My dinner with Randall, part I

My dinner with Randall, part I This is the first of a three-part series detailing my conversation with Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm. To see part II, go here. To see part III, go here.

Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm is one of the legends of the California wine business, a winemaker who was among the pioneers in putting screw tops on quality wine, giving wine clever names, and inventing the modern, no-holds-barred wine label.

But Grahm also makes damn fine wine, whether it costs $10 or five times that . And yes, even the man who gave the world the legendary $10 Big House makes pricey wines. He does it with a style and flair that endears him to those of us who think wine is about more than how expensive it is. This is a man, after all, who once gave a speech called “The Phenomenology of Terroir” for a philosophy symposium at the University of California at Berkeley.

Grahm’s windmills, for there is a bit of Don Quixote in him, are the people who pay too much attention to scores, who worry if what they’re drinking is hip enough for them to drink, and who insist that all wine be over-oaked, over-tannic and over-alcoholic because they read somewhere that it’s supposed to be.

Which makes Grahm the Wine Curmudgeon’s kind of guy — especially after one of the first questions he asked me was whether I realized that wine writers were to blame for much of the woe in the wine world.

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A chance to drink some well-aged wine

image I did a favor for a friend in the wine business, and he thanked me with a bottle of 1988 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas, a quality label from the southern Rhone.

I don’t get a chance to drink aged wines often. For one thing, my cellar is only 15 years old, and most of the wines in it are even younger than that. When I started, I didn’t buy enough wine that needed to age. For another, the demands of the business call for writing about wines that are readily available, and aged wines aren’t. There were only a couple of places in the U.S. that still had a bottle of this wine for sale, for example.

But when I do get a chance, I savor it. Aged wine (and this assumes that it has been stored correctly) is a treat, a chance to taste something that is not only unique, but an adventure. Wine makers have an idea about what will happen when they make something to last for 20 or 30 years, but it’s only an idea.

So how was the Cayron?

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Wine of the week: Les Jamelles Sauvignon Blanc 2006

image The French, who once supplied the world with quality cheap wine, have been mostly supplanted by the Australians and the Chileans over the past decade. This has caused not just consternation within the French wine industry, but serious financial difficulty.

Some producers, realizing the crisis, have made significant changes to their products. They use better quality grapes, have upgraded their production techniques, and have adjusted their pricing to compete with $7 bottles of Yellow Tail. They understand that consumers will not pay a 10 or 20 percent premium because the wine label has some French on it.

Case in point is the Les Jamelles, one of the finest $10 sauvignon blancs — one of the finest sauvignon blancs at any price — that the Wine Curmudgeon has tasted in a long while. This is French sauvignon blanc the way it used to be — cheap, tasty and complete. There’s hardly any citrus, because Les Jamelles understands that French wine is not supposed to taste like New Zealand wine. It does have some tropical flavor,  mostly pineapple, as well as the minerality that French sauvignon blancs are supposed to have.

Drink this, chilled, on its own, or with seafood, salads or grilled chicken.

Getting an updated look at South African wine

South Africa, I’m told by people who should know these things, has the right climate and the right soils to make quality wine. It’s supposed to be one of the next great regions for sauvignon blanc.

But its wines still do not have the best reputation. One reason is that the country’s national grape, pinotage, is an acquired taste. Another is that its modern industry dates only to the end of apartheid, and it’s difficult to accomplish much in the wine business in just a couple of decades.

But I made my way through a dozen or so South African wines yesterday, and was impressed with the improvement. The high-end wines were still uneven, but on the lower end — $15 and down, and especially at $10 and less — there were quite a few winners:

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Tuesday tidbits 15

? Dallas sommelier becomes a master: Drew Hendricks, currently of Charlie Palmer Dallas, has become the third sommelier in Texas to earn the master designation from the international Court of Master Sommeliers. Hendricks says the final part of the three-part exam — in which he had to identify six wines in a blind tasting within a 24 minutes — was a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most difficult. No, he said with a laugh, that didn’t surprise him. There are two other masters sommeliers in Texas, Barbara Werley in Dallas and Guy Stout in Houston. There are fewer than 150 master sommeliers worldwide.

? Global warming and wine: Think you know what wine is supposed to taste like? Think again. That’s the news from the second conference on Climate Change & Wine, held in Barcelona a couple of weeks ago. The consensus? Flavors and color will change, and it could happen in as little as 10 years."Wine, however, is an early warning signal of what is to come," said Australian wine consultant Richard Samrt. "Wine’s past will no longer be relevant [in predicting its future] within 50 years. In only 10 years, the palate of our wines will change."

? San Antonio wine winners:  A Texas red, Messina Hof Barrel Reserve Cabernet Franc 2005, and a California white, Newman’s Own Chardonnay 2006, were named best of show at this month’s eighth annual San Antonio Wine Competition. The San Antonio event begins the spring wine season in Texas. My favorite winner? The Three Thieves 2005 Bandit cabernet, which won a gold in the $15 or less cabernet category.

Tasting five really expensive wines

image And each was impressive — not just to me, but to the other 56 people in the room. But impressive is only part of the story.

The tasting was a promotion for Terlato Family Vineyards, which produces a red Napa blend called Angel’s Peak. We tasted the 2004 vintages of Angel’s Peak and five of Napa’s biggest names: Silver Oak, Insignia, Opus One, Episode (another Terlato product), and Dominus. The idea? Taste each wine blind, so we weren’t swayed by price or reputation — and then see which wine that a knowledgeable group of drinkers enjoyed the most.

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The ongoing discussion about restaurant wine prices

This is actually one of the biggest issues in the wine business, in that markups are so high — often three or four times the retail price — that they dissuade customers from drinking wine.

It’s also, to be fair to restaurants, not as simple as it looks. Yes, prices should be lower (and the Wine Curmudgeon has made this point many times), but some restaurants have legitimate reasons for what they do. I’ll write more about this soon, but I did want to share something that I came across while researching restaurant wines lists (hey, someone has to do it).

In Dallas, a bottle of the basic Veuve Cliquot sells for about $42 retail. Check out the prices on these wine lists — if anyone can explain it, please do:

? $95, at a trendy Mediterranean restaurant frequented by 20- and 30-somethings.

? $95, at a high-end New American that’s popular with critics and people who eat at places the critics recommend.

? $95, at a new Italian restaurant that the food intelligentsia has been fawning over.