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Randall Grahm: Taking Stock
By W. Blake Gray
Nov 17, 2009
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Aging jester Randall Grahm has hung around the wine world long enough to be recognized for his lifetime achievements.

The irony is that Grahm, 56, now finds himself wondering exactly what he has achieved.

This week, the Vintners Hall of Fame announced Grahm has been elected to the Hall and will be inducted in March, 2010. It's a great honor to share the stage with Andy Beckstoffer, Zelma Long and the relatives of Al Brounstein and Leon Adams.

But I wonder what Grahm will say in his acceptance speech. If it's like his recent book, "Been Doon So Long," he will be funny, boastful and contradictory. And his speech will likely be tinged with the regret that has become more and more noticeable, for Grahm is a man who has spent almost his whole career saying one thing and doing another.

The wines Grahm loves most are expressions of their terroir, and he is funny, eloquent and sometimes dogmatic in explaining why.

Yet most wines he makes are a blend of grapes purchased from different growers on different sites.  He hasn't really made wines of terroir since the great tragedy of his professional life -- the loss of his estate Syrah vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains to Pierce's disease in the mid-1990s.

“It broke my heart, the fact that the vineyard died,” Grahm says.  “It's so hard to get it right.  And then if you get it right, the vineyard up and dies on you.  All those things just made me gun-shy about trying to plant another vineyard.  At that point I said, I'm not going to grow great grapes.  I'm going to grow good grapes.  I wasn't going to have my heart broken again.”

So Grahm relied on purchased grapes to build brands with amusing names like Big House and Cardinal Zin.  And he got outsized attention through something he does very well -- marketing stunts.

A screwcap advocate, Grahm held a “funeral for cork” in New York's Grand Central Station, and got Jancis Robinson to deliver the eulogy.  He wore a Catholic cardinal's outfit to the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) tasting in San Francisco.

Grahm's PR materials are also a strength.  He is one of the funniest writers on wine I have ever read, so talented that “Been Doon So Long” is mostly a collection of his press releases.  He's verbose, so I don't have space to include a lot of examples.  This is just one sentence from a footnote that depicts a “meet the winemaker” event at a large U.S.  wholesaler:

“The supplier reps, one's programmatic antecedents, have been trotted out in seamless and infernal succession at brisk fifteen-minute intervals since 8:30 AM and have been imparting vital intelligence on such diverse subjects as one company's new discount structure, including its so-called family plan (and you wonder whose family -- Tony Soprano's?); another company's SPAs, or special product allowances (essentially, legal kickbacks), available for an exciting new Bulgarian product range; and another's exciting sales promotional drive (a weekend getaway to the Bahamas awarded to the distributor's most productive salesperson) to insure the ubiquity of Wrongo Dongo “endcaps” (wine or liquor boxes case-stacked at the ends of store aisles) in every Winn-Dixie, Crown Beverage, and other grocery chain and big-box outlet in this vast, palmetto-bug-infested state.”

But while his witty wine-based parodies of Salinger, Cervantes and Bruce Springsteen appeal to many, he used them in an ill-considered years-long attack on one man most winemakers choose not to confront: Robert Parker.  For example, Parker (along with Marvin Shanken) is eaten by the Devil at the end of Grahm's Vinferno, putting him in the place of Judas.  

“I was completely obsessed with Parker,” Grahm says.  “When you get slammed by Parker, you get obsessed with Parker.”

I asked Grahm, in front of a book-signing audience of about 50 people, if -- considering his own regrets -- he now thinks Parker was right about his mid-80s ratings for many Bonny Doon wines that were not terroir-driven.  I heard gasps from the crowd, but not from Grahm.

“He was largely right,” Grahm said.  “He thought I was playing around, I'm not serious.  I don't think he quite believes me, the sincerity of what I'm doing, yet.”

“What I'm doing” is the remaking of Bonny Doon into the winery he wanted it to be.  He sold Big House and Cardinal Zin in 2006 to The Wine Group, the 3rd largest wine company in the U.S.  It's like looking in a funhouse mirror for Grahm, because though the Wine Group hates publicity, they are also fabulous marketers of amusing brands (Mad Housewife, Running With Scissors) made from any grapes from anywhere.

Around the same time as the brand sale, Grahm made Pacific Rim -- his Riesling brand -- an independent winery in Washington, and while he still owns it, he's focusing instead on his California wines at Bonny Doon.

Grahm loves unusual varietals and one-shot releases.  My wife calls a sparkling Freisa he made one of her favorite wines ever.  I fondly recall an Angelica dessert wine he made from Mission grapes.

But at the risk of ending up in Satan's mouth with Parker (bring some chilled Champagne please, Bob), I often wonder -- even after his refocus -- if his main wines would be better if he had fewer distractions.

I tasted a lineup of 10 current wines for this story, and really only liked one -- the most unusual one, 2008 Vin Gris de Cigare ($15).  It's a pink wine made from a blend of four red grapes and two white (Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) that Grahm says -- and I agree -- give it a bottom note with some gravitas.  Complex and earthy, yet leading with refreshing pink grapefruit, this is a fantastic rosé that would be great with Thanksgiving dinner or practically anything else.

Even when I don't love the wines, I love his honesty.  Some bottles have this statement on the back: “Ingredients: Grapes, tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide, tannin.”  Many California wineries add acid to their wines, but few would answer that question honestly if I asked.  Grahm puts it right on the label.

Along with the openness, there's a sadness in the heart of the clown.  Grahm has made a big deal about his return to the Earth.  He bought a 280-acre farm in San Juan Bautista that he plans to use as a new estate vineyard.  He bought a large ad in another nemesis, Wine Spectator, to announce it and other changes at Bonny Doon with an amazing comic that shows, among other things, a naked Grahm staring at a mirror with “Born to Rhône” visibly tattooed on his ass.  “I just had the feeling I wasn't being totally true to myself and really embracing that which was truly important to me,” the naked panel reads.

He plans to farm biodynamically, but he's not planning to plant grapes that sell: instead, he's thinking of Grenache, Sagrantino, Grenache Blanc and some more obscure Italian grapes, even though he knows better.  (In a footnote on a letter to me, he wrote this joke about wine sales: Q: “What is the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of the clap?” A: “Eventually the clap goes away.”)

When will he plant, I asked.  “As soon as I can afford to.  As soon as I get the resources,” he said.  This from a man who has been working in wine for 25 years, owns two big wineries and has sold two major brands.  My heart sank.

I need a happy ending for this story, so I'll just quote the man himself, to the tune of Bruce Springsteen:

“The wine biz is jammed with Paso Syrah on a last chance power drive/Everybody's jumping on the Rhône bandwagon/But there's no way a hack wine can survive/Together, Laube, we'll uncover the badness/I'll share with you all the madness of my protocol/Someday, dude, I don't know when/We're gonna make a Cigare that really expresses terroir/And we'll weightlessly walk on moonstones/But till then, in champs like ours/Baby we were born to Rhône.”