I rarely discuss wine with the person who made it; what’s the point with most of the grocery store plonk I taste? But talking about the Bonny Doon Old Telegram with Randall Grahm was a treat.
The wine, of course, was even better. The Old Telegram ($45, sample, 13.9%) is a classic Bonny Doon effort – top-notch, if unusual, California fruit (mourvedre, in this case), exquisite technical winemaking, and the sense that there is something going on that you won’t find in too many other places.
Grahm, during our visit this spring, insisted that I taste the Old Telegram, saying it was one of the best he had ever made. I’m glad I didn’t argue with him. Somehow, the mourvedre – a Spanish grape also grown in the south of France – produces a Bordeaux-like, earthy, forest floor sensibility that you only get anymore in traditional and very expensive red Bordeaux. There is also some baking spice and Grahm’s trademark funky fruit (blackberry?).
Highly recommended, and the wine to give as a gift to someone who appreciates Old World sensibility or wants to try something that isn’t full of sweet fruit. Pair this with anything you’d eat with high-end red Bordeaux, including roast lamb and almost any combination of beef. It’s also young, and will only get more interesting as it ages over the next decade.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
• Eden Ridge Chardonnay 2013 ($13, sample, 14.5%): This California white shows everything that is wrong-headed about premiumization – $7 or $8 worth of wine that costs one-third more. It’s hot, with an alcoholic tang; stemmy and bitter; doused with oak; and without all that much fruit.
• Campo Viejo Rioja 2014: ($10, purchased, 13%): Spanish red made with tempranillo that proves not all Spanish wine is a great value. It’s grocery store plonk that tastes about as Spanish as a glass of water, with sweet fruit and too much oak.
• Bonny Doon Gravitas 2014 ($16, purchased, 13.5%): Proper white Bordeaux channeled through California, so brighter citrus fruit, less flinty, and a little rounder, but still delicious. The difference between this wine and the first two is so vast that it’s difficult to put into words.
• Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2014 ($20, purchased, 13%): This red blend from one of my favorite Sicilian producers was sadly disappointing. Though it’s well made, with red fruit and some spice, there’s not enough going on for what it cost: Not complex enough, with almost no finish; not enough Sicilian dark fruit; and not earthy enough.
Dallas, finally, seems to be taking to Randall Grahm. The Bonny Doonster sold out a winemaker dinner at the new and much-praised Rapscallion on Monday night, and Dallas winemaker dinners usually don’t sell out unless they feature men who make massive, gigantic Napa-style red wine that costs too much money. Plus, Grahm’s wines are starting to show up on store shelves here, something that hasn’t happened in years.
Grahm’s trip gave us a chance to hold another of our sort of annual visits, where we taste his wines and solve the problems of the post-modern U.S. wine business. This time, we talked before the dinner, which I didn’t stay for since I didn’t want to stop him from schmoozing with the paying guests (schmoozing being winemaker slang for mingling with the customers).
The highlights of our chat and a few notes about three of the wines served with the dinner:
• The California drought cut yields in 2015, but Grahm said that winter rain seems to have helped all but the worst hit areas. One side effect: Many grapes ripened early, so some 2015 wines won’t have as much structure or acidity, and could be more flabby. That’s something I’ve tasted so far, and it has been quite disappointing.
• He says he is “gaining clarity” about how to approach the Popelouchum Vineyard, where he hopes to create 10,000 new grape varieties (last year’s successful Indiegogo crowdfunding project). Grahm is especially excited about using furmint, a Hungarian white grape, and a native Texas rootstock, Vitisberlandieri, that does well in stony soils. Vines are growing on the property, though money remains a problem.
• On so many wineries — that don’t own land or winemaking facilities — being bought for so much money by Big Wine: “It’s like money in the political process,” he said. “Where does it all come from?” That Big Wine is buying producers for nothing more than their brand is difficult for long-time producers like Grahm to make sense of, given that wine is supposed to be about the land the grapes are grown on.
The wines, as always, were top notch. The new vintage of the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13.5%) was less Provencal and more Bordeaux than usual, with a chalky finish, a less crisp mouth feel, and darker, though still subtle, fruit.
The 2012 Le Pousseur Syrah ($26, sample, 13.4%) is what New World syrah should taste like — earthy, peppery, and spicy, with soft black fruit and the tannins to match, while the bacon fat aroma is textbook. The 2012 gets more interesting as it ages, particularly as the fruit softens. This syrah is my favorite Bonny Doon wine, and I’ve even paid for it. That it tastes so fresh and alive after all this time under screwcap should put all that cork and aging foolishness to rest.
The 2011 Le Cigare Volant ($45, sample, 14.2%) is a Rhone-style blend, mostly mouvedre and grenache, that takes this style of wine toward an elegance I didn’t think possible with Rhone blends. It’s also somehow a food wine (lamb?), a contradiction usually only seen in red Burgundy. Look for a long, long wine with sophisticated tannins, layers of flavor that are only just beginning to show, and cherry fruit in there somewhere. It, too, should keep aging — maybe even a decade.
This year’s “Why did they bother?” Thanksgiving wine press release offered two roses, costing $65 and $100, as the perfect holiday wines. We’ll ignore for the moment that the point of rose is to cost much less than that; rather, why would anyone need or want to pay that much money for wine for Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is the greatest wine holiday in the world because it isn’t about money or showing off, but because it’s about being thankful that we can be together to enjoy the food and the wine.
Needless to say, my suggestions for Thanksgiving wine cost much less and almost certainly offer more value. Guidelines for holiday wine buying are here.
• King Estate Pinot Noir 2013 ($26, sample, 13.5%): I tasted this Oregon red at an American Wine Society dinner, where we also had a $160 California red. Guess which one I liked best? This is is not to take anything away from the California red, but to note the King Estate’s quality and value, and especially for pinot noir — lighter but with a touch of earthiness, cherry and raspberry fruit, and a wonderful food wine. Highly recommended.
• Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Brut R serve NV ($18, sample, 12.5%): Sophisticated sparkling wine from France’s Alsace that got better the longer it sat in the glass, and which surprised me with its terroir and sophistication. Look for stoniness and minerality with ripe white fruit.
• Bonny Doon Le Pousseur 2013 ($26, sample, 13,5%): This California red is my favorite Randall Grahm wine, not necessarily because it’s better than any of the others, but because of what it is — syrah that somehow combines New World terroir with old world style. Lots of black fruit, soft tannins, and that wonderful bacon fat and earthy aroma that makes syrah so enjoyable.
• Domaine Fazi le De Beaut 2014 ($10, purchased, 11.5%): A Corsican rose made with a grape blend that includes sciaccarellu, the best known red on the French island. Maybe a touch thin on the back, but an otherwise more than acceptable rose with a little tart red fruit and that Mediterranean herbal aroma known as garrigue. And yes, I’d take 10 bottles of this over any $100 rose.
• Muga Rioja Blanco 2014 ($13, sample, 13%): Spanish white made with mostly viura has some oak, tropical fruit, and refreshing acidity, and why the Spanish don’t bother with chardonnay. Muga is one of my favorite Spanish producers, and almost everything it makes is affordable, well-done, and worth drinking.
Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm is perhaps the most subversive person in the wine business, and one sip of his rose, the Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, shows why. On the one hand, it has all of the necessary qualities for a terrific pink wine — freshness, nary a hint of residual sugar, and a certain stoniness that many of the great French roses from Provence have.
On the other hand, the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13%) also tastes like it will age for at least a couple of years. What cranberry fruit there is is hidden beneath the other components, and the fruit should slowly show itself over time. This is not supposed to happen with rose, which is usually made to last for just one vintage (and is perfectly fine when it does). That Grahm makes a rose that will age, and for only $15, is just another example of how sneaky he is, and how his wines almost never do what the wine business says wine should do.
Hence it’s no surprise that I enjoy them so much. Highly recommended; serve the Vin Gris de Cigare chilled, either on its own or with any summer food, be it salad or grilled fish, chicken, or beef. I drank it with socca, the chickpea flour pancake from southern France on a hot Dallas Saturday afternoon. If I wasn’t magically transported somewhere other than my air conditioned living room, the combination reminded me why pairings can work as long as we aren’t slaves to them.
Finally, a note about Grahm’s newest — and perhaps most subversive — project. He is crowdfunding a vineyard to create 10,000 new grape varieties, in the hope of finding a unique New World vinifera, something that didn’t come from Europe and so is better suited to our climate and soil. In this, Grahm figures he has a chance to explore New World terroir in a way no one ever has. That creating new grape varieties is incredibly difficult does not seem to daunt him in the least.
The project is about 35 percent of the way to its $350,000 goal — you can contribute here, and there are some impressive premiums. And, given my experience with crowdfunding, Grahm will have more fun than he can imagine. Not that I know anything about waking up at 2 a.m. to check the funding percentage.
My Boony Doon moment came during the 2011 Le Cigare Blanc. I said I liked it a lot, and Grahm smiled and offered that it would be even better when he added picpoul to the blend, which is currently grenache blanc and roussanne. Which demonstrates his creativity and passion, but also what Grahm admits may be a less than consumer-centric approach to winemaking. It’s not as if wine drinkers are clamoring for a $25 white blend made with three grapes they’ve never heard of.
But how dull the world would be if all we drank were chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Which, of course, is part of Grahm’s reason for being, and why so many of us appreciate what he does. After the jump, the eight wines and cider we tasted (all were samples):
No one holds court like Randall Grahm, the winemaker and president for life at California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard. Last week in Dallas, in front of a dozen or so retailers, sommeliers, and media types, Grahm discussed the Swiss anthropologist Henri Junod; the role of magnets in winemaking; his efforts to develop grape hybrids and rootstocks that are best suited to the 21st century’s climate and soil; the backlash against screwcaps; and, though I’m not quite sure how, electrons.
Along the way, he punned whenever possible — “The doonside of winemaking,” for example — and even managed to talk about his new wines, including a very subversive fruit cider, a delicious riesling so new it’s not on the winery website yet, and perhaps the best vintage ever of the Le Cigare Blanc.
Disclaimer first: I like Grahm, and he makes some of the most interesting and enjoyable wine in the world. So it’s always a treat when he comes to Dallas, and this year was no exception. The man makes me smile, and how often does that happen?
Do Grahm’s wines taste like anyone else’s? Nope, so be warned — if you need scores or 15 1/2 percent cabernet sauvignon or baseball bat chardonnay, what follows will almost certainly annoy you. It annoys many of my colleagues, and Grahm has been at war with the Winestream Media for more than a decade, despite what he claims are his best intentions. But he can’t stop telling the James Laube joke, and he told it again last week. That’s hardly detente, though it is damned funny.
Would that the Winestream Media could see past Grahm as prankster and realize that he wants the same thing it does — for Americans to enjoy wine. He just takes a different road. “Wine has to be pleasurable,” he told us. “You shouldn’t have to ask yourself if you like it.” But, having said that, he also acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges for wine drinkers, including himself, was to “learn how to push out of my safety zone,” to try wine we don’t think we’re going to like.
Among the other topics:
? The backlash against screwcaps, which Grahm has championed for years. “The cork people are like girls in junior high school who each have their own cliques, and they don’t want to let anyone in their clique,” he said. And anyone who says wine with screwcaps suffers in quality or doesn’t age? “It’s a myth,” says Grahm. “The wine just ages differently.”
? Oak in winemaking: “It’s a condiment and anyone who thinks it’s more than that also thinks ketchup is a vegetable.”
? Terroir is all. “We can’t replicate European wines” in California, Grahm said, because California isn’t Europe. On the other hand, de-emphasizing terroir with California-style winemaking, which he says happens even with some of the most expensive and highest-rated wines, isn’t the answer, either. “It’s about real wine. Does the wine have life or not?”