We are not morning drinkers. We occasionally have wine or beer with lunch, but it’s rare. We typically open a bottle of wine in the evening and pour ourselves a glass as we start cooking dinner. Some of the wine goes into the food. Whatever’s left is carried to the table. Mornings are reserved for coffee and Steven’s famously gray, spinach-infused fruit shakes.
This is not to say that we can’t be rallied to the cause. We are more than capable of drinking all day. Anyone who doubts this or would like to get incriminating video needs only to attend Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles, California.
It may have been as many as 15 years ago that we first visited the dusty Paso fair grounds. We’ve shredded so many documents and changed computers so many times since then that we no longer have a record of when we attended our first Hospice du Rhône.
The Paso fairgrounds are a budget version of a Disney-imagined old west town. As with Disney, the façade is no thicker than a Hollywood movie set. Unlike Disney, and far more accurate to historical frontier towns, no one is trying to bully you into having your photo taken with a high school student wearing a foam rubber head. Also, alcohol is permitted and, in the case of Hospice du Rhône, mandatory. Carefully eroded signs announce saloons and hotels that don’t exist. These signs actually mark the entrances to event spaces as large as skating rinks. For one weekend a year, these rooms are filled to capacity with Rhône producers pouring rare and expensive wines and wine lovers spitting those wines into plastic beer cups.
“Rhône producer” has come to mean more than just winemakers from the Rhône region of France. The term is now commonly used to refer to any winery or winemaker that produces wine from any one of the grapes traditionally cultivated in the Rhône. We imagine that the French are none too pleased with the use of the term Rhône to describe wines from unfashionable parts of the world such as America, Australia or any other part of the planet that isn’t France.
There are 22 grape varietals considered to be Rhône. We’ve been drinking Rhône wines damn near forever and we have yet to taste them all. The problem is that some of these grapes are used exclusively for blending and others, as far as we can tell, aren’t used at all. The vast majority of Rhône wines come down to five varietals: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and for whites Roussanne and Viognier. There’s a second tier involving Marsanne, Carignan and Petite Sirah. Beyond that, the rest of the Rhône varietals appear to be reserved for seriously geeky collectors. Some people collect rare stamps. Some people haunt antique stores in search of vintage Godzilla toys. Others spend their lives searching for a bottle of wine made from 100% Picardan or Camarese, Rhône varieties so obscure that we have yet to see evidence that they exist at all.
It is possible that someone was pouring one of these obscure Rhône varietals and we missed it. Hundreds of wine producers and importers pour their wines at the Grand Tasting. It would be impossible to sample them all. In order to taste as many wines as possible, a tradition has developed wherein it is socially acceptable to take a sip of wine, swirl it in your mouth and then spit it out. We understand that there’s a similar tradition surrounding food at some New York modeling agencies.
In the early days of Hospice du Rhône, large buckets were placed throughout the room like the barroom spittoons in a Spaghetti Western. This would’ve been fine except that wine drinkers are by nature competitive. They relentlessly compare cellar size. They taunt one another with stories of wines tasted and cult wineries visited. In the case of spitting, they compete for distance. Consistently hitting the bucket from a few feet away is like shooting consecutive three-point shots with a basketball. Without a word spoken, it demonstrates a proficiency that can only come from years of practice. And while we never saw anyone miss completely, outside shots tend to splash. No matter how careful we were to stand away from the bucket, we always left the Grand Tasting looking as though we’d been attacked by Jackson Pollack.
The splash back problem was recently solved by giving every taster his or her own plastic beer cup. Communal spittoons are still available, but their use is now limited to emptying cups. Coincidentally, these are the exact same cups that we used for keg parties back in college. In those days, we drained them of booze; now our dribble slowly fills them. This is the very definition of “getting old.”
The seminars are always our favorite part of the weekend. These are set up very differently than the tastings. The tastings are a free-for-all. Imagine the mosh pit at a Dead Kennedys concert, but swap the kids in leather jackets and Doc Martens for old folks in sweater vests body-slamming you out of the way in pursuit of a rare Grenache. The seminars, by comparison, are calm and civilized. Rows of tables face a podium at the front of the room. Laid out in front of each seat are 10 to 20 glasses of wine. From the podium, winemakers share stories and expound upon each wine as we move as a group through the tasting. The seminars would be positively elegant if not for the fact that the first one starts at nine in the morning. Most everyone in the room, including the winemakers on the podium, looks a little shell-shocked at the prospect of sipping wine at that hour.
These seminars are not unique to Hospice du Rhône. A few years ago, we were talked into attending the Wine Spectator Wine Experience. While their seminars included some amazing wines, the winemakers offered little insight into how they grew their grapes or what decision were made in the winery. They stuck to generic platitudes like, “We try to express the vineyard in the bottle.” Even when pressed with questions, they remained evasive. They behaved as though they were owners of a slaughterhouse and we were an audience of animal activists.
Winemakers at Hospice du Rhône are the opposite. They share excruciating detail about how each wine is made. We have yet to see a question go unanswered, from yields and ripeness at harvest to the treatment of the grapes in the winery. Something about the event opens winemakers to sharing their trade secrets, including barrels used and even the type of trellising in the vineyard. The seminars also often go well beyond commercially available wines. For example, a few years back we attended a seminar in which different clones of Syrah were tasted separately. The idea of comparing genetic strains was completely new to us and we were shocked by how different each tasted even though the vineyards and winemaking techniques were identical.
One final reason that we love Hospice du Rhône is the food. We hate to keep beating on Wine Spectator, but the food there sucked. On day two of the event we skipped the group lunch and headed down the street to Chipotle. By contrast, we’d consider attending Hospice du Rhône even if we didn’t drink. The lunches are that good. If Hospice du Rhône was a local San Francisco restaurant, we’d eat there all the time.
This year was our favorite yet. It was as though the chefs anticipated our Drink Your Carbs requirements. Lunch on the first day featured duck confit, lentils, a green salad and heaping platters of raw radishes on every table. Duck confit for 500 is no easy task and chefs John Toulze and Sondra Bernstein of The Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma executed it brilliantly. On day two, Chef Rick Manson of the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe served a sparerib salad—barbequed ribs tossed in a spicy sauce and then hidden beneath mounds of fresh arugula—so tasty and so perfectly tuned to DYC that we’re embarrassed that we didn’t think of it first.
Looking back, the biggest impact of Hospice du Rhône on our lives came from a chance encounter with Dr. Seymour Alban. It was well over 10 years ago. We were in line for the Grand Tasting and he happened to be standing in front of us. Dr. Alban was in his seventies at the time. He was still practicing medicine. He was, and still is, a rock star at Hospice du Rhône because he also happens to be the father of winemaker and co-founder of the event, John Alban. Dr. Alban’s impact came in the form of an answer to a question we no longer remember. In the same tone he might use to caution patients to follow his medical advice he said, “I’m a doctor and I’m telling you to drink more wine.”
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Great Summary of the event!
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Hospice du Rhone is no longer. They have informed everyone on their list that they will be focusing on smaller events throughout the year instead of throwing one big bash in Paso Robles. We are sorry to hear it. We also want to say that we are happy that we had the chance to participate in the big events for so many years. We look forward to seeing what HdR will be up to in the future.