'Welcome to my nightmare': the Randall Grahm interview 
Meeting the wine world's Willy Wonka, who has recently taken a change in direction

‘Welcome to my nightmare,’ began Randall Grahm, quoting Alice Cooper (with whom he bears a slight physical resemblance, although it is quite slight). Backtracking a little, he reassures us: ‘The Universe of Bonny Doon is not nightmarish, although you do need a scorecard to keep up with it.’

Bonny Doon, the chosen name of Grahm’s winery, is an eponymous area in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 10 miles north of Santa Cruz and 3 miles inland from the Pacific. Some 30 years ago Randall came here, ‘with the mistaken notion that I was going to produce the great American Pinot Noir.’ But soon after, in 1983, he found himself buying Pinot Noir from Oregon, and the grapes were so superior to anything he could produce, it made own venture seem ridiculous.

He describes this sort of observation as ‘the extistential paradox that lies at the heart of the grower in the new world.’

‘In the old world you have all been given the news: what grows well where,’ says Randall. ‘In the new world we are making it up as we go along, and there are more ways to stuff it up than get it right.’ He adds that ‘there should be appropriate fear and trembling to making wine in the new world.’

While Randall realised he was failing with Pinot Noir, he discovered Rhone grapes, largely through the help of importer Kermit Lynch. These varieties are better suited to the climate in California. ‘You can pretty much go with the flow,’ says Randall. ‘These grapes pretty much came in in balance.’

He started with Grenache, discovering a great Grenache vineyard in the town of Gilroy, and soon after began to play with Syrah. ‘Intermittent positive reinforcement has kept me going,’ he adds.

This was to lead to his most famous wine, Le Cigare Volant, named after an edict made by the growers in the appellation that flying saucers manned by extraterrestrials should be banned from landing in the vineyards. ‘Le Cigare is the state of the Doon message,’ says Randall. ‘For me it has been a full circle. I started out knowing nothing. I wanted to make Châteauneuf du Pape. I don’t even like Châteauneuf du Pape, but I do like Burgundy. The only thing I knew about Grenache was not to use new oak, to use large barrels, to avoid racking too much (it is an oxidative variety) and to get it ripe. Over the years we have tried all sorts of things, but now we have come back to the start. But it took 30 years to get there.’

Of late, things have been changing in the Dooniverse, and quite significantly. Randall has recently scaled back his operations from 450 000 cases a year to just 20 000. ‘Bonny Doon has been like Mr Toad's wild ride. It has been a great party, but at a certain point you have to go home,’ says Randall. ‘I have tried everything.’

‘I had turned 50, I had had my first child, I had had serious medical problems. It led to a big change in Bonny Doon. I sold off the large brands, stopped imports, and stopped distilling. I moved things in the direction of producing proper wine: vins de terroir – this is what I aspire to produce.’ In the past, the impression I;ve had from Grahm is that he has been frustrated because his wines have not been treated as seriously as he’d like them to have been. In part, this could be because he’s been operating with an ethos that is at odds with the prevailing cultural scene in California and the USA more widely: one driven by an obsession for big wines with lots of points. In part, it may be because that Grahm is seen as something of a comedian, albeit a sophisticated, erudite one. And people assume that a funny guy doesn’t make serious wines.

So Grahm is focusing his efforts into an uncompromisingly terroir-driven project. He’s going niche; scaled down and aiming high. He reckons that to succeed in California you need either to be large and efficient or small and distinctive, and the latter is the direction that he’s now taking. ‘The notion of terroir is the most beautiful idea in wine lore,’ he enthuses. ‘A true vin de terroir needs a good rooting system. Terroir is a radio signal, and it is a question of the signal to noise ratio. We want to amplify the signal without distorting it. For example, if you restrict yields in a deeply rooted vineyard, you amplify the signal. Drip irrigation dilutes the signal. The ratio of roots to fruit is probably the single greatest determinant of wine quality.’

‘You can’t make a vin de terroir if you irrigate,’ he says. ‘A true vin de terroir needs a big rooting system.’ Grahm states that, ‘if you get the fruit ripe in a cool climate with lots of roots, it is hard to go wrong.’

‘A cool climate for me is also an appropriate climate. The grapes come in balanced. You don't need to acidulate or dealcoholize the wine. If you have to manipulate the wine, this suggests that you are not growing the grape in the right places.’

‘Not all vineyard sites are created equal,’ he continues. ‘Not all vineyard sites are good for grapes!’ His assertion is that in California and other places in the New World people tend to be risk averse, so they tend to plant grapes in places that are too warm.’

Grahm is full of great one-liners. ‘More wine is messed up by new oak than is improved by it,’ he states. And when it comes to reduction: ‘One way I think of reduction in wine is like horniness in guys. It can be a little off-putting at times but it is a sign that they system is working the way it should.’ And, ‘winemaking is quite simple: it is growing grapes that is difficult.’

Grahm on minerality: ‘Minerality is a squirelly term, used with a degree of precision. It correlates with wines that are stable. Old world wines are frequently more stable than new world wines, sometimes for two weeks.’

And on the wine industry: ‘The wine industry is a sort of disaster now – a victim of its success,’ says Grahm. ‘I feel like a complete old fart. When I got started, people did it because they loved it. It’s now a business, and too much money is invested in it. It has given the business a loss of self confidence. Everyone needs a consultant, and even the consultants need consultants. The era of cooperation and goodwill has largely gone.’

Grahm is more upbeat talking about his new project. He’s recently sold the Soledad vineyards that produced the Albarino and Muscat, but he’s bought some land (100 hectares) outside San Juan Batista, 12 miles south of Gilroy and 12 miles west of Holester. It’s a cooler site, and is in San Benito County. So far he’s planted just 1.5 acres of grapes, and eventually will have around 40 acres of Grenache and other Rhône grapes, plus a spattering of Italian varieties. And, in a very ‘Grahm’ crazy plot, he plans to grow vines from seeds, hybdrizing grapes with themselves.   

So what about his wines? They’re pretty good, and the best are serious. It will be interesting to see what he does in the next few years with his renewed focus and new vineyard.


Bonny Doon Muscat Ca’ del Solo 2009 Salinas Valley
90% Moscato Giallo, 10% Loureiro (both don't exist officially in California). Grahm describes Moscato Giallo as 'a lovely grape, different from Muscat Blanc: not as pretty, more herbal, more food friendly.' He says that it seems to love Californian conditions with no sunburn or botrytis. Rich, fresh, melony and herbal with some grapey notes. A joyful wine with rich texture and a bit of minerality on the finish. Fresh and crisp with some citrus pith notes. 89/100

Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Albariño 2008 Salinas Valley
Grahm says that Albariño looks very like Riesling and ripens the same way, with a lovely citrus quality. In contrast, Loureiro (the other Vino Verde grape he grows) has much larger clusters (8 oz versus 3 oz). Fresh and herby with nice citrus and grapefruit pith notes. Very appealing and herby with freshness and precision, and light lemony fruit. 90/100

Bonny Doon Cigare Blanc 2007
This comes from the Beeswax vineyard in Arroyo Seco, further south than the Salinas Valley and a little bit warmer than Soledad. It has an eastern aspect, and the vines are two-thirds Roussanne and one-third Grenache Blanc. Grahm says that Roussanne is difficult to work with because it tends to russet (sunburn), and that the trick is to try to get both sides of the cluster equally ripe. 'In a perfect world, I wish it would have a bit more acidity,' he says. He'd like to include some more Picpoul and Clairette for this reason. It's 14.6% alcohol. Rounded, textured and nutty with smooth, complex fruit, a hint of fennel and some subtle creaminess. Fine-textured with subtle peach and pear fruit. Broad and lovely; fat but fresh. 92/100

Bonny Doon Syrah Le Pousseur 2005 Central Coast
This contains 2% Viognier and 10% Grenache. Spicy, meaty and dense with some earthy, medicinal notes. The palate is dry, spicy and a bit herby with savouriness. A dense sort of wine. 90/100

Bonny Doon Cigare Volant 2005
‘This is our statement wine: the wine I am most proud of,’ says Grahm. It is sweet, intense, meaty, savoury, spicy and complex. Lovely balance between the sweet cherry fruit and the savoury, spicy, subtly meaty, slightly peppery notes. Hints of earth and undergrowth with a real old world character. Fresh and quite elegant. 94/100

Bonny Doon Vol des Anges Roussanne 2007
A sweet wine made from grapes that are selectively harvested with multiple passes through the vineyard. Honeyed, with notes of apricot and quince. Grapey, sweet and with lots of apricot character, as well as a rich texture. Ripe, lush and sweet. 91/100

See also:

Visiting Napa Valley, California (series)

Published 02/11
Wines tasted 06/10  

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