By Virginie Boone

Founded in 1998 out of a small gathering of American vintners who loved Rhône-inspired wines, the Rhône Rangers today includes more than 100 wineries throughout the United States who devotedly make wines from the 22 grape varieties officially sanctioned to be grown in France’s Rhône Valley.

These include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah on the reds, and Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne on the whites. To be a Rhône Ranger wine, 75% of these grapes must be included.

The name for the group has been attributed to a few early participants, including winemaker/educator John Buechsenstein, who is on the wine faculty at The Culinary Institute of America and UC Davis Extension and was making old-vine Grenache and other field blended wines at McDowell Valley Vineyards when the Rhône Rangers was formed.

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John was also involved early on, starting his Rhône-devoted brand in 1985. He and Buechsenstein met at a California Wine Tasting Championships competition in 1987 and started talking about California winemakers making wine from Rhône varieties and how hard it was for them to get attention, amidst the rising popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Edmunds recalled in an interview with Grape Collective how two dozen winemakers gathered in Berkeley to band together as one to better market these wines. Before long, the Rhône Rangers was born and by the middle of 1989, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator dressed as the Lone Ranger, officially identified as, “The Rhône Ranger.” Their movement had arrived.

But as these things go, there were bumps in the road. As Spectator reported 10 years later, with no formal organization the group disbanded for a time. They’ve since been revived and begun to hold tastings again.

This year’s Rhône Rangers Savor Summer wine tasting will be held Saturday, June 29, on Cline Family Cellars’ winery lawn. One of the organization’s original founders, Frederic Cline of Cline Family, was given the Rhône Rangers Lifetime Achievement honor last year. This year’s Lifetime Achievement honor will go to Edmunds.

Cline founded Cline Family Cellars in 1982, first in Oakley in Contra Costa County, where he started with 100-plus-year-old, dry-farmed Mourvèdre, Zinfandel and Carignane. Growing up, Cline had worked summers on his grandfather’s Contra Costa ranch, where he fell in love with farming and making home wine. After going to UC Davis, he returned to Oakley to make his first wines from a vineyard he now calls Big Break.

Fred and wife Nancy relocated to Sonoma County in 1989, buying a 350-acre horse ranch in Carneros. The first things they planted were Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

The family-owned winery continues to make many of these Rhône-inspired wines and is a leader in sustainability, farming seven vineyards, four of them in Sonoma County. Together Nancy and Fred have, coincidentally, seven children, several of whom have joined the family business as second-generation vintners.

Sisters Hilary and Megan launched a second label called Gust, working with Cline winemaker Tom Gendall to make small-production Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from estate vineyards in the Petaluma Gap.

Youngest son Henry runs the viticulture team and is just launching a new wine called The Sneak, created (sneakily) from a vineyard of Rhône varieties set to be ripped out. With Gendall, he decided he’d make one more vintage from them, a red blend, and it was so well-received that selected blocks of the vineyard planted to Syrah and Grenache were saved.

The family also owns Jacuzzi Family Vineyards across the street from Cline, which is devoted to Italian varieties.

Cline is just one of a handful of Sonoma County wineries that remain involved with the Rhône Rangers and continue to push awareness about these beloved varieties.

Among the others are Abbot’s Passage/Bundschu Family Winery in Glen Ellen led by Katie Bundschu, which makes small-lot Rhône-style wines. Anaba Wines in Carneros is another.

Other Sonoma County members of the Rhône Rangers include Capo Creek Ranch, Meadowcroft Wines, Meeker Wine, Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs, The Grenachista Wine Company, Two Shepherds, Winery Sixteen 600 and brand-new Zerah’s Farm in Bennett Valley, which planted its vineyard to Syrah and Viognier in 2021, expecting to get its first harvest in 2026.