How California's Central Coast Winemakers are Making Grenache Their Own | Wine Enthusiast
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How California’s Central Coast Winemakers are Making Grenache Their Own

Grenache is one of the hardiest and most vigorous wine grapes on the planet. It’s a reliable backbone for traditional blends across the Old World, from France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Spain’s Priorat, where it’s called Garnacha.

It’s also long served a similar, if less regal, purpose in California. For decades, Central Valley growers pushed Grenache vines to their limits to produce red and pink jug wines of questionable quality.

Today, however, vintners on the state’s Central Coast are shedding that baggage. They’ve optimized viticulture and dialed back the tonnage to produce varietal Grenache as nuanced and delicious as top-shelf Pinot Noir—often at half the price.

Winemakers explore both the rich, ripe side of the grape, which retains acidity deep into the harvest season, as well as lighter, fresher expressions that play up floral aromatics and taut textures. But no matter where or how Grenache is grown, it retains the variety’s hallmark traits of red fruit, rose petal and cola-like spice. It offers a consistent lens to analyze the region’s varied terroirs and winemaking styles.

“I firmly believe that Grenache should be the staple red of the Central Coast,” says Ian Brand, a Salinas-based winemaker who sources the grape from eight vineyards for his brands, La Marea and Le P’tit Paysan. He also consults for clients like Birichino. “It’s a great proxy for terroir, because it can be a vehicle both for climate and for soils and site.”

Matt Brain, of Baker & Brain, which produces two single-vineyard Grenache bottlings from Monterey, agrees.

“I love the malleability of Grenache across the different climates,” says Brain, who believes that it retains a certain “Grenache-y-ness,” no matter the style. “For me, it’s like Pinot Noir. I love a cool-climate, stemmy, almost rosé Pinot, but I really like a big, full black-cherry bomb as well. I think California does those different styles of Grenache and Pinot Noir well.”

The Bad Old Days

It wasn’t always that way. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard first crushed Grenache in 1982, and he’s used it as part of his Cigar Volante blends, as well as alone in his Clos de Gilroy bottling, ever since.

“Back then, nobody really knew much about Grenache, and few people knew that it could even make red wine in California,” says Grahm. “Most went into pink wine, and it was not very good.”

That started to change in the mid-1990s, when Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded in Paso Robles by wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family, which owns Château de Beaucastel in France’s Rhône Valley. They isolated and imported better clonal material for numerous Rhône varieties, which eventually led to a nursery operation that spread the vines throughout the state.

“When we started, Grenache was the grape that we were most disappointed with in California,” says Jason Haas, Robert’s son, current partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard, as well as the chairman of the board of directors of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. He remembers when his dad checked out the state’s existing Grenache vines outside of Fresno. “He said every Grenache cluster was the size of a basketball, with berries the size of plums, and there wasn’t any color.”

So they imported five new clones of Grenache from Beaucastel, which ignited the grape’s renaissance.

Today, those clones make up many of the grape’s plantings across the Central Coast, where the variety’s acreage has grown steadily over the past decade. Statewide, though, Grenache vines are on the wane, as massive Central Valley vineyards get ripped out.

“For me, that’s a super interesting story about Grenache,” says Haas. “Before, there were thousands of acres of it for jug wine, and yet, you never saw ‘Grenache’ on the label. Now, you see more Grenaches than were ever made before, even though there are less acres in California.”

Grenache bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Challenge Accepted

Even with the new clones, growing and making quality Grenache remains an uphill battle compared to other grapes. Most growers say it even requires more attention than even the notoriously finicky Pinot Noir.

The grape wants to set a heavy crop in the vineyard, which can dilute flavors, and it’s susceptible to sunburn, which bleaches out the red color. In the cellar, winemakers can struggle to tame coarse tannins and tease out deeper hues. (“That’s what Syrah is for!” Francois Perrin once told Jason Haas.) And once in bottle, it’s prone to oxidation.

No wonder it remains primarily a blending grape, even on the Central Coast.

But those challenges are what lured winemakers Mikael Sigouin of Kaena Wine Company, Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz and Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace—all of which focus primarily on Grenache.

“I started making Grenache because it was such an anomaly to everything else I’d ever done,” says Magdevski. She made a wide range of varieties for about a decade before she decided to hone in on Grenache in 2014, which now accounts for 80% of her production. “I was kicked in the knees every step of the way.”

Magdevski’s challenge no doubt comes in part because she lets vintage and terroir dictate the style of wine. In 2015, for example, she picked all of her vineyards on the same day and processed them in the same manner, just to note the influences of land and climate. Since then, she’s worked with almost every Grenache vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and her current lineup features an impressive eight single-­vineyard bottlings.

“People ask me, ‘Do you make it like Châteauneuf? Do you make it like…?’ No, I make it like Santa Barbara,” she says. “That’s why I’m doing it here. You have to be true to where you are.”

Sigouin tuned in to Grenache for his Kaena brand 14 years ago. He found it more challenging than Pinot Noir and more interesting than Syrah.

“I saw it as the next great thing,” says Sigouin. “It’s such a great wine for the everyday. It was the one grape I could marry.”

Raised in Hawaii by his great-grandmother and grandmother, Sigouin appreciates the grape’s complex qualities.

“It’s strong, it’s delicate, it’s all these things,” he says. “It’s a difficult grape to master, for sure. It demands a lot of patience and hang time in the vineyards. Getting that tannin profile right is a big thing for me.”

Sigouin has managed to master that task in Ballard Canyon, where he’s made Grenache from Larner and Tierra Alta Vineyards since 2004. A recent side-by-side vertical tasting of those wines revealed stunning consistency through the decade, with Larner a bit richer in style and Tierra Alta a bit tighter.

For Osborne, a New Zealander who planned to be a documentary filmmaker, her introduction to Grenache came when she worked a harvest job in Sonoma 16 years ago. The variety isn’t really grown in her homeland.

“It flipped my world on its axis,” she says, surprised that it wasn’t overly extracted like the versions she knew from Australia. “It influenced me to pursue winemaking as a career, and specifically, Grenache.”

In 2007, sips of Château Rayas opened her eyes further. “It had this translucent, pale hue,” she says. “That was a monumental moment, to know that you didn’t really need color to have power or make a lasting impression.”

Two months later, Osborne started A Tribute to Grace Wine Company. She now makes about 3,000 cases per year across nine Grenache bottlings from the Central Coast as well as the Sierra Foothills and Dry Creek Valley.

She navigates the barely ripe side of the Grenache frontier, which wins over sommeliers, but can confuse others. “There’s still one restaurant that has my wine in their rosé section,” she says with a laugh.

“It sounds cliché, but when Grenache is made in a gentle manner, the grace that the wine carries is something that is very powerful for me,” she says. Osborne foot-treads her grapes, sometimes with her young children. “I work with really different microclimates, so terroir has a loud voice.”

Recommended Wines

Nelle 2014 Grenache (California); $36, 94 points. Intriguing layers of fruit and herbs interplay on the delicious nose of this bottling, showing bay leaf, thyme, oregano, pepper, hibiscus and cherry. The palate is rich and savory, with more of the same roasting herbs as well as fig, black olive, black pepper, fennel and purple-flower flavors. It’s quite rich and delicious.

Kaena 2015 Ali’i Grenache (Santa Ynez Valley); $50, 94 points. Bountiful boysenberry fruit shows alongside a muddy loamy clay minerality on the nose of bottling, which is lifted further by crushed lavender aromas. The palate’s rounded berry fruit is complemented by cherry wood smoke, grippy tannins and strong acidity. The slate and clay character provides a compelling backbone.

Baker & Brain 2014 Le Mistral Vineyard Grenache (Monterey County); $35, 93 points. Rustic aromas of turned loam, dusty gravel and leather are lifted by carnation, hibiscus and red spice on the nose of this single-vineyard expression. Tight cranberry and raspberry flavors meet with orange peel on the palate, which also includes that earthy streak and floral elements to make a complete wine.

Casa Dumetz 2015 Thompson Grenache (Santa Barbara County); $45, 93 points. Light in color, this wine’s beautiful nose shows freshly pressed raspberry, dewy tarragon, fennel and lavender aromas—a showcase of aromatic elegance. Immensely fresh and inviting flavors pop on the palate, from tart strawberry and green fennel to rose petals and rosewater, all framed by a long-simmering acidity. It would work well with either white fish or roasted pork.

Grenache bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

The Dark Side

Most Grenache from the Central Coast falls somewhere between light to medium-dark on the color scale. Not so in Paso Robles, where the grape grabs attention with an inky style, like so many other wines made there from traditional Rhône varieties.

“It’s the least sexy grape on the vine, and it’s never the sexiest during fermentation, but it always ends up being the sexiest wine when it’s all said and done,” says Tyler Russell. He started his brand, Nelle, in 2006, while he worked for bigger wineries like Justin Vineyards and Winery, Calcareous Vineyards and Zenaida Cellars.

“I definitely prefer the riper side of picking, a rich and more robust style,” says Russell, whose Grenache is big and brawny, yet cut with bountiful acidity. “When you make Syrah in that fashion, it just becomes over the top. But for Grenache, you can push it and it retains its femininity.”

Restaurateur-turned-winemaker Cris Cherry of Villa Creek Cellars has made what he calls a “Garnacha” since 2002. “I thought [the Spanish name] would give us the opportunity to change the angle a little bit,” he says, though he doesn’t try to emulate Spain.

“One of the biggest factors in West Paso [Robles] Grenache is that it holds its acid, probably better than most sites on an international level,” says Cherry, and that’s prompted him to play around with lots of stem inclusion. “I just find that Grenache has some great transparency, so I like to show that.”

Other Paso Robles brands that produce powerful yet complex versions of Grenache include Epoch Estate Wines, Jada Vineyard & Winery, McPrice Meyrs and The Farm Winery. But that’s a tiny list compared to the perhaps hundred-plus producers from the region that use ample amounts of Grenache in their blends each year.

“It’s such a valuable thing in the blends that it often gets sucked up and there’s none left over,” says Haas, which explains why his brand only produces single-variety Grenache bottlings every few years. “If you look at Grenache around the world, I don’t know how much goes into a blend, but it’s gotta be, what, 98%?”

Will Consumers Tune In?

That’s probably not going to change anytime soon, at least for the broad market. “Honestly, I’m baffled,” says Brain. “I feel like Grenache should have a lot more momentum than it does. I’m optimistic as these producers continue to make amazing Grenaches, but I’m a little mystified as to why it’s not more popular now.”

For Randall Grahm, who certainly qualifies as a pioneer of California Grenache, the future of the grapes comes down to what consumers will be willing to pay.

“The problem with things like Grenache is that we can’t command the price that will allow us to do the kinds of fussy viticultural things that should be done to make a great bottle of wine,” he says.

“That’s the challenge for Grenache that I see.”

Nonetheless, Grenache was one of the first varieties that Grahm planted at Popelouchum, the multigenerational, experimental, sustainability-minded vineyard outside of San Juan Bautista where he hopes to make California’s perfect cuvée.

Recommended Bottles

A Tribute to Grace 2015 Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache (Santa Barbara County); $45, 92 points. A very transparent shade of rusty red in the glass, this bottling shows how compelling Grenache­ can be in a lighter style. Aromas of red cherry, salt-and-pepper spice and tanned leather show on the nose. It’s clean and savory on the palate, full of dried carnations, hibiscus, white pepper and a touch of dill. Editors’ Choice.

La Marea 2015 Besson Vineyard Old Vine Grenache (Santa Clara Valley); $38, 92 points. There’s a distinctive old-school quality that comes from these century-old vines, which make a slightly lighter wine with intriguing, almost pre-aged aromas of dried cherry, balsamic raspberry and salt-and-pepper spice. The palate is driven by a crushed rock texture and a bright acidity that drives deep into the finish, with flavors of aged cola and dried red fruit. It’s even greater with a slight chill. Editors’ Choice.

Bonny Doon 2016 Clos de Gilroy Grenache (Central Coast); $20, 91 points. This bottling from five vineyards across the region, which also includes 18% Syrah, is dark and concentrated on the nose with aromas of plum, crushed gravel, rose petals, composting violets and gamy pepper-crusted meats. The palate is more fresh and floral, with lilac touches and kola nut spice, proving lighter weight in body and easy to quaff.

Villa Creek 2015 Garnacha (Paso Robles); $60, 91 points. Red and purple flowers meet with crushed slate, turned soil and plump cherry fruits on the nose of this bottling. It’s a solid, down-the-middle expression of the grape, with red and black plums, clove and tarragon lifts to the palate.

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