Vol 3 No 2.1 – to the home of the Rhone Ranger

After a great breakfast at Petit Soleil, it was off to Paso Robles (where I didn’t stop this time except to visit a friend in Templeton), then on to Santa Cruz – this is where it gets interesting.

The weather was threatening and all of you have by now heard of the horrendous rains in California. Leaving Paso, I was noticing the flooding in the vineyards, and in case you haven’t been to the Central Coast recently, it is virtually ALL vineyards from their to Kingsburg. Then I saw the first of two cars facing backwards on the center divider. Nope, not CHP trying to catch a speeder, but cars that had hydroplaned and spun into the divider, just moments before I passed. A mile further and there was another one on the opposite side of 101.

How bad was it? Well, the car’s GPS had HUGE red ‘X’s in rows from the time I passed the cutoff to Cambria and the famed Hearst Castle. I have driven this route literally hundreds of times in my life but had put Bonny Doon’s location in Santa Cruz in the GPS only to estimate my arrival time – didn’t want to be late for my meeting with Randall Grahm!

But when I got to the Santa Cruz turnoff, the GPS directed me to the next offramp – huh? About a mile down that road it told me to turn left at the intersection??? From there I literally zig-zagged to Santa Crux due to numerous landslides  resulting in closures including the main road, Highway 17! Never saw that before.

Frustrated but on time I arrived for my meeting with Randall. When I met him I was totally surprised by his warmth and friendliness…like he was greeting an old friend. But if you meet him, be prepared to talk wine…not just wine, but the ‘proper’ wine. He then led me into his office for an engaging discussion on his latest project, and a huge one it is.

Have you ever visited a famous cathedral in Europe and wondered at how much faith the builders had in a project they would never see finished…nor would their children or maybe even their grandchildren? Of course the were mainly serfs who built churches and fortifications during the dormant winter season.

But nothing Randall does is wasting time: there are his wines, his creative and fun newsletters, and now his project to find the true California grape. Not far from the Santa Cruz turnoff is the little town of San Juan Bautista, that my older friends know at least from the classic Hitchcock film, Vertigo, with the scenes of the mission there and the eucalyptus-lined Highway 101. It has always been one of our favorite stops in the area. Where else can you stand on the edge of the San Andreas Fault and look beyond at the hills and the Carizzo plain? Why not drive down now and see it in all its splendor, a bed of green with the wildflowers soon to show off?

His project, which caused him to sell off his low end but extremely well-made and popular Pacific Rim Riesling and Big House Red, now available in the box, is a sacred Indian site called Popelouchum, best described by the man himself:

“Join me on a journey of discovery to change the way we grow grapes, to change the way we think about vineyards, to perhaps discover an entirely new vinous expression, and to maybe even get a unique grape variety named after yourself!” – Randall Grahm

Make no mistake, Randall Grahm like TB is a firm believer in ‘terroir’ – a sense of place that helps one identify the tasted of a wine and is burned into your memory. Note this does not apply to all wines, only a select few: the best Burgundy’s; a few great Bordeaux, even fewer California Cabs, Chateauneuf du Pape, hopefully you get the picture.

Ironically, there is a new book out, not worthy of mention in either Randall’s or my opinion, by a since-retired professor at UC Davis School of Enology. A heretic in the words of Grahm and myself, as he says there is no such thing as terroir. Hope he enjoys his retirement as that is where he rightfully belongs.

Grahm grew up not far from TB in West Los Angeles with ‘enologically-challenged’ parents, but he stumbled into Beverly Hills’ Wine Merchant, one of the premier wine shops in the area and was hired. This was both a blessing and a curse because with virtually no knowledge of wine he was introduced to some of the great wines of the world with no point of reference.

He, like so many great winemakers, was bitten by the bug from which there is no cure. He attended UC Santa Cruz then UC Davis where he received a degree in Plant Sciences. With his family’s help he bought land in Santa Cruz (Bonny Doon), and was determined to make a great Pinot Noir. This was his biggest disappointment because he had picked the wrong place to grow that regal grape but after meeting Kermit Lynch and Alice Waters, as did Bob Lindquist, he fell in love with Rhone style wines which he felt were best suited to the area from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz…and how right he was! He humbly gives credit to Gary Eberle for being the first to plant Syrah in the Central Coast but was named the first ‘Rhone Ranger’ in a magazine article and cover. Today that applies to all those who are disciples of wines from around the 42nd parallel.

Despite his laid-back demeanor, he is a serious winemaker and recognized as one of the most influential winemakers in California and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was the first American winemaker to see for himself if the Aussies and Kiwi’s were right about screw-caps (more properly Stelvin capsules), and the first to shun corks entirely, proving that they have a place in top quality winemaking. You will have to wait for the book for more on his philosophy and the interview.

In the tasting room, he is very proud of his wines but let’s you decide for yourself. As always his Cigare Volant exceeded my expectation and the Cigare Volant Blanc, captured me as only a white grenache can. Then he completes the trilogy with a Vin Gris de Cigare -an excellent example of  what a rosé from the region can be (note that in 2016, for the first time, rosés were the fastest growing segment of the wine spectrum, finally overcoming the ‘sweet’ stigma that early California winemakers had imposed on it.  Also, don’t miss his ‘Proper’ series of more affordable wines, a Proper Claret, Proper Pink, and others. His quiver doesn’t stop there however, with his Old Telegram (not a knock-off but a tribute to Vieux Telégraphe, which Kermit Lynch introduced him to years ago).

Sadly, the meeting had to end as he had to pick up his daughter, but I bought several of my favorites of his wines…the Cigare Volant Blanc, did not make it home. As we would approve, it was quaffed with friends over a nice dinner at Artisan Bistro in Lafayette, California, while celebrating my wife, Marybeth’s birthday…3o something! Her birthday was a movable feast also celebrated in Napa Valley, Seattle (our son, Greg flew out to surprise her), and then in Bend and Portland, Oregon.

Before I left, Randall asked where I was headed, and when I said Oakland, he shook his head and said, “good luck.” As it turned out the drive up the coast was absolutely beautiful and when I turned inland for the San Mateo bridge the traffic was light until I neared the bridge but despite it only being around 4:30pm, the opposing traffic headed home to Santa Cruz the only way available was bumper to bumper and at a crawl. I felt very sorry for them.

We had a great weekend in the Bay Area seeing many of our old friends before heading north to Napa Valley on Monday morning…many great visits there to be reported in the next edition.

TB