Lunch with Bonny Doon Winemaker, Randall Grahm

I love meeting winemakers.  What passionate people they are!  No matter if they are shy farmers who prefer the company of the vines to people, or gregarious showmen, they know their wines like no-one else and their stories are always fascinating! But Randall Grahm, winemaker of Bonny Doon in California, is unlike any other I’ve met before – the perfect blend of passion, humour, smarts and eccentricity.

Known as the “Rhone Ranger”, Grahm, with his greying, frenzied pony tail, revolutionized California winemaking in the 80s when he planted Grenache, a grape best known in the South of France and Spain (although he was not the first to do so, that honour went to David Bruce in the early 70s) and added to it Syrah, of which there were only three vineyards at the time, and Mourvedre to produce his first vintage of Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Southern Rhone’s Chateauneuf du Pape, in 1984.

Grahm says that Bonny Doon has been “a crazy party for the last 30 years,” his “viticultural id,” and has been “performance art more than a commercial venture” as he continued experimenting with international grape varieties while his reputation and business grew like vine leaves in a warm summer. But commercial it was, and a big success at that, however, four years ago he realized he was talking a great deal about making ‘vins de terroir’ (wines that echo the typicity of the region), but in fact wasn’t doing so in practice.  He made a change.  He sold off several brands and reduced his annual production from 450,000 cases a year to a mere 22,000!

Now he has found a new vineyard site in San Juan Batista, chosen with the help of a Geomancer (a sort of Western Feng Shui guru for grapes) and envisioned in a dream (a literal one, not simply a grand vision, although I imagine he has many of those as well) where he will plant 35 hectares of grape varieties including Sagrantino, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir.  As it turns out that this land is the home to a wild mountain lion, which seems entirely fitting for Grahm, whose reaction when he found out was that he would need to get “a serious dog”!

All the grapes he uses in his wines are either fully biodynamic or on their way to certification and not because he feels that biodynamic grapes necessarily make better wines, but instead because these wines have, in his words a “life force” that sets them apart.  I couldn’t say if the wines we tasted have a life force, but I can say they were spectacular.

All the Bonny Doon wines are bottled under screwcap which has nothing to do with the fact they are ‘New World’ wines, but as with every decision Grahm makes, this one has a specific motivation. He finds that the wines continue their elevage in the bottle and tend to age much longer than those bottled under cork.

In addition to experimenting with unusual (for California) grape varieties, Grahm also plays with different fermentation vessels including five gallon, completely inert, glass demijohns and foudres (wood tanks) and then combines them to make his ‘normale’ blend.  However, no matter what the grape, the fermentation method or the Qi (chi) of the vineyard, Randall Grahm strives to make wine of elegance and persistence and in my humble opinion, he can be proud of his success.

We were fortunate enough to taste an exciting array of wines including two consecutive vintages of Le Cigare Volant made from each of the different fermentation techniques, alongside the final result, a very interesting experiment of our own!

The wines we tasted:

Le Cigare Blanc 2007

2/3 Roussanne, 1/3 Grenache Blanc – a ‘gastronomy wine’. This comes from the Beeswax vineyard and according to Grahm, it is a “cosmic coincidence” that it smells like beeswax!  Fresh in the beginning and on the finish with lovely complexity and layers in the middle. Pears, honeysuckle and green fruit with hints of butter on the finish.

Vin Gris de Cigare 2008

Grenache, Cinsaut, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. This interesting blend of red and white grapes, is a complex wine that just happens to be rose.  It has had a lot of battonage to mix the lees into the wine and provide the lovely mouthfeel while the Roussane brings a fresh acidity. The 2009 will have less battonage and will therefore be a true ‘vin gris’.

Strawberries with cream! Raspberries, cherries, rich yet with an attractive minerality and just a touch of tannin.

Le Cigare Volant 2005

Grahm believes, and I think most of us would agree, that wines change so much once they are in the glass that it is hard to evaluate them in just one snapshot, so when this wine was poured, he suggested we introduce ourselves to it, say hello, and then leave it to open up and come back to it later in the tasting.

At first, the wine was very fresh, almost green on the finish, although the fruit was certainly there, but after just a few minutes in the glass it had completely changed – the nose became more pronounced (smoky and spicy) and the fruit had developed lovely darkness surrounded by elegant tannins.

Le Cigare Volant en Foudre 2007

Ripe fruit and floral notes on the nose, bright and deep cherries on the palate.

Le Cigare Volant en dem muid (puncheons) 2007

Robust aromas and flavours of bursting fruit, juicy tannins with a linearity through the core of the palate.

Le Cigare Volant 2007

A blend of the two wines above, this is the final result and was my favourite of the three. Velvety textured, vanilla wrapped blackberries, a touch of spice and savouriness with a loooooong finish.

Le Cigare Volant en Foudre 2008

A very interesting and somewhat surprising nose met me on first whiff of this wine that I can only describe as Bolognese!  However, upon revisiting, this changed into one less of meat and tomatoes and into savoury mushrooms and violets. A balanced floral palate with ample tannin, fruit and interest.

Le Cigare Volant en Bonne 2008

Both exuberant and delicate, this wine is bright with cherries and dense with roasted meatiness surrounded by big, yet approachable tannins. Clearly a wine that needs deliberation and food!

Le Cigare Volant en Demi Muid 2008

A smoky, meaty nose with a sprig of mint that later changes to fresh vanilla pod. A complex wine with a mighty structure, rich tannins and dark cherries on the finish. I imagine this wine to have bulging biceps!

Other wines enjoyed over lunch and more fun conversation were: Ca’del Solo Albarino 2009, Syrah Le Pousseur 2007, Syrah Le Pousseur 2005 and a heavenly dessert wine: Vol Des Anges Roussanne 2007.

Thank you to Fields, Morris & Verdin for the invitation to be enlightened by Randall Grahm and to the man himself for his quirky style, passion for innovation and ceaseless pursuit of ethereal elegance.

There’s always time for wine!

Tara – Wine Passionista

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