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July 29, 2011

Bonny Come Lately

Is Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm the David Foster Wallace of the wine set?

<p>Winemaker Randall Grahm and two of his famous labels.</p>

Winemaker Randall Grahm and two of his famous labels.

By Nancy Staab

  • Portrait by Alex Krause

One of winemaker’s top provocateurs, Randal Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, brought his wines, wit and new approach to vino to Ecco earlier this fall , and dished about terroir, obscure grapes and his quixotic quest for a California pinot noir.

Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randal Grahm just might be the David Foster Wallace of the wine set. He’s a California-residing, ponytailed provocateur and punster with a philosophy major (like the late Wallace); he also has a penchant for long-winded, foot-noted, amusing essays--mostly on wine, but Grahm also writes a mean rock opera and poetic parody... 

...he shares Wallace’s love of pop culture and appreciation for the millennium of mass marketing (Grahm is perhaps the best wine marketer in the biz with his tongue-in-cheek wine names like Critique of Pure Reisling and labels by subversive artists like Hunter Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman and the press-friendly mock funeral he staged for the cork when he introduced screw caps to all his vinos); and Grahm is famous for bursting the pretensions of the wine world while one-upping them in a show of intellectualism at the same time.

Like Wallace, Grahm is also a fearless experimenter and envelope pusher: don’t tell him that pinot noir can’t be grown in Cali, that England doesn’t have great grape-growing potential or that new grape hybrids are a pipe’s dream. Now this raconteur and winemaker of infinite jest has shown his more serious side--selling off the punning and populist Ca’ del Solo (named after the prison house near his vineyards) and Cardinal Zin brands that made him a fortune in a self-described moment of midlife crisis in 2006. Instead, he’s focusing on “serious,” smaller batch, more ambitious winemaking and the elusive pursuit of a wine of true terroir in Santa Cruz.  

We can’t wait to taste his essence of Santa Cruz, but in the meantime we will have to settle for his current offerings, an array of nine eloquent Bonny Doon wines  (from Le Cigare Volante and Syrah le Pousseur to Ca’ del Solo Albarino) which will be delectably on offer at Ecco, with wine wit Randall Grahm, himself, holding court to answer questions and discuss biodynamic winemaking this Monday, August 1 at 6:30 PM, $30 per person (plus tax and gratuity) and guests who attend will get 15% of dinner following the tasting. For reservations call 404.347.9555


Your first stab at winemaking was a quixotic attempt to create pinot noir in Santa Cruz California, before you moved on to the more successful attempts as Rhones which earned you the label of “Rhone Ranger”….Did I now read that you are back to taking a stab at pinot noirs again and so have come full circle in a way? What is it about pinot noir that you just can’t give up?

Pinot noir is one of those “heartbreak grapes” capable of producing wines of heartbreaking complexity and beauty – the complete package, as it were.  Guys in the New World try to make pinot because they observe that their colleagues try and mostly fail, so maybe it is primarily a hormonal issue, where we have to show that we can outdo everyone else.  It’s a bit like climbing Everest is (or was) or landing on the moon or doing anything else that is impossibly difficult to do. 

But in fact, my new attempt at Pinot will be quite modest. I’ve only planted ½ acre, and maybe with luck I’ll get a barrel or two, not really enough to compete with anyone.  I’ve seen how utterly pointless it is to try to emulate anyone else  or anything else.  At best you are derivative; we must try to create something utterly new and unique.

Grahm's Critique of Pure Reisling Label Grahm's Critique of Pure Reisling Label

You were a philosophy major in college and quote liberally from philosophers so in what sense has philosophy steeled you for a life of winemaking ?

I’ve not read much philosophy in the intervening years, but a lot of literature.  I am struck by how much of a role fate or synchronicity seems to play in our lives, and how strangely “right” or “wrong” our paths can be.  I have been knocking on the door of “terroir” – the idea that wine can also express a sense of place – and the universe seems to want to show me how I might best accomplish this.  (Or possibly just to lead me down an utterly futile, disastrous blind alley.)  Maybe I’ve been reading too much Paul Auster.


The idea that terroir informs a wine seems completely like a no-brainer to me and I know you are a huge advocate of it so why do so many in the wine world still seem to resist the idea?

I don’t think that it’s so hard to understand why the New World has resisted the idea, or alternatively has attempted to co-opt the idea and offer it in a rather watered-down, trivial version.  (Grapes are generally not grown in a way in the New World to allow a true expression of terroir.  How can a 15% Napa Valley Cabernet fruit bomb express terroir?)  In the wine business, we have become so utterly addicted to the culture of control and the problem is greatly compounded by the enormous financial stakes at play. 

There is a great tendency in the New World at least to manipulate wines to insure a known outcome, and this of course is utterly contrary to the idea of terroir.


You have said you want to created a terroir wine for your neck of the woods…what might this quintessential Santa Cruz wine taste like or conjure up?

If I said I knew at this point what it might be like I would be fooling myself.  The whole idea in fact is to discover one’s terroir.  You can’t discover it if you already imagine you know what it is.   But you bring up a good point: How do you know when you’ve found it?  I think that it will likely take several generations to really elucidate a given terroir.  But one indication that you are on to something might be that the wines are imbued with life-force, they have a dynamic vitality to them.  In prosaic terms, they will constantly shift and evolve upon opening; they will greatly resist oxidative challenge, i.e. you can open the bottles and they will remain fresh for days if not weeks. 


You seem to have a fondness for more obscure wines like albariño and muscat, both of which you produce. Granted you are famously contrarian in nature, but why else do you gravitate to wines like these?

Nobody does things for just one reason, but I do like to work with unusual grapes – they add spice to life.  They are more difficult to sell in the short term because of their obscurity, but ultimately you end up in a niche with very few competitors, and that’s a good thing.  Ultimately, my goal is really to find grapes that will do well in a given site, which is to say, they do not require any heroic manipulation for them to express themselves. Albariño and Moscato giallo oddly and unexpectedly seemed to meet these criteria when grown in the non-prepossessing climes of the Salinas Valley.


What is the most obscure wine you have tasted? Any wines you have tasted that have just rejiggered your whole concept of wine because they were so extraordinary or so unusual? And/or do you remember your first, seminal exposure to wine?

I’ve tasted a fair number of bizarre wines in the day, but the one that most recently recalibrated my concept of wine was a splendid Listan negro from the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

I had never heard of the grape before, and it seems to be akin if not identical to the Mission grape (Mission is most likely a seedling of Listan negro).  What is odd is that Mission is, in my opinion, an utterly miserable grape with very few redeeming qualities.  However, under the extreme growing conditions of Lanzarote, incarnated as Listan negro, it seems to be a brilliant carrier of terroir. What this tells me is that the focus on getting the grape variety “right” for a particular site may be beside the point.  The real question is whether you’ve got the site right.  (And only time will tell about that.)  As far as the seminal moment, there were a few of them, but possibly it was when a met a teacher in Jutland (Denmark), who produced flower wine in her bathroom.


What is your basic winemaking approach and what do you look for in a good wine. I know you are not a huge fan of the over fruity red bombs…

The basic approach is to concentrate virtually all of one’s work in the vineyard, to end up with grapes that are more or less in balance, so that they will not require much intervention in the winery – acidulation, dilution, special effects, i.e. aromatic enhancement through enzymes or cultured yeast. It is a cliché, but when you get to a certain point in life, less really is more.  You appreciate wines that are understated, balanced, quiet.  You don’t have to be “blown away.”  (That is an enthusiasm that is generally found in wine lovers who are mostly interested in impressing other people.) (I was such a person.)

Cardinal Zin wine label by Ralph Steadman Cardinal Zin wine label by Ralph Steadman

I read that you were experimenting with 19th century dry farming techniques as well as biodynamics (do you really bury a horn in the soil with manure??), demi john bottling (letting in less Oxygen?) and attempting to cross breed you own CA grapes to creating new hybrid grapes, I love your bold exploratory approach to winemaking…why are others in the field often so resistant to pushing the envelope? Might there be a fabulous and completely new New World wine still to be created bearing the DNA of its specific soils?

I am doing essentially all of those things, though the grape hybridization project has not yet officially begun. (We’re still propagating the mother plants which we will hybridize.)  I don’t know why others don’t push the envelope.  It may well be fear of failure, lack of imagination, the daunting temporal horizon.  For me it is absolutely obvious that in this insanely competitive business, at a certain scale, unless you are producing a profoundly original product, it will be very difficult to have real sustainability as a company.   There are certainly a number of new great terroirs to be discovered in the New World.  And maybe we’ll find them where we least expect them.


You supposedly scouted vineyards in England! at one point….what regions of the country do you think might be the great  or unexpected new wine producing region large or small and why?

Well, I still think that England has great potential for vineyards, especially if global climate change continues apace.  (The calcareous soils there are really beautiful; the sparkling wines that are currently being produced can certainly rival many Champagnes.)

My friend, Clark Smith, who is a maven about these things, believes that there are other parts of the U.S. that are producing wines that are far more interesting than those grown in California, but I have caught only glimpses of such wines.  I think that area near White Salmon, Washington, in the middle of the Cascades might be quite interesting.  I don’t know at all the growing conditions in Colorado, but the fruit that is grown there is quite intense; perhaps with the right soils, grapes could be quite amazing.   

The flying spaceship Boony Don logo The flying spaceship Boony Don logo

You held a mock funeral for the cork when you switched your entire company to screw tops, undercut all wine snobbery and pretension with your clever, punning wine labels like Critique of Pure Riesling and Cardinal Zin (illustrated by the wonderful, cantankerous Ralph Steadman), not to mention Ca’ del Solo Big House Red (an homage to the prison near your vineyard and play on snooty estate culture of wine) and Le Cigare Volant (translation: “flying cigar” and an insider joke about a real French decree prohibiting UFOs in the vineyards)…Although you now want to be taken more seriously for your approach to winemaking than for your famous and hugely successful marketing talent (you even sold off your Ca’ del Solo brand) please tell me that you will continue to playfully tweak the wine world on occasion! Isn’t that fun to do so?

I don’t think I can help myself from not doing some tweaking.  At the moment, we’re growing zucchinis at our farm in San Juan Bautista that I’m hoping to silk-screen into looking like flying cigares.


I know you now want your wines to speak more for themselves than you being the mouthpiece so…if some of the wines you are showcasing at Ecco next Monday could speak…what would they say about themselves?

They would say that a wine can be very complete and satisfying in a quiet and measured way. They might also say that..

...wines that you imagine are “quiet,” suddenly become very eloquent when they are paired with food. A pale pink wine can potentially blow a person’s mind.


Any suggestions on great food pairings for some of these pours?

You have me at a bit of a disadvantage, as I’m currently flying at 35,000 feet as I write this and can’t see the menu for Ecco (if there is a menu.)  But in general, oysters or fried seafood is absolutely brilliant with our Albariño (calamari, especially), Asian dishes w/ the Muscat, Provençal dishes (olives, capers, tomatoes, garlic, etc.) with the Vin Gris, meats (like ribs) that have been braised are particularly great with Syrah, game (venison or game birds) are brilliant with Cigare Volant.


You are a punning maniac and quite the wordsmith. You even penned a rock opera “Born to Rhône,” published a book of your wine musings “Been Doon So Long”  and have parodies poems like Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” so who are some of your favorite authors past or present? Anyone you are loving right now?

Unfortunately, I’m not reading too much these days, as I tend to be way too tired in the evenings to pick up a book. 

But I have really loved the American pyro-technicians: Pynchon, Barth, Stanley Elkin, David Foster Wallace (picked up my love of footnotes from him).  

Currently reading the latest Philip Roth on the plane.  I’m very inspired by his work of the last twenty-five years.


Is music a big inspiration? What is on you iPod?

Don’t have an iPod, alas, but we listen to a lot of classical music in our house.   Daughter, Amélie, is taking both piano and cello lessons, so there is always music in the air.


Other hobbies when not fixated on winemaking? Favorite place to travel?

Unfortunately, I have a pretty unbalanced life, and not too many hobbies apart from winemaking. I really enjoy puttering in the garden, and of course doing crossword puzzles. Favorite place: Essentially anywhere in Italy.


Any wine maker that you particularly admire? Or favorite all-time piece of wine prose?

There are a lot of great winemakers out there, but for me Henri Jayer, (late winemaker in Vosne Romanée), was an all-time standout.  My favorite bit of wine prose was the very creepy story, “Taste,” by Roald Dahl.


Most underrated wine?

Riesling (especially the dry ones from the Wachau and the Spätlesen from the Mosel.)


Most overrated wine?

Napa Cabernet, Russian River anything, Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots.  (Sorry, I sound like a bit of a grouch here.)


Wine trend you are so over?

(See above.)  And fruit-bombs of all ilk.


I think wines are a lot like women (and I am one myself!)…complex, mercurial, seductive and hard to pin down. Agree? Thoughts?

I think that in general I largely do agree with you. These characteristics certainly make for the most interesting wines.  But there is mercurial and there is mercurial. 

If a woman (or wine) is too mercurial, there is always a real danger that the interaction/pursuit will be too vexatious and one, therefore, just gives up.


Next great wine discovery will be or should be….

The use of “biochar” (essentially activated charcoal mixed with compost) in vineyards, as a means of enhancing the water-holding capacity of soils (promoting greater ease in dry-farming), as well as augmenting the population of beneficial soil microflora.  The latter attribute enhances the mineral uptake of vines, thus boosting the terroir’s signal in the wine.

The vineyards of Bonny Doon The vineyards of Bonny Doon

What would you be doing if you weren’t a winemaker?

Something eclectic  - making films, perhaps.


Do you ever just tire of the whole wine thing and crave a beer?

Yes, rather often these days, I have to say.



What is your ultimate wine goal?

To have the knowledge that I have made a sincere pursuit of this elusive goal of producing a true a vin de terroir.


A morbid question but any thoughts on what you might put on your tombstone given you are such the wordsmith? And to lighten things up: what glass of wine would your god proffer you in your version of heaven and what one would the devil give you in Hell (I think you once wrote an essay about this, which I need to look up, and several wine critics were placed in the 9th ring of hell!)

I’m not sure exactly what I would like to see on the tombstone, just I hope no mention of my popularization of screwcaps. 

If I were to find myself in some reasonable version of heaven, I would hope for a properly-aged Burgundy out of a large format bottle, viz. Musigny, if that could be arranged. 

You can find an account of my visit to Wine Hell in “The Vinferno,” collected in Boon Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology (University of California Press), soon to be released in paperback.