Cheap Wine That Doesn't Suck

You gotta love a winemaker like Randall Grahm. He named one of his finest wines Le Cigare Volante ("The Flying Cigar") to commemorate Rhone Valley vintners who in 1954 had a law passed that would prohibit flying saucers from cruising over or landing near their vineyards.

One of his best-selling wines is Cardinal Zin, with a Ralph Steadman-like illustration of a particularly depraved-looking Catholic cardinal on the label. Another hot seller is the Big House series--red, white and pink--named for the winery's down-street neighbor, Soledad State Prison.

But what you really gotta love about Randall Grahm is his willingness to swim against the tide, to call a spade a goddamn shovel. When most California winemakers were planting chardonnay practically in freeway medians to fulfill exploding demand, Grahm was preaching planting lesser-known varietals like charbono, grenache and tempranillo in out-of-the-way appellations that suited them best.  

When 14 and 15-percent alcohol wines with more oak than Sherwood Forest became the norm, Grahm was producing lower-alcohol wines that actually tasted of their grapes and "terroir," the semi-mystical French word that means wines that taste of where they were born. Grahm sold off the Cardinal Zin and Big House labels a couple years back, but they're still being made according to his philosophy.

Take the 2008 Big House Pink. It's a blend of eight grapes--charbono, tenet, barbera and sangiovese among them--that tastes as if you stuffed all of them in your mouth with a squeeze of orange and lemon juices to balance all that fruit. It's a big sucker for a rose, which means it can hang with habaneros, chill with chilies, go for it with garlic and big, bold flavors. It will cost you about $10 and you don't even need a corkscrew. Just unscrew the cap and pour.

Randall Grahm wasn't much for ceremony either.

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Bill Citara