Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Interview

Ξ April 10th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Winemakers, Wineries |

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard needs no introduction. I shall not attempt one here. I will, however, suggest interested readers take a look at a recent post at Appellation America and enjoy Mr. Grahm’s newsletters and other writings found following the Bonny Doon link above. A final note: a second, no less important part of this interview will be posted in about ten days. Mr. Grahm has graciously invited yours truly to a barrel tasting. Notes to follow! Admin
The Ca’ del Solo vineyard has been biodynamic certified since 2003. What changes in the vineyard have you noticed?
RG In fact, the vineyard was not certified until the ‘06 vintage, though we have been farming it biodynamically since ‘02 with some mixed results in the early going. In fact, we really didn’t get our biodynamic practice together until maybe ‘04, ‘05. We have really begun to see the most dramatic changes in the last few years. Better nutrient levels in the musts, much lower need for irrigation, more even ripening (though not in all blocks), but most importantly, a greater expression of minerality in the wines, evidenced both in organoleptic evaluation and confirmed through our sensitive crystalizations of the wines.
One of the curious features of Demeter, BD’s certifying agency, is that they seem to play ‘catch-up’ with accomplished vignerons. In the winery, for example, to quote Nietzsche, “All things are permitted”. Why hasn’t BD played a more aggressive rôle in setting standards for a host of techniques including micro-ox, reverse osmosis and wine additives?
RG What you have so acutely observed is perhaps just an artifact of the American Demeter organization, which until recently has had few vineyards and wineries to certify. They are trying their best to get up to speed on winemaking practice, and to adopt standards that have international applicability. I, myself, sit on the winemaking standards committee within the Biodynamic Trade Association. We have quite recently come up with a set of standards that address the particular practices that you reference. (That was the relatively speaking low-hanging fruit and only took a year and half to develop.) Soon, I am hopeful that Demeter will address grape growing practices in more specific detail, and that will be truly a major can of worms.
You’ve introduced a daring innovation in labeling, the listing of ingredients on Bonny Doon’s 2007 Ca’ del Solo Albariño and Muscat. What has been the wine industry’s reception? And the public’s?
RG Well, so far the industry and public have been relatively silent on the subject (stunned indifference), though a few wine writers seem to have noticed, as has a fellow from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who is trying to understand precisely what we are up to, and whether or not he has an ally in us. Myself, I am trying to hold our company to a certain standard. We are ourselves moving in the direction of far less adorned, interventionist winemaking and I see this particular initiative as a way of continuing our own momentum in making wines more “honest” and straightforward, “franc” the French would say. It is quite useful for consumers to educate themselves as far as what goes into a bottle of wine. Apart from alerting the profoundly allergic to a certain lurking danger (probably a relatively small fraction of the wine drinking public), more realistically it might help consumers better understand their own preferences and predilections. Maybe they find that they prefer wines w/ lower levels of SO2, unfiltered wines, etc. I’m really not trying to tell my colleagues how they should be making wine, though certainly a part of me would love to do so. I do think that if wineries were compelled to list ingredients and relevant winemaking practice, in general the quality of wines would improve, or at least the wines would be less messed with. Withal, I think that ingredient labelling is bound to come; I would just like to see it adopted intelligently.
You’ve mentioned Cosmoculture now and again. Domaine Viret, its creator, has shaken up the wine world, especially in France, with what they’ve called their ‘beyond organic and even biodynamic’ approach. Can you give readers a measure of your interest in this movement?
RG I’m not yet sure if it officially qualifies as a movement, but I am extremely interested in what the Virets are doing, with “informed water” and the strategic placing of stone menhirs as a means of aligning energetic fields within their vineyards. I am particularly interested in the possibility of making wines that have a strong life-force, i.e. the ability to tolerate multiple saturations with oxygen without themselves becoming oxidized. While I can’t, of course, make any of these claims on a wine label, I am virtually certain that these strongly anti-oxidative wines are far healthier for consumers than wines with less capacity. Maybe it is a function of greater mineral concentration – that certainly couldn’t hurt, though I’m sure that the physical manifestation of a wine is but an epiphenomenon of its energetic configuration. (That’s a pretty New Agey construct.)
As a practical matter senescence or the aging of a vine is a common occurence in the vineyard, yet it sometimes seems death has no voice, so to speak, in BD or Cosmocultural programs. How is vine death understood within BD and Cosmoculture?
RG I can’t speak for cosmoculturists, nor am I a particularly well educated anthroposophist, but certainly vine ageing/non-productivity and ultimately death is acknowledged. My guess is that it would be thought of as a weakening of the vine’s innate power/organizational forces, as far as its ability to resist Nature’s counter-force – the reduction of the living being back to its elements. Ultimately sickness and death whether it be in humans, animals or plants is Nature’s way those beings are most capable of contributing in some way to Nature’s plan. The biodynamic practice is in fact an extremely practical one and exists in the service of a larger aim – a productive and thrifty farm. Old vines are certainly acknowledged for their wisdom – old vines, especially those that are still healthy are capable of expressing qualities of complexity that younger vines cannot begin to approach. There is a very clever vigneron in the Loire by the name of Claude Courtois, who believes strongly in the community of vines (and other crops). He feels strongly that a vineyard must consist of vines of all populations, that the older vines have something valuable to teach the young ‘uns. He would never remove an entire vineyard of old vines and replace them with young ones – that would result in a sort of Lord of the Flies scenario.
And speaking of senescense, one day Robert Parker will retire. What influence might this have on the fortunes of winegrowers but also on wine reviewing generally?
RG I think that the balkanization and fragmentation of wine reviewing will generally be a very positive development as consumers will gradually find critcs who are more or less sympathetic to their personal aesthetics and winemaking values. I think that all power and influence centered around a particular individual is an artifact of a young wine drinking culture, and it makes for a certain efficiency (kind of like monotheism). But certain polyphony is a much more natural, healthier and sustainable state of affairs.
Getting back to Bonny Doon, I’ve watched the transformation of your former property on Inglas St. in Santa Cruz. I must admit I was saddened when the paintings disappeared. What has happened to them? Will you commission new art?
RG We sold the building and are currently leasing it back. The thought in selling it was to a) take advantage of what appeared to be the top of the real estate boom (good job on that, Randall), but more significantly, give ourselves a kick in the butt as far as finding a new site for a winery/vineyard and perhaps also tasting room, with luck located somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We are making plans to move the tasting room ultimately down from Bonny Doon to Ingalls St., at least for a few years (maybe more), and new beautiful murals will spring up.
My understanding is you’ve taken an interest in cement tanks. Word on the street is that you previously experimented with plaster/cement-coated oak barrels. A recent article in Wine Business Monthly suggests cement fermenters have become attractive to high-profile Cali producers. Do you plan to use them?
RG I am very interested in cement tanks, but in fact more interested in using cement as a medium to insert within the matrix of a wooden tank. (We tried one barrel and it is not so interesting, chiefly in virtue of its extreme weight and difficulty to clean.) If you plaster the interior of a wooden tank, you have the opportunity to impregnate the plaster with all sorts of interesting crystals (it’s that New Age thing again), which may well have a bearing on the life-force of the wine. We’re doing some experiments now to really test out that hypothesis. As far as the cement “egg” fermenters, this may be God’s way of telling winery owners that they have too much money. It is an enormously cool idea, but fearfully expensive. But, yes I’m intrigued.
When you settle into your new digs on the West Side of Santa Cruz do you plan to introduce new wines and high-end blends? And, if so, will you source from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA?
RG We have already introduced a few new wines in the last year – Le Vol des Anges, which is an exquisite dessert wine (botrytised roussanne) and definitely a major step up from Vin de Glaciere. We have been working on some single vineyard syrahs, including Bien Nacido as well as a few others. I would love to source more fruit from the Santa Cruz Mt. AVA, but so far have not really found the fruit that really sets me free.
Have you considered making a sparkler?
RG We made an interest pseudo-Sekt from riesling for our DEWN club, but it was a major pain in the neck. I’ll never say never. Might be fun to make from roussanne or grenache blanc.
Given the increasing sensitivity of the public to the general notion of the ‘carbon footprint’, do you think the world-wide increase in the use of screw caps might be vulnerable to the charge of being ‘anti-green’?
RG Yes, it may be, but like everything else in life, I am sure that the problem is more complex that it appears on the surface. I for one don’t know what the energy requirement is to make screwcaps vs. what it takes to process corks, and whether indeed there are aspects of the processing of corks, viz. eluting every last molecule of trichloroanisole that aren’t incredibly resource/energy intensive.
What is your current rôle with the Rhone Rangers, a movement you helped to create?
RG All-but-forgotten progenitor.
You have been quite a prolific producer, both in the wine world and with your writings. You have read widely. Might you have a book in you?
RG There was a book in me, but it is now in the hands of an extremely prestigious publisher. There is some editorial review that needs to occur, but if the stars align, it should be coming out a year from this Fall.
What books are you currently reading?
RG Haven’t had much time for fiction (sigh), but have been reading “The Holographic Universe” by Michael Talbott – a sort of unified theory of everything. On a more personal side, I’ve been reading “Undefended Love,” a self-help book for conquering one’s fear of intimacy.
Where are you in your quest to find appropriate land for the plantation of a grand cru vineyard in the New World?
RG Going in circles.
Thank you very much, Randall.

(Let me add that I was intrigued by Mr. Grahm’s reference to a forthcoming book. In a separate e-mail he wrote this:
“The working title of the book is Been Doon So Long…. and it is a compendium of essays, poems, stories, etc., many of which appeared in the BDV newsletters over the years. We still have a few hurdles to clear, but it does appear very likely that UC Press will be publishing it in Fall ‘09.”)


2 Responses to ' Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Interview '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Interview '.

  1. on April 12th, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Randall always gives a great read. However I was very amused that you asked how come Demeter doesn’t take a greater stand on in-winery techniques like Micro Ox. Randall is a big fan of MOX and uses it on most (all?) of his reds unless he was pulling my leg (which is possible), but the wines certainly taste that way. It is a big problem with Demeter in the states that they allow the techniques so far. However, that might change.

  2. Lucas Sott said,

    on June 18th, 2009 at 11:07 am

    hello, my name is Lucas Sott I’m from Brazil,I export of wines and grape juices fine, also work with wine and grape juice organic, I’m looking for importers, you can help me?

Leave a reply

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech


  • Recent Posts

  • Authors