Viognier: The other white wine

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My wife and I have lived in Hollister for about a year and a
half now. We experienced the Independence Rally in 2004.
My wife and I have lived in Hollister for about a year and a half now. We experienced the Independence Rally in 2004. While we had some fun checking out all the non-conformists who dress and act pretty much alike, and despite the free music, Melanie and I decided that the best thing to do was to get out of Dodge for the duration. So we headed for the hills. Literally.

But before I get into that, I would like to point out a couple of facts about the previously mentioned Hollister Independence Rally. In a story in the April 28, 2005 Hollister Free Lance, reporter Erin Musgrave noted that the three-day event had donated “about $12,000 from last year’s rally to non-profit charities…” Just for contrast, I thought it would be fun to determine how much money was raised by the Gavilan Chapter of the Kinship Center from its Food and Wine Tasting event held on Sept. 11 of the same year.

So I called the agency and was stunned to learn that in two hours the Kinship Center raised $71,280.

All with no disruption of businesses or residents. No major expenditure for policing services. No noise. No worries about clashing rival gangs. No arrests for possession of methamphetamines.

Just food for thought. The 2005 event will be held Sept. 10. I’ll pass on more information as I get it.

We rented a cabin deep in the foothills of the Sierra over the holiday weekend. On the way to our destination we had lunch in Sonora, a charming Gold Rush town in Tuolumne County. We had visited Sonora before, when we were on a camping trip a few years back, and ate al fresco at a nice little Mexican joint by the creek that passes under the main street of town.

This time we looked behind the main drag and found Banny’s, a casual place with an innovative menu, reasonable prices and an extensive list of wines available by the glass. We shared a delightful plate of mussels, and I had a fantastic salad that included a wedge of Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese. Made by Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre in – surprise! – Humboldt County, this cheese has a layer of ash in the middle and on the outside. Sounds weird, but it’s the best goat cheese either one of us has ever had.

But since this is a wine column and not a cheese column, I suppose I should get to the point. Banny’s wine list included a varietal that is often overlooked by wine drinkers: Viognier.

The Viognier grape has been around a long time. It has been grown in France for about 2,000 years, having been brought to the Rhône region by the Romans from Dalmatia (a region of present day Croatia). Scientists believe that the grape is related to Nebbiolo, a varietal grown in Italy. Genetic researchers from UC Davis and the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige in Italy tested 1,500 grapes from around the world to see, I suppose, who was related to whom. They found “30 of 32 indicators tested positive between Freisa and Viognier. While this demonstrates a high possibility of a genetic relationship, further tests are needed in order to confirm that there is a relationship and to what degree.” I’ll keep you posted on their progress. Betcha can’t wait.

As a wine, Viognier has seen its ups and downs. For example, in 1965 there were only eight hectares (less than 20 acres) of the type planted in its French home, the appellation of Condrieu. Today it is experiencing a resurgence in popularity (by me, anyway) and Condrieu has about 110 hectares (more than 270 acres) in production. That’s still not much, but French wine law limits the number of hectares available for Viognier to 200, so it’s not likely to take over the European wine market any time soon.

In the United States, Viognier has been used mainly for blending with California wines such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Columbards – there really haven’t been that many single grape Viogniers out there. But that is changing.

At Banny’s, I had a glass of Viognier produced by Indian Springs Winery of Penn Valley, northeast of Sacramento. It was perfect for a light summer lunch: a dark straw color, fruity but not sweet and a really smooth mouthfeel. The wine reminded me of the house wines offered in the gasthauses of Austria and Bavaria.

We stopped in Angels Camp to get supplies, and the Save Mart there had a surprisingly extensive wine selection. I suppose that is due to the influx of Bay Area residents buying up vacation property in the area. They didn’t have the Indian Springs, but they did stock a Viognier made by Ripon producer McManis Family Vineyards. Ripon is near Tracy, a place not normally associated with fine wine, but these guys do a good job, at least with their Viognier. It has a lot of the same characteristics of the Indian Springs, with a tad more sweetness, like a Gewürztraminer.

Today there are more than 400 wineries producing Viognier. More than half of those are in France, but the United States is coming on strong. Locally, Calera of Hollister produces Viognier, as do several other wineries.

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