INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND & TASTING NOTES
Introduction and Background
Randall Grahm is the Bonny Doon Vineyard founder and winemaker. My long time good friend, wine buddy and Underground Associate Editor, Ed Lazarus, introduced me to Randall in the 1970s. Randall was searching for property to plant Pinot Noir in the Santa Cruz Mountains and we went with him to visit some properties. Later I would found The Underground Wineletter (with Ed Lazarus joining me as west coast associate editor) in 1979 (To read some early issues of The Underground Wineletter and Retrospective Reviews of those issues click here ). Randall did purchase a property in the Santa Cruz Mountains and planted Pinot Noir, but soon abandoned that project and in 1983 founded Bonny Doon Vineyard where he was soon recognized as one of the original “Rhone Rangers” (the name is a pun on “The Lone Ranger”). This eventually led to other endeavors and then back to a more defined focus in 2006. Since that time the entire effort is directed at making high quality wines with minimal intervention.
Here is the history as Randall describes it:
While Bonny Doon Vineyard began with the (in retrospect) foolish attempt to replicate Burgundy in California, Randall Grahm realized early on that he would have far more success creating more distinctive and original wines working with Rhône varieties in the Central Coast of California. The key learning here (achieved somewhat accidentally but fortuitously) was that in a warm, Mediterranean climate, it is usually blended wines that are most successful. In 1986 Bonny Doon Vineyard released the inaugural vintage (1984) of Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and this continues as the winery’s flagship/starship brand.
Since then, Bonny Doon Vineyard has enjoyed a long history of innovation – the first to truly popularize Rhône grapes in California, to successfully work with cryo-extraction for sundry “Vins de Glacière, the first to utilize microbullage in California, the first to popularize screwcaps for premium wines, and, quite significantly, the first to embrace true transparency in labeling with its ingredient labeling initiative. The upside of all of this activity has brought an extraordinary amount of creativity and research to the California wine scene; the doon-side, as it were, was perhaps an ever so slight inability to focus, to settle doon, if you will, into a single, coherent direction. 1.
Bonny Doon Vineyard grew and grew with some incredibly popular brands (Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim) until it became the 28th largest winery in the United Stated. Randall came to the realization – better late than Nevers – that he had found that the company had diverged to a great extent from his original intention of producing soulful, distinctive and original wines, and that while it was amusing to be able to get restaurant reservations almost anywhere (the only real tangible perk he was able to discern from the vast scale of the operation), it was time to take a decisive course correction. With this in mind, he sold off the larger brands (Big House and Cardinal Zin) in 2006 and Pacific Rim in 2010.
In the intervening years, the focus of the winery has been to spend far more time working with vineyards in improving their practices, as well as on making wines with a much lighter touch – using indigenous yeast whenever possible, and more or less eschewing vinous maquillage, (at least not to Tammy Faye Bakker-like levels). Recently, Randall has purchased an extraordinary property in San Juan Bautista, which he calls Popelouchum, (the Mutsun word for “paradise,”) where he is profoundly intent on producing singular wines expressive of place. There are also very grand plans afoot to plant a dry-farmed Estate Cigare vineyard. #staydooned.
- The company was importing wines from Europe, distilling spirits, making a vast range of fruit and dessert wines and supporting an incredibly eclectic wine club
As you can tell Randall has a unique sense of humor. It has always been a part of his DNA. And, he has always been willing to go in his own direction. Amongst other things, Randall pioneered the use of Rhone varietals, was amongst the first to use screw caps for premium wines, and was the first to list ingredients on the label, while building his winery business to the 28th largest winery in the US before divesting large parts of it in 2006 and 2010.
Today the approximate annual Bonny Doon Vineyard production is 45,000 cases. Randall is focused on making natural wine that is food friendly and age worthy. He eschews oak influence for all of his wines. The flagship wines are Le Cigare Volant, Le Cigare Blanc and Vin Gris de Cigare. Here is how Randall describes each wine:
Le Cigare Volante – It is typically less alcoholic or tannic than a Châteauneuf-du-Pape; it is a finesse wine, capable of extremely long ageing.
Le Cigare Blanc – A rich, and somewhat unctuous wine, well suited for gastronomy…
Vin Gris de Cigare – Made with a blend of (cinsault, grenache, mourvèdre, syrah, grenache blanc and roussanne) the Vin Gris de Cigare is a dry, bright rosé of filigreed fruit…
And, for the flagship wines, Le Cigare Volant, Le Cigare Blanc and Vin Gris de Cigare, there are 2 wines made each year. Here is how Randall describes the procedure used to make the Le Cigare Volant: In springtime following the vintage, after the various lots have finished their malolactic fermentation, we make the final blend of the Cigare cuvées, and we will place most of it in a mixture of 500 liter puncheons and 10,000 liter wood upright tanks, equipped with lees hotels. (Lees check in but they don’t check out!) A smaller portion of PRECISELY THE SAME WINE will be racked to 5 gallon glass carboys (with the lees), where it will undergo ageing in the cellar, typically for a year longer than the wine in barrel and tank. This is the Réserve wine. Again, the only difference is the élevage, (which is non-trivial). The procedure is similar for the Le Cigare Blanc and Vin Gris de Cigare with the major difference being the time of aging and for the Réserve wine, additional aging in glass demijohns.
Importantly, all Bonny Doon wines have all the ingredients listed on the label. This is something that is essential for consumers to know. Without ingredient labeling there is no way for the consumer to know all the things that are going into many of the wines being produced today (to read my articles on this subject click on the following):
Producers of wines made in a non manipulated style should all embrace ingredient labeling. Sadly today there are only 2 that I know of – Bonny Doon Vineyard and Ridge Vineyards. However, The Lodi Native Mission is an organization of growers and producers who are making everything completely transparent in how their wine is made and is the first organization of this kind that I know of in this country. (Click to read my article on The Lodi Native Mission) 
But, over time, as more and more comes out about the things being added to wine, consumers will demand more information on wine labels. And, as this happens, I strongly believe that many more wineries will join Boony Doon Vineyard and Ridge Vineyards (who have been the pioneers in wine ingredient labeling) and other organizations will be formed such as The Lodi Native Mission to promote traditional winemaking and transparency. This is very much the same as what has happened with ingredient labeling for food.
A few months ago I visited Randall at his winery in Santa Cruz and tasted a few wines from barrel and a larger number from bottle in the tasting room. That evening we had many different wines with dinner. I can honestly say that I was very impressed with what I tasted and found everything to be at a very high level of quality (notes on my favorite wines follow at the end of this article).
After visiting the winery, the next day I went with Randall and toured his impressive piece of property in the rolling hills of San Juan Batista. Randall purchased 400 acres here in 2008 and named it Popelouchum which is the Mutsun word for “paradise”. Randall has big plans to grow different types of grapes here to go into estate bottlings. But, so far there are only a few vines planted including some Grenache and Pinot Noir as well as a very small plot of Gamay that was created using seeds. The Gamay vines are 3 years old and are very small and have not yet produced fruit. One of his other projects here is to develop new wine grape varieties from seed. This is a radical theory that does not seem to have been done before. But, that has not deterred Randall. He is forging ahead. Randall is optimistic, but the jury is still out. (To read about Randall’s thoughts and vision for Popelouchum click here ).
What we do know is that Randall is a talented winemaker. He is making some really good and distinctive wines with minimal intervention including very little oak. The wines are balanced and flavorful and the alcohols are typically in the 12-13% range. These are wines that deserve your attention. My tasting notes are below and I would also encourage you to look for the wines at your local wine retailer and also to go to the website: https://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/  where you will find a wide variety of wines for sale including many older wines.
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant
Made since 1984, this is Bonny Doon’s flagship wine. The blend of grapes in this wine changes every year, but always includes Mouvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. This 2014 has a dark color and a deep blackberry perfume. Full, rich, and rounded with very pure black berry fruit the wine is balanced and already showing its breed – Outstanding Potential.
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Old Telegram
This wine is made only in exceptional vintages and sourced from the same vineyard. It is 100% Mouvèdre. This 2014 is stunning. The wine has a very dark color and a great perfume with a myriad of black fruits. It has layers of plum and blackberry fruit and is full and rich with well integrated tannins – Outstanding Plus Potential.
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido
With a very dark color this wine has an intensely fruity perfume and is very concentrated and pure with layers of fruit and lots of flavor. It is well structured with a good backbone and grip. Impressively rich this is a real tour de force – Outstanding Plus Potential.
White Wines Le Cigare Volant is Bonny Doon’s flagship red wine and Le Cigare Blanc is the flagship white wine. It is made from Grenache Blanc and Roussanne which are the principle white grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Boony Doon also makes a few other unique and tasty white wines, although the principle focus is red wines.
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Gravitas
This wine is made with a unique blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Orange Muscat. There were 4,915 cases produced. With a light yellow color the wine has a distinct floral herbal perfume with a faint whiff of spice. It is soft, round and fruity with a refined elegance and is very easy to drink – Highly Recommended. $16
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Thanks Semillon Despite the Semillion, there were only 228 cases of this wine produced. It is made from grapes grown on 60-70 year old vine and shows a really distinctive character. Pale yellow in color the wine has a floral beeswax perfume and lovely supple fruit on the palate. Subtle hints of Asian pear are accented by tinges of kaffir lime with an underlying honeyed quality. Unusual, but delicious – Outstanding. $24
2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc
Le Cigare Blanc is always made with Grenache Blanc and Roussanne in varying proportions each year. This 2011 is elegant yet very viscous and flavorful. The production was 1650 cases. The wine is pale yellow in color with a honeyed spice perfume showing a waxy quality with hints of quince. There are a lot of flavor nuances all harmoniously blended in a seamless fashion with honeyed spice, pear, and melon melded together with a kiss of citrus on the finish. Randall says that the Le Cigare Blancs can age for a very long time and I can understand why. It is all a matter of balance – Outstanding. $28
2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc Réserve
There were only 480 cases of this reserve wine produced. It is distinctly different that the regular bottling. It is very light yellow in color with lovely floral perfume with hints of fennel and toasted coconut. With lots of flavor and richness the wine is also elegant and shows a lot of finesse. There is lots of honey tinged fruit on the palate with faint floral and herbal notes intermingled with tropical nuances. Beautifully balanced, this is a distinctive and gorgeous wine – Outstanding Plus. $39
2010 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc Réserve
The production of this wine is 498 cases. It is a beauty. The color is very light yellow and the wine has an intriguing floral perfume with hints of peach and roasted almonds. Rounded, elegant, and lush with gorgeous fruit showing hints of pear and spice with floral honeyed notes this is a complex and very attractive wine – Outstanding Plus. $54
2006 Bonny Doon Vineyard Riesling to Live Sekt
Representing the last vintage of Riesling grapes hand harvested from the gravelly soils of Ca’ del Solo estate vineyard, located just outside of Soledad in Monterey County, this is a sparkling example of Riesling produced à la méthode champenoise and finished nature, that is to say, with no additional sweetening. It was on the lees 3 years and shows a lot of complexity. There were 967 cases produced.
Light yellow in color the wine has a lovely complex nutty, floral, spicy perfume. It has lots of fruit accented by nutty, spicy, floral nuances and is creamy and very flavorful with a real sense of elegance – Outstanding. $36
2010 Bonny Doon Vineyard Sparkling Albariño Natur
This is a first for me – a sparkling Albariño. And, this one is made dry with no added sweetening. With only 617 cases produced it is unlikely that this will become a household name anytime soon, but it is a unique and delicious wine. Light yellow in color it has an intense mineral perfume with hints of peach, melon, and citrus. Really fruity and delightfully spritzy with subtle hints of peach and citrus offset by a citrus tinged minerality, this really quite amazing – Outstanding. $36
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare
Made with a blend of 35% Grenache, 18% Mouvèdre, 16% Grenache Blanc, 12.5% Roussanne, 8% Carignane, 8% Cinsault, 1.5% Marsanne, and 1% Counois this is unique in its diversity of grapes. The production was 15,939 cases so it is gratifying to see that there is now a healthy market for dry rosés from California (to read my article on the growth of imported dry rosés with links to other rosés click here ). Historically most American consumers associate “pink” California wines with sweet White Zinfandels. Thanks to Boony Doon and others this is changing. With a light pink color and hints of amber gold, the wine has a lovely floral perfume with hints of cherry and strawberry and a faint herbal nuance. Very bright and tasty with subtle cherry and strawberry fruit accented by floral herbal nuances and a touch of citrus this is a delightful and very easy to drink rosé – Outstanding. $18
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare Réserve
There were only 187 cases of this wine produced. It is made with 69% Mouvèdre, 20% Grenache, and 11% Cinsault. The wine was aged on the lees for 2 ½ years. It pale golden amber in color with a lovely perfume of hazelnut and spice. It has subtle peach like fruit with hints of roasted nuts and a touch of spice and is rounded and balanced with a nice finish – Highly Recommended. $35
In 1986 the 1984 vintage of Le Cigare Volant was released. This wine was made to pay homage to the wines of the celebrated appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône Valley. In the 1980s Randall Grahm was one of a small group of California owner/winemakers who known as the Rhone Rangers began to popularize Rhône varietals grown in California. Today the group has greatly expanded to include winemakers and wineries from across the country as well as consumers (to read more about history of the Rhone Rangers go here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhone_Rangers and to visit the Rhone Rangers website where you can become a member go here http://www.rhonerangers.org/ ) Le Cigare Volant is Boony Doon’s flagship wine with average annual production around 2500 cases. The label depicts an ancient flying saucer drawing making reference to what Randall describes as a particularly strange ordinance on the books of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, adopted in 1954, prohibiting the landing of “flying saucers” and “flying cigars” in its vineyards. Boony Doon also makes Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvèdre including in exceptional years a 100% Mouvèdre called Old Telegram.
2014 Bonny Doon Vineyard Grenache Clos de Gilroy Monterey County
This wine is blended with a small amount of Mouvèdre and Syrah. The production was 3,159 cases. This wine has a deep color and a lovely perfume with a myriad of red and black fruit. It is supple and rounded yet bright and crisp with deeply imbedded fruit flavors. Balanced and very attractive now the wine should also last well into the future – Highly Recommended. $20
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Grenache Cuvée R Soledad
The cuttings for these vines came from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The production was 593 cases. Dark in color with a great berry perfume showing a whiff of smokiness the wine is loaded with layers of rich fruit again accented with a touch of smokiness. Balanced and very flavorful this is a gorgeous wine – Outstanding. $48
2013 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Le Pousseur
“Le Pousseur” is the name for an alchemist or trickster. The wine is so named because it so accessible yet a great accompaniment to a wide variety of foods. The production in 2013 was 3,189 cases. The wine has a dark color and a stunning floral perfume with spice tinged hints of berries and plums. It is rich, full, rounded and beautifully balanced with well integrated tannins and loads of fruit accented by faint hints of spice and smoke – Outstanding. $26
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Le Pousseur
The production of this 2012 was 2,126 cases. Dark in color with a deep perfume of berries and plums with a hint of mushroom the wine has lots of rich spice tinged plum and berry fruit and is rounded with good underlying structure. It is balanced very flavorful with impressive depth and richness – Outstanding. $26
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant
There were 4,000 cases of this wine produced. It has a deep color and a lovely berry perfume with tinges of spice and herbs. On the palate there is lots of berry fruit accented by faint spice tinges and the wine is rounded, supple, and very flavorful – Highly Recommended Plus. $45
2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant
The 2012 vintage produced 2,527 cases of this wine. It has a deep color and a lovely berry perfume with faint tinges of spice. Rounded and supple with a nice underlying structure the wine has loads of berry fruit tinged with hints of spice and is well balanced and flavorful – Highly Recommended Plus. $45
2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard Cigare Volant Réserve
This vintage produced 909 cases of this wine. It is gorgeous with a deep color and a lovely floral berry perfume with faint tinges of spice and smokiness. Supple with lush spice tinged fruit the wine is beautifully balanced and flavorful with lots of charm – Outstanding. $79
2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido
This vintage produced 456 cases of this wine. It has a deep color and a great blackberry perfume. A wine of very pure fruit and lots of flavor it has beautiful balance and has a lot early appeal – Highly Recommended Plus. $50
2010 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant
There were 1,344 cases of this wine produced. It is really gorgeous. With a deep color the wine has a stunning perfume with a myriad of fruits showing a faint exotic nuance and a touch of spice. On the palate it is supple and rounded with layers of fruit and lots of intensity and depth. This is a wine to be enjoyed now or well into the future – Outstanding Plus. $45
2010 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Réserve
There were 511 cases of this wine produced. It has a deep color and a lovely berry perfume with hints of spice and a faint smokiness. On the palate there is lots of spice tinged berry fruit and the wine is balanced with lots of flavor. It is delicious now and should keep for an extended period – Outstanding. $49.99
2010 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido
Only 152 cases of this wine were produced in 2010. The wine has a deep color and a lovely blackberry perfume. Loaded with supple fruit it is refined and balanced with lots of flavor and only 12% alcohol. This is another wine that is a pleasure to drink now and well into the future – Outstanding. $50
2009 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant
This vintage produced 1,132 cases. This is a wine of great depth and character. It has a deep color and a gorgeous floral berry perfume with hints of anise and spice. The wine is rounded and lush with layers of fruit showing floral nuances with a tinge of anise and is really delicious – Outstanding Plus. $45
2009 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido
There were 843 cases of this 2009 produced. The wine has a deep color and a gorgeous perfume showing blackberries and plums with tinges of spice and a faint smokiness. It is full rich and rounded with layers of supple fruit and is delicious to drink now and well into the future – Outstanding. $50
2007 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido
There were 657 cases of this wine produced. It has a deep color and lovely faintly spicy perfume with hints of blackberry and an exotic tinge. Lovely and supple with gorgeous exotic tinged fruit the is a balanced, flavorful, and delicious Syrah – Outstanding. $50