WINEMAKER: JOHN ALBAN
More Than Chocolate and Vanilla
John Alban Wants America to Get Over Wine Myopia
John Alban of Alban Vineyards is by any and all measures a pioneer of Rhône-styled wines in California, particularly Viognier. He established his Alban Vineyards brand, the first in America to specialize in Rhône varietals, in 1989.
“Even before I could officially drink wine, I spent a lot of time wondering why Europe ferments over 500 different grape varieties, while California was using about six,” Alban said. “The strangest part was that people only drank two of the six. Anyone seriously planning to change how many wine types were being produced in California would have to contend with the American love affair with Cabernet and Chardonnay; our wine equivalents of chocolate and vanilla.”
It was on his twenty-fourth birthday, well into his quest for alternatives to the “chocolate” and “vanilla” grapes, that Alban tried his first glass of Viognier — in the form of Condrieu, a white Rhône wine from France. “I researched everything UC Davis had on Condrieu — about 12 sentences,” Alban said. “I learned that I’d be moving to the Rhône if I wanted to learn more.”
Alban quickly completed his master’s degree in enology at UC Davis and then spent several years in France. “Everything I found [there] indicated that Syrah, Grenache Noir, Viognier and Roussanne made more than mere sense for California,” Alban said
He was ready to return to California. But he had a problem. Almost none of the Rhône varieties he wanted to plant existed in California. Alban spent years propagating vines and then planting them in Edna Valley, a cool appellation just outside of San Luis Obispo. He felt it was a great site, especially for Viognier.
After his first vintage in 1991, he set out on the road ready to battle with the Cabernet/Chardonnay traditionalists. And while he did meet with his share of resistance, he was pleasantly surprised to find a great deal of acceptance, even enthusiasm.
John Alban the pioneer, has become John Alban, the spiritual leader, and even the “Johnny Appleseed” of the movement. Rhône varieties are now flourishing in California, thanks in great part to a man who wouldn’t settle for only chocolate and vanilla.