An article by ChrisO
What do Biodynamics, flying cigars, The Pope’s New Castle (aka Châtauneuf-du-Pape), and a winemaking author have in common? You’re just going to have to read this post to find out.
It all started in 1983 with a gentleman named Grahm who built himself a little wine empire in Santa Cruz California with wines named Big House Red and Cardinal Zin. He had a quick wit and a very keen sense for marketing which helped him catapult his brands into the gullets of millions of Americans. He also spent much energy and time championing the concept of terrior and Rhone grape varieties, which ultimately earned him the title of “Rhone-ranger” Then one day in 2006 when the total production of his spirited wine empire reached almost a 1/2 million cases (or 6 million bottles), this man named Grahm decided to cash out. He wanted to do something different, he wanted to start making the wines he had so long spoken about: wines with a sense of place, wines that tasted like from whence they came. He wanted to become the terrior-ist that he had always dreamed of becoming. This dream of terriorism of course landed him on the Biodynamic watch-list.
So in 2006, Randall Grahm set out to make his beloved “vin de terrior”. He fully embraced the philosophies of Rudolf Stainer (aka the Father of Biodynamics and Waldorf Education) and set out to grow and make wines biodynamically, which is basically a higher form of organic farming that sees the farm as a living entity, a closed ecosystem that is aligned to the celestial movements in the skies. For some, this is a little esoteric or “out there” and for others it is the only way. Biodynamics has its detractors, to say the least, but I for one have found that the practice results, more often then not, in a wine with typicity, in other words a wine that is true to the place it was grown. To use a food analogy; it is the equivalent to eating raw milk cheese opposed to processed cheese slices. Or to use a music analogy, Biodynamics is Pink Floyd and conventional wines are the Jonas Brothers. Do I always love BioD wines? NO, but do I think they are authentic and true to what nature throws at them YES!
Ok, enough about ME, back to Randall’s story. Another one of his passions is truth in labeling and listing the ingredient of his wines on the back label. For example the back label of the 2008 Ca’ Del Solo Albariño reads:
“Ingredients: Biodynamic grapes and sulfur dioxide. In the winemaking process, the following were utilized: indigenous yeast, organic yeast nutrient and bentonite. At the time of bottling, this product contained: 65ppm Total SO2, 20ppm free SO2”.
Some might argue that this is self serving and only a marketing ploy, and they might be right given RG’s history of being savvy marketer. I for one applaud the effort because I think it forces us to ask the question, what exactly is in a bottle of wine? The wine industry has been very good at convincing us as consumers that wine is a 100% natural product. This however, my dear friends, is not the case 90% of the time. At least Mr Grahm’s is taking a step in the right direction, that hopefully others will follow, even if it might be self serving.
Another of Randall Grahm’s passions seems to be the use of screw caps, of which he and his Bonny Doon Vineyards are huge supporters. To put it in
their own words, “vive le screwcap.” I do not share their exuberance for this type of closure, not because it lacks all the romance, pomp and circumstance of cork, but because it is in a word, NOT sustainable, unlike cork. For a winery that prizes Biodynamics for its healing nature of the environment it seems counterintuitive that they choose a metal closure that will live on in a landfill long after aliens have invaded our planet and start making Biodynamic wines. I also often find that wines closed under a screw cap are somewhat reductive, in other words frozen in time, where the interaction of the wine and oxygen (instrumental in the further development or aging of a wine) has stopped or slowed dramatically, leaving the wine somewhat one dimensional. However, this is such a hotly debated issue that I almost feel like I am picking at a scab sure to release a gushing forth of opinion.
So here comes the part where I tell you what a cigar, Châtauneuf-du-Pape, and a winemaking author have in common. Sound like a set up for a joke doesn’t it? But trust me this is no joke, back when Randall still owned those two behemoth brands discussed earlier, he conceived of a wine that would be a homage to the great wines of the southern Rhone in France, namely Chateauneuf-du-Pape. So he launched Le Cigare Volant “Red wine of the Earth.” The name means flying saucer in French. I am sure you are asking yourself “why the hell did he call it that?” Well I think it best if I let Randall tell you in his own words:
“In 1954 the village council of Châtauneuf-du-Pape was quite perturbed and apprehensive that flying saucers or ‘flying cigars’ might do damage to their vineyards were they to land therein. So, right-thinking men all, they passed an ordinance prohibiting the landing of flying saucers or flying cigars in their vineyards. (This ordinance has worked very well in discouraging such landings.) The ordinance further states that any volitional object that did alight was to be taken immediately to the pound.”
All makes sense now, right? So now we can move on. Incidentally this prose appears on the back label of the wine. Now as you can tell Randall is no slouch of a writer and has even written his own book Been Doon So Long – A Randall Grahm Vinthology, a collection of his musings about the wine world. But I am not here to discuss his book, as JonM and I will do that in an upcoming podcast. If you want further insights into the thoughts of Randall, may I suggest following him on twitter or reading his blog.
So, having read all this you might feel that Randall Grahm is a true individual, someone who is not afraid to put himself out there and self-reflect, and you would be right. He is as true to himself as his wines are true to their place, nothing added, manipulated, or filtered just true expressions regardless of whether you like them or not. The wine world should have more individuals like him. Long live the anti-homogeny movement!!!!
What follows are my impressions of the two wines that I received as samples along with the aforementioned book.
2008 Ca’ del Solo Albariño, Ca’ del Solo Estate Vineyards, Monterey County
Bonny Doon Vineyards, Santa Cruz, California
This wine has a light lemon green core that fades to an almost watery rim tinged with reflexes of lemon.
The aromas are very youthful and medium in intensity and remind me of lemon zest, granny smith apple, white flowers, fresh cut grass, wet rocks and mandarin oranges. Taking a sip I notice zesty acidity, very balanced alcohol and a light body uninfluenced by oak (ahh now thats refreshing!) Flavors of green apple, key lime, and hints of bell pepper and grass great my taste buds. The finish is refreshing and crisp but highlights some bitter notes, reminiscent of orange peal.
This wine is of good quality and much more pleasing then I expected. I happen to be a lover of Spanish Albariño from Galicia, so my expectations were quite high. It reminds me much more of a Sauvignon Blanc then it does an Albariño, which tend to exhibit more peach and apricot notes then citrus. So putting the comparison to a Spanish Albariño aside for a moment I found this wine to be very pleasing and unique, although the bitterness on the finish was a little disappointing. I will definitely be trying this wine again, next time with some seafood.
2005 Le Cigare Volant, California Red Wine Bonny Doon Vineyards, Santa Cruz, California
(blend of 50% grenache, 24% mourvèdre, 22% syrah, 3% carignane and 1% cinsault. in other words a Rhone blend)
In the glass this wine exhibits a medium ruby core that slowly fades to a light ruby rim. The aromas are medium in intensity, elegant, and remind me of dark cherries, earth, old world funk (a good thing!!!!) cedar, vanilla, creme de cassis, white pepper, violets and fennel. If the nose is any indication of what is to come I am excited!!!
On the palate flavors of pepper, dried herbs, black cherries, black fruit, earth, smoke, cedar, vanilla and more of that old world charm, unfold. The flavors are backed by good acidity, ripe tannins that add nice texture, and thank GOD well integrated alcohol (incidentally this wine has about 13.5% alcohol). The finish is both very complex and long. In one word this wine is balanced.
This is a wine of outstanding quality. It drinks very nicely now but in my opinion will continue to age for the next 3-6 years. After my initial tasting note I paired this wine with a hearty beef and mushroom stew and it came alive. If the goal of this wine was to pay homage to Châtauneuf-du-Pape while staying true to its California roots, well then this goal has been achieved. It truly shows that a California wine can be both elegant, balanced, interesting and food friendly. Something not many of the red wines from Napa can claim.
I would have to say that having tasted these two wines Randall has achieved his goal of making “vin de terrior” now whether is new direction will prove as popular and profitable as his last venture is still to be seen, but somehow I just don’t think that matters to the man with the passion for all things intangible.