As I get older, I've found that after a long workweek, my husband and I are far too exhausted on Friday night to be painting the town Jungle Red. No, we'd much rather enjoy a relatively quiet night at home, watching movies or catching up on the Daily Shows collecting on our TiVo. I say "relatively" because for the last four years, our Friday night ritual was to frantically mix up a whole cache of anesthetizing drinks, plop down on the couch in front of the television, ready our vocal chords to bellow and hiss, and to rend our garments at the half-baked tripe that came across our screen in the form of Star Trek: Enterprise.
To further liven things up, we often made themed drinks. The surprisingly awesome two-episode alternate universe arc that was "In a Mirror, Darkly" inspired both a tray of tall Collins glasses filled with ruby-colored Shirley Temple's Evil Twin (goatee not included) and a slim, puckering pitcher of sour-apple-flavored It's-Green-Tinis in honor of Scotty's drunken coup in "By Any Other Name."
For some reason, it never occurred to me to pour out bulbous glasses of some of the Sci-Fi wines out there. Not that I was in any way curious about Klingon Blood Wine as distributed by the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas, mind you. No, if our colorful acquaintance with the Romulan Ale taught us anything, it's that alcoholic beverages sold in the gift shop on "The Promenade" are the gifts that just keep on disgusting. I mean, our tongues weren't the only thing that turned Romulan Ale blue. You really don't want to know.
Honestly, I didn't think Sci-Fi imagery was becoming such a "thing" with winemakers until I was browsing through a San Diego Trader Joe's and stumbled upon a bottle of Red Flyer table wine from Soledad, California. Instantly, I assumed they were trying to rip off—or at the very least mock—the fairly famous line of wines from Bonny Doon Vineyards: Le Cigare Volant. Now, even though I studied French for five years over the course of junior high, high school, and intensive double courses at the University of Michigan's Residential College, I didn't actually know what "Le Cigare Volant" meant. Even more embarrassingly, the only association I had with that phrase was that it was also the name of a snooty French restaurant that Frasier and Niles Crane liked to frequent in Frasier. Given that show's history of making a wide range of Star Trek references and also having Senator John Glenn on—babbling unheard about seeing UFOs in space and being forced by the government to keep silent on the matter—I can only assume the writers knew exactly what "Le Cigare Volant" meant. So, not to keep you in undue suspense, although you've probably all Googled it by now, translated from the French, "Le Cigare Volant" is their idiomatic phrase for "flying saucer."
When I first started drinking Le Cigar Volant, I never looked too closely at the label. Unexamined, it looks like your typical black and white woodcut of the typical chateau on a typical vineyard. I should have known better. Randall Grahm is anything but typical.
Randall Grahm, the always fantastic, eternally crazy, and psychotically verbose wizard behind Bonny Doon Vineyard, is well known in the wine drinking world for his unconventional bottle labels and wine names. He's also justifiably acclaimed for being one of the "Rhone Rangers"—a variety of winemaker that pioneered the production of certain grapes in California that were once thought to be impossible to grow outside of particular parts of France.
I like to think that wine labels didn't get interesting until Grahm arrived on the scene with his bevy of artists and twisted sense of humor. Grab yourself a bottle of Big House Red and you're staring at desolate image of a barbed-wire-surrounded maximum security prison. At a recent visit to the Bonny Doon tasting rooms in Santa Cruz, California, I was told that the name originated because the grapes are actually grown on the grounds of, you guessed it, a maximum security prison. Several of the most powerful labels to jump off the shelves are the ones done by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas artist Ralph Steadman. Steadman includes a freaked-out Cardinal Zin (a full bodied zinfandel) and a soul-shuddering Madiran Heart of Darkness (33% Cabernet franc, 67% Tannat) in his Bonny Doon portfolio.
Not only are Bonny Doon labels a trip to look at, but go ahead and give them a read because they frequently include clever snaps and snatches of carefully composed texts. I thought I knew my English Literature but some of these esoteric references are totally beyond my ken. As Randall Grahm is the kind of artist who doesn't use art or words lightly, I was convinced that there had to be a deeper joke or meaning behind naming a line of wines for a flying saucer. Sure enough, the label explains that the name comes from an actual French law prohibiting flying saucers from landing on vineyards. It also states that if such an event occurs, those flying saucers will be impounded. Heh—I'm sorry, but between stinky cheese, rich chocolate, and wacky laws that shake warning fingers at aliens, you just gotta love the French! The local law was passed in the 1950s, which I guess was a time when French winemakers were particularly worried about such an event taking place. A closer look at the black and white woodcut label shows a thin flying saucer hovering in the trees just to the left of the chateau. A triangle of red (or yellow or pink, depending on which wine you're examining) is beaming down over the vines on the estate to abduct a tiny farmer. How ever did I miss that?
Reading the descriptions of Le Cigare Volant line on the Bonny Doon website, you'll see that the closing comment of Le Cigare Blanc ("the white analogue of Le Cigare Volant") is "Resistance is futile." Even though that expression has been smacked around so much that some might think it has lost its original impact and still others might not even know where it originated, it still made me guffaw simply because I know that Grahm fully realizes the Borgish implications and actually does seek to assimilate the human race to become more efficient wine drinkers.
Of the three wines—Le Cigare Volant, Le Cigare Blanc, and Vin Gris Cigare—I've only sampled two. Le Cigare Volant is my favorite by far. It's a juicy, rich red with dark cherry and currant notes along with some tobacco-y overtones. Every year is a different story, of course, and some vintages are heartier than others, but I've never had a bottle I didn't adore.
I never abide by the "white with seafood, chicken, and salad; red with only red meat and red-sauce Italian" laws. Point of fact, most gastronomes don't follow that ancient law these days—we drink what we like, we eat what we like, and damn the torpedoes! I also do this because I drink predominantly red wines. Every once in a while, I have a hot day hankering for something cool, white, and slightly sweet, but as those cravings are few and far between, I don't often have a chance to flex my white wine brain cells. However, in the case of Le Cigare Blanc, I made an exception. There's a whole bushel of fruit in that wine—melon, peach, some citrus, and floral hints. There's even enough room for some mouth-popping grapes. I believe it's mostly composed of the relatively rare roussanne, but there's also a brightening slash of Grenache blanc.
When it comes to pink wines, I am firmly anti-White Zinfandel, or, the most recent pinko to arrive on the scene, firmly anti-White Merlot. They tend to be oversweet, flabby, and cheaply made. Cheaply made wines result in headaches, and I don't like headaches. But fear not, there are many good pinks, or rosés, to be found out there. I look for rosés that are spicy and full bodied, and in Vin Gris Cigare, I am never disappointed. When I can find it, I grab a few bottles, indulge in Seared Salad Niçoise or Mussels Marinière, and pretend I'm living the luscious life in Provence. Whisking a bit of the Vin Gris Cigare into the Niçoise vinaigrette or adding some to the steaming liquid for the mussels intensifies the overall enjoyment of such an exciting wine.
Happily accepting that the science fiction overtones on a line of Grahm's wines was yet another thing unique to the Dooniverse, I was stunned to come across the bottles of Red Flyer. Now, where Le Cigare Volant's label art is delicate and subtle, Red Flyer is as blatant and screaming as the vintage science fiction movies it is spoofing.
On this label, a large, red flying saucer hovers over some tall buildings, and way down in the left bottom corner there's a '50s sci-fi flick billboard. You know the kind I mean—screaming woman in the corner, her manicured fingers pressed lightly against her terror-stricken face and the text in thick, arcing type, announcing "Rhone Planet Invades!" The back label continues the '50s science fiction theme in the amusing text written in an old dot-matrix font:
"It was during the darkest days of the war of the wines that the battles over clones were the fiercest. The Rhone Rebel Labs worked late into the night trying to develop an advantage. New clones included 777, 15, and 337. There were rumors of cuttings smuggled from France and of Robotic clone: 00100100011. Late that night we had no choice but to accept the gift from the small gray man with the odd features. So, you ask me the secret of our success? (pause) Clone: [tiny alien head graphic] We obtain our cuttings from a higher source."
Below the text, a grey alien hand in the foreground is tightly gripping a vine. In the background, an entire armada of alien vines is marching in formation outside a landed red flying saucer, ready, I imagine, to invade our local vineyards and force them to accept their Syrah, Mourvedre, Cariagne, Grenache, and secret "Clone X" grapes. It was when I visited the highly interactive website that I learned about the wine's grape composition and understood the Rhone reference on the front label, since those are grapes found in southeastern France.
The Red Flyer website is a sci-fi trip all its own. The quoted text above also appears on the intro page, scrolling out just like all the openings to every Star Wars movie. It's amazing to think how that text scroll has permeated pop culture and spun out so many rip-offs—Space Balls, various commercials, and my personal foodie favorite, Store Wars.
The Red Flyer website has a button reminiscent of, well, it's identical, actually, to the power button on an iBook, and you guide an alien hand to press it and pass through to all the other interactive options. Here you can learn more about the wine—where to find it, how to contact the producers—and you can even play a video game where a green alien tries to catch falling bottles of wine in his open flying saucer.
Now, I've waxed long and hard about everything surrounding this wine but the wine itself. I brought it out one night when I had impromptu guests in for late night snacks, consisting of prosciutto, a soft Spanish goat cheese, olives, and strawberries. Red Flyer had a comfortable amount of strong, dark fruit, and it is drier and weightier than other Rhone wines, which presumably comes from the Mourvedre and Cariagne grapes. It is definitely a wine that should be drunk with food. In fact, it went so well with the salty prosciutto and tangy goat cheese that I'm quite interested in trying it out on something heartier, like broiled rosemary lamb chops, a warming steak and kidney pudding, or spicy Pasta Puttanesca.
There's a band of text surrounding the UPC code on the back label of the Red Flyer bottle, and on one side it tells us, "Contains sulfites," which is something easily understood and identified, but on the other side of the UPC code it says, "Sneer her lob." I can only assume this is some sort of alien command that didn't weather the trip though our translator microbes. I've decided it means "Cheers!" and I plan to try it out at dinner tonight.
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