THE FLYING CIGAR (Le Cigare Volant) is both a wine and a joke. Both are good. The story begins in the Rhone Valley and leads to a tiny coastal community in California where a unique vinous experiment is taking place.
According to the back label on a bottle of Bonny Doon Vineyard's Le Cigare Volant, in 1954 "the village council of Cha teauneuf-du-Pape was quite perturbed and apprehensive that flying saucers or 'flying cigars' might do damage to their vineyards were they to land therein. So . . . they passed an ordinance prohibiting the landing of flying saucers or flying cigars in their vineyards. This ordinance has worked well in discouraging such landings. "
The maker of Le Cigare Volant, Randall Grahm, is a graduate of the University of California at Davis, who early in his wine-making career became interested in the famous -- though underrated -- wines of the Rhone, those big, dark reds with great intensity and longevity.
"I tasted them first in California," Grahm says, and later visited the Rhone twice, where he learned about viticulture and wine-making in the wineries of Chave, Jasmin and Chapoutier. "They had a fanatic dedication to their varieties," grapes that Grahm thought would flourish in California, producing a wine made nowhere else on the West Coast.
The classic blend that makes Cha teauneuf-du-Pape is grenache, syrah (not petite sirah) and mourve dre. It so happened that one of those grapes -- grenache -- grew in great abundance in California, left over from post-Prohibition days, and out of favor among Americans who had graduated from jugs, in which most of the grenache is now found. "Grenache is the missing link in California," Grahm adds. "There are thousands of acres of it."
Grahm decided to buy some. All he had to do was come up with the other two varieties, which he planted on southeast-facing slopes of Bonny Doon, an old Scots settlement in the Santa Cruz mountains. That was five years ago. Today he has a classic Rhone blend that is a deep lavender color, very fragrant, with some of the brawn of a northern Rhone red and the intense fruitiness of a Cha teauneuf-du-Pape. What Le Cigare Volant lacks is the huge tannins that make Rhone reds grandfather wines. Grahm calls his "the extraterrestrial other" -- a mild but very characterful cousin that is drinkable now and costs less than $10.
Grahm made 8,500 cases last year and hopes to top 12,000 in 1986. He has also planted the classic -- and rare in this country -- grapes from which the opulent Rhone whites are made: marsanne, roussanne and viognier. Bonny Doon also makes good chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and muscat canelli, some from grapes brought far afield and trucked to the winery. This is a highly imaginative sorting-out period, and the consumer can benefit.
Bonny Doon's 22-acre vineyard, 1,600 feet in elevation, has spare, well-watered soils, and so far has not been disturbed once by a flying saucer.