Events, Wine+Food, Winemaker Profiles

Lunch with Randall Grahm: Imagining Change

Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with darkpoles and belching volcanoes and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth.”

Environmentalist, Bill McKibben



To be honest, it took me a while to sit down and write this post after lunch with Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon vineyards. Why? Firstly, my notes from the conversation at lunch sitting next to him read like a Steiner school brain map: Volcanoes, White Grovonia, Root depth, new clones, aesthetics, saline water, Acacia barrels, the lime taste in Australian Riesling “what is it?” RG asks….

Secondly, there has been a lot already said about Randall and it’s easy to get caught up in the “Californication” of him. He does look particularly exotic from a European perspective. The gonzo Ralph Steadman drawings on the labels (artist of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing), the long hair, the John Lennon glasses. But is this really what his wines are all about? I couldn’t help but feel there was something deeper…

His wines are very elegant, and if you didn’t see all the packaging or his wonderful treatises, then you’d be surprised to know his wines are Californian. There is something more old-school in style, the fruit is restrained, the oak is restrained. It’s not as crazy as the label would have you believe. So what is going on here?

The key that opened the door was when we started talking about the photo we had both seen of the peculiar vines of Grovonia, a White Rioja. Slightly jet-lagged, and just back from the Grenache Symposium in the south of France, we talked about old vines of Grenache. Was it the age that was important, or that they reached right down into the soil? Then he told me he was ripping up his vines and starting again to create a new breed of vine.

A new breed of vine, with a new name? Randall Grahm is very good at re-naming the world. By toying with names he is playing with his idols. But, as he says in his book, “Been Doon So Long,”: “I am a not-so-closet Francophile” in his essay Why French Wine No Longer Matters. Only a true fan of Chateauneuf-du-Pape could call their main wine Le Cigare Volant*.

Go deeper, Go deeper. By messing with the names, he is also re-imagining, not only the wine world, but the world. By giving his wines pseudo-European labels (“Ca’del Solo” or Home Alone, albarino from near the Soledad prison), he challenges the presumptions of how people think about wine. And, ultimately by trying to find a new clone of grape, he is changing even the nature of the noble varieties for Californian terroir. Look past the packaging and see the quiet depth of the wine, a distant echo of what only a handful of European winemakers achieve, the handful of winemakers who also have “intimate conversancy… with each and every terroir and exposition of his vineyard.” (p245)

After tasting the dramatic difference in style over the past five years from Randall’s new hands-off approach, apparent in the difference between the 2005 and 2007 Syrah Le Posseur (the 2007 showing lower alcohol, savouriness, charm, dialogue), I noticed he looked fatigued from all his travels. I asked about all this travelling around the world, and we got onto the topic of the recent volcano.

After the volcano erupted, even for a moment, most imagined a different future without instant, on-demand travel. As Paolo Coehlo wrote on twitter about the volcano: “Save the planet? Planet must be saying, “Save yourself idiots, I will be fine.”” Some environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben have even suggested changing the name of the planet to account for the different times we will live in. The ultimate re-branding exercise to call Earth, Eaarth.

At the crossroads between the environment and culture as a winemaker, Randall Grahm was already way ahead of the re-naming game. His re-naming and playing with the great names in wine deeply acknowledges the fact, we are on our way to living on a very different world.

Somewhere where the wines are very, very good.

Link: More about lunch with Randall Grahm at FMV

Thank you to Randall Grahm for the wonderful book Been Doon So Long, A Randall Grahm Vinthology and Field, Morris & Verdin for hosting the lunch event.