Tasting Notes: Riesling Ranger

Bonny Doon

Category: Tasting Notes


Eccentric winemaker and original Rhône Ranger (he almost single-handedly popularized Rhône-style wines in the United States over the past decade or so), Randall Grahm made a name for himself with quirky, philosophical labels for his easy-drinking but still top-notch wines. His Santa Cruz, California–based company, Bonny Doon Vineyard, is known for its Big House White, Big House Red (both blends of up to 13 Rhône and Italian varietals) and other European-style blends. But last year, Grahm decided to downsize his Bonny Doon holdings, selling the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands and taking on a new project—producing Riesling in Washington state.

While the marketing for his Washington label, Pacific Rim Winemakers, is less quirky than for Bonny Doon, the vision for his project is alluring: an almost-all-Riesling winery (with one Chenin Blanc) just outside of Richland. He’s hired Nicholas Quillé, former winemaker at Hogue Cellars, as his general manager and winemaker, allowing Grahm to oversee the project with visits here a few times a year.

Even though Pacific Rim Winemakers hopes to produce a vast amount of wine (they produced more than 120,000 cases this year with plans to grow to 300,000), it is still a David to Chateau Ste. Michelle’s (CSM) Goliath when it comes to Riesling. CSM produces more than 700,000 cases per year of up to eight different Rieslings. But with food-friendly, lower-alcohol Riesling gaining a following and reconverting those who dismissed it as merely a simple, sweet wine, Grahm’s bid to capitalize on that market is probably a safe bet.

But safe has never been what Grahm is about. Along with his role in popularizing Rhône-style wines, he soapboxes on issues from screw caps (“Vive le screw cap!”) to biodynamic wine-making. He plans on making all his remaining Bonny Doon wines as well as his Pacific Rim wines biodynamically at his new Wallula Vineyard (near the Columbia River’s Wallula Gap)—a holistic philosophy of farming that espouses planting according to moon and sun cycles, encouraging beneficial insects, fertilizing with natural compost teas, not using pesticides and adhering to other strict practices meant to create not only great-tasting wines, but also a healthy connection between the farmer and the land.
The Pacific Rim wines themselves—all nonvintage with no specific vineyards listed on the label—range from bone-dry to semisweet to dessert styles, but all share Grahm’s and Quillé’s philosophy that Riesling should “express terroir,” meaning the wines should have the aromas and flavor characteristics produced by the soil and climate they were grown in, rather than using oak barrels that add woody tones or transformative malolactic fermentation (a process of inoculating the wine with bacteria or heating it to produce softer acids).
As Riesling lovers know, this can be one of the most complex wines in the world, with aromas and flavors (depending on sweetness, ripeness and other factors) running from crisp green apple to peach to tropical fruits—even to desirable petrol and tar aromas, gaining elegance as they age and develop. And even though Riesling has been Washington’s cash cow (one of the first large-scale wines produced here), time will tell whether Grahm and company’s foray will create approachable and age-worthy wines, doing justice to one of Washington’s most successful—and promising—grapes.
Photo by Alex Krause
Shannon’s Picks

Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, $10.99
Crisp acidity and aromas of lime and green apple make this a great food wine. Blended with 20 percent German Riesling an