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The Roussillons are Coming! The Roussillons are Coming!
By Norm Roby
Feb 9, 2021
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So many winery projects, plans and promotions were put on the back burner in 2020 that it feels like we all were in the twilight zone.  But now that wineries are opening for business and wine clubs are being more creative than ever, this is a good time to focus on a Rhône wine project that is about to relaunch.

It was created by a few small wineries, mini Rhône Rangers not horsing around.  Here is some background:

“The GSM Rhône Society is a distinctive collection of premium wineries in the southern Silicon Valley area dedicated to crafting exceptional Rhône style wines from locally grown grapes.”

If you are still wondering where this might be, here’s another hint: “For over 150 years our perfect Mediterranean climate has been renowned for producing excellent Rhône varietals and quality wines.”

Okay, that probably didn’t help much.  It turns out this historic region is in the southern part of the Santa Clara Valley AVA.  Apparently, the group wants to separate itself from that northern part in and around San Jose which was once the production center for jug producers Almaden and Paul Masson.  

Wine history buffs should read the April 1864 report in the Santa Clara Viticultural Society by JPJ Portal who reports that Mataro (Mourvèdre) planted in the County was one of the best of what he calls the “Roussillon grapes.”  He calls Mataro (Mourvèdre) “invaluable” and includes Grenache, Carignane, and Clairette Rouge as Roussillons grown in Santa Clara.

The “GSM” in this new Rhône Society is not only referring to the three basic varieties, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre  but also to the region.  Having a little fun, the founders explain that the “G” stands for Gilroy, the “S” for San Martin, and the “M” for Morgan Hill, the three principle towns with Rhône varieties in their backyards.  As for membership in the GSM society, the basic rules for inclusion is that Rhône wines:

1) must be a “main constituent” of the product lineup;
2) there must be at least 4 different Rhône varietal products, and
3) the wineries have to be part of the Gilroy - San Martin - Morgan Hill area

The Founders:

Sarah’s Vineyard: From its Estate vineyards, it makes a minimum of 5 Rhône wines per year and sometimes several more.  All Rhônes are Estate grown.  The first Rhône wine made was a 1983 Grenache.  Owner Tim Slater’s personal first was a 2001 Estate Grenache Rosé.

Aver Family was founded to concentrate on Rhône’s and is almost exclusively Rhône and mostly Estate grown.

La Vie Dansante was founded to be exclusively Rhône wines.

Lion Ranch is exclusively Rhône and is now entirely Estate Grown.

Though not an official member, Clos LaChance makes several Rhône wines from its estate vineyard.  Lightpost Winery, new to Morgan Hill, included a white Rhône blend in its early going.

More About the Wineries and their Rhônes:

Full disclosure: Within the last year I visited each of the wineries, a few several times, to see what they had to offer.  Most of the wines mentioned were tasted at the respective winery, so the comments are not detailed or scored, primarily first impressions.  But every wine mentioned impressed me in some way.  Many other wines were tasted, I should add.  

Breaking news: For Valentine’s Day, the best news is that the wineries below make a beautiful Rosé from Grenache, Cinsault, or a blend.

Sarah’s Vineyard

Sarah’s Vineyard continues making high-scoring, award winning Chardonnays to continue the run started in 1978 by its founder whose name was Marilyn.  That’s another story.  Tim Slater, an engineer from Silicon Valley, bought the property in 2002 and her original 6.5 acre Chardonnay vineyard remains today.  He soon added Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Mourvèdre, and Counoise.  He also makes several top-notch Pinots from several appellations.  Sarah’s 2018 Picpoul Blanc, a member’s exclusive, bodes well for this variety.  Here are the Sarah’s Vineyard’s standouts:

2019 Grenache Rosé,Estate $26
A wine club exclusive, this is one of the finest Rosés in my experience.

2018 Viognier Estate, $32, 248 cases
As pretty, flavorful and smooth as Viognier gets!

2017 Madonne Estate, $38, 351 cases
This is the GSM with the final blend is 71% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 12% Mourvèdre, and 5% Counoise.  Subtle, peppery spice, beautiful texture.

2017 Syrah, Besson Vineyard, $32.  216 cases
Besson is some 300 yards away from Sarah’s and is one of the oldest in the area.  My notes mention, “blockbuster…Cornas?”  And cellar worthy.

La Vie Dansante Winery, Gilroy

Jeff Fadness began making wines in 2005 and acquired the former Thomas Kruse winery in 2015.  A tasting room was built in 2016.  A music buff, he named the winery after a Jimmy Buffet song.  He grows the grapes, makes the wines and when I visited, he was manning the tasting room.  Like so many in the wine world, he got interested in wine after a varied, unusual career.  When asked about his background, he said:

“I’ve trained as a Firefighter and Paramedic.  I’ve built my own computers and wrote code for them long before most people even knew what they were.  I’ve made a living as a professional photographer.  I’ve seen the world from the deck of a nuclear aircraft carrier while playing with A-7 and FA-18 attack planes.  I was a spy – well, Naval Intelligence Officer – watching the Russians and Chinese.  I have a degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies from the University of Washington earned during the dark but fascinating days of the Cold War.  I speak a couple of languages tolerably well.  I am an Eagle Scout, a better than decent photographer, and a certified SCUBA diver.  I don’t surf, I don’t do Karaoke, I don’t drink Tequila, and I don’t eat Tofu.”
He was also among the very first in 2020 to make Hand Sanitizer from Syrah.  What he also does extremely well is make a fresh, full bodied lively Grenache Blanc and these amazing Rhône reds:

2015 Serenade, $32
52% Grenache – 28% Syrah – 20% Mourvèdre – “The trick in creating this blend is to stay true to its Cote du Rhône roots by keeping it light, and fruit-forward,” said Jeff.  I loved the ripe berry fruit and found it smooth, mouth coating with a long finish.

2016 Grenache Noir,  $30
My notes have this as medium full bodied with lots of ripe cherry, touch of oak spice and long finish.  A serious style, not a fruit bomb.  

 2016 Nocturne, $32
(Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Ancient Vine Carignane)
This is a big, bold, rich wine.  I gave it 5 stars and 3 “wows.”

2016 Syrah, $30,125 cases
While the 2015 was over-ripe and rustic, this one is full-on Syrah, earthy meaty, spicy and rich.  Should age well.

Clos LaChance Vineyards

Family owned, now in the hands of the second Murphy generation.  Clos LaChance began in 1982.  The family vineyard gradually grew to its current 150 acres.  Today, it is a vastly popular wine destination with a very active and loyal wine club membership.  The tasting room overlooks the valley and a private golf course, and has a well-deserved reputation for both its food and its many musical events.  Cabernet and Chardonnay are the mainstays and there are dozens of limited production wines offered to club members.  Both the limited production Cabernet Franc and Malbec are standouts and the Sauvignon Blanc Is a great all-purpose wine that I’ve bought by the case.

Back to the current focus: Its Rhône program currently consists of an Estate Viognier, Estate Grenache, and a red blend, “Pirates 22.”

The current vintage, 2018 Pirates 22, is a blend of 60% Syrah, 19% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane, 6% Grenache, 5% Alicante Bouschet.  Pirates 22 gives the winemakers carte blanche to come up with the most exciting Rhône blend.  It is then aged in oak for 12-18 months.  It and these two are winners.

2019 Viognier Reserve, Santa Clara Valley, $24
Enticing bright fruit, round and full, easy drinking.

2016 Grenache Reserve, Santa Clara Valley, $36
Just released.  The 2015 was rich with ripe fruit and smoky notes.

Aver Family Vineyards


The Avers purchased the 8.5-acre vineyard in 2005 and opened the winery/ tasting room in 2011.  Definitely a family affair (mom was checking winery members in at the door), the winery focuses on its wine club through special events and themed meals.  The roster includes impressive Chardonnays from purchased fruit and a Petite Sirah.  It is one of the few producers of a Mourvèdre, and the Carignane is from an old vineyard planted a century ago.  A great winery to visit.  These were my favs:

2019 Grenache Blanc “Family Album,” $28.00
2016 Homage Syrah, Santa Clara Valley, $50

Lion Ranch Vineyard

One of those classic OMG stories in the wine biz.  Owners Todd and Kim Engelhardt honeymooned in France, fell in love with Condrieu and Rhône wines, and then bought vineyard land on their return.  While she apprenticed in winemaking at Sarah’s Vineyard, they developed 5 acres in 2011 to white Rhônes: Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Picpoul Blanc.  In 2016 about 4 acres of reds were planted.  They opened a small, and I mean small, tasting room in 2015.  During my visit, both Kim and Todd were outside cleaning equipment and rushing around.  Oh, the romance!

Made from young vines, these three wines were all true to type.  The Rosé was lively and the Viognier is off to a great start.  Another intriguing Picpoul Blanc from this area.

2018 Estate Picpoul Blanc, $29
2018 Estate Viognier, Santa Clara Valley, $26
2019 Estate Lionese Rosé, $22 (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah)

More About Santa Clara Valley

Today the Valley is home to 24 wineries, including those mentioned here.  The oldest is Guglielmo Vineyards with 80 acres on the outskirts of Morgan Hill.  Founded in the 1920s, it remains family-owned and managed.  Guglielmo offers a wide range of Italian varietals including Charbono, Dulcetto, Grignolino, Teroldego, Vermentino, and the rare Sagrantino.  Its best-known is the Grignolino Rosé, and it may now be the only one made in California.  Both the Barbera and Dolcetto are among California’s finest.

Of the several newer wineries in the area, the Lightpost Winery in Morgan Hill with winemakers Christian Roguenant and Sophia Fedotova is one to follow.  The roster includes several vineyard designated Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  But both winemakers are interested in Rhônes.  Currently available is the 2017 Classic White (35% Grenache Blanc, 40% Marsanne, 25% Roussanne) from Paso Robles fruit.  Soon to be released are a 2018 “Mila” Grenache along with two red blends, 2018 “Ignition” and 2018 “Teo,” both from San Luis Obispo.  All three are high on my list of wines to check out this year.

Should this GSM Society successfully launch this year it will likely add new members.  Solis Winery, founded in 1917, grows and produces both a Grenache and a Syrah.  Then there’s Alara Cellars which made one of the best Tempranillos in my experience which is working on an expanding roster of small-lot Rhône varietals and blends.

Besson Family Vineyards is one of the oldest in Santa Clara with its Grenache planted in 1910 and Zinfandel in 1922.  Its grapes have been sold to many prestigious wineries like Calera, Bonny Doon and David Bruce, among others.  But now its owners are venturing out making wines offered to wine club members and local restaurants.  The 2018 Besson Family Estate Syrah sold out quickly.

Automatically associated with high-tech, the Silicon Valley—at least in the southern part—may someday be known as the home of the new Roussillons…thanks to the GSM Society.  

More wine columns:     Norm Roby
Connect with Norm on Twitter:   @RobyWine67