25 years of Le Cigare Volant

Winemaker Randall Grahm at Jar restaurant.
(Russ Parsons / Los Angeles Times)

It takes a big personality to overshadow Randall Grahm, so I’m glad I was sitting next to his mom at Monday’s luncheon at Jar restaurant celebrating 25 years of his Le Cigare Volant wines. Ruth Grahm, who already had a reputation as a Broadway songwriter, achieved midlife fame with one of the great winery sales gimmicks of all time.

When Randall was just starting his Bonny Doon winery, it somehow never occurred to him to hire a sales representative for Southern California. So for the first release, he called Ruth in a panic.

“What can you do?” she said. “When your children need you, you help out.”


So she packed her sample bottles in a paper bag from Ralphs supermarket and started visiting every restaurant and wine shop she could find. “All those other reps came in with their alligator carrying cases,” she laughs. “I didn’t know any better.”

No matter, because there may be no more potent sales pitch in the world than “Would you like to taste my son’s wines?”

And, of course, once tasted, Grahm’s wines were sold. A winemaker of great intellect, tremendous talent and peripatetic interests, Grahm, with the 1984 vintage (released in 1987), decided to make an homage to the great wines of the southern Rhone in France. At first he was going to call them Old Telegram (a play on the famous Vieux Telegraphe winery), but then he uncovered the fact that the village of Chateauneuf du Pape had actually passed a law outlawing the arrival of flying saucers -- cigares volants. (He does make Old Telegram -- a joke that good is a crime to waste -- but only in occasional vintages.)

Tuesday’s tasting started with Cigare Blanc (a mix of Roussane and Grenache Blanc) from 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2010. The ’04 was mature, but still lively, showing flavors of hazelnuts and lemon cream.

But the main show was the older reds – a flight of 2000, 2002 and 2003 and then the 1995. As in the Rhone, they’re made from varying blends of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, with occasional splashes of obscure grapes such as Cinsault and Counoise.

The 2000 was just beginning to wear out but still had plenty of fruit left. But the ’02 and ’03 were stunning, elegant and flavored with blackberries, anise and white pepper and other spices. The ’02 and ’03 are still for sale from the winery library and are remarkable values at $44 and $51 per bottle.

All of this, Ruth admits, is much to her surprise. “I remember when he called me and told me he was going to call this wine Cigare Volant,” she says. “I told him ‘Randall, that’s the craziest idea you’ve ever had. No one will be able to say it.’

“He just told me, ‘Mother, wait until they taste it.’ And I never made another suggestion after that.”