Chris Sawyer might well be Sonoma County’s greatest wine impresario: He certainly has a knack for bringing wine-loving folks together, from vintners and growers to consumers and collectors. Witness his brainchild in Sebastopol, Rhône Rendezvous.
Sawyer’s annual showcase for Rhône-style wines—syrah, grenache and viognier, among others—was a gathering of 20 local wineries that produce these grapes native to France and Spain. The former’s Rhône Valley gives the important category its name. In California, growers and winemakers champion it through some excellent wines. With 22 recognized Rhône varieties, there’s plenty to celebrate.
A Petaluma native, Sawyer has worked for over three decades as a wine writer, sommelier and restaurateur, with ties to wineries up and down the state. He’s well-versed in California’s go-to grapes like cabernet, pinot noir and zinfandel, but he has a passion for Rhône-style wines.
To that end, he pulled off another successful Rhône Rendezvous, the fourth such event at Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol, where he’s the wine director and a partner. “It’s just getting more popular,” he said after the Aug. 24 gathering. “You could see the other day that people were super happy. And there are a lot more consumers coming to these tastings.”
About 150 people showed up for the walkaround tasting in Gravenstein Grill’s courtyard. And, Sawyer pointed out, having been recognized as this newspaper’s Best Sonoma County sommelier multiple times lends both him and his restaurant some valuable cachet. He’s nothing if not a confident self-promoter.
Still, he acknowledged, the uniqueness of Rhône-style wines was the main draw. “If we just want to drink cabernet for the rest of our lives, we could do that,” said Sawyer. “But, like Devo would say, we have freedom of choice in this country.”
Through his years of wine experience, Sawyer has observed a shift in drinking preferences. “As we find that the palates of American consumers are developing, there’s nothing better than exploring opportunities to showcase the great flavors of the Rhône varieties here in California,” he said.
Fodor’s Napa & Sonoma author Danny Mangin came to the tasting, noting afterward that, between established producers like Ridge and Cline Cellars and boutique vintners like Capo Creek and MacLaren Wines, attendees had exactly that opportunity.
“Chris is an accomplished sommelier who’s curated a really great bunch of Rhône producers,” Mangin said. “To me, it’s like, ‘Wow, these are different flavors and different textures.’ But I guess there’s still a little more publicity that needs to be done. And, you know, an event like Rhône Rendezvous certainly provides it.”
Editor’s Note: Tony Poer, a Napa-based freelance writer, is brand ambassador for Miner Family Winery, a participant in Rhône Rendezvous.