On the heels of the Rhone Rangers Seminar and Grande Tasting, I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with the man Wine Spectator Magazine has dubbed “The Original Rhone Ranger” — Randall Grahm, owner, and president of Bonny Doon Vineyards.
Randall has a passion for wines that reflect the time and place from whence they came — vins de terrior — and believes that truly beautiful land will produce truly excellent wines. It is this passion that made Randall fall in love with Old World French Rhones that hail from the bounteous vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux. It is this love that makes Randall feel a responsibility as a New World winemaker to produce equally fruitful vineyards and delicately complex wines that speak of his California terrior.
So has he done it? Has he created that perfect vin de California? Randall admits after over 40 years as Bonny Doon’s owner and operator he has more questions now than he did when he started. He’s always experimenting with different grapes, vineyard locations, and — most importantly — the constant care and health of the actual land, the soil. A true scientist and philosopher, Randall’s always looking to learn from his last growth how to improve the next.
That’s not to say that Randall isn’t happy with all that he’s achieved. Tasting a full line-up of Bonny Doon’s current releases, it’s amazing the broad spectrum of flavor profiles found in California Rhone varietals. There are those that are easy on the palate, produced for mass appeal, and daily drinking. Many of these come from vineyards with average conditions and farming techniques that are “more hands on,” manufactured.
Then there are those with a depth and complexity that give the drinker pause to think. These are the wines produced from grapes that were exposed to ideal conditions, left to enjoy those conditions and truly absorbed the essence of the land. These are the wines that tell a story of time and place.
This wine, Randall believes, best exemplifies what it means to grow a happy grape — a grape in a region with a climate where it can truly flourish. The Bonny Doon Picpoul vineyards sits among the cooling comfort of Carmel Valley sea breezes. The nose on this wine is like a breath of fresh sea salt air, with a strong undercurrent of acidity. Take that undercurrent seriously, because this wine is not for the faint-of-tongued. Picpoul, literally translated, means “lip stinger,” and you’ll know why when sipping on this wine. Sure, there are wonderful stone fruit and wildflower notes with just a slight hint of bitterness that rounds out the overall palate — but it’s the wine’s natural acidity (as Randall says, “no acidification was doon“) that creates interest here. It tickles the tongue from start to finish leaving a lingering sting, as the name implies.
Vintage: 2015 Varietal: 100% picpoul Appellation: Arroyo Seco 12.2% ABV
2015 Bianco di Nero d’Avola
Nero d’Avola, a Sicilian red grape varietal that traditionally yields red wine, in this case, was used to create a unique white wine. The somewhat amusing detail about this particular bottle is that the Tracy vineyard where the grapes were grown was one that didn’t foresee a lot of natural success. So everything from the farming to the winemaking process was quite hands-on.
The red Nero d’Avolo grapes were pressed without skin contact, resulting in a mellow yellow wine that emits a very prominent citrus perfume (like a pomelo or grapefruit). On the tongue, however, the wine still maintains red wine-esque qualities including spice notes, plum flavors, and even a hint of tannins. A truly unique wine that celebrates the unexpected — both in terrior and taste.
This is by far my personal favorite of Bonny Doon’s current releases because, to me, it is the most complex. This Grenache Blanc-Roussanne blend has been bottled without filtration, so is quite cloudy in the glass. The grapes again come from the hills of Arroyo Seco in Carmel Valley and gives off that ocean air on the nose. So without even taking a sip, in sight and smell alone, this wine is speaking of its terrior.
The flavor profile of this wine is other-worldly. Amidst classic stone fruits and a hint of honey, there’s an overlying essence of umami — that illustrious fifth sense of taste — that provides a bit of bitter and a bit of spice. Then there’s the minerality that speaks quietly in the background, just enough to keep things calm and cool on the tongue. The lingering finish leaves soft, peppery, herbal notes on the palate.
This is one of those wines that makes the mind as well as the mouth work — what is that smell; what is that taste; where did this wine come from; where is it going; what’s the story?
The wine at Bonny Doon isn’t all about business, but a bit of wit and whimsy as well. Their flagship (aka starship) wine, Le Cigare Volant, is an homage to French wine folklore.
In 1954 the village council of Chateauneuf-du-Pape truly believed that flying saucers (or literally translated, “flying cigars”), were hovering over their vineyards. The primary concern was that these aliens would land their spacecraft and ruin the vineyards. So, to this day, there is an ordinance that states that any of these “flying cigars” found on the land shall “be removed directly to the pound.”
This stellar achievement is celebrated all over the tasting room — from bottle caps to wall decor.
Whether simple or complex in its nature, each wine tells a story. And if you’re local or in the area, listen to a few stories at Bonny Doon, where the Old World and New World collide, creating a world of its own. Cheers.
For more information about Bonny Doon, their Tasting Room, social events, and to purchase their available wines, please visit their website.