John Alban’s wines from Alban Vineyards have been critical darlings since they first appeared, nearly twenty years ago. Among the most expensive Rhône-style bottlings in California (or the New World, for that matter), they have helped focus attention on these varieties, although they also have sharpened the distinction between the very top examples, like Alban’s, and all the rest.
The estate vineyard is situated midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, on California’s Central Coast, in the county of San Luis Obispo [Saint Louis the Baptist, in Spanish]. SLO county, as locals refer to it, contains three official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the coolest of which is Edna Valley, where Pacific fog and breezes keep temperatures reliably moderate year-round. Although Edna Valley is best known for sprawling vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, much of it made inexpensively to satisfy America’s craving for these wines, Alban gambled on it in 1990, when he first put it under crop.
He planted Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier that year, followed the next year by Grenache. Alban’s love of wine was not sui generis but was generated in his parent’s home. “My Dad [still a practicing physician at the age of 85] likes wine. He would get gifts, wines from all over the world, so we drank them.” Thus exposed to wine at an early age, Alban began honing his preferences in graduate school, first at Fresno State University and, later, at the University of California, Davis (U.C. Davis), where he took his Master’s Degree in enology. “I concluded that Rhône varieties were best, and especially Viognier,” he says. “I was just totally smitten by Viognier. And from there, this whole Rhône thing grew.” After a stint traveling in the Rhône Valley, Alban returned to California, got his hands on some rootstock, and decided to plant a vineyard and start a winery. But where?
“Back then, everybody always talked about how hot the Rhône Valley is. Well, I got 40 years of climate data, did the number crunching, and lo and behold, the northern Rhône turns out to be a Region 1” on the U.C. Davis climate scale, the coolest climate in which grapegrowing is feasible. He earlier had looked into Paso Robles, also in San Luis Obispo County, but inland, where the summer temperatures are scorching, but had concluded that it was too hot to grow Rhône varieties there. The climate in Edna Valley was perfect.
It wasn’t long before critics discovered Alban’s wines, despite his penchant for keeping a low profile. [To this day, his website, www.albanvineyards.com, is decidedly minimalist.] In fact, he never sends wines to critics, including me, for review. They either must purchase them–no mean feat, considering the prices–or travel to him in Edna Valley, a bit off the beaten path. Although the estate vineyard is a single property, Alban has divided it into separately named blocks, based on soil type and exposure; the varieties planted are matched to their sites. For example, while “Seymour’s” and “Reva’s” blocks both contain Syrah, Alban prefers Seymour’s. “It’s a more compelling wine, because of the soil type and the exposition. The chalk and chert [of Seymour’s], combined with the very steep hillside and the wind, cause for a very dwarfed, devigorated vine, with a lot less fruit and a much smaller cluster.” A visit to the vineyard visually confirms this. The intensity of Seymour’s is always noted by critics, although Reva’s is seldom far behind.
The wines always will be intense: that is a factor of the Edna’s Valley’s terroir and the low-yields of the vineyard. John Alban’s personal approach to his wines is, however, subtlely changing, as he seeks something beyond power to mark them. “When I started, I was a young man, and when we’re younger, we often feel the need to do more to be noticed. You wonder, if you speak softly, will anyone listen to you? Subtlety is not perceived.” Now, he is attempting to change his approach, “to produce wines that may not be as forward, but hopefully, one experiences them as more complex.”
Alban certainly must be given historical credit for being one of the pioneers of Rhône varieties in California. His website, and the back label on every bottle, says “Alban is the first American winery and vineyard established exclusively for Rhône varieties,” a factual statement. He was, of course, not alone: Randall Grahm, Joseph Phelps, Gary Eberle, Bill Smith and others were also exploring the possibilities of [mainly] Syrah. But Alban, with his friend Mat Garretson, was one of the formative minds behind Hospice du Rhône, California’s premier event dedicated to the wines of the Rhône, held annually in Paso Robles. Although these wines have not been fully embraced by a public reluctant to move beyond Cabernet Sauvignont and Chardonnay, critics have applauded them, and the segment of the consuming public that does appreciate them is fanatical. This is something Alban takes some pride in. “Very few things in wine spark a renaissance or a revolution; the industry doesn’t change that fast,” he says. “But the Rhône thing is unbelievable. It really is remarkable what’s come of it since we stated Hospice du Rhône. The first one  was only 22 people. Now, it’s thousands of people, from all over the world, and the most celebrated producers, pouring fantastic wines.” That includes, obviously, John Alban.
Yet for all his success, this driven winemaker is determined to keep pushing the quality envelope. “Years ago, I read an article that said, ‘Young California winemakers finding their way.’ I thought, “Someday it will be ‘Ancient California winemakers stlll finding their way.’ Because I don’t care if you’ve been making wine in the Rhône Valley for 600 years, or in California for ten years. If you don’t wake up every day thinking you can do something better, then what’s the point?”
Written by Steve Heimoff