Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)
We are just about to bottle the 2008 vintage of Le Cigare Volant and celebrate, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its continuous production. I’ve written elsewhere12 about a number of the winemaking details and the stylistic evolution of this wine, as well as about changes in my own thinking in regard to what we have achieved and might hope to achieve with Cigare.
But in this note, I’d like to write a little bit about some of the real hard-core, nitty-gritty geeky vineyard and encépagement details, as well as to candidly reflect upon what it feels like to have produced twenty-five vintages of Cigare. Allowing myself to act as a historian of Cigare, I might also attempt to somewhat arbitrarily and impressionistically divide Cigare into discreet “eras,” coinciding loosely with more global shifts at the winery itself.
1984 – 1989. The Hecker Pass Era.
When I first thought to produce a RhÃ´ne-like blend in California, I attempted to determine if anyone had successfully produced a full-bodied red wine from Grenache in California heretofore, with the prevailing wisdom being that Grenache might be well suited to producing lovely if inconsequential pink wine, but tragically, the grape was irrevocably chromatically challenged. A little research disclosed that David Bruce had produced two full-throttle domestic red Grenache bottlings in 1970 and 1971.3 I was able to track down some extant bottles at Hi Times Wines and Spirits in Costa Mesa in 1984, somewhat dusty for their tenure on the shelf.4 One bottle – I can’t remember which – was totally shot and possibly had some technical defect, but the other was quite lovely, still fruity, alive and complex.
Now, it is always a delicate and slightly fraught process when you approach another winemaker about his vineyard sources, but David was forthcoming, having only made the wine for the two vintages and never again. He told me that he had purchased the Grenache grapes from the Mary Carter Ranch in the Hecker Pass area of the town of Gilroy, but that Mary had died a while back and the vineyard had been ripped out. This neighborhood, however, was a good place to start, and in investigating the area, I found that there were still a few Grenache vineyards nearby still in production. For those who don’t know the Hecker Pass, it is one of several viticultural areas of California that the modern era of the wine business has largely forgotten.5 With the exception of a couple of a few recent plantings, displaying lots of galvanized wire, steel stakes and black plastic drip irrigation hose, most of the vineyards in the area were still head-trained and dry-farmed, though typically infected with rather visible leaf-roll virus.6 I believe that I located the largest reasonably healthy Grenache plantation in the area, in George Besson, Sr.’s vineyard, planted in the 1940s. George was a warm, garrulous man, somewhat given to malapropism, who reminded me quite a bit of the elder Walter Brennan. When he said something that he found particularly pithy and worthy of emphasis, he would emit a screeching whoop of amusement.
The Besson vineyard is located alongside a small watercourse, and contains a fair amount of heavy clay along with some smaller gravel. It was eminently dry-farmable, and the only real quality issue, apart from the old-fangled genetic material of the vines themselves, was the presence of some virus in the vines, which undoubtedly hindered complete ripening of the grapes; very seldom did they attain more than 24.5° Brix, or 13.5% potential alcohol. The vineyard was also seemingly beset by the phenomenon of “alternate bearing,” as well as being sensitive to “shatter,” or poor pollenization, which can be a bit of a problem with Grenache, especially in areas that have wet springs.
We would harvest anywhere from eighteen to thirty five tons from about ten acres of grapes at George’s, and in smaller vintages like ’85 we would get particularly expressive Grenache; by ageing the wine in larger vessels, it seemed that we were able to retain a lot of the natural exuberant fruitiness of the grape and not have it overly deformed by the presence of new oak.7)
A few years later I discovered the Bertero Vineyard, which was located more or less across the street from Besson. The soil was much rockier and located on a north-facing slope. Because of the thinner soil, the head-trained vines were much smaller, and the clusters themselves more petite, the fruit more concentrated. No question that the Bertero Vineyard gave us the very best Grenache I have been privileged to work with. The family had operated a winery at an earlier time in the area, but these were unfortunately the sunset years of the vineyard, and the failing health of Angelo Bertero ultimately led to the vineyard’s abandonment.
It was miraculous that the 1984 turned out as well as it did; it was possibly the lightest colored Cigare, but oh so elegant and minty in its youth. We harvested the ’85, a bit later; the fruit was more concentrated, and the wine smelled like ripe raspberries from the get-go. I was not the most careful winemaker in those days, and the wine was bottled with a little over 2 grams of residual sugar – not a biggie under normal conditions, but some bottles appeared to have refermented ever so slightly. I’m not totally convinced that this has been a bad thing; because of the slightly more reduced conditions and light petillance in certain instances, the wine has tended to retain its freshness and the best bottles are still remarkably alive. The 1986 vintage was not as obviously charming as the ’85, maybe a little meatier/earthier, but still very sturdy.
We had at this point found superb old-vine MourvÃ¨dre at the DuPont vineyard in Oakley, and this gave the subsequent vintages more structure and complexity. The 1987 vintage represented a real stylistic shift in Cigare, with Grenache no longer taking the dominant role. I wish I could say that this was entirely the result of a great winemaking epiphany on my part. However, no doubt some part of my decision to increase the MourvÃ¨dre component was due to the first article published in The Wine Spectator on the winery, and we had begun to get some calls from distributors throughout the country asking to represent our wines. I felt I needed to increase the production of Cigare, but could not (apart from Bertero) find Grenache of any great distinction, so it would have to be MourvÃ¨dre that made up the volume.8 A few years later production would increase again, and while I had become a more experienced and learned winemaker, I also seemed to forget, at least for a while, the most important winemaking lesson: one must begin with exemplary grapes.
1988 was an atypical vintage for us. The blend contained a significantly larger MourvÃ¨dre component, and perhaps coincidentally suffered, if that is the right word, from a marked brettanomyces issue.9 1989 saw quite a bit of early rain in the fall and the vintage was largely reviled by the popular wine press. But that was the year that I found myself on the cover of The Wine Spectator in its April 1st issue; clad in blue polyester, I was “The RhÃ´ne Ranger” and this certainly gave the brand a dramatic jet propulsive boost. The ’89 Cigare we produced was a “lighter” vintage, not as impressive as earlier bottlings, but oddly enough, has held up quite well over the years, especially in the larger format.
1990 – 1995 The Era of Exuberant Fruit and Slightly Exuberant Growth.
I have such vivid memories of the first six vintages of Cigare, but comparatively fuzzier memories of the wines over the next ten years. Some of the comparative haziness is due to the enormity of the changes occurred at Bonny Doon in the latter years, in both in the scale and complexity of the operation. By 1990, we were making wine in two facilities – one in Bonny Doon and another on the west side of Santa Cruz, next door to our current facility; soon after, we began to outsource some winemaking to other facilities as well. We had also just begun to produce the large commercial blend, Big House Red at about this same time. While Big House might well have ultimately turned into a significant distraction, it’s important to remember that it also gave us an opportunity to experiment with a number of new vineyards for Cigare, in the knowledge that if a particular wine was “close but no Cigare” there would always be an acceptable blending option. This emboldened me to try a variety of winemaking methodologies – the use of microbullage,10 for one, again, with the security that there was always a viable blending option should a particular lot turn out to be less than stellar.
In 1991 we began a long-term association with the San Bernabe Vineyard in King City, Monterey County, but they were seldom able to provide great Grenache; we made a lot of Vin Gris in the day, principally from juice drawn off in heroic volumes from the crushed fruit. Saigner juice is more concentrated and darker in color than that of a conventional must, but always strikes me as a bit out of kilter. You don’t just concentrate the lovely fruity parts and the soft tannins, but also the astringent, bitter elements as well. Owing to the proportionately higher potassium concentration in the grape skins, your pH tends to go to hell and you have to correct that by adding tartaric acid. So, you’re never quite in balance you’re a bit of a tightrope walker in a strong wind. A lot of winemaking legerdemain needs to take place to create the semblance of balance and harmony. The San Bernabe Vineyard was/is quite sandy – a sandbox really, and whether it was the comparative youth of the vines, or the lack of clay in the soil, or a million other factors, we just never got much more from it than filler, never killer.
We purchased Grenache from the Scheid Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco of Monterey County in these years – essentially a gravel pit of a vineyard. The vines seemed always to be overcropped, and we often had to wait an eternity for them to ripen, but the grapes had wonderful acidity and were responsible for a unique quality of pepperiness in the wine.11 From whence this quality arose I still cannot say, but it was a welcome contribution. For a few vintages, we were privileged to obtain grapes from the Almaden Vineyard (later bought by Diageo) in the Paicines area of San Benito County. These were old head-trained vines, planted in the ‘40s if memory serves. Freakishly large, they were rather like a vine one would meet in a Grimm fairy tale.12 We bought grapes years later from the vineyard under the new regime, but new management had installed drip irrigation, and the fruit, while still lovely, was never quite as special.
1995 was also the end of an era for the Besson Vineyard, though we continued to buy fruit from the Bessons for another ten years. George Besson Sr. had turned the reins of vineyard management over to his son, George Jr. in that year. Jr., who had a full-time job with the Santa Clara County Water Dept., decided that the old head-trained vines were just too laborious to cultivate as they were configured, and betook to retrain the goblet shaped vines to a bilateral cordon system for greater ease of cultivation. I cannot explain precisely why from a plant physiology perspective this was a bad idea, but the best analogy might be to equate it with geriatric patients suddenly taking up roller-blading or break dancing – just too big of a stretch at that point in their lives. The fruit never quite ripened up evenly after that, and just never had the flavor intensity of the earlier years. This further compelled the search for replacement Grenache vineyards, as Grenache, as we know, is the very heart and soul of the Cryptoneuf encépagement.
We had been purchasing MourvÃ¨dre in the rustic town of Oakley, as I had mentioned, not more than a quarter of a mile from the Sacramento River. The vineyards themselves were a bit surreal, surrounding the seemingly sinister DuPont chemical plant, manufacturer of God only knows what petrochemical with a half-life measured in eons. It was an ongoing, whistling-in-the-dark joke that we were producing a wine that would give you that certain je ne sais quoi, and would give you both an inner and outer glow. The DuPont vineyard was managed by the Cline brothers, Fred and Matt, and at a certain painful moment they unceremoniously de-Clined to continue to sell us those grapes, which was a rather heartbreaking turn of events for us.13
I have looked back on what I had written in the biannual newsletters about the Cigares of that era. I spoke about the muscular quality of the 1990 vintage, which may well have been true, but from the perspective of time, likely as not, this may have been a bit of a defensive reaction to the reviews critical of the 1989. The wines of that era really did exhibit great fruitiness; maybe it was that they were not handled much, generally racked but once, and tending to retain a lot of primary aromas. We began to include Cinsault in the blend in 1992, originally from an old vineyard in Kenwood in Sonoma County, the name of which is lost to history, and then from our own vineyard in Soledad: this further augmented the exuberant fruitiness of the wines.
Judging from the somewhat florid written descriptors of the wine in those days, it seems I had become more than little possessed, a prisoner trapped in the realm of the senses. I wrote that the 1991 was “a spicy wine, a feast for the olfactories – white pepper, fennel, dried sour cherry, black currant and rosemary. Anent the 1992, “Confiture des fraises (sounds better in French), hard sour cherry candy and the red licorice whips about which British wine writers fantasize. Soft, dense tannins and raging ripe blackberries.”
My prose in that era did get perhaps a bit overheated. “The 1993 is shameless… Crushed junipers, mulberries, fraises des bois, wild plums, dried cherries, anise root and raw meat. It is a wine for the urban hunter/gatherer. But what is it really like? It is like living to be two hundred years old. It is a bouquet of ultra-violets. It is the sun pouring through one’s sieve-like body. It is the taste of the colors mauve, nutmeg and rosemary, the muted moan of violaceous velvet. It is all of the virtues and more vices than are dreamt of in Miami. It is one’s self, that hollow shell, being stuffed with veal and pork, heavily infused with cloves of garlic, anchovies, capers, parsley, tomato and rosemary. It is being ready to eat or to be eaten. It is more than that… Very limited, but then so are our days.”
About the 1994: “A slumbering giant, prodigally suggestive of plum, white pepper, cured meats, licorice and the ubiquitous framboise. In 1995 I believe that I must have been at the end of my rope as far as finding suitable Grenache and more or less surrendered to the dark forces of Syrah. The ’95 and ’96 were composed of almost one half Syrah. I desperately wanted the critics to like the wine and was looking (in the wrong places) for qualities that I imagined would somehow give the wine more presence/imminence on the palate.
1996 – 2000 The (Partially) Lost Years.
I am looking at the sheer number of words that I have written about Cigare to this point, and can point out the obvious to you (if you have gotten this far): You are reading the words of a true obsessive. I have identified so much with Bonny Doon, and Bonny Doon, for good or for not, is itself rather completely associated with Cigare. It is a wine of which I am inordinately proud, and likewise about which I have become at times enormously defensive when it has not been well loved. Sometime in the early to mid-’90s we stopped getting brilliant reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.14 This provoked my juvenile ire, thus more or less insuring (at least according to my own personal hypothesis) that the wine would not be reviewed at all for some years to come. Mr. Parker’s critique of Cigare appeared to be based to some extent on the sheer volume of wine we were producing, as well as the fact that the wine was not enormously powerful or profoundly concentrated on the palate, generally a sine qua non, as it were, for favorable critical notice in the American press. And yet, in the end, he may well have been right about a certain doon-turn in quality (or maybe it was just a lack of real advancement) – this is, of course, very difficult for me to talk about objectively. The first few vintages of Cigare, which were virtually all about Grenache, had a certain purity of expression to them. They were about a single idea – old-vine Grenache, and maybe any attempt to really improve upon this idea was bound to create a muddle.15 Certainly in my Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like frenzy to improve matters, maybe some things just got worse.
The 1996 vintage represented a prodigious leap in production volume; concomitantly our great Grenache and MourvÃ¨dre sources were going straight to hell, though new Syrah vineyards were coming on-stream. While it was painful to lose the Bertero Vineyard and the DuPont Vineyard, as well as observe the degradation of the Besson Vineyard, I was grateful that the Bien Nacido and Chequera Vineyards, both impeccable sources for Syrah, were now really carrying the wine.16 I wrote that the ’96 had a scent of “roasted meat, tobacco smoke, cassis and mint.” It will be most interesting to see how well this wine, an assemblage of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, is now faring. The 1997 and ‘98 vintages were wine I never really got to know well. I remember them both as being wonderfully delicious in their youth, but tragically they died young, owing to their misguided mise with Supremecorq closures. It is a rare opportunity to be able to try them in a larger format – almost like a visitation from their departed spirits.
We were well into the practice of microbullage with these vintages17 and I had written such gobbledy-gook, as “My mantra is: “I will fear no tannin.” While it had been a rare opportunity for me to spend a lot of time with Patrick Ducournau as he was in the process of developing the technique of micro-oxygenation, I did pick up some
unfortunate tricks while in France, mostly from the very cynical Midi, where winemakers really had to rely on their wits to make a go of things.18 We began using wood chips and organoleptic tannins, two items that I had never taken up before.19 The untoasted chips were used (indeed, until quite recently) very discreetly in the fermenter (never during élevage) as a means of helping to stabilize the anthocyanins; I am not really ideologically opposed to them – I just feel now that they can make the wine a little coarse and somehow obvious. The 1999 Cigare was a wine I really over-did with winemaking “tricks.” My fascination with organoleptic tannin began in ’97 or maybe it was ’98, and started relatively innocently, a bit like a junior high schooler taking a few puffs from a joint with his buddies.20 However, in 1999 I decided to increase the dose just a little bit,21 and afterwards immediately regretted that intervention. For several years and perhaps even still the wine appeared to have been somewhat manhandled, and I have never used organoleptic tannin again.
We sold the 1999 in a beautiful “Cigare Box” case. I loved the very extravagant packaging, (as did our customers), but in retrospect, maybe this was an inappropriate allocation of resources. With the 2000 vintage we went back to cork, and while we still hadn’t yet made dramatic strides to improve our grape sourcing, we were now once again getting more serious about winemaking (the organoleptic tannin episode notwithstanding). More systemic efforts to conserve and incorporate lees had begun to give the wines a rather savory, umami-intensive character, carrying through to the next epoch.
2001 – 2004 The Era of Elegance and The Uses of Enchantment:
(Learning to Master the Awkward Teenage Years of the Stelvin Screwcap)
In the Waldorf Schools, founded by Rudolf Steiner, there is the belief in the wisdom of maintaining the dreamy, enchanted, magical state of childhood for as long as possible. It is almost as if the intellectual potential of the student is coiled up like a spring, and when the spring is released, the latent abilities dramatically emerge with greater force and persistence. I do believe that something analogous to this happens in the reductive élevage of a wine, especially in its conservation with a very airtight closure. Withal, there is a certain note that seems to have appeared in the vintages of this era, very prevalently in the 2001, that was not there in previous vintages. You get the quality, first detectable in the nose, and it is something like what may loosely be called “mineral” – or maybe “reduced.” It smells a bit like wet stones or loamy earth or a sort of electricity in the air. But what creates the aesthetic frisson, at least for me, is the strange juxtaposition of the sweet, welcoming fruity, cherry/raspberry note in apposition to the austere stony mineral aspect. A wine that can somehow reflect these dual natures reminds us of the ashes to ashes, dust-to-dust quality of all of creation and is thus somehow strikes me as more soulful. The critics never cared much for the ’01, but it is one of my favorite Cigares. Yeah, it isn’t a powerhouse, but it reminds me of what I really love in red Burgundy, and that cannot be a bad thing. The 2002 is a darker wine, maybe more winsome. It just seems to be all about cherries, and is perhaps a tad simple with respect to the vintages that flank it.
We began working with the Alta Loma Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco area of the Salinas Valley as a new source for Grenache, beginning in 2003, and in general, have been very pleased with the results. We’ve not been shy in allowing the grapes to attain prodigious levels of ripeness, especially in recent years – 15% potential alcohol is not unheard of.22 But what very satisfying to me is that the grapes now require essentially no manipulation – we needn’t bleed them (much), nor do they require acidulation.23 Even very, very ripe, they are exceptionally bright. And, then there is our own Ca’ del Solo Vineyard in Soledad, which has given us beautiful small-clustered Grenache from 2004 onwards. I am convinced that Soledad is the (climatically) coolest place in California where Grenache might still ripen, and the wine that comes from it is vibrantly electric.
The ’03 Cigare experienced perhaps the most marked period of mild retardation after bottling of any of our wines to date. It was not at all presentable until the last year or so, when it has brilliantly emerged from its temperamental funk. Even so, it still benefits greatly from decantation; there is a savoriness and succulence to it that knocks me out. The ’04 was a bit of a stinker during fermentation, a colicky fermentation, as it were, and we added just the smallest touch of copper sulfate to the wine just prior to bottling to insure that we would not see the return of any sulfide issues post-bottling.24 I never experienced any rude or untoward character in the wine after bottling, but the wine was, how might I say it, maybe just a tad rustic. We elected in ’04 to add a small dollop (8%) of old-vine Carignane to the blend for the first time.25 I am utterly persuaded that the Carignane gives the wine a sort of organizational coherence that it would otherwise lack; I think of it as sort of enhancing the capacitance of the wine – its ability to hold charge, or in this instance, ability to hold flavor. It is certainly not fatness, maybe its opposite, a hardening of the cartilage, perhaps due to Carignane’s presumed mineral aspect.26 I do love the brambly wildness it adds to the blend.
2005 and Onward: The Cigare of the Future.
This is undoubtedly the modern era of Cigare, and there have been some great qualitative leaps, as described in the “Apologia.” Most notably, we have begun working with a greater number of more self-contained, balanced grapes, ones that do not require heroic levels of intervention. Whether this is due to our putting out biodynamic compost and spraying biodynamic preps in many of these vineyards, I can’t really say. We have gone in the last several years to the use of indigenous yeast, and eschewal of enzymes, inorganic yeast food, and have tried to take the lightest hand in our use of tartaric acid. Last year, we essentially did away with all pumps in the actual fermentation process, and have cooled our wine cellar by a good 10°F., which is possibly the single most important quality step we have undertaken.27 Most significantly, we are committed to transparency in everything we do, freely indicating all of the ingredients that have touched the wine on our back labels.
The ’05 is just plain wonderful, full stop. We became slightly more proactive in recycling lees every time the wine was moved, and I love what that extra infusion of lees has done to the texture of this wine. ’05 is still a crafty, polymorphous shape-shifter, but seems to speak with enough authority to calm the jitteriness of its would-be critics. I suppose that after all of this discussion of the minutiae of Cigare, a student of the wine, a Cigare-ologist, might be permitted to pose the obvious question: “So, Randall, you have more or less intimated that Cigare is really your love-letter to Grenache. How is it that every four or five years or so, Grenache loses its Most Favored Wife status and is relegated to the level of the amusing, if perhaps exotic concubine grape? What’s up with that?” The answer is really that for all the progress we have made, we don’t as yet grow or have access to the Ur-Grenache, the Boddhisattva-Grenache, possessing the sage wisdom of deep-rootedeness, meeting all of Nature’s occasional challenges (read insects, drought and fungi) with great poise and equanimity. Grenache has the potential to be a true original in California, and perhaps we will get there some day; at the very least, I will make the noblest effort to do so.
The 2006 Cigare is a brawnier, earthier wine than the ’05, not quite redolent of the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles, but truly a country wine, a wine of the outdoors; its meaty Syrah character quite in evidence. It has been a while – indeed not since the very beginning – that we began to embrace whole cluster fruit again in the ferments (upwards to 50%), a great source of elegant tannin, if the stems are not too sappy.28 We’ve also been popping the heads out of the puncheons and using them as fermenters – a technique, while quite labor-intensive has also punched up, quite literally, the structure of the wines, and that, with no regrets. The 2007 Cigare is a wine that carries its power effortlessly; not muscle-bound, it does have more evident presence on the palate than Cigares of an earlier time. Following the evolution of the puncheon-aged ’07 and the lot aged in wood-upright has always been quite a horse-race, so I decided to bottle up some portion of each separately and follow them over the years; it is not at all totally evident to me which will be the greater wine in years hence.29
There is always the dialectic, an internal dialogue – how much “presence” or concentration is too much? At what point does the structure of a wine become a distraction from its essence, its originality and distinction. The ’08, still a work in progress is maybe our biggest Cigare of them all. Candidly, I don’t know if we have gone too far, but certainly love what has happened with the wine in the experiment that we are conducting in ageing a portion of the wine in demi-johns. (Maybe bringing a touch of softness, and warmth to a wine that would otherwise be too mesomorphic.)
In looking back at all of the verbiage assembled herein, defining and explaining what I’ve been working on for the last twenty five years or so, I am maybe a bit like J.D. Salinger, famously taken to task by the critic, Leslie Fiedler for loving his characters more than God Himself did. I certainly love Cigare more than is reasonable, and incommensurate with its contribution to the world’s wine resource. For, at the end of the day, Cigare, resolutely remains a “wine of effort,” not expressive of any particular terroir, but an expression of my desire to find a wine that continues to hold an aesthetic fascination, and can continue to grow in complexity and depth. It has been my “controlled folly,” in the parlance of Castaneda. I am so incredibly privileged to have been able to dream idle Cigare dreams, and to work to produce a wine that has sincerely delighted me, and the occasional Other.
Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)