Carl Kanowsky | John Alban – California’s Rhone Godfather

Carl Kanowsky on Wine

You talk to any successful Rhone wine producer in California, and they all reference John Alban as a major influence.  

Justin Smith, owner and winemaker at Saxum, credits John for coming to the Saxum vineyard in the 1980s and convincing Justin’s father to plant Rhone varietals rather than chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. To follow John’s advice was a leap of faith for the Smith family as Rhone varietals such as syrah, grenache, viogner, etc., had little presence in the U.S. at that time. But the Smith family took that leap. Now, if you’re not already on Saxum’s mailing list, you have to wait years for the privilege of sending them your money to buy their wine. (But, believe me, it’s worth it.) 

When I told Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Wines that I was interviewing Alban, she had several questions but prefaced that with, “Wow, what a great guy.” 

So, with these and many more accolades from respected winemakers, I knew I had to talk to John. Graciously, after intercession from his son, Jared, he agreed. 

His dad, Dr. Seymour Alban, knew little about wine, other than he liked to drink it. This fondness was accommodated by his patients from his practice in Long Beach, who knew about his preferences. So, they gifted him with bottles. Apparently, so many bottles that they had to create a makeshift cellar. John observed that California in the 1970s was focused on two grapes, chardonnay and cabernet. Also, courtesy of the generosity of his dad’s patients, he discovered that wines from outside the U.S. had different types of grapes. 

After graduating from Vassar, on his 24th birthday, he had a glass of Condrieu, the celebrated white wine from Rhone composed of viognier. Apparently, that was John’s “Aha! Moment.” He now knew what he must do. 

He became laser focused on what he had to do and learn in order to make more of this celestial juice. His website best describes the next step in his wine journey: 

“I frantically completed my course work and research for my master’s in enology at Davis, immersed myself in everything Rhone, and applied for a scholarship that was being offered by the Franco-American chamber of commerce. The degree ‘allowed’ me to start repaying my student loans, the Rhone immersion kept me smiling, and the scholarship was my ticket to France.” 

John Alban at Hospice du Rhone, photo courtesy of Mel Hill Photography.

After working for a few years in France, apprenticing anywhere anyone would have him, John returned to California, determined to locate the best site for what had become his beloved Rhone grapes.  

After conducting exhausting research (in an era when resources, readily available now, required original detective work by him), John determined in 1987 that Arroyo Grande was the ideal site. He loved the variety of soils present there, the rise in elevation, and the unique terroir created by the collision of two tectonic plates. 

He planted 32 acres of viognier, almost immediately doubling the total of the world’s accumulation of viognier under vine. His first vintage was 1991.  

Since then, he’s garnered six 100-point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and been listed several times in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines. 

My next columns will go into more detail about John’s journey, reaching a level of esteem and respect few others have achieved, to a discussion of the wines we tasted, to what the future holds for Alban Vineyards. 

Despite his unmatched success, John has the ability to not take himself quite so seriously. For instance, we were conversing about E. Guigal, one of the premier wineries from Rhone, France, whose top bottles sell for thousands of dollars each. John, who has visited Guigal several times, said, “I love Phillipe Guigal. You know, we are often compared to them. [Pause.] In the sense that this room (his compact barrel room) represents what Guigal bottles every five minutes.” 

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.  

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