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27 Jun 2017

Wine Wisdom: Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm Is Still Chasing the Dream

Written by  Pete Holland
Randall Grahm. Randall Grahm. Kirstin Smith/Bonny Doon Winery via Wikipedia.org.

There is a Napa vintner who was born into a winemaking family in France and married into winemaking royalty in California. He loves throwing lavish parties and spraying his guests with Champagne. Even in photos taken in the vineyard, he dresses like he’s meeting James Bond for a game of baccarat. Picture this man.

Now picture his polar opposite. That’s Randall Grahm, the founding winemaker from Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, who drives an old Citroën and writes parodic wine-themed lyrics to Dylan songs. Grahm is in his 60s, and still ponytailed.

“I’m Randall Grahm, and welcome to my nightmare,” he said at a recent event.

This got a laugh, but it echoes his James Beard Award-winning book, Been Doon So Long, where one rambling footnote paints in grim detail the indignity winemakers have to endure to sell wine: They pour their “product” (or life’s work … whatever) in an under-ventilated room full of reps wearing moist branded polo shirts—people who might have been selling prosthetics instead of wine, had that job called first. His quip was no joke.

Grahm does not have as many wines as he used to. He sold his most commercially successful brands—Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim—about a decade ago, reducing by about 90 percent his stake in an operation that was selling 450,000 cases a year. But pumping out hundreds of thousands of cases of those crowd-pleasing brands had encroached heavily on the goal Grahm set when he founded Bonny Doon in the early 1980s: to make vins de terroir.

Grahm glides in and out of French as he speaks and writes, so here is the essence of his conundrum: There are vins de terroir, and there are vins d’effort: wines of place, and wines of effort, respectively. The former are expressions of the land from which they come. The latter are expressions of the winemaker’s work and are, Grahm would argue, what California winemakers actually do well: They take grapes that have proven over centuries to be perfectly suited to their ancestral homes, bring them here, and make them work. When I asked him whether the term vin d’effort was necessarily derisive, he answered: “Mildly.”

The problem is that the little things done to make the wines work—like irrigating, say—don’t limit just their chances of failing, but also their shot at fulfilling their lofty potential. So Grahm is on a mission to plant the perfect grape at the perfect site, intercede minimally, and allow greatness to ensue in spite of him, not because of him. With what appeared to be real candor, Grahm said he was “pretty much chickenshit” for drifting away from that mission over the years. But here he is, refocusing on that challenge in his 60s.

After a years-long search, Grahm used the undisclosed sum he received in exchange for his brands to purchase his ideal site, Popelouchum, located in San Juan Bautista. It’s a place that came to him in a dream and whose name means “paradise” in Mutsun, the language of the Native American people of the area. His excitement about Popelouchum was palpable as he poured us a taste of its nascent wine from a hand-labeled 375-milliliter bottle. The wine is a perfumed and fruity grenache from dry-farmed 2-year-old vines, and it is superb.

Grahm’s history should be required reading. He was at the vanguard of making syrah and other Rhône varietals into California mainstays. He risked significant treasure by bottling the entire 80,000 cases of 2001 Big House Red with screwcaps rather than corks, and continues to bottle all of his wines that way.

What goes into a wine? What determines what comes out? It is an answer that Randall Grahm, throwing himself into a new project nearly four decades into his career, still seeks with wide-eyed curiosity. It is one he is wagering Popelouchum will reveal, when the wine he envisions is a bottled reality.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.

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