A Wine Emissary from Planet Bonny Doon

Sue and I had an unexpected visitor recently. He said he was an emissary from another world, a place called Bonny Doon Vineyard. He came in peace, bearing two very interesting Bonny Doon wines.

Was I happy to see the visitor? It doesn’t look like it from the photo shown here (and he looks pretty serious, too), but things aren’t always what they appear at first glance.

Wine from Planet Earth

The wines that the emissary brought were very good. Le Cigare Volant is fresh and delicious, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, and a bit of Petite Sirah. “Red wine of California’s Central Coast, USA, Earth” it said.

Le Cigare Orange, the second wine we tasted, is mostly Grenache Blanc with ten percent each of Grenache and Orange Muscat. “Skin-contact wine of the Earth,” the label explained. Nice peach aroma with the bit of tannins that orange wine lovers look for. I think someone has written that this is an entry or gateway orange wine and that’s not a bad description. A wine to appeal to both red and white wine drinkers.

Randall Grahm founded Boony Doon Vineyard nearly forty years ago. Its original mission was to make wines like those in Burgundy, but Grahm quickly shifted focus to Rhone-style wines. The first vintage of Le Cigare Volant was released in 1986 and it has headlined for Bonny Doon line-up ever since.

Flying Cigar?

Le Cigare Volant — the flying cigar? What kind of a name is that? It is complicated, so I will explain.

Grahm is serious about wine, but playfully creative, too. Le Cigare was meant to pay homage to the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is a little-known fact that, during the flying saucer craze in 1954, the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape adopted a law banning alien craft (called cigares volant in French) from landing, taking off, or flying over the vineyards. The label artwork shows a spacecraft casting a beam of light on a chateau and its vineyards. Beaming aliens down? No, I’ll bet they are beaming the wines back up!

Bonny Doon makes excellent wines and is a strong, distinctive brand. When Sue and I heard Grahm talk to a group of wine writers a few years ago, he seemed almost embarrassed by his ability to successfully build brands (he is also the creator of Big House wines, Cardinal Zin, and Pacific Rim wines). But there is no reason that good wines cannot exist along with popular brands.

Tale of Two Brands

Grahm sold off the brand rights to Big House, etc., to fund his various vineyard projects and in 2019 he did the same with Bonny Doon, selling it to WarRoom Cellars. WarRoom Cellars is in the business of building brands and making the brands that it acquires (like Bonny Doon) more marketable.

Brands are very important in the wine business and I will admit that it makes me nervous when brands are bought and sold like properties on a Monopoly board (which happens quite a lot these days). Some of the biggest wine industry transactions of recent years have involved the exchange of brand intellectual property with no vineyards or production assets attached. For example, Constellation Brands paid $285 million in 2016, the The Prisoner brand.

Sometimes brand transactions work out just fine, but I am haunted by the story of Paul Masson, which I recounted in a chapter called “Martians versus Wagnerians” in my book Wine Wars II. Once California’s most expensive wine, Paul Masson’s brand was sold and sold again, eventually becoming a cheap generic jug wine before slipping off the wine market map altogether. (The brand still exists, I’m told, in the form of Paul Masson traditional and flavored brandy). These days the wine is best remembered for its sometimes accidentally ridiculous television commercials featuring a possibly sober Orson Welles.

Good News Travels Fast

In this case, the good news is that the Bonny Doon brand transition seems to have worked out very well. The signature red wine is different, but certainly in the founder’s spirit. It is a bit lighter in weight and brighter, too, but has good fruit and some complexity. Significantly, it is a good deal cheaper, resting comfortably in the wine wall’s current sweet spot of $15 to $20 ($17.99 on the winery website).

It is not the wine that Grahm made when he first created the brand, but it is not ridiculous to think it might be the wine he’d make now if he were starting up today.

So cheers to Bonny Doon and its alien emissaries for making planet Earth a better place for wine lovers.

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