Relaxing on the couch with Randall Grahm’s Contra

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By Celia Strong
Like any other field, the wine industry has its stars, new kids on the block, old timers whose time has passed, those who have a few great wines to their credit and then fade from the horizon, and those who have been around for what seems like forever. Like any other field, the personalities that go on forever need to have more going for them than a few good wines. They have to change their wine styles as their consumers change, they have to have a talent for marketing themselves and their wines, they have to be innovative without stretching too far too fast.  Today, we’re going to look at a wine from one of these personalities.  To be sure, when you taste his wine, you’ll see why he’s been around for decades. And his winery too.
Bonny Doon Vineyard is a winery based in the city of Santa Cruz in the central coast area of California. It was founded in 1983 by Randall Grahm.  It was among the first California wineries to grow the Rhone grape varieties. (These include grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan and Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne for whites.) For many of us, way back then, it was our first experience with these grapes from anywhere except France.  You have to remember, Australia wasn’t yet a big part of the American wine drinking world. The nickname, originally used for Randall Grahm, “Rhone Ranger” became synonymous with California wine makers following his lead.  If you’re interested in tasting one of Randall’s first, and still considered by some to be his best, Rhone style wines, look for Le Cigare Volant. Literally translated from French, this wine’s name means “The Flying Cigar.” Always a history buff, Randall chose that name for his Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wine. According to town ordinances in Chateauneuf-du-Pape,  and this is going back to the 1950’s, flying saucers (The French called them “Flying Cigars) were not allowed to land in the town, in particular in their vineyards. And if they did, the occupants would be taken directly to jail. I’ve never heard of anyone being arrested for breaking this law, but what a uniquely original name for a wine and what a great way to let your consumers know what to expect from it. Marketing genius?
But, back to Bonny Doon Vineyard. In 1994, the vines at the winery were destroyed by Pierce’s disease.  To support itself, the winery bought grapes from other California growers as well as from Oregon and Europe. With the huge quantity of grapes coming in, the production level grew tremendously, to more than 450,000 cases in 2006.  With this growth, also in 2006, the winery changed their focus from making everyday wines to making higher priced, boutique style wines. They sold off some of their labels, including Big House, Cardinal Zin, Pacific Rim and others. And, in 2008, they sold their tasting room and moved to Santa Cruz. Why Santa Cruz?  Because Randall is a big believer in the importance of “terroir,” the soil and climate of any particular vineyard and how it effects the grapes from it.  That means no more, or at least only a minimal few, bought grapes.  According to Randall, if you believe in “terroir,” you have to get dirty in your own land to know it best and produce its best. This dedication to “terroir” is another part of the Randall Grahm legacy.
Our wine for this week brings together the two areas that Randall was so innovative in — Rhone grape varieties and the soil where these grape are grown. The main grape is Carignan. This is a red variety that may have originated in Aragon, Spain, but thankfully found its way into southeastern France. Carignan vines are able to produce very large crops, which for a while made it the most widely planted in France. On the negative side, it is very sensitive to rot, powdery mildew and grape worms.  (Guess there’s always the good with the bad, isn’t there?) In wine making, Carignan is rarely seen on its own, used mostly as a blending grape because of the deep color it brings to a wine. Also, Carignan has high acidity, tannins and astringency which do better if blended in with varieties that give a smoother texture to the finished wine.
The second grape in this week’s wine is Grenache. This is one of the most widely planted red varieties in the world. It ripens late and needs hot, dry conditions to grow well and, it produces better grapes when the yield is controlled. It gives spicy, berry flavors to its wines, and high alcohol, but it lacks acid, tannin and color. Again the good with the bad. And this grape seems like a perfect fit for Carignan — their goods and bads are just the opposite of each others.
Our wine is exactly that — a blend of Carignan, first, then Grenache, then bits of Mourvedre, Petit Sirah (really this is another Rhone variety known as Durif), Zinfandel and Syrah. Its name is “Contra.” As the winery describes it, Contra is the opposite of what California wines used to be. It is not overworked, over-ripe grapes, all manipulated to taste like all the other wines. Most of the grapes in Contra come from older vineyards, primarily in Contra Costa County. It is a field blend with aromas of cherries and licorice, cassis, blackberries all layered with silky tannins. It blends the rustic austerity of the Carignan with the softness of the blending grapes. You do get a sense of rocks in the wine, like many Old World style wines that really, really featured their “terroir,” but you also get lively acidity and ripe tannins. This wine is a bargain at $14.99.  It truly drinks like way more.  Our wine “rock star,” Randall Grahm, has done it again!
I suggest that you relax, kick off your shoes and lay back on the couch so that you’re completely comfortable when you sip this wine. And, really, look at the label on the bottle.  It says it all.  Yes, if you must  know, I am on my couch sipping, so go get your own.  Enjoy!