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SAN FRANCISCO � Thanks to an earnest nonprofit wine promotion group called the Rhone Rangers, I had the opportunity to sample hundreds of intriguing and mostly not-yet-released American-produced Rhone wines under one roof. The group’s annual Rhone Rangers Wine Tasting is open to the wine trade, media, and the public for one blustery Saturday afternoon each March. Besides being the best opportunity for some tiny producers to show off their prowess with Carignane, Grenache, Marsanne, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Roussanne, Syrah, and Viognier grapes, it was also a chance for the consumer to learn who is leading the pack. At this venue, wine producers from Idaho, New York, Oregon and Washington state competed with the big names from California � from Arrowood Vineyards & Winery to the Zaca Mesa Winery. As we snaked around the pavilion, sampling wines from producers arranged alphabetically, we sought out both the Rhone-style blends and straight varietals. But to withstand palate fatigue, I designated myself as the white wine taster. From the Alexander Valley Vineyards (avvwine.com), based in northern Sonoma County, the 2003 Viognier, Wetzel Estate, shone with its bright flavors of apricot and honeysuckle, and vanilla. The Andrew Murray Vineyards (andrewmurrayvineyards.com) showed well with Enchant�, a 2003 blend of 60 percent Roussanne and 40 percent Marsanne. The Beckman Vineyards (beckmenvineyards.com), based in Santa Barbara County, Calif., produces a rich and full-bodied 2002 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Roussanne. By way of contrast, there was the Edmunds St. John (edmundsstjohn.com) 2004 Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne, produced from grapes sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., that emphasized fresh fruit and honey aromas. Hawley Wines (hawleywine.com), which was started by the former wine master of Kendall-Jackson Winery, John Hawley, poured a 2004 barrel-fermented Viognier with apricot, citrus, and honeysuckle notes. Jade Mountain, part of the Chalone Wine Group (chalonewinegroup.com), offered a delicious 2003 Viognier, Paras Vineyard, with flavors of butterscotch, honeysuckle, and peach, and with a hint of white pepper spice. Alison Schneider, the winemaker for Jepson Vineyard, based in Ukiah, Calif., was on hand pouring the 2002 Jepson Vineyard Viognier with tangerine and honeysuckle flavors. The Lavender Ridge Vineyard (lavenderridgevineyard.com) grows the grapes for its 2003 Roussanne in the Sierra Foothills of California, producing a wine with aromas of pear, violet, and sandalwood. My favorite wine of the day was produced by Madrona Vineyards (madronavineyards.com) � their 2003 M�lange de Trois blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier, with its honeydew melon and fruit flavors. The debut of San Diego County’s first winery, Orfila (orfila.com), included a Viognier Cuvee � Lotus, Lot No. 123 � another blend of Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne, with the essence of melon and pineapple. From Idaho was the respectable 2003 Viognier from Sawtooth Winery (sawtoothwinery.com) and from Washington the 2003 Zefina Serience White (zefina.com), a blend of 50 percent Viognier, 50 percent Roussanne. Regretfully, by the time I reached these last three wines, I was plenty tired and unfocused. Next year, I’ll move backward through the alphabet and concentrate on the reds. Elisabeth Frater, a business litigator and wine writer based in Napa, Calif., can be reached at [email protected].

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