We’ll be featuring Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon wines for this year’s Oceanic Dinners because, duh, we really love them! But also because Randall has always been ahead of the pack on the transparency front and in that regard, his commitment to tell-all labels makes a fine compliment to our well-linked menu. Always an amusing teller of tales, we asked Randall if he would write something about the wines we’re pouring. Here’s what he had to say about them:

2010 Vin Gris de Cigare (Blend of Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) In our Long March toward full transparency, I began to look closely at everything we were doing that was perhaps less than fully transparent. 

[1] Oddly enough, one of those things was the nomenclature of this wine. I began making “Vin Gris” in 1982, but until three years ago, the wine was in fact not a true “vin gris,” but rather a vin rosé. [2] Very simply, we called it “Vin Gris” from the beginning because in those dark days to call a wine a rosé was to doom (doon?) it to a fatal association with unspeakably sweet and confected industrial plonk. Further, then I had my own set of insecurities about our flagship red wine. I wanted Le Cigare Volant to be more concentrated, or at least I imagined that if it were more concentrated, the critics would give it higher point scores. In recent years, by working more closely with our growers, we’ve been able to achieve sufficient flavor concentration in our red grapes, and no longer (for the most part) have the need nor desire to bleed our red tanks.[3]

But here is the most extraordinary thing: I worried (unnecessarily it turned out) that the pink wine needed to be overtly fruity for people to continue to buy it, that it needed to be a certain rich color for customers to find it attractive. All of this turns out not to be true. When you make a true vin gris by pressing it directly rather than allow it any skin contact, the wine is in fact way more elegant. It is pale in color but retains better acidity and has more articulate definition and complexity. [4] Neither do you find the confected fruitiness that one often gets in rosé. This is a real instance of less being more; what you end up with is a stronger sense of minerality (what I live for) as well as vinosity. We achieve this in part by the inclusion of the white varieties in the blend and by extended time sur lie with bȃtonnage. This is a complex, real wine, perfect with the Provençal palate, viz. shellfish. I’m particularly happy with this particular vintage, very likely the best Vin Gris we have made to date. [5]

2009 Vinho Grinho. (60% Loureiro, 40% Albariño, Ca’ del Solo Vineyard) Forgive the slightly silly name; this is an allusion to the wine’s Iberian antecedents. I planted Albariño in our former vineyard in Soledad, [6] for the reason that we had also grown Riesling in the same spot with very good results, and since Albariño was believed by some to be a long lost relation of Riesling [7] — the vines and clusters themselves certainly look very much alike — I thought perhaps Albariño would fare well there. A number of years ago I had a brief consulting job in Rias Baixas, and was utterly knocked out both by the Albariño I tasted as well as by the region itself. While the climate was totally different — it rained all the time in Galicia, and hardly ever in the Salinas Valley, the granitic soils were not too dissimilar. But what struck me about Rias Baixas was the fact that one could smell the sea air in the vineyards. [8] Now, as you may know, the Salinas Valley is not called “Salinas” for nothing — the giant Salinas River (an underground river) is slightly saline. Since one is compelled to irrigate grapes in most parts of the Salinas Valley — the area is pretty much a dessert — I thought that maybe Albariño, if not halophilic (a longshot for vinifera species), might be slightly salt tolerant. Since I was packing a large suitcase in Rias Baixas, I thought perhaps to bring some Loureiro along for the ride. One never knows about a new variety in a new region, and having some blending options is always a good idea.

So, it turns out that Albariño does well in Soledad where it crops modestly at about 2 1/2 tons/acre. Keeping the yield low, the grape expresses a wonderful citrus character — tangerine and grapefruit, with wonderful acidity. But the genius grape at least in the Ca’ del Solo Vineyard is in fact, Loureiro. It took us a while to figure this out — we were overcropping it for a few years and it struggled to ripen — the cluster weighs almost twice as much as does the Albariño one. But if you get it ripe, the wine will have a fabulous savory aspect, partially herbal (said to recall bay leaf), partially peachy, and maintain a delightfully screeching acidity. Our commercial release of Albariño is 75% of that grape, but in this bottling we reversed the percentages and made Loureiro the dominant one. This wine is absolutely perfect with oysters, especially of the slightly brinier persuasion.


2009 Cinsault (Ca’ del Solo Vineyard, Woock Vineyard) I am likely doomed in this lifetime never to produce the Pinot Noir of my dreams, and as a result I chase after various surrogates — elegant, fruity, delicately oxidative capages. [9] Cinsault is known primarily as a blending grape of the Rhȏne, as well as a table grape; it is almost never made on its own. [10] It’s a large grape, perfectly spherical, not quite as big as a golf ball, but fairly ginormous. Typically, it’s crushed and then bled very significantly, (maybe 2/3 of the juice is drawn off), at which point, another red, typically Syrah, is crushed on top, and the two are co-fermented.

We use Cinsault of course as a component in our flagship wine, Le Cigare Volant, but decided to reserve a portion of it as a special bottling for our wine club, D.E.W.N. (There were a few cases unsold, which we are sharing with our dearest friends.) In this case, we were working with Cinsault from two vineyards — our own in Soledad, a relatively young planting, as well as the extraordinary head-trained, dry-farmed Woock Vineyard in Lodi, which may well be the oldest vineyard in California — believed to be about 140 years old. Yes, we bled them a bit, but left them unblended with other varieties. The Soledad Vineyard is a relatively cool site for Cinsault, but the roots are not as deep. We achieved better acidity from this component and a sense of freshness; the Lodi Cinsault, harvested riper, contributed much more depth of flavor and structure to the wine. (This is the magisterial authority of old vines.) Cinsault has relatively little tannin, relatively little color (the bleeding helps), but has the most extraordinary fragrance — that of kirsch cherries; it is a grace note that works so well in blends. [11] We aged the wine in neutral 500 liter puncheons for six months, topping religiously to protect from oxidation and to preserve its delicacy. It ain’t grand cru Burgundy, but shows that elegance is possible even in Lodi.

“Querry” (Apple/Pear/Quince Cider) Sometime mid-last summer, David Kinch, the owner of Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos and a friend and neighbor of mine in Santa Cruz, very innocently asked me, “So, Randall, y’know the Eric Bordelet cider that we both love so much? [12, 13] Do you imagine you could make a product that tasted a bit like that, i.e. something low in alcohol, elegant, refreshing and complex with a nice degree of minerality?” [14] “No problem, David,” I replied instantly, mentally calculating as the words came out of my mouth how much fun it would be to try to reverse engineer some of the cooler aspects of the cider. I reasoned, or more accurately, rationalized, to myself that even if it didn’t come out exactly like Bordelet’s, [15] if I expended a crazy amount of attention on the project — something I was for my own internal reasons absolutely prepared to do — I could just will it to come out great. The major problem, as I learned, was that the proper sort of pears for this product just don’t exist in California, indeed anywhere at all in the U.S.[16] Ripe Bartlett pears (especially those that are dry-farmed) taste very “peary” of course — that’s good — but they have essentially no acidity nor tannin. This is bad news, very bad news, for making a lively cider. Further, you can’t really press Bartletts when they’re dead ripe and flavorful; they turn to mush and foul the screens of the press. And under-ripe, they just don’t have any flavor. I called virtually every small to mid-sized cider press in California and no one would touch them with a barge (or Bartlett) pole. [17]

Of course there has to be a way, I thought. I’ll just reformulate the problem and not make pear cider pear se, but something vaguely pearish. I’ll get the acid from the apples and the tannin from, let’s say, quince, which is quite astringent. Apples and quince have a different kind of cellular structure than pears, which allows them to easily be pressed. Maybe if we just press them all together, we can get some clear juice to come out rather than just mush. (This actually worked.) An enormous amount of effort was spent in the next month trying to find oddball high acid cider apples and quince and eventually we found a bit, got our cold storage arrangements organized so that everything could come out at the same time.

The actual production of the cider from the fermentation in tank to the fermentation in the bottle was an unalloyed disaster. Primary fermentation, undertaken with wild yeast, even at low temperature, went way too rapidly and stank up the entire winery. [18, 19] I made a grievous procedural error in believing that the secondary fermentation in the bottle would arrest itself upon attaining a certain degree of pressure. The secondary fermentation just marched right through six atmospheres of pressure and ended up fermenting all of the residual sugar, effectively creating little apple/pear/quince cider time bombs. So for the bottles that did not explode (maybe 70% of them), we had to don what was essentially bomb detonation gear and disgorge them, losing approximately 60% of the contents in the process. [20] They were then refilled and recapped, tidied up and put to bed. [21, 22]

The cider is bone-dry — a little too dry, I think. For this reason, I recommend that you add about 15% verjus to it. The added sweetness balances the acidity and also seems to brighten the fruit. This little project was the biggest pain in the neck of any winemaking undertaking in my experience. And yet in the end, the trauma and horror of it all has largely faded from memory, and the cider itself is really quite nice. With a little verjus, even better. Next season, I will undoubtedly make slightly different mistakes.

Thanks Randall!

ALSO: Lance Winters at St. George Spirits fixed up a little Kombu seaweed vodka so our California Coast Oceanic dinners will include Oyster Shooters, garnished with pickled cucumbers.


[1] Obviously the real biggie is the name of the winery, “Bonny Doon Vineyard.” Neither the winery nor our vineyards are located in Bonny Doon, an incorporated area of the Santa Cruz Mountains; this causes me untold psychic pain on a daily basis. Will fix, just not immediately.

[2] The difference between a rosé and a vin gris is that a rosé is typically made by crushing grapes (often destined for red wine), allowing a reasonable period of skin-contact — up to perhaps 24 hours in some instance, and then “bleeding” (saigner) the tank. This is done to achieve a deep color in the rosé, enhance the fruitiness of the wine, and of course to concentrate the skin to juice ratio in the tank of red wine that had been bled.

[3]The other part of the equation is that grapes for full-bodied red wine are harvested at higher sugar levels than those for a delicate, pink wine. Because the saigner juice will give you a higher potential alcohol wine than you desire (white or pink fermentations also yield a higher sugar/alcohol conversion because they are typically conducted at lower temperature in a closed tank, hence less evaporation of alcohol), you are obliged to take action to lower to potential alcohol in the resultant wine. This is done either by adding water to the juice (aka “Jesus Units” in the parlance of the wine biz, and in fact a ligit addition if you don’t overdo it), or taking the resulting wine for a spin in the “spinning cone,” a high-tech device for dealcoholizing wine. Either option is a very odious and totally unpalatable to me at this point.

[4] Time on the skins increases the absorption of potassium ions, leading to a loss of acidity through the precipitation of potassium bitartrate.

[5] It was a very crazy vintage; for one thing, all of the pinks and whites spontaneously underwent malolactic fermentation during their primary fermentation, something that has never happened before chez Doon. This can be extremely vexatious to a winemaker, who fears that the primary fermentation will not complete, owing to microbial competition, leading to sweet wine, and even more, horribly sweet wine with a very high volatile acidity. We ended up putting large quartz crystals underneath the fermenters, investing them with the intention of a reinvigorated ferment. Yes, I know this is unspeakably New Agey but it seemed to have worked. For the record, wine actually does seem to possess a rudimentary consciousness.

[6] Vineyard was sold last year for financial reasons.

[7] Even the name itself seems to suggest “white Rhine,” but I’m afraid that this may really just be a wistful fantasy, or alternatively, as I believe, there is a connection, just on a non-material plane.

[8] The vineyards — all tiny little parcels (owing to the inheritance laws of the area) — were all planted on pergola, i.e. overhead trellises, to allow the clusters to dry out from the tremendous amount of rain and fog the area received. The stakes and endposts that supported the pergola were all made from granite, as both steel and wood stakes would both rot out in short time, in virtue of the degree of ambient humidity.

[9] It is the fragrant top note of these grapes that triggers the Pavlovian response.

[10] In Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape, I am told that Cinsault grapes are never planted adjacent to highways, as passersby will typically stop and harvest them for fresh eating.

[11] Malvasia nera, used as a blending variety in Chianti, is believed to be identical to Cinsault.

[12] David knows I’m insanely head-over-heels about Bordelet’s products, especially his Poiré “Granite,” a cider made from a 300+ year old pear trees. His “Granite” is arguably among the greatest artisanal products in the entire universe.

[13] Bordelet himself came to visit our winery a number of years ago along with his friend, the late Didier Daguineau and his importer, Michael Sullivan of Berkeley. A rather amazing visit with an amusing episode at a local Chinese restaurant involving a $100 bet between Daguineau and (the non-anglophonic) Bordelet, an attractive young woman from the area, and a tee shirt.

[14] The soil characteristics of Bordelet’s cider are so impressive, you might even want to call it “pearoir.”

[15] It didn’t.

[16] You can find “perry” pears throughout England, Wales and France, but interest in pears for cider U.S. is very recent and still rather modest.

[17] It is (mostly) fortunate that I have inherited the stubbornness gene from my mother, the absolute refusal to fully grasp the concept of “it can’t be done.”

[18] This was fixed by the addition of a discreet amount of copper sulfate.

[19] I am still not sure whether the stinkiness of the fermentation was due to an excessive degree of solids or to an inadequate nutritional status of the must. While there was reasonable tannin in the wine, thanks to the quince, maybe there was still not enough to settle the must well enough. I don’t know if all of these questions would be answered by a visit to Normandy but that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

[20] Geyserville.

[21] One can imagine that anything close to a break-even proposition for this product had gone out the window upon its initiation. There might even be some Werner Herzog-like comparisons to be drawn.

[22] At this point it would have been great to have given them a final dosage of sweetness (ideally from fruit juice), but of course I did not have the foresight to have arranged this.