(A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Bonny Doon is based in Paso Robles not Santa Cruz. It is only the vineyard that is based in the former.)
Randall Graham, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, Calif., makes Viognier only as a sideline, but his Bonny Doon Viognier 2009 ($20) is the best version from outside the Rhône I have ever tasted. So last week I snagged him during a brief visit to NYC and sat down in a noisy bar to quiz him about this unusual wine.
He began experimenting with Rhône varietals in the early 1980s, a time when some winemakers in California were unfamiliar with the region's more obscure varietals, especially Viognier. So my obvious first question was, "Why?"
"Because I failed miserably in making Pinot Noir," Graham said. "Pinot just seemed too difficult to do well. The reason I was attracted to Rhône varieties was because I thought I could do something no one else is doing, find a niche, and produce something that might be very interesting."
What impresses me about this wine, apart from the wacky label, was that while much Viognier has a tendency to be blowsy, showy, and perfumed—not to mention boring—the Bonny Doon is very different. It has an elegance, a leanness that sets it apart.
"The vineyard is on a steep, north-facing slope, so it's a longer growing season. It's a cooler area of Paso Robles," said Graham. "We keep the yields very low, and it produces fabulous wine every year." In addition the wine has "maybe more of a mineral aspect, maybe higher acidity, more density of flavor."
It also shows less of that air-freshener quality that mars so many domestic Viogniers. "Perfume is great," Graham explains, "but at a certain point it's kind of fatiguing to the senses." It also makes the wine difficult to pair with food.
Interestingly, his primary motive for growing Viognier is to blend it with Syrah. This was the common practice in the northern Rhône when a little Viognier would lighten and invigorate the dense Syrah, but it has largely been abandoned now, so I am surprised to learn that Graham is a exponent of the practice.
"It adds more complexity, more fragrance. It makes a more complex wine." That also explains why bottling Viognier as a single varietal is not a major part of his business. Unfortunately.
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: Not necessary
Food Pairing: Meaty fish, chicken, lighter pasta
Grapes: 100% Viognier
Appellation: Monterey County
Web Site: www.bonnydoonvineyard.com