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Randall Grahm's Terroirism

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By Malcolm Jolley

Randall Grahm leans up against his alchemy. Photo: Alex Kraus.

Randall Grahm is redeeming himself one wine at a time. Ten years ago, as founder and "President-For-Life" of Bonny Doon Vineyards he was California's rebel king of the Central Coast. As he explained, "I could get a table in any Bay Area restaurant I wanted, which was cool, but if I died I would have been remembered a great wine marketer, which would have been very unsatisfactory, even though I would be dead." The last thought is pure Grahm, who breezed through Toronto recently for a sold out appearance at Hart House's Wine Series, which seemed to be as populated by local winemakers and sommeliers as a smaller "trade" tasting was earlier in the day. Ponytailed and forever in blue jeans, Grahm is cool calm and collected, but also having fun, telling his story and imaging the wines he has yet to make.

Grahm is right, he is a great wine marketer, and it's unlikely anyone will forget it. Le Cigare Volant, his breakthrough wine as an original "Rhone Ranger" in the early 80s took its name from an obscure by-law passed in the Marie of Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape that outlawed flying saucers. How much of that was marketing, and how much of that was just good natured fun, is hard to tell. I doubt Randall Grahm could or will ever stop marketing, because he's not really. He's making really, really interesting and delicious wine.

About five years ago, Grahm sold off his bigger selling consumer brands (Cardinal Zin, Big House) and spun his Pacific Rim wineries in Oregon and Washington state into a wholly independent company, so he could concentrate on making wine. Or rather, so he could concentrate on making Terroir Wine. "The world," Grahm admonishes his audience, "does not need another industrial wine." And there is nothing remotely massed produced about what he's putting into bottle. He has embraced biodynamism, the slightly loopy / moon-phased all natural growing and wine making philosophy. He will not irrigate. And he seeks to make wine with "life force".

Life force, as Grahm explains, refers to the ability of a wine to resist oxidisation, or in less wine-geeky terms, go off. A bottle of great vin de terroir he maintains can be opened and drawn upon for days. How does this happen? By using natural yeasts to ferment, by keeping wines "on the lees", which means in contact with the skins and things that are pressed to make the must (aka juice) that becomes wine. All of this could be risky business. Could be that a wine won't work. But Grahm's been making wine since 1981, so he knows a thing or two.

Randall Grahm went from the University of California at Santa Cruz (which in Bonny Doon literature is named, after its an acronym, "Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp")* to a job in Beverly Hills wine shop, which led to a quick education is wonderful wine and a longing t make it. From 1981 to 1994 he did just that at Bonny Doon, a piece of property he bought just north of Santa Cruz. Sadly the original vineyard was destroyed by a blight, but not before Grahm abandoned his quest to make The Great American Pinot Noir ("impossible in California", he now says) and fell under the charms of the great Berkeley ambassador of Southern French wine in America, Kermit Lynch. From there he became a "Rhone Ranger" and replanted his PN with Syrah, Grenache and all those varietals which now seem run of the mill west of Marseille, but 25 years ago were strange, exotic and thought to be doomed to fail.

Once he had planted and/or grafted the Rhone varietals, there was no stopping him and the Italians (Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and so on) soon followed. Then Spanish, and so on. For Grahm it's about the terroir first: what does this piece of land want? And now, since his "mid-life crisis", he grows all his grapes. He has to, growers wouldn't risk growing weird ones: "what if you die?" they said, "no one else will buy these." So, on a vineyard near the Salinas River, which is naturally saline, he grows Albarino, because in Galacia in Spain those vineyards are whipped by salty Atlantic winds. It works.

Randall Grahm describes his life as an "ongoing performance art in a constant state of becoming." If it's possible for a man to be simultaneously at peace with himself and terribly restless, I guess he is. I believe him whne he says he wants to be remembered for his wine, and in several quick meetings during the day and evening he is kind and generous with his time. There is surely more to come.

*UC Santa Cruz was designed by then Governor Ronald Reagan's administration to be scattered campus in the coastal woods so there wouldn't be a central square to protest in. It has since attracted students who enjoy the, um, contemplative life.


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