My lunch with Randall, part I
This is the first of a two-part series detailing my recent chat with Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm. Part II — a look at some of Bonny Doon’s wines — is here.
The last thing Randall Grahm looks like is the California winemaker that he is. Instead, he looks more like the one-time liberal arts major at the University of California that he was.
That contradiction goes a long way toward explaining why Grahm is one of the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite winemakers, and why his Bonny Doon wines are some of the most interesting made in California. Grahm understands that not only is the wine business about making enough money to stay in business, but about making wine that people want to drink — and not necessarily wine that they’re told to drink, More, after the jump.
Grahm, at 58, is not the infamous Randall Grahm who made his mark two decades ago by taking on everyone he could find in the wine business. To Grahm’s way of thinking, not only did the emperor not wear any clothes, but they’d be ugly even if he wore them. Grahm is the man who held a wake for the cork, complete with coffin, when Bonny Doon switched to screwcaps. And, though he pretty much invented cute wine labels, he has acknowledged the horror that followed, and lamented what he wrought.
Grahm is as witty as ever, just more polite and perhaps even a little reflective. In fact, Grahm says, he is close to establishing what he calls diplomatic relations with the Winestream Media, and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has actually reviewed a couple of his wines. This turn of events seems as far-fetched as walking to the moon and back while singing the arias from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Grahm is, after all, the man who once said of Wine Spectator critic James Laube: “I’d rather have a frontal lobotomy than a Laube in front of me.” Which today, he says, may have been a bit much — but, with a smile, adds, “How I could pass that one up?”
We met for lunch at Dallas’ Blue Plate Kitchen (thank you, Chuck Weintraub and Kent Rathbun). Grahm was in town to attend a major trade event, where he would re-launch his Bonny Doon wines in the Dallas market. Today’s Bonny Doon makes just 30,000 cases, all biodynamic, and focuses on labels that cost between $15 and $50. This is far different from the old Bonny Doon, which made 500,000 cases a year and produced some of the best $10 wine ever, the since-sold Big House red, white, and pink. The Big House wines were legendary. Though there’s nothing really wrong with the Big House produced by its current owners, it’s just cheap wine. It’s not Randall Grahm’s cheap wine.
Our conversation covered a variety of topics:
• Wine scores. He still dislikes them, even though the Advocate was surprisingly kind with several of his wines. Scores, says Grahm, noting the extensive research done on the subject, don’t reflect the wine as much as they do the score the wine got the previous vintage. It’s not like a 92-point wine, he says, is suddenly going to get an 88.
• The contradiction between making wine that reflects his passion and making wine so he can stay in business (which, in true Grahm fashion, started as a discussion about yeast). “You can try too hard. I’ve been guilty of that. You really want people to like you, like Sally Field, so you’ll make wine that people will like so they’ll like you.
• The state of the wine business. “It’s not good, and it’s not just the recession. It’s the perfect storm. This is the time when everyone — actors, rock stars, lawyers, doctors — decided they needed to open a winery. So it’s a jungle out there, and you’ve got to be savvier and adapt to the ways of the jungle. You can’t live on your image or the way things were. They’re not going to be that way again. So it’s always about making better wines.”
• The future of the wine business: “There’s a small pool of wineries making different and distinctive wine, and it’s getting smaller.” Changes in the way the wine business works, like fewer distributors, work against his kind of wine, says Grahm. That means it’s not only harder for smaller wineries to get on store shelves, but easier for the biggest wineries to control what is sold. Bigger distributors, after all, prefer to work with the biggest wineries.
• Terroir. Grahm’s career has been dedicated to terroir, the idea of making wine that reflects the place where it is from. He says he is not convinced any California wine, save for Ridge’s Monte Bello cabernet blend, has successfully done this. He knows he hasn’t yet, but he is going to eventually.