that well here.) But expect The Rocks District to continue to gain footholds in the critical and collector communities for many years to come.
Gotta Get to Ventoux: Also still under the radar, despite being a known entity in the southern Rhône Valley for centuries, the Ventoux AOC was showcased on a Saturday morning panel called “Red Hot ’Cause It’s Cool.” To be honest, the late-night after-party of the previous evening cut my 9 a.m. note-taking abilities down considerably, but I found this panel to have the most distinctive and interesting wines of everything I tasted. All I wrote in my notebook was: “Ventoux. Dope! Need to go.”
Snails for Lunch: My Paso Robles visit started with a day of driving around the region to check out the various sub-appellations with Jeremy Leffert, winemaker at Tooth & Nail. And my trip ended in a similar vein, speaking about those 11 sub-AVAs with Austin Hope, the vintner who put the idea for a detailed story on the topic in my head years ago.
We met at BL Brasserie — coincidentally, the same place I had that Chateau Rayas dinner 11 years earlier, when it was called Bistro Laurent — and sipped on a 1986 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant that I had brought (though at Hospice, its winemaker Randall Grahm couldn’t swing by, but expressed remorse at missing it) and a white Burgundy that Austin bought.
We also sampled the various wines, mostly cabernet sauvignon, Austin brought from around the region while enjoying oysters, snails, shrimp risotto, and great conversation. My note-taking was still slow, so I’m talking to Austin again on Friday, probably right as you’re reading this.
I arrived safely home a couple hours later, content to finish that white Burgundy with some slices of Woodstock’s Pizza, straight outta Isla Vista.
From Our Table
- If there’s anywhere in town that should be doing brunch, it’s The Lark, which brought serious culinary chops to the Funk Zone when it opened almost nine years ago. I explain a bit why they only started serving brunch now, and cover a number of their breakfast highlights in this feature, which I titled “The Lark Launches Brunch (Finally).” It also features the delicious photography of Ali Beck.
- Meanwhile, in our print edition, The Restaurant Guy reports on the opening of Local on Coast Village Road (lots of music listed online, but so far no menu?) as well as the latest moves of “Lucky” Gene Montesano, who added the Montecito Deli & Market to his slew of eateries with an intent to open a Jewish-Italian deli next door where “wise guys eat,” apparently. I’m also curious to check out the latest Isla Vista restaurant, a Mexican spot called Zocalo.