The first time I met Randall Grahm we were quite literally running all over the place. It was January 2007 the ’06 wines had just finished fermenting and he hadn’t tasted them yet. We went from barrel to tank back to barrel, then tank again. He was figuring out what would go in to his top blend Le Cigare Volant.
The guy was twice my age, towered over me like Herman Munster….and I could barely keep up.
I use the word passion very sparingly, it’s written on the back label of far too many bottles, but that was what I was witnessing. Randall Grahm was one of the most focused, intense and passionate winemakers I had ever met and I was completely awestruck.
However one of his best traits is the fact that he gets back to you. In today’s world of fast emails and quick texts people tend to forget about how communication works. When I first reached out to Randall he didn’t know me from Adam, but still responded insightfully, I only mention this because in the last month alone, I’ve contacted several PR’s to get information for random stories….to no response. What gives?!?
I’ve interviewed Grahm several times now over the years and he is always willing to get back to me, no matter how busy or where he is in the world. Most importantly, there’s no BS, he’ll give it to me straight.
Below is our latest correspondence.
How do you feel about being awarded the first ever Rhone Ranger, life-time achievement award?
(I wrote about it here for Decanter.com)
I am very touched by the acknowledgment, but being slightly neurotic, it is of course impossible for me to feel that I’ve truly accomplished much. I sometimes say that if were to die anytime soon, people would say, “What a great marketer he was!” and that, of course, would be utterly unsatisfactory (even if I’m dead). The biggest challenge I have right now is to persuade people that I am more than an interesting historical figure, that the work that I’m doing now , or aspiring to do, is what is really interesting and potentially capable of making a real contribution.
Since you started making Rhônes, how do you think the grapes and styles have progressed in California?
There have been a number of positive developments as well as a few false steps. As far as the false steps, because our industry is so “hot,” many folks tend to be a bit over-anticipatory, i.e. eager to jump to the “next thing” before the “next thing” is really properly understood. We were a bit irrationally exuberant about a number of Rhône grape varieties – Viognier was imagined to be the next great white variety. It’s an interesting grape, but really a fairly specialized one. Syrah (see comments below) has largely been a great missed opportunity, with so many plantings going in in inappropriate areas. In a very real sense, the great recent success of the wine industry has also created a number of big problems. I think the biggest has been the new level of competition and the enormous financial pressure that wineries now experience. This has tended to largely discourage risk-taking and experimentation, and (with a few notable exceptions) results in a startling sameness of wine styles. I am not a great lover of the over-extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked International Style, but many producers feel this is crucial to achieve notice in the wine press, and that without high point scores they will be unable to sell their wine. (They’re probably right.) While there may have been a macro-trend toward the consolidation of wine styles, this has also engendered a (healthy) micro-trend of some distinctive wines being made. There are now some truly fabulous Rhône style wines made in California that did not exist before.
Pace pinot noir, American winemakers are still mostly looking for big, blockbuster styles and want to make wines that “make a statement.” (We seek imminence on the palate.) But not only do many winemakers seek powerful wines, they are also seeking wines that have great economic viability, i.e. can be grown at very high yields/acre. The problem is that many wineries don’t quite understand that these dual objectives are generally speaking, somewhat mutually exclusive; you have to choose one horse or the other. As a result, some anemic wines end up artificially enhanced with the various tricks at a winemaker’s disposal, and you get a bit of an anonymous wine at best, a gloopy mess, at worst. On the other hand, people are now planting Grenache for the first time in years, which is enormously heartening. Go figure! (Might the Mayan Calendar be correct after all?) (What I would really love to see is the proliferation of low-tech, low-input, low-yielding, dry-farmed, head-trained vyds., but that might be a while to come.)
Although it is a life-time achievement do you feel you still have more up your sleeve, so to speak?
I think that I really have a great contribution yet to make, if I can live long enough and can find the financial wherewithal to make some of these projects happen. The basic tragic flaw of the American Rhône Ranger movement is that in a very real sense, we are utterly derivative. We are would-be/could be Rhône clones, and generally the best thing we can say about ourselves is how Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie-like are our efforts. This, of course, is utterly absurd, but begs the question of how we in the New World might ultimately arrive at creating our own unique style that speaks to our place rather than is so hopelessly referential. If we can achieve that, we have then truly grown up.
You are known for going off the normal grid with your viticulture/winemaking practices and the grapes you use.
What sites or grapes are you working with now that you find particularly interesting?
I’m working to develop a beautiful piece of property in San Juan Bautista, and hoping to do so with a unique approach of de-emphasizing varietal characteristics, so that a different aspect – the soil characteristics – might therefore emerge. This would be/might be (no one knows!) accomplished by creating a highly diverse population of genetically distinctive grapes, planted from seeds rather than from cuttings. Honestly, if I could somehow contrive to produce a wine in the New World that evinced a real sense of place, that would be a true accomplishment of a far greater magnitude than popularizing a particular grape variety or wine style (or making the world safe for screwcaps). A vin de terroir is something that is capable of nourishing and enriching people’s lives in a way that far transcends the most artful wine of effort. I’m not yet certain which grapes I will use to create these new varieties, but certainly Mediterranean grapes that have significant drought resistance will play a role. The real question for me is how to grow grapes in a fairly dry climate (dry-farming is absolutely an imperative) while still producing a wine of some real finesse. This is my morning meditation.
What do you think is the current state of Rhone in California, particularly Syrah? (last time I asked you that, you felt there was a divide…is that still the case?)
There is still a great divide between people who chase point scores with massive wines and those who make quieter wines of elegance and finesse (and have to sell every single bottle themselves, one by one). The fact that one can now find some beautiful California Syrahs that are under 14% alcohol, some even under 13% (or 12%) is enormously heartening.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by the great classic wines made by traditional winemakers, who work diligently without a lot of pretense to produce wines expressive of their unique terroir. Our culture is somewhat addicted to the “new” and “progressive,” but greatness is greatness, and to experience that is always thrilling to me.
Bonny Doon Winery is in Santa Cruz – you can find more information and their wine on their website https://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/