Some Free-Spirited Vintages Being Uncorked From Bonny Doon

Times Wine Writer

Grenache is "the most overlooked grape variety in America," said Randall Grahm. "Uh, except that it's tied with Mourvedre."

Grahm is the free spirit who owns Bonny Doon Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains and who has dedicated his life to all sorts of curious things including curious wines, strange-sounding names for those wines and silly press releases and newsletters.

Grahm is a former philosophy major who never abandoned that milieu, merely transferring some of the more absurd thoughts to his Bonny Doon labels and wine-making beliefs.

One curious decision was not to worry about making Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the two primary varieties in today's market. Oh, he will still make a Chardonnay, and a very good one at that, but he focuses these days on Rousanne, Marsanne and Mourvedre. Sounds more like a French law firm.

No, these are Rhone varieties, from the district in southern France where such varieties flourish. At the moment, they flourish nowhere else. Grahm intends for them to flourish in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or know the reason why.

An Original

Needless to say, Grahm is an original. Who else would paste a label onto a wine bottle with the blank side out? That means that to read the label, you have to read through the clear glass bottle. Who else would name a wine after a flying saucer?

That wine, by the way, is one of Grahm's most successful creations. Called Le Cigare Volant, it pays homage to the French phrase for a UFO. Not that there's anything unidentified about the wine, and the 1986 version of Le Cigare Volant is possibly Grahm's best.

It is made largely (87%) of Grenache, a grape variety that once, in the dim past of California wine, made a pink wine with enough sugar to give a diabetic the willies.

But on its own, Grenache can produce a red wine of extremely interesting character, and the '86 Le Cigare Volant from Bonny Doon shows that charm in a plump fruit and ripe cherry aroma with a hint of tar (reminiscent in a manner of speaking of some great Italian wines I've tasted).

"It's the most complete, most finished Cigare I've made," said Grahm the other day. "The '85 is maybe more impressive in depth and complexity, but the '86 is more professional."

At $15, Le Cigare Volant isn't an inexpensive purchase, but the wine is in great demand. "Unbelievable demand," said Grahm. "We could charge a lot more and still get it." The '85 Le Cigare Volant was $12.50 and may still be on some store shelves, so if you see one, grab it.

That suggestion is made because the wine appears to age handsomely, growing more graceful as it goes.

As for Grahm's remark that Mourvedre is likewise overlooked, he himself has not overlooked it. He has made a wine called Old Telegram. It is clearly a knockoff of the French house Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, the grand producer in Chateauneuf-du-Pape that features a good deal of Grenache in its wine.

Grahm uses, instead, Mourvedre (also known as Mataro in California) for his 1986 Old Telegram ($15), which is adorned with one of the labels for which Grahm is noted. It appears to be an old telegram. (In fact, the label itself is embossed, and underneath the title of the wine, the phrase "Old Telegram" is spelled out in Morse Code dots and dashes.)

The 1986 Old Telegram is one of the most striking wines I have ever tasted. Untraditional, yes. Impossible to dissect, certainly. Worth cellaring, positively. But will it age?

I suspect it will age beautifully, but since I've never had a wine quite like this before, I'm shooting in the dark. The rose-and-raspberry character intrigued Dennis Wheeler, assistant wine maker, greatly, and at a dinner recently, I noted that he swirled and sniffed the wine endlessly, getting more and more nuances from it as he swirled.

I loved the wine, despite a slug of tannin, but we all agreed that the wine is a marvel of depth and Grahm is rightfully proud of this effort.

Grenache, however, is Grahm's greatest love. But the sad fact is that it's a variety in jeopardy. E&J; Gallo, the world's largest winery, is now making a wine featuring Grenache, and that ties up a good deal of the quality Grenache grapes.

And in a short crop year, such as this one was, Grahm found so little Grenache that he has chosen to make no Clos du Gilroy this year. That is a wine Bonny Doon has made like Beaujolais from the Grenache grape.

The good news is that Grahm, through some luck, discovered some Grenache in Paicines, south of San Francisco, in a vineyard owned by Almaden.

"The grapes miraculously were spared from being bulldozed, and we'll get 30 tons of it," he said. "Clearly, Almaden did not have the same interest in this variety. But the quality is wonderful, with tiny berries with loads of flavor."

Coincidentally, about the same time I was looking into the Bonny Doon wines, I had a chance to taste the new 1987 Gallo White Grenache ($3.50), a wine of marvelous delicacy, with a carnation and faint orange-peel character. The sweetness was there in this pale pink wine.

The Bonny Doon wines were tasted at a dinner at which the wines of Chateau De Baun also were tasted, a most appropriate pairing since De Baun specializes in another obscure grape variety, the Symphony.

Symphony is a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris (yet another incarnation of the Grenache), and the De Baun wines all were lovely with the food served.

The 1986 Prelude (a dry Symphony, $8) was marvelous with a spicy lobster broth, offering Muscat and orange-peel aroma and just enough softness to knock down the spice in the soup. The 1986 Rhapsody ($12), a sparkling wine, was wonderful with anise biscotti after dinner.

A dessert-style Symphony, 1986 Finale ($14/375 milliliters) was a great match for a pear tart.

Overall, my brief look into the obscure wines made from the Grenache grape was exciting and enjoyable. I'm now a believer.

Wine of the Week: 1987 Callaway Chardonnay Calla-Lees ($9.75). Wine maker Dwayne Helmuth has struggled since 1981 with a variety of ways to make Chardonnay (as have so many other wine makers) and now has hit upon something delightful. This wine was aged in stainless steel on the "lees"--the spent yeast cells--for three months. It never went into oak barrels. The slight toasty character came from the aging with the yeast cells. This wine won't win medals for obviousness. But if you prefer a leaner, more delicate style of wine, this is it.

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