Food & Drink : Value vino - great wines for under $15

Bonnie Bonny Doons

Randall Grahm is nothing if not an iconoclast. The irrepressible owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards was in town recently for a tasting of his winery’s latest releases. Granny glasses, grey-streaked ponytail and all, it was hard to believe that “he has toned down quite a bit,” as one local wine worthy claimed — mentioning in particular the cover of Wine Spectator on which Grahm appeared clad in full Rhone Ranger regalia. Think tights, mask, and the whole campy costume. I’m sorry I didn’t meet him sooner.

In the ’80s Grahm helped found the Rhone Rangers, a group dedicated to fomenting the planting and vinifying of Rhone grape varieties such as grenache mourvedre and syrah. Since then, his anti-cab, anti-chard attitude (which contributes to frequent anti-Wine Spectator, anti-Parker proclamations) has led him to investigate other varietals even less-known to American consumers.

This fallen-away liberal-arts major admits to “wandering into a wine shop in Beverly Hills while working on a Martin Heidegger thesis.” He landed a job there and never looked back, ultimately obtaining a viticulture degree at UC Davis, the Harvard of wine-making institutions.

Grahm also confesses that his bankers (and perhaps his therapist) have told him he can’t simply plant every grape that interests him at his Santa Cruz property. Hence the Eurodoon line, comprising wines made in places as far from California as the Languedoc and Northern Italy, and imported by Bonny Doon with minimal intervention by Grahm.

Heidegger, for that matter, is never far from all of this in that winemaking is, Grahm says, “a quest for meaning,” a kind of phenomenological search — and not just for terroir. Tasting a glass of wine is an act to which “we bring all of our expectations and cultural baggage.” My baggage informs the following evaluations, but the wines are well-priced enough for you to ignore me altogether and bring Sartre or Donald Duck to the table as you choose.

The Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc 2004 is a light and floral wine with pretty, raisiny qualities and just enough acid backbone to keep the wine from being cloying. It wasn’t a favorite, but still shows that chenin is a grape to be considered seriously if treated properly.

The 2004 Cigare Blanc, whose title derives from the 1954 proclamation by the commune of Châteauneuf du Pape banning the landing of flying saucers (or, we guess, cigars), is largely composed of rousanne and grenache blanc, and has a nose of sensual white flowers. Yet the body is minerally, even flinty, with overtones of peach pit. A stunner.

Le Cigare Volant, in its 2002 incarnation, embodies the Rhone Ranger philosophy: It’s plein de cassis, pie cherry, plum ... and also exhibits an herbal quality that gives it a shot at greatness.

The 2005 Vin Gris de Cigare, a rosé wine with more than pretty-in-pink on its mind, blends four typical reds from the Rhone with two native whites, rousanne and Grenache blanc, for “gravitas,” according to Grahm. The wine does indeed possess a terrific backbone that supports a powdery dryness with a Provençale pedigree.

Moving on to the Eurodoons, the 2004 Domaine de Blageurs, a Grahm blend from the Languedoc dominated by Syrah, is full of fantastic cassis and pepper. It’s a simple wine, but simply spectacular. The 2003 Il Circo: Ruché La Donna Cannone, on the other hand, has a spectacular label (as do most Bonny Doon wines — and Grahm confesses he would one day prefer to be known more for his wines than his labels), but I was less impressed with the suggested rose-petal quality of this rare red from Northern Italy than I presumably should have been. It was best with food, not a bad thing in itself, and reminded me of cooked plum.

Back in California, the 2004 Central Coast Viognier Doux, made from grapes dried on paper trays and a cuvée racked with the waning moon, exhibits peach, apricot, and pineapple flavors, all supported by unabashed acid. The result is a spicy, smoky wine at once seductive and elegant. The Bouteille Call, on the other hand, a syrah with raspberry wine and grape spirits, merely seems flashy.

Yet, in the league of almost-too-clever names, I do eagerly await the wine Grahm says he most wants to do: Road Kill Red. Featuring a red pickup truck and, just perhaps, a mashed marsupial, the label might suggest a foray into the world of down-under wines. Why not? He’s been almost everywhere else. And he could still avoid cabernet.

- Ron Bechtol


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