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…
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At a new, small California winery, an ethnically diverse pair are making low production Cabernet Sauvignon. Very, very good Cabernet, that is.
For those of you who are playing along at home, I’m going to introduce this article with a bit of background, because it’s several months in the making. Also, if I don’t start out with some preliminaries, it’s going to confuse the hell out of me.
Also, since we’re going to end up connecting Oaxaca (that’s in Mexico), Napa Valley, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Opus One, Mario Bazán Cellars, and ethnic diversity, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page before we start.
Bear with me, you’re probably smarter than I am, ok? Here’s the recap:
- During a recent Twitter Taste Live event featuring St. Supery wines, I railed a bit on my overall disappointment with Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. This led to a challenge of sorts from Opus One winemaker and friend-of-the-Dude Michael Silacci, who dared me to compare Napa SB wines like Toquade against their counterparts from France or New Zealand, or at least to try Toquade.
- During a recent jaunt to the Left Coast for the American Wine Bloggers Conference, I did just that (tried Toquade, I mean, not just jaunted), along with some other great Napa wines (more on that in a few minutes) when I visited Michael for dinner (he didn’t pour any Opus, by the way… jerk…!).
- In the meantime, I’d opened up a fairly sizeable barrique of worms when I highlighted the fact that there is an incredible lack of ethnic diversity in winery ownership and in winemaking in general, and discussed with you fine readers the value of writing about very small-production wines (like Toquade).
Right… that’s Twitter, TasteLive, Napa Valley SB, Opus One, the Wine Bloggers Conference, Toquade, ethnic diversity in winemaking, and my coverage of small-production wines. Crystal clear, right?
Anyway… at that same dinner with Michael, I was introduced to another (very) small-production wine. A red this time, from a winery owned by a Mexican-born immigrant who employs a young African-American female winemaker.
In other words, I’d hit the serendipity synchronicity jackpot. Which means that this is the one chance I may have to piss off everybody in a single post… I cannot screw this up!
[ Editor’s note: for those who are humorless, the preceding statement is a joke; in fact, those who are humorless are probably reading the wrong blog and should leave immediately for the sake of preserving their own sanity. ]
Background setup complete – now, let’s get talking about the wine…
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Will a lack of diversity hurt the winemaking industry in the future?
Hey wine lovers and winemakers – Let me tell you a little about you.
Chances are, you’re white. Or, I should say, chances are you’re not black – especially if you’re a winemaker in the U.S.
In fact, if you’re an American winery owner, there is a 99.9% chance that you’re not black, because African American winery owners represent roughly 1/1000th of the total number of wineries in the U.S. That’s a staggering misalignment with the diversity of the American population. If American winemakers held a dance party tomorrow, it would be a clinic in the world’s worst overbite-sporting dance floor moves, because it would be lilywhite.
Based on the numbers above, it’s not a stretch to say that the state of African American representation in winemaking is pathetic.
And frankly, given the racial divides that have been crossed in recent years, the American winemaking community should consider that an embarrassment.
It’s an embarrassment nearly on the same level of the U.S. space program, which spends billions sending people into Earth orbit (using a craft that is run by three 286 CPUs) to conduct experiments, circle the Earth a few times and come back – which one could argue is a huge waste of money and people potential when there is so much more we could be doing in terms of space exploration than basically duplicating what Sputnik did in 1957.
As for why we’re in this situation, I blame the winemakers – black, white, and every color in-between…
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“We’ll be in the Green Room.”
I was walking along the sidewalk of a conspicuously calm street in downtown Wilmington, DE, chatting on my cell phone with Gino Razzi, the tireless force behind Penns Woods Winery. It was a Mid-Atlantic November Saturday, which meant intermittent cold rain, but I’d expected the streets to be busier. I was making my way to the swanky-but-elegant Hotel DuPont for lunch with Gino and this year’s Brandywine Valley Vintners’ dinner keynote speaker, Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson.
Despite the fact that I grew up in Wilmington, I did not feel at all at home.
I’d never been to the Green Room. And I hadn’t strolled the streets of downtown for what felt like a dozen years.
I also wasn’t a frequent interviewer of winemaking legends, either.
Joel Peterson started the now-ubiquitous Ravenswood back in the 1970s, back when the Internet was a gleam in the eye of military ARPANET developers, well before Sonoma was a winemaking force, and long before Zinfandel was considered the de facto varietal choice of patriotic, red-blooded Americans that it is today. It was hardly an overnight success (“either that, or it was a really long night” Joel told me): Joel maintained a second job to help make ends meet until the early 1990s. Ravenswood now produces in excess of 500,000 cases of wine per year, and its brand is nearly synonymous with budget-priced Zinfandel.
In other words, Joel Peterson is to Sonoma Zin what Robert Mondavi was to Napa Cab, or what David Lett was to Oregon Pinot Noir.
Which prompted my first question to Joel while we worked our way through our Green Room appetizers: Considering the recent spate of departed California wine legends, does he fear for his safety? A-la the ill-fated drummers in Spinal Tap?…
Joel (chuckling): “No… in fact I’m in some of the best health I’ve been in a long time.”
Ice officially broken.
Or so I thought. That’s when Joel began to ask me questions (hey, who’s interview was this, anyway?), about how I came into the world of wine, and what the sources of my wine passions really were.
I was beginning to feel outflanked. And outclassed. Good thing Gino and Joel like to talk, and are conversationalists at heart – “If I could touch on some pertinent topics,” I thought, “then I could let the veteran conversationalists take it from there and have some hope of holding my own here…“
Despite the penchant for jeans, plaid, and cowboy hats in his promotional photos, in person Joel comes off much more the scholar than the farmer – mild-mannered, approachable, and with no shortage of lessons from his experience in the wine world.
So pay attention. Maybe you’ll learn something…
Of Rising Tides & Sinking Ships
Since Joel was in town to talk to Pennsylvania winemakers, I started off with questions about PA wine. Do PA wines need to get better across the board in order to change their perception in the marketplace? Does a rising tide actually lift all boats?
Joel: “A rising tide takes many forms. When I helped found ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers), we had maybe 50 people at out first tasting. We had about 10,000 people at our most recent tasting. We [Zinfandel producers] challenged each other in friendly ways, to see who could get the most recognition or the highest-scoring Zinfandel. But a rising tide also creates more boats, and it makes a bigger pond – there are 7,000 wine brands available to consumers right now, it will be exciting to see where the wine industry foes from here.”
Gino: “You still may sink! I’m trying to get the group [of PA winemakers] to invest time and credibility in themselves.”
Joel: “[In Sonoma] we had a personal recomendation kind of thing. Make it fun, make it friendly, get the wine off the pedestal and onto the table. It’s a long – but not painful! – process, and you do it one person at a time.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like social media to me.
“A rising tide also creates more boats, and it makes a bigger pond – there are 7,000 wine brands available to consumers right now, it will be exciting to see where the wine industry foes from here.”
On the State (get it?) of PA Wines
Speaking of PA wines – what did Joel think of them?
Joel: “They range from amateurish, to interesting, to very good. The problem is consistency – no one has broken through the threshold to consistently produce thought-provoking wine year on year.
There are a few tenets to grape-growing. Well-drained soils; a rootstock compatible with the soil; keeping the vine in balance with itself with low production; using trellising matched to the area and moisture; farming moderately and irrigating carefully (moisture in the soil and respiration of the vine are critical); choosing varietals that are resistant to the attacks that you have locally. That’s the reason that Cabernet Franc has done well here, with their open clusters and thick skins. Mediterranean varietals could also do well here. I think mainstream grapes aren’t as interesting anymore anyway – you have an opportunity to do something special here.”
On the Amazing Ever-Shrinking Economy
Many wineries have told me that they’re seeing a drop of nearly 20% due to the economic downturn. What’s your perspective on the state of the ‘wine economy’?
Joel: “The economy will change the scale and nature of wines. There’s going to be less outlet for ultra-expensive cult wines made by those funding advances in technology, knowledge and equipment. We’re seeing a shift back to less expensive wine. Drinking a $1,000 bottle of wine now will be a bit like fiddling while Rome burns…”
I admitted that my ‘sweet spot’ for finding excellent wine at a half-decent price was still the $30-$40 range, despite the economic downturn.
Joel: “Yeah, the $35-a-bottle range allows you to do more things as a winemaker: more expensive grapes, different crop levels, different oaks, etc.”
“Drinking a $1,000 bottle of wine now will be a bit like fiddling while Rome burns…”
On Whether or Not CA Wine – or the Wine Business in General – is ‘Played Out’
Joel: “No. It’s a business model now as opposed to an experimental model. It forces you to be really conscious of your quality and your market in ways that you didn’t have to before. Consolidation and Big Box stores are now significant players in getting wine out to people. It’s created a whole employment policy and new jobs. It’s created a whole subset of people who are spinning off into small side businesses, coming out of that secure existence and doing interesting, cutting edge things.”
Joel: “They’re reviving that individual way of winemaking. My son got little piece of Kick Ranch [editor’s note: many WBC attendees may recall meeting Morgan Twain-Peterson and tasting his Bedrock wines), maybe 4 – 6 tons. And they have to figure out “What are we gonna do with this?” And they have a lot of knowledge, capability and experience already.
California wine continue to have high volume, good wines. Then, you’ll have a “Burgundian effect” of small producers making really interesting wines with their own following. Some will survive, some won’t. Some may become the next Mondavi. I talk to these guys a lot. Most don’t expect to make a lot of money from it. They do it because they love it.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like blogging to me.
Joel: “I would have been a blogger had there been a blogosphere!”
Gino: “The position was created from the past success of wineries like Ravenswood. Your success left a space behind that small wineries are starting to fill. You left a footprint of experience and knowledge that they build on and then they add their own personalities to it.”
Joel: “The miracle of the wine business now is that people are willing to experiment, and the system for communicating the results and changes are instantaneous. We never had that before in the history of winemaking.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like blogging to me.
I’m starting to wonder if we bloggers are here for a reason…
(images: startupstudio.com, englewoodwinemerchants.com, sugendran.net, fermentingthoughts.com)