Funny Wine

Prominent California winemaker Randall Grahm is coming to Washington—but as Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

As a young man, Randall Grahm dreamed of crafting great California wines. The wines didn't turn out that great, so Grahm settled for making OK wines with funny labels like Cigare Volante ("flying saucer") and Critique of Pure Riesling. And because the labels were genuinely funny, serious winemakers and the press alike cut Grahm some slack and treated him as the industry's unofficial class clown.

But within the clown, serious aspirations still slumbered. A few weeks ago, Grahm shrugged off the past ("cashed out the cash cow," in his winsome formulation) and sold his biggest selling brands to the Wine Group, manufacturers of Mogen David Kosher Wines, the Franzia line of box "wines," and other market leaders. With the proceeds, he announced, his Bonny Doon label would devote itself in the future to producing "high-quality wines with bragging rights."

Mentioned only in passing in news reports of the sale was evidence that Grahm wasn't going to put all his faith in boutique pinot noir and Rhône varietals. He retains ownership of the Pacific Rim brand, devoted to inexpensive chenin blanc and Riesling, and will continue to produce at least the latter, while moving the brand's base of operations to Portland, Ore., and building a new winemaking facility in Washington's Tri-Cities area.

Should we be pleased? Depends on whether the new guy on the block is Jekyll or Hyde, Grahm the born-again serious winemaker or Grahm the bottler of drinkable kitsch. Where Pacific Rim is concerned, the jury is still out. Although Pacific Rim bottlings are vintage-labeled, the wine in any one year's line is distinctly multinational. The current Riesling squeeze, according to Grahm's French-born winemaker Nicholas Quille, was made from 65 percent Washington juice, 25 percent German, and topped up with 10 percent California fruit. A good buy at $12 the bottle it may or may not be; redolent of terroir it ain't.

Until recently, the vast bulk of Washington-made wine, even that from the largest firms, has been produced for and aimed toward the high end of the market, and has tried to reflect the best characteristics of our varied growing areas. But time marches on, and Grahm's under-the-radar arrival may bode ill for the local wine-making model. Under the Pacific Rim formula, there's really no reason why juice from China shouldn't be used along with U.S. and European; and if you think that's far-fetched, take a look at the small print on that jug of Tree Top apple juice in your reefer.

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