This is the second of a three-part series detailing my recent conversation with Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm. The final part will run next Monday. To see the first part, go here.
When Randall Graham sold his Big House and Cardinal Zin brands in 2006, I did two things. I sent an email to various friends and acquaintances who like wine, wailing and moaning that Big House, my favorite $10 wine, would never be the same. I also called around to find out how much he he was paid by a company called The Wine Group.
When I brought this up, Grahm cut me off: “Don’t believe everything you read — or that you wrote — about how much money I got.” The figure reported then was $50 million, so we’ll take his word that it was less than that.
Graham said then that he sold the labels, which helped make Bonny Doon one of the biggest wineries in the U.S. (27th, according to one survey), because he didn’t want to be a wine mogul. He said the company had grown too big, and he didn’t have enough time for his family or to make the kinds of interesting wines that he wanted to make.
At the time, that sounded a little pat, almost like an excuse for selling out. And do not be mistaken — those of us who cherish cheap wine considered what he did selling out.
Since then, of course, we have come to our senses. (It only took me six or eight months to get over the sale.) When Toad Hollow’s Todd Williams died last summer, one of the first things I thought was that Grahm really did make the right decision. Williams, too, was an iconoclast — he was never embarrassed to say he made meat loaf wine, every day wine for every day people. He had little use for the wine magazines, and even less use for people who bought wine based on what the wine magazines wrote. He was also one of the biggest independents in California, with all of the business pressures that entailed. When I mentioned this to Grahm, he nodded in agreement.
And then I asked him: “Have you tasted the Big House wines since you sold them?” No, he said. I laughed. “You don’t want to know what they did to them, do you?”
He laughed at that. His point, he said, was not what the new owners had done to the wine (which he assumed would be to cut quality), His point was that he didn’t have to make it any more. He wanted to make other wines.
And he wants these runs to reflect terroir. This is a difficult concept to explain — the French word has no exact English translation. At its simplest, it means that wines from Bordeaux taste like wines from Bordeaux, and not Burgundy or Napa Valley. But it also takes into account why Bordeaux is different: Not just the grapes and the soil and the weather, but the wine making philosophy, the history of the winery, and similar non-grape related items. The wine should reflect where it is from, Grahm says, and not some preconceived notion about what it should taste like.
This is one reason why Grahm, though he loves pinot noir and has made it, doesn’t think New World pinot is the real thing. It’s not terroir driven. Yes, some wineries in Oregon and California (like Sanford) make lovely wines. But to his mind, they aren’t pinot. Pinot can only be made in Burgundy, where terroir determines what it tastes like — earthy, rustic wines without the fruitiness of New World pinots.
In fact, Grahm is a big Burgundy drinker, both red and white, as well as a fan of the Rhone (not surprising for a man who is part of a group of California winemakers called the Rhone Rangers). And he loves German riesling — the cold, hard, flinty, lemon-sweet rieslings that get so little attention in this country.
Next time: Grahm’s new Boony Doon wines, including a very spiffy syrah.