My lunch with Randall Grahm, part I
This is the first of two parts detailing my recent chat with Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm. Today, Grahm on wine, winemaking, and the post-modern wine world. On Feb. 24, reviews of the wines we tasted.
No one holds court like Randall Grahm, the winemaker and president for life at California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard. Last week in Dallas, in front of a dozen or so retailers, sommeliers, and media types, Grahm discussed the Swiss anthropologist Henri Junod; the role of magnets in winemaking; his efforts to develop grape hybrids and rootstocks that are best suited to the 21st century’s climate and soil; the backlash against screwcaps; and, though I’m not quite sure how, electrons.
Along the way, he punned whenever possible — “The doonside of winemaking,” for example — and even managed to talk about his new wines, including a very subversive fruit cider, a delicious riesling so new it’s not on the winery website yet, and perhaps the best vintage ever of the Le Cigare Blanc.
Disclaimer first: I like Grahm, and he makes some of the most interesting and enjoyable wine in the world. So it’s always a treat when he comes to Dallas, and this year was no exception. The man makes me smile, and how often does that happen?
Do Grahm’s wines taste like anyone else’s? Nope, so be warned — if you need scores or 15 1/2 percent cabernet sauvignon or baseball bat chardonnay, what follows will almost certainly annoy you. It annoys many of my colleagues, and Grahm has been at war with the Winestream Media for more than a decade, despite what he claims are his best intentions. But he can’t stop telling the James Laube joke, and he told it again last week. That’s hardly detente, though it is damned funny.
Would that the Winestream Media could see past Grahm as prankster and realize that he wants the same thing it does — for Americans to enjoy wine. He just takes a different road. “Wine has to be pleasurable,” he told us. “You shouldn’t have to ask yourself if you like it.” But, having said that, he also acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges for wine drinkers, including himself, was to “learn how to push out of my safety zone,” to try wine we don’t think we’re going to like.
Among the other topics:
• The backlash against screwcaps, which Grahm has championed for years. “The cork people are like girls in junior high school who each have their own cliques, and they don’t want to let anyone in their clique,” he said. And anyone who says wine with screwcaps suffers in quality or doesn’t age? “It’s a myth,” says Grahm. “The wine just ages differently.”
• Oak in winemaking: “It’s a condiment and anyone who thinks it’s more than that also thinks ketchup is a vegetable.”
• Terroir is all. “We can’t replicate European wines” in California, Grahm said, because California isn’t Europe. On the other hand, de-emphasizing terroir with California-style winemaking, which he says happens even with some of the most expensive and highest-rated wines, isn’t the answer, either. “It’s about real wine. Does the wine have life or not?”