Sharp Label Heralds a Wine of Character

De Proprio Gravitas, 2014
White Wine blend
13.5 percent alcohol content
Santa Cruz, California, $16

De Proprio Gravitas is a Bordeaux-style blend with dignified fruit flavors and aromas that make it an excellent choice for a summer drink for sipping or to have with light fare or seafood.

When I spotted Gravitas recently in a wine store, I thought it might be a red. The dark green bottle and amusing label didn’t immediately cry out “white wine” to me, but I picked it up anyway.

The grapes used in the blend are all white varieties. Unlike many other wines, the ingredients are prominently displayed on the back. And the humorous exposition on the rear label, reportedly penned by correspondent Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite, says it’s a white wine.

With a little head scratching, it also dawned on me that Postalthwaite is not a nom-de-plume for Charles Dickens but for the witty philosopher and winemaker Randall Grahm, founder and president for life of Bonny Doon, one of the country’s top wineries.

In addition to being an esteemed winemaker, Grahm is an innovator. He was an early user of screw caps for premium wines and the first to embrace transparency in wine labeling by listing all the ingredients that go into the wines. He also introduced winemaking techniques that are now industry standards.

Grahm, who started Bonny Doon in 1983, is credited with popularizing the growing of grape varieties from France’s Rhone region in California. In addition, he’s developing new vines that are more drought tolerant and likely to survive the challenges of climate change.

“The upside to all of this activity has brought an extraordinary amount of creativity and research to the California wine scene; the doonside, as it were, was perhaps an ever so slight inability to focus, to settle doon, if you will, into a single, coherent direction,” Grahm says on the Bonny Doon website, noting that the company was importing wines from Europe, distilling spirits, making a vast range of fruit and dessert wines and supporting an “incredibly eclectic” wine club.

Grahm is 65. He grew up in Los Angeles and was a liberal arts major at University of California Santa Cruz. After college, he got a job at a wine store in Beverly Hills that gave him an opportunity to taste first-growth French wines on a daily basis. He was hooked and enrolled in U.C. Davis to learn winemaking. Initially, he had a misguided obsession to make California Pinot Noir as good as those produced in Burgundy. He failed, but it led to his efforts to grow Burgundian grapes in California.

“Attempting to make an imperfect copy of something that was already in some sense perfect is just a waste of time. What is precious about great Burgundy, indeed about any ‘vin de terroir,’ is its absolute originality, and attempting to replicate originality does rather miss the point,” Grahm said earlier this month in an interview with the magazine Terroir Review.

After the failure with Pinot Noir, Grahm continued to make wine from Rhone varieties, and produced the award-winning red blend, Le Cigare Volant (Flying Cigar), an homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the winery’s top-shelf brand.

The scattered focus of Bonny Doon worked well, and at its peak in 2006, the winery was the 28th largest in the country. Sales reached 450,000 cases with the popular brands Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim leading the way.

However, that same year, Grahm had an epiphany, and realized that the company had diverged from his original intention of producing “soulful, distinctive and original wines.” So he changed direction and sold off the three popular brands. The company is now pursuing biodynamic viticulture, and making superior wines that use natural yeasts, express their terroir and are more reflective of a light hand by the winemaker.

Albeit an inexpensive wine, De Proprio Gravitas shows great care in its production, which allows the flavors of the grapes and their terroir to come through. The wine is 54 percent Semillon, 43.5 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 2.5 percent Orange Muscat, a blend that results in aromas of white peaches and orange blossom and light, fresh flavors, the tasting notes say.

Grahm is known for hiring artists to design fun labels. Anne Boscove, who has worked with Penguin Books and such authors as Robertson Davies and T.C. Boyle, designed the Gravitas label. It features a distinguished-looking man dressed above the waist in a waistcoat, ascot and jacket and a garter belt and little else below. He’s sitting under an apple tree at night, reading a book through a monocle. A large apple is falling and about to hit him on the head. On the tree, a carved heart contains “Sem. + S.B.,” lovers’ shorthand for the wine’s primary grapes.

De Proprio Gravitas is a bargain at $16, but I found it on sale for an unbelievable steal of $6.99. The wine is widely available throughout New England.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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