Randall Grahm is a gentleman and a scholar — and somewhat of a notorious winemaking renegade. He has been in the news for an ambitious new project I mention at the end of this post, but I want to talk about his rosé.
Bonny Doon, his 32 year-old winery in the Central Coast of California, was originally slated to produce Pinot Noir, but Grahm veered off course, in a southerly direction, and focused instead on French Rhône varietals — Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, among others. When popular consensus zigs, Grahm zags. Consequently, he was famously dubbed “The Rhone Ranger” in 1989 by Wine Spectator.
Bonny Doon grew madly, and in 1994, Grahm was named the Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. In the early aughts, Grahm sold his popular Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim brands, and returned to his roots, or rather, he returned his attention to his vineyard, with the goal of making wines with more finesse.
Grahm is extraordinarily sharp and witty. His vocabulary is daunting, casually dropping words like Brobdingnagian and jouissance. He pushes all kinds of buttons on people in the wine industry (he seems to either attract or repel oenophiles, but no one denies his brilliance).
And he makes one of my very favorite rosés, Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare.
I’ve never met Grahm in person. We spoke on the phone several months ago, which was months after I learned he had made a “reserve” version of Vin Gris de Cigare, and subsequently, ordered a case. It sold for $40 a bottle (the few remaining bottles are now going for $24 on Bonny Doon’s website).
I didn’t love it, but I drank it (and served it to friends). I was sure there was something wrong with me for not loving it. I blamed my lack of wine knowledge for not appreciating this very expensive rosé. I saved one bottle and opened it recently, a year after receiving it. I still don’t love it. To me, it’s missing all the wonderfully bright acidity and crisp berry flavors I love in Provençal-style rosés. And though I am not a wine expert by any means, I am a die-hard rosé fan.
Even though I don’t love the Reserve, Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare ($18) has been one of my go-to rosés for many years. I don’t remember the first year I discovered it, but it was likely 2008, when I first wrote about Rosé Sunday. I have been a fan — and regular customer — ever since. Even though the wine varies slightly from vintage to vintage, it suits my palate, tickling my tongue with the right balance of acid and fruit.
Grahm says he started making rosé in 1981.
“I didn’t understand rosé back then,” he said. “Vin Gris, which translates to ‘wine gray,’ sounded better than ‘rosé.’ There are three ways to make rosé: one: skin contact; two: saignée (bleeding off red wine juice to concentrate the red wine, using the bleed-off to make rosé); and three: blending red and white wine.”
Grahm first made rosé with the saignée method, a result of trying to concentrate the flavor of his red wines. After he sold the brand Big House, he says he “had a come-to-Jesus about transparency” and decided “wines need to be what they are.”
In the case of pink, he says, less is more.
“Pick red for red, pink for pink, and never shall the twain meet.”
Grahm admits his old pinks were “clunky,” and the most astonishing thing to him now is how people have embraced his current style. He’d like to educate people that “rosé isn’t always for quaffing the day you get it, although that is what the media leads you to believe, which may be driven by the wholesalers who bought a shit-ton of pink they needed to move after Memorial Day.”
The truth is, he says, pink wine is tailor-made for year-round drinking (Yes! I feel vindicated!).
“Some rosés, even those with screw caps,” he laughed, “Are better the second or even third year.”
Since our conversation, Grahm has vigorously pursued a new muse, a project he has dubbed “Popelouchum” [pronounced poe-puh-la-SHOOM], the San Juan Bautista property he purchased in 2009.
He launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise “seed” money to “discover a New World Grand Cru.” (I contributed a modest amount.) Grahm is postulating that winemaking in California can be driven by terroir instead of grape varietal. Grahm plans to turn the project into a non-profit 501c3 and use the property as laboratory, with the lofty goal of developing 10,000 new grape varietals, betting that a few of them will some day turn the wine world upside down. You can read about Popelouchum on his blog and you can follow along on Facebook.
In the meantime, after a quick check of the time, I see rosé-o’clock is approaching. And I know just the one I’ll pour.