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Bonny Doon – The Magnificent Opulence of Randall Grahm Part II

October 21, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Santa Cruz County 3 Comments

An unavoidable consequence of making available great volumes of both written and verbal opinion is that you are bound to win both allies and enemies. It is then no surprise that Randall Grahm has acquired both. He has been both a pioneer and innovator for wine, which has endeared him to many. He has railed against or championed for any number of controversial matters (screw caps, wine critics, the dumbing down of wine) and this has won him his fair share of scorn and Anti-Grahm Fans.

In Bonny Doon – Slaying the Beast (you can read that here), I wanted to present the story of how Bonny Doon came to be, how they lost their way, and how they have dedicated themselves to correcting their errors. In reality, the topics addressed in that article were only a short part of the hour and a half conversation I shared with Grahm. The topics varied, from bio-dynamics to Twitter, the paradox of wine critics to his daughter’s Mandarin lessons (Wǒ juéde tā xuéxi Zhōngwen shì fēichánghǎo Randall. Zhōngwen kěyǐ bāngzhù tā. Anyone know PinYin?).

So while I could spend much time writing, rewriting, trying to be cleaver, and then convincing myself that I succeeded at it (which is not hard to do, I mean come on, look at what I write!), I thought it would better serve the public and present a conversation with Grahm, without an abundance of speculation or critique. However you may feel about the career of Grahm, he has devoted three decades to the making of wine, the promotion of wine, and the zealous loving of wine. He has learned a thing or two and formed a few modest opinions along the way.

The words are Randall’s, unedited and largely in their entirety. I do not know that Randall and I would agree on all things (I am a squared glasses kind of guy), but I was fascinated and educated by our time together. And so, a conversation with Randall Grahm…

ALP: Do you have a love hate relationship with marketing?

RG: “Yes…yes. I have no background in traditional marketing; I don’t want to make wines to specifically pander to consumer’s tastes. I won’t ever, ever, have anything like a focus group. I would never make a wine that I didn’t prefer, imagining that the customers would prefer it. If I did that, all would be lost.”

“I enjoy [marketing], but it’s like, I could imagine enjoying crack cocaine too. It’s too easy for me to kind of get trapped in marketing world and focus too much of my efforts in that realm and not enough in the other (winemaking).  On the other hand, for me it’s very hard to always know how to use my time. When you need to sell wine, when you must sell wine, it’s hard not spending more time thinking about how to sell more wine.”

ALP: You are rather prolific on Twitter (380,000+ followers), do you see it as a valuable tool?

RG: “I don’t know if it’s a valuable tool. Again, it’s sort of like a benign crack cocaine addition, more or less benign. I think it could be useful at some point. I guess the deeper question is, what sort of physiological needs is it meeting in me that’s not being met otherwise?  It’s not a shrewd calculated move on my part. Somebody said, it must have been a year and a half ago, ‘have you heard of Twitter?’ To which I said, ‘no.’ ‘You should really try Twitter,’ they said. I said, ‘really, why? What do you do?’ ‘You just talk about whatever.’ So I was like, ‘OK,’ and I just started doing it. Not there long after, people said, ‘he’s a really good Twitterer,’ whatever that is. Then the folks from Twitter said, ‘would you do a wine tasting for Twitter?’ I thought, ‘you know, these guys are kind of connected to the World, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing to do,’ so I did it. I go to their office and do this uber geeky tasting and their all (here Randall mimics text messaging and we laugh).”

Then a couple of weeks later, someone in their organization said, ‘Randall is kind of a cool guy’ and they put me on their recommended list. It was there for awhile, like six months and lots of people, in like, Indonesia and Brazil began following me and I don’t think they understood a word of what I was saying. So I sort of have this unnaturally high number of followers and it’s a direct artifact of that.”

ALP: What are you thoughts on wine criticism in the US?

RG: “Wine criticism in this Country I think rewards the wrong qualities in wine. It rewards power and concentration and impressiveness, rather than subtlety, rather than nuance, rather than complexity and I think people are making wine to chase this particular aesthetic. I am a very laissez-faire kind of person. Every winemaker should be able to make what they want and every winemaker should be allowed to drink what they want. But I think we do our customers a disservice  by not creating more, or not allowing for more stylistic variability and diversity. It’s boring if all the wines are the same. That’s wrong, it’s wrong for everyone to try to create the same wine. As a critic, you shouldn’t be acting in such a way, writing in such a way, that the effect creates less diversity, rather than more diversity. Your job should be to encourage the richness of the wine world, not the narrowing of the wine world. That’s my only major criticism I have of the influential wine writers in this Country, who will remain nameless.” (this last part was said with a smile)

ALP:  Will attitudes toward wine in the US change with time, become more like Europe where wine is more so a part of life? Less focused on critics?

RG: “I don’t know. Incrementally yes. You have to understand we are still a very immature wine culture. When you start, you don’t know where to start, it’s not obvious what’s good. What represents goodness? I just remember myself even as a beginning wine drinker, ‘oak!’ If I could recognize oak, ‘OK that’s good, that’s quality.’ Or, ‘dark color. OK that’s good, that’s quality. But mineralality? I wouldn’t know where to begin, I wouldn’t have a word for it, it wouldn’t make any sense.  [In] Europe, it’s definitely embedded in the culture. If you are in the Loire you drink Cab Franc. It’s a taste you grow up with, you’re familiar with it, you know it, and it doesn’t taste weird. You’re not asking yourself, ‘boy, I wish this Cab Franc were ripper, I wish it didn’t taste like Cab Franc.’  You like the fact it tastes like Cab Franc. It’s like if you were an ethnic Thai and, ‘boy, I wish my Thai food tastes more like Vietnamese food or Italian.’ It’s Thai food! These are the flavors you are familiar with. “

“Americans, we don’t have a set of flavors we are comfortable with aside from sugar and corn syrup, and flavors of fruitiness. We know fruit. So it’s not a surprise that those are the flavors that are popular. People like fruity wines that are soft and not astringent or overly earthy.”

ALP: Is the persona presented in your writing bigger than the day to day Randall Grahm?

RG: “Yeah, I am exceptionally boring, not as well spoken or as well anything as presented. When you write, you can re-write yourself. You can edit, so you seem more cleaver than you actually are, more Oscar Wildeian than you actually are in real life. You can write things on a piece of paper or a computer that you would never in a billion years say out loud to anybody. So you can become emboldened by the sound of your own voice.”

ALP: The New York Times had a recent article (here) about your restaurant The Cellar Door and made reference to the fact that you wanted to integrate communal dinning into the experience…

RG: “Which I still think is a totally great idea.”

ALP: What was the idea behind it?

RG: “My belief is that there has been an erosion of community, that people don’t talk to each other anymore and that despite the fact there is a general fear of social intercourse, or fear of the stranger, or fear of the stranger eating all of your food…I think there is a deeper longing to actually connect with people. In our society, a lot of that social function is eroding away. People don’t go to church anymore; they don’t belong to service groups anymore. They’re locked in their private world.”

ALP: Community becomes watching American Idol on TV.

RG: “Right. It’s a virtual community. Dinning and eating is such a primal activity that I think it’s a great opportunity for people to share other things besides simply food… I still think it’s a great idea… Also, I think Santa Cruz is the perfect place to do it… I have to pick my battles, I’m not sure if this is the right battle.”

ALP: If you were a grape, what grape would you be?

RG: “I am sort of thinking of a James Thurbur, ‘this is a naive domestic Burgundy, I think you will be amused at its presumption.’ I think I would be a naive domestic Burgundy, somewhat amused at my own presumption.”

For nearly a month, I have lived in Grahm World. I have read his words, drank his wines, and analyzed his conversations. Am I better person because of this? Let’s not go that far. Am I a better wine drinker? Yeah, I think I am. Each winemaker I meet becomes in a strange way an impromptu Professor. They have taken different paths in wine, subscribe to different schools of logic (or ill-logic depending on who you ask), and are generally fascinating people. It has been a great classroom for me and I am thankful for that.

On the long and varied path to fine wine, there is no one road to Grand Cru (or Grahm Cru), however you define that. Wine, like art, is too objective to be defined by a list of rights and wrongs. Presenting firm rules by which to judge it stifles the unique beauty of wine and to me pisses the point.

I like many wines and many winemakers. I like Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon. It is my sincere hope as well as my genuine belief that they will succeed in slaying their beasts and finding their path to Bonny Doon Grand Cru…I mean Grahm Cru.

Bonny Doon Vineyard

A personal note:

Sir, it was a pleasure spending time with you and as I leave your world and return to my own, I do so slightly changed. I am not a winemaker nor do I ever imagine I will be. But, I am slowly finding my voice and I thank you for shinning a little bit of light on the path.

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. […] A Long Pour {Fifty-Two Weeks With California Wine} » Blog Archive … […]

  2. […] knowledge of wine is a mastery of sarcastic but thoughtful writing. Reminiscent of some of Randall Grahm’s writing (although I don’t think overly influenced by it), Bob brings a particular ironic sense […]

  3. […] Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigar Blanc, Beeswax Vineyard, Arroyo Seco, Monterey – 57% roussanne, 43% grenache blanc from […]

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