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.

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