In my early 30s, I traded in my chef coat for a corkscrew and took my first wine job at a high-end bottle shop in Moreland Hills, Ohio. I was pretty sure it would be a walk in the park because I liked wine and I knew the difference between cabernet sauvignon and merlot. What I quickly discovered, however, was I had a lot to learn.
As luck would have it, the shop owner — a charismatic Italian guy named Mario — was extremely wine-savvy and happy to share his knowledge with me, which I eagerly drank up. In fact, Mario is responsible for my first real “aha!” wine moment and the beginning of my love affair with the Rhone Valley.
It was a wintery Saturday night and, as we were closing up, I asked Mario for a recommendation on what to bring to a dinner party. Without hesitation, he snatched a bottle of Delas Freres Crozes-Hermitage off the shelf and said, “This is phenomenal — it’s got bacon fat and blueberries.” That combination was a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I have nothing against bacon, I just wasn’t sure I would like it with blueberries. Little did I know, that much like fried chicken and waffles, bacon and blueberries are a taste sensation.
When I arrived at the dinner party, I told the other guests how the wine had been described to me and the collective response was skeptical frowns. However, that quickly changed once we all sipped our first mouthful. The frowns were replaced with wide-eyed, oh-my-God faces — looks proclaiming, “Holy moly! Mario was right.”
Ever since that night, I have been romancing the Rhone and want to share that love with you.
The reigning white varietal in the Rhone is viognier and it is done to perfection here, with the most famous whites coming from Condrieu. Due to the cool climate and the death-defying steep slopes of this region of France, the yields from this area are very low, making the wine expensive.
To get around that, I discovered a white blend from Etienne Guigal, a pioneer of the Rhone Valley. The 2021 E. Guigal Domaine Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc ($15.99 at Siefert & Jones Wine Merchants) is an exquisite blend of mostly viognier with floral and tropical fruit aromas. The plump and juicy palate is loaded with apricot and tangerine marmalade notes which explode in your mouth. I must come clean and admit I am more enamored with the reds of this region, but the beauty and brilliance of the Guigal Blanc are too seductive to ignore.
My fruitful visit with Seifert & Jones owner Ted Seifert introduced me to a Rhone grape I had never heard of — Serine. The jury is still out on whether or not this is a clone of syrah or a native varietal, but one thing’s for certain; it’s delicious. I have also found room in my heart for the 2020 Bois d’Arlene Serine le Berger ($19.99). The aromatics of the Bois d’Arlene are not to be missed, so be sure to stick your nose in the glass, as this will prepare you for the taste of sweet cherries. This soft and approachable mystery red also comes with a sneaky mineral streak on the finish, further enhancing its allure.
One of the things I love most about the Rhone Valley is that you get more bang for your buck. A perfect example is the 2020 Reserve La Saint Dominique Vacqueyras ($17.99 at Seifert & Jones). This grenache, syrah, cinsault blend is an incredible value. I adored the flavors of tart pie cherries, molasses and the spicy grip on the finish. Served with lamb, this is a perfect match.
To round out my courtship, I had to go back to my first love — a Crozes-Hermitage (100% syrah). Fortunately for me, I found one from one of my favorite Rhone producers at the Cordata Community Food Co-op. As I opened the 2020 Saint Cosme Crozes-Hermitage ($25.99), I felt a tickle in my heart as I embraced the origin of my love for this region. The familiar smoked meat and juicy berry notes put a smile on my face as I remembered the wine responsible for decades of romance.
If you’re looking to put a little passion into your own life, I highly recommend stocking your wine rack with some heartwarming wines from the Rhone Valley.
Katie Bechkowiak owned Vinostrology wine bar in downtown Bellingham from 2013–19. If you have wine suggestions for her monthly column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.