Thursday, December 5, 2013
By Joe Appel
What to say about Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon wines that Grahm himself hasn't already said? He's such an interesting man and good writer (except when he's a terrible writer) that it's even harder to say something engaging. Who could top the man himself?
Grahm is the original Rhone Ranger, a guy who dreamed of making extraordinary Pinot Noir in the Santa Cruz hills, until he realized the area was better suited to Grenache and Mourvedre. And he didn't do it quietly: Grahm's creative, megaphoned marketing strategies (oh, those bottle labels!) are maybe better known than the wines themselves.
I so wanted to interview him for this column, but knew if I did the Press Herald would run out of ink. He's a philosopher, comedian, craftsman, psychologist, punnist and bon(ny) vivant of the more-is-more school, and since I'm not exactly taciturn myself, an article in which my words and his collaborated and/or competed would have been a train wreck.
But after all these years of making unique wines wrapped in outsized promotional schemes, Grahm is getting quieter. He probably talks as much as he always has, but the truth-to-entertainment/irritation ratio has tipped heavily to the former.
He investigates more profoundly what terroir really means, wine's true capabilities, the promises and limitations of biodynamics, purpose and intention, ethics and appropriateness, and beauty and distinctiveness, than any other prominent wine person. Most impressively, he's funny.
Like industrialists in any field, most American winemakers do whatever they can, always. Grahm aims to do what the universe (not the bankers, or the cops) tells him he should.
And his wines show it. He sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin labels years ago, proclaiming his commitment to making "vrais vins de terroir" in the New World. It's hard, as Grahm himself continues to document. But he's getting there, and he's staying honest.
Great European winemakers do not irrigate their vineyards, add tartaric acid or age wine with oak chips. Grahm does all these things and more, but he says so on the labels!
Terroir, more than the effects of a given soil on a given grape, is the full manifestation of truth; the apogee of honesty.
Like Grahm himself, Bonny Doon wines are grand raconteurs, and their stories get better with age. But like all great fiction, there's nothing made-up about them.
Muscat Ca' del Solo 2009, $16. No, I know, you will not actually buy off-dry Muscat, you big dummy.
Does it help that the Moscato Giallo grapes are grown in the vineyard that originally birthed the Big House wines, which Grahm has now converted to biodynamic? (The close-up of the crystal on the label pays homage to the sublime symmetry visible in microscope images of biodynamically farmed soil, as opposed to the ungodly mess you see in a similar image of conventionally farmed soil.)
Does it help that there are all sorts of "pho" flavors (no, Randall, not faux; I'm talking about Vietnamese soup here), such as cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and coriander? That the floral sweetness is offset by a terrific lemongrass finish? That the wine is exhilarant and alive in every way? No? Fine, you big dummy.
Cigare Volant Blanc 2010, $25. Grahm's impassioned, enthralling attempt to make a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Arroyo Seco, Monterey. This is a vast, multitudinous, savory white wine, brimming with lanolin and beeswax on the nose, followed by gardens of botanicals, lingering with bitter almond and flaxseed flavors, bracing and neat at the end. It will age magnificently: I'm drinking the 2007 now, and Bonny Doon pours 2004 at the winery.
Carignane Contra 2009, $16. In the great tradition of old-school Cal-Ital field blends, this wine combines 55 percent 100-year-old-vine-bred Carignan with Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Syrah from two transitioning-to-biodynamic vineyards.
The front of the wine plays up the minority grapes' New World talent for big-fruit exhibitions (especially raspberry), then turns to the Carignan's European penchant for dustiness, tar and spice rubs. To witness the transition from big to great that Grahm is fighting to achieve, start here.
Syrah Bien Nacido 2007, $42. When I first tasted this, my eyes went wide and I went silent for 70 seconds. I was face to face with life force.
I've written previously about the Ca' del Solo Dolcetto 2007 ($20), likening it to Tom Waits, in an article you can find online.
There's also the flagship Cigare Volant Rouge 2006 ($35), a smoky Chateauneuf impersonator (Grenache/Syrah, with some Mourvedre and Cinsault) full of licorice, tar and rawhide. A masked man, a kemosabe, galloping off with just a "Hi-yo Silver, away!" to remember him by.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: