Big House Red

I was in the Yukon Liquor Corporation about six weeks ago, when I was delighted to make the acquaintance of an old friend.

Looking for an interesting red, I saw a familiar label on an unfamiliar carton. On the bottom shelf of the American wines aisle, there stood an octagonal, blue and brown cardboard carton, with a label for my wine drinking past: Big House Red.

For context, let me tell you about Randall Grahm, former University of California liberal arts major and floor sweeper at a Beverly Hills wine merchant. Apparently his stint in the Beverly Hills wine shop fired his passion for wine creation and he returned to study plant sciences at the University of California Davis campus — perhaps the world’s greatest place to learn about growing and making wines.

He emerged with a passion for Pinot Noirs and a reverence for the style of red wines made in France’s Rhône Valley.

He purchased Bonnie Doon Vineyards in the early ’80s, and by 1986 had produced his most famous and respected Rhône style wine, which he named Le Cigare Volant, the French term for a flying saucer. The name pays homage to an obscure law passed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of the Rhône Valley, forbidding flying saucers to land in vineyards.

The success of Le Cigare Volant earned Grahm the moniker ‘The Rhône Ranger’, which has stuck to this day.

After his initial success, he introduced a range of interesting red and white blends and single grape wines, always with amusing and prosaic names, including Cardinals Zin and Big House. They were better-than-average, reasonably priced, and interesting wines.

In 2006, Grahm sold those two labels, so I was curious to see whether Grahm’s heritage was still reflected in the Big House I saw sitting on the bottom shelf.

Coincidentally, my wife and I were planning a dinner party for friends, and I was looking for a product I could buy in large volume. The Yukon Liquour Corporation was selling it in three-liter boxes for $42; this works out to the equivalent of $10.50 a bottle, less than I pay for the BC-bottled Copper Moon.

If Big House had kept its tasty appeal under the new owners, I had a winner on my hands.

It’s terrific: enough backbone to serve with pork roast, or pizza, or pasta, and yet with enough complexity and fruit to simply sip before a meal. 

A surprise guest, Eva, arrived from Spain the night before with her boyfriend, and they joined us for dinner.

This was an excellent opportunity to introduce her to an American-style red that stands up very nicely when compared to the fruity Garnacha wines of Spain.

It has the name Big House the grapesare grown in close proximity to a California state prison. It turns out Eva has a job as a prison guard in Spain, and was appropriately amused by the coincidence. She insisted upon taking the collapsed wine box home as a souvenir of our delightful evening.

Big House might be the ultimate “kitchen sink” wine. This is a term that I use when winemakers blend their leftover grapes together.

Apparently it’s got Syrah, Petite Syrah, Malbec, Montepulchiano, Tempranillio, Barberra, Nero D’avola, Petite Vedot, Cabernet Franc, and four or five more obscure grapes; it’s an amazing tour of great grape-types originating from Spain, the Rhône Valley of France, the Piedmont area of Italy, Sicily, among other regions.

It works.

The taste brings to mind raspberries, maybe strawberries, a little blackberry, a hint of almost stewed rhubarb, a nice smooth vanilla, and dark cherry finish. It’s really easy to drink; in fact, I went back for two more cartons, which we served for Thanksgiving with our roast turkey, which it went well with.

The only thing I wouldn’t match it with is a good grilled steak — it’s too fruity, and without the requisite tannins to match the charred taste of a nice steak off the grill.

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