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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant

United States (California)

syrah (43.6%), grenache (43.5%), cinsault (1.7%), mourvèdre (1.1%), carignane (0.1%)

Thanks to a good friend who travelled from Toronto for the holidays, I was able to bring to the dinner table not one, but two top tier wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard. The question eventually became which one of the Cigare bottles to choose for the blog. We embraced them both, but in the end I opted for the red. Perhaps because it had a certain inexplicable something and maybe, just maybe that’s what Bonny Doon is all about.

The flying saucer (the ‘Le Cigare Volant’ of the label) has landed! And right in a vineyard of Rhône varietals! Can an alien Châteauneuf-du-Pape be the result?

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2006

A dark purplish-red (garnet, some would say) in colour. But what of the nose? Pungent certainly, lively, but difficult to pinpoint. Earthy, provocative, full of the fruits of farmyard labour. (ummm…) Gamey, of a type. More descriptors escape me, but the aromas engender great interest and why ask more of a wine. Nobody said a wine should smell like anything but itself. And what of the taste? Tannic, with rustic elements, sun-dried herbs, minerals. Rhône-like as intended. An all around very positive experience. A good landing!  $$

The wine man behind Bonny Doon is Randall Grahm. He looms big, in the zany ways of the California generation which came of age in the 1970s. You have to admire his humour and his marketing savvy. And admire his willingness to sell off a massive chunk of a successful venture, and focus on a production level of roughly 40,000 cases (less than one-tenth the size of the original winery), all for the sake of making (to quote the man) “the most soulful wines we can muster — wines of vibrant vitality, a deeper sense of place and life force.” Randall Grahm is nothing if not hip and thoughtful, nothing if not unpredictable.

His foray into wine began in 1983 with the founding of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz. He pioneered the introduction into California of syrah, grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre, and other Rhône varietals, and blended them in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style. Many people see him as the original Rhône Ranger. The winery grew steadily in parallel with Grahm’s status as a non-conformist winemaker. He was the first in California to use screwtops for premium wines, the first to use micro-oxygenation. And through it all endeared himself to legions of wine drinkers (if not wine critics particularly, who seemed not to share his sense of humour.) His loyal followers remain, as the figure of 350,000 followers on Twitter would seem to indicate.

Yet, for all his past success, about ten years ago something was beginning to feel wacko. He sensed a need for radical change. He saw the light…from a flying saucer perhaps. Since 2004 Bonny Doon has turned to chemical-free, biodynamic winemaking, with much more attention being paid to what goes on in the vineyards and without the manipulation in the cellar that was once a regular part of the winery’s routine. The wine was always good, but it seems to have gotten a whole lot better.

And, Grahm would contend, more soulful. As he has said,  ‘I live for the juice, man!’


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