Person of Interest: Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vineyards

Being quite green to educating myself about wine and the wine industry, I only recently learned about Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards (from this book). Apparently he is quite the character and very well known. Grahm is a rogue, a non-gentleman, a philosopher-winemaker, and loyal to what some call the “voodoo of biodynamics” (a practice also lauded by many famous winemakers from Chateaux in France). As a budding arts administrator, I had to find out more about this man who Natalie MacLean writes, “approaches winemaking like performance art…” (p. 59).

"In the New World, the dilemma is how to legitimize your efforts without relying on the usual suspects: concentration, big fruit, new wood, the Wine Spec, and Parker" (MacLean, p. 65).

I tried to find mention of Grahm or Bonny Doon in Mr. Zraly’s Complete Wine Course book, but alas, barely a mention except to say that the wine was selected by Wine Spectator for the ’08 California Wine Experience, and Grahm is a past winner of some professional award. I imagine that Grahm, with his seeming disdain for critics and point systems (a la Parker), would hardly be fazed by this omission, for his goal is not awards and applause for himself but for his wine. After reading MacLean’s humorous account of her visit with Grahm at Bonny Doon, I was hoping to get a glimpse of this philosophizing winemaker myself. Lo and behold, he paid a visit about a year ago to The Thunder Show, Gary Vaynerchuk’s wine vlog. I have posted part 1 below, and you can really get a sense of the person of Grahm as he recounts his background, and talks about the Bonny Doon wines. Especially fascinating is his mention of decreasing the number of his labels from 30 to 10…or less!

Grahm has written a book, Been Doon So Long, and mydailywine interviewed him about it a few months ago. He mentions the aspect of “place” quite a few times. This acknowledges both his Old World soul (that which links to the primarily European aspect of terroir) and his preoccupation with infusing his wines with the character of place from which they originate, not simply as a product of fancy marketing and creative labels. In ’06, he gave a talk, entitled The Phenomenology of Terroir, discussing his philosophy about the term. At the time, Grahm said, “Terroir is a composite of many physical factors… as well as more intangible cultural factors. Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue. I believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty, that beauty reposes in the particulars…” (source).

I now see the link between his adoption of biodynamic practices, whose “followers” are keenly devoted to maintaining the purity of the earth and the more natural care of the vines, and an overall engagement with terroir. Biodynamics is often described as a voodoo-like allegiance to the preservation of the land and vines, and can be a “gamble” and “risky” for any vineyard that attempts to use it. Grahm switched his Ca’ del Solo vineyard in 2003 to adopt Demeter certified Biodynamic® vineyard practices. This article does a superb job of documenting this change, also talking about what biodynamic agriculture really means. Championed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, this practice “emphasizes the balance of all aspects of farming—soil, nutrients, animals, plants, climate—in a self-sustaining feedback loop.” The vineyard is viewed as a living organism and must be cared for accordingly. Two of the most famous winemakers in France, Leflaive and Bize-Leroy, adhere to biodynamic practices, keeping the vines from eating the “poison” of chemicals so as to rely on their own natural processes to protect against blight. Many claim that they can produce wines that are full of terroir, really the soul of the land and of Mother Nature herself.

My research of Randall Grahm has linked to my previous reading about France and biodynamic practices, and the idea of terroir. So much of my experience learning about wine so far has revealed this amazing network of knowledge with topical nodes that are both their own specific entities and blend like a beautiful red wine to reveal the history and present of the international wine industry today. In my future entries, it is important for me to reveal this web of information that is available about all the different wine subjects I am learning about. Grahm will be among the 2010 inductees for the annual Vintners Hall of Fame, selected and awarded by the Culinary Institute of America. More information can be found by clicking here.

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3 Responses to Person of Interest: Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vineyards

  1. Ben Simons says:

    Good post. I just started reading Been Doon So Long, but I’ve been interested in Randall Grahm for a while. He really is one of the more intriguing figures in the wine world. I really like the direction that he is going right now in regards to terroir.

    • mjwrites says:

      Thanks for reading, Ben! I am very intrigued by the life and practices of Grahm as well and am looking forward to getting a hold of his book.

  2. Megan, thank you for this. Do read the book; it will give you a much better sense of Randall’s divers drivers, his stimulus and reason. (And despite any evidence to the contrary, including his own testimonial, I can vouch that he is both a gentleman and a scholar.) Randall approaches his craft with penetrating intellect plus deep humility, a kind of soulful searching for that which is perhaps nearly unfindable—terroir-driven wines in the New World.

    More important, though, than reading his words: try the wine! Drink it and think; drink it and tap into the deep reckoning it undertakes with soil and sun and vine. Try the ’05 Le Cigare Volant. Give it air and time to unfold, then open yourself to it. It just might be that wine you say you seek, the one that can draw out of you that “something lodged deep inside.” Enjoy.

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