It was while using the rest room of the Blue Frog Cantina in Fairfield, Atlanta, that Bill Leigon spotted the charming Belle Epoque poster of a winged bicycle with a nubile nymph clutching its handlebars. Mr Leigon, president of California's Hahn Estates winery in Monterey, took an instant fancy to the late 19th-century poster created for the Montmartre-based French bicycle manufacturer, Fernand Clément et Cie, by Frenchman G Massias. As any astute brand manager might, he turned it into a wine label and called the wine Cycles Gladiator.
Although it had been selling for three years in Alabama without complaint, last month its Beverage Control Board deemed the label "immodest" and banned Cycles Gladiator. Americans have been known to be prudish about wine labels portraying scantily clad young women. The depiction of a young girl on the label of a 1973 Château Mouton Rothschild by the French artist Balthus was deemed so provocative by the then Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco that the offending image had to be removed at great cost to Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
The prudes of the Alabama Beverage Control Board rather missed the point. The poster was not about the nymph but the bicycle. The last decade of the 19th century saw an explosion of interest in the bicycle thanks to the invention of the pneumatic tyre by John Dunlop in 1888. Ironically, as Bill Bryson points out in Made in America, one of the reasons for cycling's popularity was that it was one of the few exhilarating enjoyments permitted to women, although "some authorities warned that it might be too exhilarating". According to Bryson, the Georgia Journal of Medicine and Surgery thought cycling unsuitable for females because the movements of the legs and the pressure on the pelvis of the saddle were bound to arouse "feelings hitherto unrealized by the young maiden".
All publicity, as they say, is good publicity and Bill Leigon (who also created the even more successful Rex Goliath label), says: "To say that this wine label is pornographic is ridiculous. It's a beautiful piece of art that captures the grace and uninhibited beauty of our hillside vineyards." In fact while Hahn Estates in Monterey is making some excellent wines, Cycles Gladiator comes mainly from valley floor Monterey fruit rather than the hillside vineyards that make Hahn's better wines. Hahn makes a perfectly drinkable Cycles pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, but my favourite wine in the Cycles range is the 2008 Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir, £7.99, Co-op, a well-made red wine with fresh fragrance and juicy, ripe strawberry fruitiness.
Pinot noir is one of California's increasingly strong suits, although quality at the right price can be hard to come by. Within that category I would include the smooth-textured and subtly oaked 2006 La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, £16.99, Waitrose, and Jim Clendenen's silky, enticingly raspberryish 2007 Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Pinot Noir, £19.00, Berry Bros & Rudd (0800 280 2440). For the class of California pinot noir that can compete with top red burgundy, you do have to pay more, viz Littorai's red berry fruit-flavoured, elegant 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, £34.43, Armit (020-7908 0660), or the succulently pure and complex, mulberryish 2006 Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, around £54.99, Philglas and Swiggot (020-7924 4494), Handford (020-7589 6113). Sex in a bottle, you might say.Reuse content