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Rhone Rager

Inaugural Wine Road event celebrates Syrah and friends

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'It's a hand sell." That's the phrase I've heard so often applied to the business of selling Syrah, a varietal wine that has roots in the Rhône river valley in south-central France, enjoys a stellar reputation as fine wine as far afield as Southern Australia and which is made to world-class standards right here in the North Bay. Folks need a helping hand to sell it, even then? This weekend, the Wine Road lends that hand.

The Wine Road is a marketing association whose members include many, but not all, of the wineries in the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley viticultural areas, as well as a good number of lodgings. By popular demand of some of their member wineries, on May 18 and 19 Wine Road debuts Esprit du Rhône, "spirit of the Rhône," to join their popular roster of events that includes Winter Wineland, Barrel Tasting weekends and Wine & Food Affair. The compact weekend kicks off with a walk-around wine tasting at Longboard Vineyards on Friday, May 18, from 6-8pm. It's an intimate setting where the winemakers are pouring and talking, so it's limited to 100 ticket holders.

On Saturday, get out on the open Rhône road: Wine Road tells me that some 30 wineries have each pledged to have three Rhône-inspired selections on offer. While all of the major grapes that are grown in the northern Rhône, such as the red Syrah and the white Marsanne, and the southern Rhône, where Grenache and Mourvedre dominate, were discussed in official California viticultural reports in the early 1880s, many of these grapes were only utilized in Central Valley jug wines or in field blends with Zinfandel until the 1980s.

Participating wineries include notable Rhône specialists Donelan Family Wines, Frick Winery and Sanglier Cellars; notable in their absence are non-members but Rhône-heavy Unti and Quivira. But a few newer tasting rooms on the scene fill in the gap, including Green Valley Syrah growers Kobler (longtime suppliers to Pax and Donelan) and Leo Steen.

Danish sommelier turned winemaker Leo Hansen, who is said to make three separate Chenin Blancs in three different types of concrete egg, may seem like an odd roommate with Hart's Desire, the easygoing, Zindandel-heavy family winery that he's shared a Healdsburg tasting room with since late last summer, but they've got a kind of synergy going, according to winemaker John Hart's daughter, Shea Siegel, who's running the bar on a recent afternoon while Hansen's busy in the cellar. As for selling Syrahs like Hansen's pepper-scented, plush and polished Sonoma Mountain Syrah, Siegel says it's more than a hand sell at first, indeed: "I have to do a little more arm twisting, and make them feel it's safe." Then it sells out.

Esprit de Rhône, May 18–19. $40 one day; $65 both days. 707.433.4335. www.wineroad.com. Leo Steen Wines, 53 Front Street, Healdsburg. Open Friday–Monday, 11am–4pm. 707.433.3097.

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