Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gettin Ziggy With It - Randall Grahm

Photographed by: Alex Krause
Many consider winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards as a trailblazer in the California wine industry. One of the original “Rhone Rangers”, Grahm has dedicated his career to the proliferation of Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Marsanne into the American wine market. His work with other varietals such as Zinfandel, Primitivo, Albarino and Tannat are well documented.  His desire to work with these varieties stems from his perverse drive to do something distinctive and successful by carving a niche in what others think is not possible. It started with the quest for what Randall called “the Great American Pinot Noir (GAPN).”

Grahm attended the University of California at Santa Cruz. He admits to being a “permanent liberal arts major”.  His career in wine started at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills. In between sweeping floors and breaking down boxes he managed to taste, and subsequently fall in love with, the great wines from Burgundy. He took his studies to UC Davis and completed his degree in Plant Sciences. Shortly after, with the help of his family, he purchased the Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Early attempts at producing a Pinot Noir that showed the finesse and elegance he was yearning for proved futile. The quest for the GAPN was suffering major losses.
“Oregon was and continues to produce far superior Pinot Noir fruit. Rather than try to fashion something, I wanted to produce something distinctive.” - Randall Grahm
The GAPN proved too elusive for the land he was farming.  However it seemed experiments with Rhone varietals were extraordinarily promising. The soil and climate seemed well suited for Mediterranean grape varieties. So rather than produce a superficial wine, Mr Grahm zigged. With the idea that you work with what you are given and do what you’re good at, Rhone varieties seemed the natural fit. So Grahm planted Syrah, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. In 1986, he released the 1984 Le Cigare Volant, the first vintage in this wine’s cosmic journey. Bonny Doon Vineyards was born. It certainly proved to be a sound decision.

As recent as 2006, with his hands in projects like Big House Red, Big House White, Pacific Rim wines and Cardinal Zin, Grahm was producing an astonishing 450,000 cases of wine per year. It’s no secret that Grahm is a master of marketing. He created labels for rarely seen California varietals and used his charisma/charm to sell the pants off experimental wines. His goofy labels and “strange” wines built a cult like following of Doon lovers culminating with the Cardinal Zinfandel. He doesn’t apologize for his techniques, only offering that he was making a product that was perfect for the market place AND making sound, tasteful wines. In 2004 he made a shift to bio-dynamic farming, a technique embraced by few, criticized by many. In 2006 he sold the Cardinal Zin label and is now producing roughly 30,000 cases annually. This shift in farming techniques and drop in production can be attributed to Grahm’s desire to produce a wine that shows finesse and elegance. It’s a chance to do something “original”.
“Exposure to bio-dynamic farming techniques in Rhone led me to the belief that if we employed the same techniques here, we could see a Germanic improvement in the wines. It was a practical matter. Wine has to be alive. What can we do to bring more life to the wine?” - Randall Grahm
It’s working. Mr. Grahms’ wines are ethereal.  While most California producers continue to pump out startling amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Mr. Grahm, narcissistically continues his work with Mediterranean varieties. And while most California producers continue to abuse the land that provides the fruit that pays for their luxurious tasting rooms, Mr. Grahm discovered the virtue of farming bio-dynamically. And maybe he found a little bit of himself along the way.

At what point does zigging when everyone zaggs stop making sense? Or at what point does one finally discover their true calling in an industry that’s rife with competition, big egos and big marketing budgets? Randall Grahm has long been considered a “deranged” pioneer in the California wine industry. In his quest for the “Great American Pinot Noir” he found Rhone and Italian varietals. Or perhaps more accurately, they found him.  Through his career he has received awards from Cook’s Magazine, James Beard Foundation, and Bon Appetite. Though if you ask him, he still hasn’t accomplished anything. Perhaps his last zigg into bio-dynamic farming will change the face of California wine. Then again, a sudden move to San Juan Bautista to zigg -  yet again -  may be just the kind of excitement the industry needs. Randall Grahm’s biography, as posted on his website, is a terrifically satirical summation of the current state of the wine industry from a disheartened grower’s point of view.
“Wine has become a business and financial exercise.” - Randall Grahm
Randall, you have our attention. Some of us are listening. Tired of the cookie cutter, lab manufactured cult wines of yesteryear, there’s a movement forming that is desperately seeking wines from California that actually show depth and character. We cry loudly and proudly “Let us taste the dirt! Let us taste the grape!”  You can see it. You can feel it. Hell, you can taste it. Those of us involved have stepped out from the darkening confines of the traditional wine media. Should we care that what’s in the glass is a 95 point wine made by the ghost of famous winemakers past and is “limited”? Should we care that what’s in the glass is an 83 point wine made by someone who pulled their full page advertisement from the publication of review? No.
 “Trust your palate. You can’t drink a point score.” - Randall Grahm
 Concentrate on what’s in the bottle. Because when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what’s most important? What is represented in that bottle? What do we want from that bottle? Do we want it to possess a set of mystical powers that carries us back to the time we made love on the Riviera at sunset? Or the time we smoked that grass in the woods with Amy? If a wine doesn’t have an identity, it ceases to be a wine. Randall Grahm re-defined his identity. Maybe he can re-define California wine. And if he does, maybe he’ll feel like he’s accomplished something. Because, clearly, he hasn’t.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yes, You Can Afford Bordeaux. Just Do Your Homework

For most wine consumers, the days of purchasing $500 bottles of first growth Bordeaux are long gone. Even for industry professionals looking to replenish depleted cellar stocks, buying a $500 bottle (and quantity of it) for the cellar is not exactly attractive anymore.  And to be honest, with advances in winemaking, it may not be all that necessary. Such was the conversation my brother and I had as we worked our way through a bottle 2000 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (still too young). My brother and I decided to shift our focus toward “smart wines”. These are wines that show tremendous potential to relax in the cellar for 10 years and continue to soften, develop and provide loads of complexity at their peak. What’s really smart about them is they won’t require a second mortgage or a secret withdrawal from your retirement account.

Smart is sexy, knowledge is power and there’s nothing better than being sexy and powerful. Armed with the right information you can amass a sexy Bordeaux collection without tapping into your retirement fund. If you are purchasing Bordeaux as financial investment, stop reading, this article is not for you. If you are purchasing Bordeaux as a lifestyle enhancement, by all means, read on.

Focus on lesser known regions.
Just as you would shell out more green for a bottle that says Napa versus a bottle that says Paso Robles (in theory), you’ll also be relieved of more money by purchasing wines from the following appellations (regions) in Bordeaux:
  • Pomerol
  • Pauillac
  • Margaux
  • Graves
  • Saint-Émilion
  • St-Estèphe
  • St-Julien

The wines from these regions command high prices because they are believed to be the best regions in Bordeaux to grow grapes. But there are 60 official wine regions within Bordeaux, many producing top scoring wines. Of course, it’s easy to get lost and confused - right bank, left bank, premier cru, grand cru, etc. Thinking outside the box (er, region) and exploring the Bordeaux’s not so famous appellations will afford you great wines without emptying the bank. Here are three appellation that offer incredible values if you take the time to search for the right wines:
  • Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion
  • Moulis
  • Fronsac
 Having said that, don’t simply give up on the more popular regions because you think you can’t afford them. There are plenty of values to be found by doing your homework. Get to the wine store, purchase a few different bottles and explore. There’s an enormous amount of Bordeaux that can be found in the $30 -$40 range that will provide pleasurable drinking for years to come.

Watch That Vintage
If you are a regular reader of the major wine publications it’s easy to succumb to the totality and hype of the vintage score. While it is true that some vintages are better than others, vintage scores are a huge generalization that mislead wine drinkers (drinkers, not collectors). Limiting your purchases to only the “best” vintages will limit your chances of scoring a real value.  Here’s a great example. The 1997 vintage in the Margaux appellation of Bordeaux was given an overall score of 82 points by The Wine Advocate.  The Moulis appellation (tucked just north and west of Margaux) is not considered for a vintage score.  Clearly The Wine Advocate is not a big fan of 1997 vintage. About six miles separates Chateau Poujeaux and Chateau Margaux. So while there are certainly microclimates and other factors, I don’t think one can say that Moulis had a better or worse growing year than Margaux. So If the famous and well respected Chateau Margaux didn’t have it’s best year, could the smaller Chateau do any better? Compare the reviews of their wines below taken from The Wine Advocate’s April 2000 edition:

1997 Chateau Margaux - 90 Points
Price at Time of Release - $185 per bottle
Undoubtedly a success for the vintage, this immensely charming, dark ruby/purple-colored wine exhibits floral, black currant, and smoky, toasty oak aromas. There is admirable richness, excellent ripeness, not a great deal of density, or superb concentration, but plenty of finesse, suppleness, and character. It can be drunk young, or cellared for 12-15 years.

1997 Chateau Poujeaux - 89 Points
Price at Time of Release - $25 per bottle
Undoubtedly a sleeper of the vintage, and probably the finest 1997 cru bourgeois, Poujeaux's 1997 exhibits a dense purple color as well as a sweet nose of black fruits complemented by toasty oak and loamy soil scents. Textured, layered, and rich, with low acidity and an excellent ripe finish, it can be drunk now and over the next 10-15 years. Bravo!

You bet your bottom dollar the smart shopper stockpiled Chateau Poujeaux. I’ll take 7 cases of Chateau Poujeaux to the one case of Chateau Margaux. There’s more to spread around and share with friends. Look for sleeper wines in “off” vintages. You’ll find real value through due diligence. When doing your research, ignore the points and focus on verbiage. As California winemaker Randall Grahm (more on him soon) stated, “You can’t drink a point score”. By eliminating prejudice based on both vintage scores and wine ratings, you can free yourself to find values based on smart research, tasting and overall enjoyment of the wine.

Here are a few recommendations for wines that will hold steady in the cellar and provide great enjoyment for years to come. They can all be found for under $40 per bottle and most for under $30.

2001 Chateau La Vieille Cure Fronsac
2006 Chateau Greysac Medoc
2007 Chateau Godeau Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
2006 Chateau Guitignan Moulis en Medoc
2008 Chateau Tour Puyblanquet Saint-Émilion
2003 Chateau Poujeaux Moulis en Medoc