WineLine No. 57
"Welcome to my nightmare," Randall Grahm greeted me when we met at the offices of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, Calif.
He seemed to be only half joking. The office suite was surprisingly corporate, with rows of cubicles and wall charts showing sales objectives and project time lines. Those cubicle shelves were apt to be lined with empty wine bottles, but the place didn't say winery. Without the familiar smells of oak and fermentation, these jeans-clad workers could just as easily have been clicking at keyboards in Silicon Valley as in Santa Cruz, a seashore town of aging hippies about 70 miles south of San Francisco. If their mood seemed glum, I may not have been imagining things about half of them were expecting to lose their jobs.
Grahm led me up a flight of stairs to his office, more personal in nature, with burnt sienna walls and a desk littered with wine equipment catalogs, magazines and notebooks. About six-four and still relatively boyish looking despite gray streaks in his shoulder-length hair, Grahm appeared bemused that anyone would interrupt his Monday morning for something so banal as an interview. So I got straight to the point.
Why, I asked him, did you sell Big House?
Randall Grahm has always stuck it to the man. Whether he was slinging arrows at Robert Parker or other paragons of the wine media, or poking fingers in the eyes of the industry giants who would drown us in mediocre Chardonnay and Merlot, Grahm seemed a champion of the everyman wine lover. He was the winemaker who would bring us a delicious, fruity Malvasia, or a Riesling blended from California, Washington and German fruit. Flamboyant to the extreme, he held a public wake for the cork and challenged us to get over our fear of screw caps. He wrote hilarious, esoteric spoofs of Dante's Infermo with an oenological theme, perhaps foreshadowing his personal hell of a winery as corporation instead of the lonely artisan's atelier.
Grahm delighted wine lovers with Big House Red, a traditional California "field blend" of various grapes that matched no known Old World archetype, yet tasted consistently Rhone-like, and consistently delicious, year after year, for $10 a bottle. Then he matched it with Big House White, an antidote to the sea of middling Chardonnay, and Big House Pink, a wine that helped make domestic rosť fun again.
For those of us imprisoned by the various "Coastal" brands or the Gallo Label of the Day, Grahm convinced us that California wine can indeed be delicious at $10 a bottle. He was our liberator, our hero.
Then he sold the brand.
"Is this the End of the World?" a friend of mine e-mailed when news of the sale broke. Exaggeration, to be sure, but an understandable lament that a favorite bargain wine brand was changing hands and therefore would surely change.
"It's not the end of the world," Grahm told me. "Big House is just not the kind of wine I want to make. We sold it because it had become the Golden Handcuffs" - the twinkle in his eye said the pun was intended - "that distracted us from what I really want to do, which is to farm biodynamically and make something really extraordinary, not just something very good."
As part of what he calls Bonny Doon's "transition," Grahm is "re-evaluating" whether he will continue making his Ca' del Solo wines, a program that focuses on Italian varietals. (He told me though that the Malvasia will definitely cease production.) Pacific Rim Riesling is being spun off as a separate entity and will relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
proving that California wine can be delicious for $10 ...
Then he sold the brand.
Bonny Doon will keep making the Cigare wines, such as Le Cigare Volant, a popular Chateauneuf-du-Pape style Rhone blend, and Old Telegram. Doon's flagship rosť, the Vin Gris de Cigare, will also remain in the portfolio. But while these wines have always been made primarily if not exclusively with purchased grapes, Grahm is moving the winery toward estate production, farming its own vineyards according to biodynamics, the increasingly popular farming doctrine that goes beyond organics into mysticism. The smaller company will downsize from approximately 60 employees to 30.
"You can't tell a grower that he should switch to biodynamics," Grahm said in explaining his move toward estate production. "It's like telling him to convert to Buddhism."
Will the prices on these wines increase?
"At some point prices should go up if the quality does, and raising the quality is the whole idea," he said.
Bonny Doon currently owns about 125 acres near Soledad in Monterey County, and Grahm has hopes of purchasing another 125 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains and to focus his efforts there. In the meantime, he has been working primarily with biodynamic growers.
"We've been flailing about for two or three years," he said. "But we've seen some serious results." He called himself an "armchair biodynamicist," because "I need to get out in the vineyard more."
I quoted a wine grower who had told me, "biodynamics is a religion, not a farming method."
"I don't think it's a religion," Grahm said, "but it encompasses a highly" - here we searched for the right words - "suggestive world view." He went on to call it a "spiritual practice" that involves "a serious commitment not just to the transformation of one's vineyard, but also the transformation of oneself."
Sounds like a religion to me. (And yes, Grahm does talk a bit like Alastair Cooke - anyone who parodies Dante for laughs is going to mind his grammatical Ps and Qs.)
"In many ways, biodynamics is the old style of farming, where the farmer is much more attuned to the vineyard," Grahm said. "The grower can see what is going on without relying on numbers to tell him the potassium is high or neutron probes to see if the vineyard needs water. One learns to understand the idiosyncracies of one's vineyard."
And while biodynamics seeks to cut down on chemical treatments in the vineyard and use only natural chemicals when needed, Grahm said it differed qualitatively (if spiritually) from organic farming.
"I don't think organic farming is transformative," he said. "I don't think organic farming makes you a radically different person."
I suspected there was more to Grahm's "transformation" and change of direction than belief in biodynamics, so I asked him about the large photo on the credenza behind his desk. The smiling face belonged to Amelie, his three-year-old daughter. Could she be the transformative force behind Bonny Doon's transition?
Grahm didn't deny his daughter's influence. "Being a father has made me less capable of hyprocisy," he said. So the diatribes in his newsletter about Robert Parker ("The Emperor Has No Nose!"), the Wine Spectator or the conglomerates gobbling up the wine world are a thing of the past?
"I used to be polemical and self-indulgent," Grahm said. "This transition is about growing up. I just don't have such anger toward them these days. It's time for me to shut up and make wine.
"I think it's time for me to stop complaining."
From a wine lover's perspective, it is difficult for me to cheer Grahm's decision to sell the Big House brand. From a father's perspective, I can understand his philosophical change and his desire to get more serious about his life's work. Personally, I don't think he has anything to prove, though I'm confident he would disagree. I certainly wish him well, even if Bonny Doon wines will become rarer and out of my price range. I hope he doesn't lose his flair for unusual, guffaw-producing marketing. I remain confident in his flair for winemaking.
In the meantime, I'll buy as much Big House as I can, because without Randall Grahm, it's just another brand.
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
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Dave McIntyre is the restaurant and drinks columnist for DC magazine (Modern Luxury Publications) and Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings, most of which are available at dmwineline.com, have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Wine Review Online and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.