Straight from the Slammer

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I really didn’t get the joke when I first encountered Big House Wine several years ago.

I liked the bistro-style juice and the bargain price, but I thought the name meant it was a “super” house wine or maybe it was wine made in a large house.

Nope. Dead wrong.

Big House wines are made in a winery near the Salinas Valley State Prison just outside Soledad. Big House, of course, is slang for prison, and every wine in the lineup plays off the slammer concept.

Twisted Mister

Whose twisted imagination came up with the idea of “prison style” wine?

Answer: Randall Graham, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards and former enfant terrible of the winemaking fraternity.

Graham built the Big House label into a successful national brand. Then, he sold it in 2006 to The Wine Group as part of a move to simplify his life and business holdings. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne recently blogged about Graham’s current focus.

Big House red and white (the 2009 vintage sells for $9./bottle retail) are in national distribution, but there’s another warden in charge now.

Georgetta Dane, Big House "Warden"

Calling the shots today is Georgetta Dane, a Romanian winemaker and California wine industry veteran.

She walked into a job that didn’t come with a playbook. Graham didn’t leave behind much to go on, technically speaking.

Dane says the enormity of the challenge became real very quickly.

Her Barrel Runneth Over

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Dane admitted over dinner at Pican, the upscale Oakland restaurant featuring down home Southern food with a California twist.

“I had dealt with maybe 15 varieties (of grapes) … but here they were bringing in 42 varieties,” she said. “I couldn’t pronounce the names of  some of these grapes.”

In the Big House Red, the blend varies in proportion, but it’s built on a base of about one-fourth petite sirah. The other three-fourths represent a hodgepodge of up to 20 different varietals.

The list ranges from Italy to France and Spain with charbono, tannat and nero d’avola in the mix alongside petit verdot, cabernet franc,  montepulciano and tempranillo plus dribs and drabs of more obscure grapes sourced from all over California.

Plays Well With Food

The result is an everyday wine that held it’s ground alongside a string of Pican’s specialties, including indulgent deep-fried chicken livers, a crispy slice of pork belly along with some of the best fried chicken I’ve sampled west of the Mississippi River. Here’s a recent dinner menu.

The wine tastes of plums, smooth tannins and a soft mid-section that’s pleasant enough on approach and even better on the second and third taste. I like the screwtop, too. Kind of a white trash approach with a middle class payoff.

White Side of the House

The Big House white is a less diverse blend of grapes — not a drop of chardonnay, by the way — that Dane describes this way:

“I like it to be like a bowl of fruit and flowers,” she proclaimed, swirling a glass of the wine.

The “fruit and flowers” blend is more than half malvasia bianca with 22 percent muscat canelli, 18 percent viognier and 4 percent rousanne.

The perfumed nose says sweet but the wine is off-dry, tasting of ripe summer peaches and tropical fruits. It matched up well with the friend chicken and also a side order of baked macaroni and Gouda.

Georgetta also makes the Big House smaller production wines called the “Upper Cell Block.” They include: Slammer syrah, the Lineup (blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre), Prodigal Son (petite sirah) and Birdman (pinot grigio). All are well-made and well-priced at $14.99 retail.

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