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A Portrait of the Satirist as an Old Winemaker: An Interview with Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm | 1 Wine Dude

A Portrait of the Satirist as an Old Winemaker: An Interview with Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm

Vinted on October 8, 2009 under book reviews, interviews, winemaking
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To many people, the charismatic front-man of the iconic Boony Doon wine brands, Randall Grahm, is the Mad Hatter of the wine world.

Once they read Randall’s recently-released book, Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology, those same people will realize that they’re dead wrong.

Randall Grahm is not the wine world’s Mad Hatter; Randall Grahm is the wine world’s Cheshire Cat, equally (and eloquently) adept at satirizing the modern trends of the wine industry as he is at continually surprising wine consumers with quirky, excellent wines inspired by a desire to transmit the equally quirky and excellent message that California’s terroir has to tell.

Been Doon So Long is, at times, a masterstroke; it’s just as interesting, funny, poignant, and acerbic as any wine that California has ever had to offer.  Clearly an avid lover of literature, music, and wine, Randall Grahm has somehow managed to utilize all three as he takes us through the history of Bonny Doon, offers intimate glimpses of his personal demons, and sends up many of the wine world’s most sacred cows.  If he has a mad hat, Grahm is clearly capable of pulling rabbits out of it – both when it comes to wine and when it comes to writing.

Been Doon So Long is a unique work, and while it might not be the kind of book that you’d expect from the world of wine, it’s probably the book that the wine world deserves right now.  I found reading the book to be rewarding, but rather like the fabled rabbit hole, the deeper you get into it, the more difficult it becomes to fully explain.  Which is why I figured I’d let someone msarter (Randall) explain it instead.

[ Special note to the FTC: Have I received the book and Bonny Doon wines as free samples? Yep. Did that influence my review of the book? I don't think so, but I'm not a psychologist. ]

Following is an interview I conducted with Randall this week while he’s in the midst of his promotional tour for Been Doon So Long.  Like the book, the interview will give you a glimpse into the rabbit hole of Randall’s mind.  You’ll encounter below a guy with a formidable prowess with the written word, strong opinions, a consuming passion to find a Californian wine that truly speaks of its origin, and who isn’t afraid to wear his emotions in plain view.

But before you head down this rabbit hole, be sure to gather up your smarties, love of literature, an open mind, and a glass of something unique and terroir-driven.  You’re gonna need ‘em…

1WineDude: First of all, congratulations on a wildly entertaining book.  Why a book?  Actually, why this book?  And why now?  Also, how did you score that amazing foreword from Hugh Johnson?

Randall Grahm: There are certainly other media through which I might have expressed myself – a music video, an interpretive dance, for example, but the fact of the matter is that there was already a substantial accretion of material written over the last 25 years.  (I had toiled to produce semi-annual newsletters for quite a number of years, and it seemed like a waste not to collate this material in some fashion.)  The problem of course was that the material was a little uneven – some very good writing and some that was, shall we say, hopeful juvenalia; then there was some a little too crassly commercial, and some just too specialized for broad consumption  So, it was a non-trivial process to put the material into a form that had some sort of coherence, but great fun and very satisfying now that it is doon.  I’ve grouped the sections according to genre – poetry, prose, tunes, comical pieces and more serious essays; I am really trying to show a progression of thinking – from someone who was initially interested in making wines to please other people to someone who is now trying to serve the goddess, Terroir, and deeply please himself at the same time.  As far as Hugh is concerned, he’s always liked the wines, appreciates my somewhat Eurocentric view; I think that he may see me as another anti-pointillist, so he jumped aboard.  I am incredibly honored.

1WD: How is the self-proclaimed ‘Death Martch’ (a.k.a. Book Tour) going ?  What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on your tour?

RG: Not too badly, and alas, it is far from doon.  (Just finishing first leg of four in the next couple of days.  Indeed, today as I write is the absolute toughest.  A very late night last night in Connecticut, stuck in traffic coming back to Manhattan and now an early train to Poughkeepsie for a very full day of events (four!).  My colleague who set up this schedule will hear from me when I get back.

I’m not really sure about the strangest thing.  I ended up at a tasting in Boston, organized by and for millennial tasters.  I was frankly a bit shocked at the irreverence/shock value of some of the labels, 90% of which seemed to be cynical marketing exercises, with names like “Bitch” and “Suxx”.  I winced, guiltily, at my role in helping to make the world safe for these goofy labels.  I like wit and humor in wine packaging as much as the next person, but honestly, I am convinced that I am being sent to Wine Hell for my zins.  For any number of reasons, it’s important for me now to really focus on “real” wines, i.e. wines that speak to a sense of place.  I’m not there yet – not by a longshot, but these seem to me to be the only kinds of wines that ultimately really matter.  Everything else is just filler.

1WD: Your writing strikes me as being a culmination of many interests and influences, which might be an apt descriptor of your approach to making wine as well. At first glance, Been Doon So Long looks like it’s trying to hit a target market of philosophically-minded, well-read literary wine geeks – which is probably me and six other people…  How’s the reception been to the book so far?

RG: Not being in fact an actual bona fide marketing person, I’m not quite sure who our target audience really is, but yes, I think it may well be a) our cadre of loyal followers, 2) people who love both distinctive writing and distinctive wines, soulful wines, not, say, the perfect “100″ wines, but those wines that tell a story (not a marketing story!), Certainly a strong acquaintance with wine and perhaps even the geeky ins and outs of the wine biz would be helpful in fully appreciating the book, but I’m not sure it’s compulsory.  Having read through a good swath of classic and modern literature would probably be helpful.  Since essentially every rockstar, movie star, sports personality and every third person on the planet now owns his own winery, perhaps the market for the book may be larger than I had previously imagined.  The book tends to be well received, when I am able to read it aloud to people, and when they have had a few drinks in them.  (The titillating subject matter of “The pHs of Romanée-County” seems to be a particularly big hit.)

1WD: The pool of influences you draw from for your satire is quite broad – over the course of the book, you touch on an array of literary styles from Dante, Don Quixote, to American Splendor and the lyrics of the Rolling Stones.  You’ve shown similarly diverse influences in the grape varieties that have gone into Bonny Doon’s wines.  It made me wonder, are those approaches extensions of the man, or is the man an extension of having had exposure to those diverse influences?

RG: Being the phenomenological kind of guy that I am, that’s a distinction that’s impossible to make.

1WD: Do you feel that you’re writing to a wine-loving group whose plates/tastes are getting short-shrift in the marketplace (i.e., those that prefer terroir-driven wines)?

RG: Yes, and no.  It does seem sometime that there is a vast ontological abyss that separates those people who value vins de terroir, and those who prefer vins d’estime, let’s call it something nice and fancy in French – wines that are well-scored, for want of a better description.  Yes, my criticism of Parker and the Wine Spec does seem more than a bit shrill at times – most likely bordering on the obsessive/compulsive, but having said that, I do feel that the most influential wine writers in this country do wine and wine drinkers a disservice by not being more appreciative and focused on vins de terroir.  The tend to focus in on “power” and “concentration” as being the defining elements of quality, but these qualities I often associated with cynically stylized wines, typically  vins d’effort.  Arguably power and concentration are the only two characteristics in wine that can be consistently observed and noted.  To write about terroir wines, you have to take a lot more time to get to know them. They change a lot in the glass; they are strange and seemingly sensitive to all sorts of phenomena.  You can’t and don’t want to encapsulate them in the short form; they demand thoughtful unpacking – not the way that most wine writing is going these days.

1WD: You’ve started taking some heat for the more provocative, incendiary pieces in Been Doon So Long.  For example, your Dante’s Inferno parody chapter places a few prominent and influential wine critics at the 9th circle of hell.  (I want to note that in undergrad I wrote a similar parody, only Wayne Newton was at the icy 9th circle…).  Anyway… Did you expect those reactions?  Some have said you seem to be exorcising (and exercising?) a few demons with this book…

RG: Yeah, it’s hard not to imagine some people getting a little bent over the rather dark satiric figures drawn in the Vinferno, and I am more than a little bit mortified that I allowed myself to go to such a dark place.  But for the integrity of the book, I did have to let the record stand, as the Vinferno is a reasonably true and accurate representation of my own journey with all of its ups and doons..  But, yes the vin-dettas (sic) were perhaps more than a little over the top, and don’t reflect particularly well on me.

1WD: Why does the totally awesome Canadian rock power trio RUSH receive no mentions in Been Doon So Long?  Surely this is an editorial oversight?

RG: Yes, indeed it was.

1WD: What’s the worst pun that’s crept up in a Been Doon So Long review?

RG: Don’t remember what it was precisely, but I think that at least one crept up in Steve Heimoff’s less than 100% enthusiastic review.

1WD: You’ve seemed to embrace social media and the Internet lately, being particularly active on twitter.  What’s your take on how the Internet is influencing the wine world?  Do you enjoy the on-line experience, or are you prepping yourself for the Millennial generation take-over of the wine market that everyone is predicting to be right around the corner?

RG: I am not a particularly deep thinker on the subject of how wine will play out in social media, nor am I convinced that anyone has yet to convert high visibility within social media to actual wine sales.  There is a bit of a paradox at work in wine reportage in social media.  Certainly, there is now some extraordinarily good writing to be found by some very thoughtful individuals in real time – Jamie Goode comes to mind – that would not have been the case even ten years ago, but it is not obvious if the form itself really conduces to any real depth.   There is a belief by some that the growth of the social media will lead to a sort of democratization of opinion-making or decentralization of authority, and while this is generally a healthy development,  I think that it can cut several ways.  Maybe fine wine, certainly great wine, is at its base, somewhat elitist.  I don’t really think that it is comprehensible to the masses, at least not in short sound bites; it is such an intensely personal, sometimes ineffable experience.  I am pretty convinced that what is interesting about wine is its context and culture – think Barolo and Barbaresco, think the strange wines of Friuli.  I just don’t see a lot of young people twittering into their iPhones deep thoughts (in 140 characters) about the profundity of the experience of these wines.   I think that wines that offer a sort of immediate accessibility and reward – either a very forthcoming taste profile or a very attractive price point will be the big winners, but gaudy, glittery baubles have always been the hot ticket in the agora, whether it be real or virtual.

Discussion of great wine may well demand the long form, and I’m not convinced that millennials have much toleration for that.  Having said that, consuming wine does tend to make one gregarious, and the very nature of wine conduces to the sharing of the experience with other human beings.  If one is deeply moved by a deep wine, there is probably some chance that he/she will want to communicate about it, and perhaps through social media, like-minded folks will ultimately find each other.

Yes, I am fairly active on Twitter; it’s fun for me because it (the talent for the bon mot) is more or less ready-to-hand.  I’m still not utterly convinced this exposure will lead to anything like sales; for now, maybe it is a bit of an indulgence; maybe I should be using my talents in a more disciplined fashion.

1WD: Much of the coverage of Been Doon So Long has focused on your writing prowess.  Have you ever broken up with someone you were dating because of a grammatical error in a love letter they’d written to you?

RG: Never for an ungrammatical or orthographically challenged love-letter, but I do have a strongly critical streak, which is not particularly helpful in maintaining felicity and harmony in relationships, romantic or otherwise.  (I’m working on that.)

1WD: Over the last few decades you’ve made a sh*tload of interesting wines. Looking back do any strike you as being particular favorites now?

RG: All told, the most interesting wines I’ve made I think were ones that came from the late, great Estate Vineyard in Bonny Doon – Syrah and “Le Sophiste,” a putative blend of “Roussanne” and Marsanne.  I just tasted a bottle of the ’94, the last vintage that came from the vineyard before it perished of Pierce’s Disease.  It was extraordinarily concentrated (maybe a function of the fact that the vines were dying), but more to the point, it had such wonderful Syrah typicity and still a lot of youth.  Tasting it was actually quite an emotional moment for me, though I tend to get a little emotional these days.  Maybe a year or so ago, I tasted the Sophiste – the ’93, if I recall, out of magnum at a wine dinner, and it was incredibly alive, youthful and complex.  The fact that the wine held up so well was nothing short of miraculous.  (The “Roussanne” component of the wine was in fact Viognier, a grape generally believed to not produce highly ageworthy wines.)

1WD: What’s next for Bonny Doon?  Do you feel any pressure to capitalize on the exposure coming from the book release and tour?

RG: What’s next for Bonny Doon is to co-create/discover a real terroir wine in California, or at least make the valiant effort to do so.  I do feel enormous pressure to capitalize on the exposure coming from the book release, and to use this moment in the spotlight, such as it is, to focus some attention on the wine itself.  After all, the book makes the case for wines of terroir, or at least for “natural” wines that have not been grossly manipulated and may be said to possess a degree of life-force.  But these words (even those which I speak now) are all just words, and as sweet as they may be, ultimately one wants to see some further evidence in the glass itself.   People are very happy to talk about my alleged winemaking attention-deficit disorder, and are perhaps not yet ready to concede that the wines are as good as I believe they now are.  But they are; taste them for yourself with an open mind.  Just like their maker, they need a little attention and comprehension.

Cheers!

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