Randall Grahm, the trickster of the wine world, has reinvented himself yet again.
In 2006, Grahm's wineries (including his Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California) sold more than 450,000 cases of wine. In 2010, he expects to produce fewer than 35,000. But that transformation is not the result of a tough economy; it was spurred, essentially, by a philosophical crisiswhich, as anyone who knows Grahm would attest, fits his personality exactly.
On top of that, Grahm has also decided to become a restaurateur. Last year, he opened the Cellar Door Café; at Bonny Doon's new tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz. There, chef Charlie Parker echoes the winery's focus on organic and biodynamic farming in a daily-changing menu of wine-friendly dishes.
"I've always been interested in the restaurant business, and in food and wine," Grahm says. "And this isn't just spouting jive, but our wines really are intended to be food wines."
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Even though Grahm is best known for his work with Rhône varieties like Syraha robust grape most people would match with something massive and meaty, like a bone-in leg of lambBonny Doon's wines are deceptively subtle; even the most substantial reds can pair easily with lighter, vegetable-based dishes. A spicy 2007 Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, for instance, matches beautifully with Parker's warm main-course salad of young turnips with greens, black olives and hazelnuts. Says Grahm, "Root vegetables like sunchokes and turnips, which have this mineral aspect and earthiness, have a real affinity for red wine." As if to prove his boss's point, Parker prepares a braised-cabbage-and-sunchoke pizza that's sensational with a lively 2007 Ca' del Solo Dolcetto (Grahm's Italian-variety wines, released under a different label, are just as food-friendly as his Rhônes, if not more).
Bonny Doon, and Grahm himself, are now firmly situated in their new home, but the road leading there has been a twisted one. That said, every road Grahm follows seems to be somewhat twistedwhich has made him more than a little notorious in the wine world. This is a winemaker who, among other zany pursuits, has championed screw caps by staging a "funeral for the cork" in New York City's Grand Central Terminal; named his flagship red after an obscure 1954 ordinance in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region that prohibits UFOs from flying over local vineyards; and published a lengthy string of off-the-wall newsletters, including a 30-page pastiche of Dante's The Inferno entitled The Vinferno, at the end of which the eyes of two publishers of well-known and not particularly Grahm-friendly wine magazines are eaten by the devil.
© Brown W. Cannon III
Despite all the stunts, Grahm is serious about wine. He planted the original Bonny Doon Estate Vineyard in 1981 and immediately set about trying to make world-class Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, he recalls, "Pinot was hard, if not impossible. The fruit from Oregon was so much better than what I was growing in California that I thought, Well, why continue this madness if I can just buy the grapes?"
So Grahm ripped out his Pinot Noir vines and replanted with Rhône varietiesfor which the Bonny Doon site proved idealthen proceeded to ride (and in many ways, create) a late- '80s wave of interest in California Rhône-style wines. Grahm, the chief "Rhône Ranger," and his Le Cigare Volant bottlingthe one inspired by the anti-UFO lawwere doing fine.
Unfortunately, that didn't last. "First I had a bad Pinot vineyard," Grahm says. "Then I had a great Syrah vineyard. But the Syrah vineyard died. Maybe that's the nature of life, the enormous unpredictability. If you have something great, it dies of Pierce's disease, and if you have a really crappy vineyard, it lives forever."
Pierce's disease is an incurable bacterial infection that kills vines, swiftly and completely. As the Syrah vineyard was dying in 1994, Grahm purchased a second vineyard 60 miles to the south. By his own admission, though, it was not the equal of what he had lost: "My heart was so broken that I didn't want to go for a great vineyard. So I went for a good, predictable vineyard instead."
That marked Bonny Doon's next reinvention, essentially as an ever-larger-scale purveyor of pleasant, affordable, amusingly labeled wines. Through the 2000s, production rose to more than 400,000 cases per year, even as the distinctiveness of most of the wines faded. Yet the winery, thanks to Grahm's inarguable genius as a marketer, retained the public image of an offbeat boutique operation.
Tasting Room. Photo © Brown W. Cannon III.
"I was giving speeches and writing articles about biodynamics and terroir, saying terroir was the only interesting thing about the wine business," Grahm recalls. (Terroir, a French term, roughly means how a wine expresses the character of a vineyard or place.) "But there was nothing congruent between what I was saying and what I was doing. So it was clear I needed to make a big change."
That realization, together with the stress of a complicated lawsuit, a bout with a debilitating bone disease, and his new status as a father, resulted in Grahm's decision to sell off his Cardinal Zin and Big House brands in 2006 and focus on smaller-production, more ambitious wines instead. He also bought a new vineyard in nearby San Juan Bautista. This one, he says, might just be great: "The place has mojo. It has charisma, it's wild. And the soils are extremely interesting." (The vineyard isn't producing wine yet, so whether Grahm's optimism is justified remains to be seen.)
So, now that he's gotten his actions in line with his winemaking philosophy, will Randall Grahm reinvent himself yet again?
"I'm completely happy," he says. Then, of course, he qualifies that: "Well, my neurotic personality doesn't actually allow me to be completely happy with anything. But I certainly have no regrets about making all these changes. None. I just regret that I didn't do it sooner."