Santa Cruz’s trailblazing “Rhone Ranger” discusses the big sale, his new vineyard and the truth about terroir.
And so it goes: Le Cigare Volant vole…the flying cigar has flown.
Yes, the new year started with huge news in the wine world when California’s original maverick vintner, Randall Grahm, sold his decades-old Santa Cruz winery, Bonny Doon Vineyard. The sale surprised many, particularly as Grahm’s quintessential outside-the-box outfit went to WarRoom, a much larger wine production and marketing company. Now, even as Bonny Doon Vineyard (BDV) will continue to exist, its tasting room and most of its dozen or so wines are gone. Only four of its most successful bottlings will continue, including Le Cigare Volant, one of the first widespread Rhone blends in the U.S., and the label that put Bonny Doon on the map.
Other winemakers might lean on Chardonnay, Cabernet or Pinot Noir — the varietals that made California wine famous — but Grahm has used the spectrum of varietals, choosing them not for their profitability, but for how suited he believes they are to growing in Santa Cruz and the surrounding area. Slowly, other neighboring wineries have caught on to Grahm’s style — and to growing those once-esoteric Rhone varietals.
Grahm has always had that same spirit of expression and innovation. During his start in the early 80s, Grahm made his mark with Cigare Volant, an elegant red that employed once-lesser known varietals like Syrah and Mourvedre. In time, Cigare (named, in true Bonny Doon style, for a French law prohibiting UFOs from flying over vineyards) became Grahm’s flagship wine. And in pairing the name with an artistic label, Grahm had — intentionally or not — been at the vanguard of the trendy label fad that has since become a mainstay throughout the alcoholic beverage industry. Years later, he commissioned legendary counterculture artist Ralph Steadman — famed Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator— to design a devilish image for the label of Cardinal Zin, which proved provocative enough to get banned in the state of Ohio.
He also produced several wines that were hugely popular with the public—such as Big House Red — only to sell them off once they became too big to abide by the company’s artisanal mission. In a sense, his sale of Bonny Doon echoes this pattern. Grahm’s most recent purchase was a vineyard property in San Juan Bautista, a small town halfway between San Jose and Monterey. That vineyard, named Popelouchum, will become Grahm’s new playground for experimentation, where he’ll continue to push the boundaries of California wine.
Grahm expresses genuine enthusiasm for his future work at Popelouchum. Though it’s fairly early in the lifespan of the vineyard, he says everything growing there has already proven “exceptionally amazing.”
The Six Fifty was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Grahm, who is a famously interesting interviewee. He spouts puns and literary references the way some people curse. In an industry defined by its carefully cultivated image, Grahm’s relaxed flair for all things whimsical — whether it be his language, his wine or his character — has helped set him apart and cemented Bonny Doon Vineyard’s dark horse legacy in the wine world.
We caught up with Grahm recently to discuss his origin story, Bonny Doon’s recent sale and what’s to come. Pour a glass and enjoy….
The sale of Bonny Doon Vineyards was big news in the wine world, can you elaborate for us on your reasons for selling?
Bonny Doon Vineyard has been financially challenged for quite some time, and I do not have a particularly brilliant mind for finance. I reckoned that there were other people out there who could do that particular job far better than I could.
What are your feelings and impressions on letting go?
Obviously, I have some mixed feelings as Bonny Doon has been so closely identified with my own identity. But at the same time, I think that can also become quite restrictive. I do hope that somehow I am more than just my BDV identity, or even more than just a “winemaker.” I really want to challenge myself in other ways beyond the path that I’ve trod for almost 40 years.
Will the new owners keep the name Bonny Doon on the bottles?
Yes, of course. The basic DNA of BDV will not change. The new regime is maintaining both the stylistic direction and the grape sourcing. Both Nicole Walsh and I are continuing to collaborate on the winemaking aspect, so we don’t anticipate major changes.
Looking at the whole trajectory of Bonny Doon, do you see it as more of a boutique winery or a big-name winery? How will the sale change it?
This is a complicated question. In a certain sense, I have made the effort to make BDV a sort of synthesis of boutique and big-name. Or maybe put another way, tried to synthesize both wholesale (3-tier) sales and DTC (direct-to-consumer) sales. Historically, wineries have done this all the time, and sometimes quite effectively. I believe that due to structural changes in the wine business, it has become increasingly more difficult to integrate these two functions. DTC wants in a sense the very opposite of what wholesale wants, i.e. rarity, scarcity and obscurity. Squaring the circle has become more and more difficult. In the future, BDV will almost certainly pursue the wholesale/3-tier aspect of the business and focus its efforts on it without the distraction of DTC. I, personally, am hopeful that I can continue to develop my property, Popelouchum, in San Juan Bautista with a largely DTC focus.
Thinking back on the winery’s origins, can you tell me a bit about your connection to Santa Cruz? How long have you been there and how did you keep the spirit of Santa Cruz tied to your brand?
This is rather a long story, but my original connection to Santa Cruz was to have had the great fortune to have attended UCSC (Go, Slugs!) from 1970–74, perhaps in its heyday.
My “origin story” involves hitchhiking from LA to Santa Cruz with a couple of friends in our junior year. After almost graduating from UCSC, I worked in a wine shop in LA in 1975 and caught the wine bug, and returned to attend UC Davis. Not quite sure how it happened, but I met Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mt. Vineyard and tasted his ’74 Pinot, which utterly knocked me out, and encouraged me to consider attempting the Great American Pinot Noir in the mountain hamlet of Bonny Doon. I happen to have failed spectacularly in that effort, but that led to the felicitous result of the discovery of Rhone grapes, which has been a fertile area of inquiry for me over the years. In any event, I feel very blessed to have somehow ended up in the Santa Cruz area, and it has perhaps been my fate to have joined in a long line of Santa Cruz Mountain, willfully eccentric winemakers. There is in fact something like a proper genealogy extending from Paul Masson, Martin Ray, David Bruce, Ken Burnap, Dan Wheeler (the Zelig of the Santa Cruz Mountains), Paul Draper and myself.
The spirit of independence/contrariness/perversity, which is the hallmark of Santa Cruz has (mostly) served me well. So, to answer your question more precisely, I’ve been in the neighborhood almost continuously since 1970. Alas, I don’t have so much of a connection to the local vineyards, especially the very small, newer ones that have popped up. (Strong social skills are not particularly a vital part of my functional repertoire.) But I’m there with them all in spirit. Just wish they wouldn’t beat their brains out so much, seeking this elusive Pinot Noir; I think that, in general, their efforts would be more productive with other varieties, to be truthful.
Did you ever intend to make a lot of money with Bonny Doon? Was the purpose the art or the commerce? I’m under the impression you’re more of a craftsman than a businessman…yet maybe that’s just what you tell people. Maybe you’re more savvy than you let on.
I never intended to make a lot of money with BDV, and I’ve been successful in fulfilling that ambition. Purpose has always been more art than commerce, to my great chagrin. I am not an astute business person, to say the least.
How do you feel about Silicon Valley people/culture, and do you count them among your fans?
Obviously, Silicon Valley folks are a rather different tribe from the artsy-craftsy, eclectic, quasi-hippies of Santa Cruz. (I was told once that in the day, Santa Cruz sold more Inglenook Charbono than anywhere else in the country.) I’m afraid that some of them are in fact Russian River Pinot Noir lovers, or, God help them, high scoring Napa Cabernet enthusiasts. Forgive them for they know not what they taste (or buy). But, they do represent a very important part of our customer base, bless their hearts. We’re doing our best to break them of their cabo-centric bias. (It’s a work in progress.)
You were nicknamed “the Rhone Ranger” for your trailblazing use of varietals…what’s the secret of a good Rhone blend?
Generally speaking, a blend is less about sense of place or about soil characteristics, but if one can capture a quality of minerality (whatever, in fact, that is), the wine will redound in complexity. For me, a good Rhone blend (or almost any blend that I might envision) expresses a dynamic balance between the “organic” and “inorganic” elements, or put another way, between “fruit” and “mineral.” Too much primary “fruit” renders the wine simple and banal; absence of fruit yields a wine that is too austere. You want to make a blend that is capable of “movement,” evolution, a blend that will dance on the palate.
Myself, I like a style of Rhone blend that has some freshness and acidity; this keeps the wine lively on the palate and conduces to the expression of “red fruit.” I’m not a big fan of the overripe, pruney, leathery style. I’m not quite sure that I can give you the proper biochemical accounting of how Cigare Volant ages so well (favorable pH, screwcaps, less retention, minimal racking, etc.) but for whatever reason, the wine ages exceptionally well, indeed, generally far better than most Chateauneuf-du-Papes.
How much do you think your personality has contributed to your wine success — the success of your winery and all the wine you’ve made?
Probably more than it should have, I don’t know. I had the right personality at the time, certainly, for Big House. Frankly, in retrospect, it seems a little obnoxious — it’s kind of “notice me, notice me, notice me” brashness, if you will. It turns out that probably wasn’t a bad strategy from a marketing standpoint, at that moment in time and beyond. That’s not really the person I think I am anymore, thank goodness, but it certainly served its purpose at the time. It served its purpose, but it was also a double-edged sword. I think my perceived jocularity — what came at the expense of that was the perceived gravitas of the other wine. So in other words, I think Cigare Blanc was or is not taken as seriously as it could be, in virtue of some of the other goofy labels we’ve produced — Big House and such.
On that note, you were one of the first people to put out interesting artistic labels. How much do you see yourself as an artist, and how much do you see yourself as a savvy marketer or businessperson? Or is it a combination?
Well, I’m not a savvy businessperson, I can certainly assure you of that. Let’s rule that out altogether. I’m not a front-line artist, but I seem to have accidentally discovered that I have some sort of artistic sensibility, so that seems to have some bearing on it, and obviously, in the winemaking department as well.
How long have you been working on the Popelouchum vineyard?
Eight years. It’s still in its infancy, we’re still trying to figure things out, still trying to find a way forward—but virtually everything that’s come out of the vineyard has been exceptionally amazing. We just have to figure out a way to make it work economically.
When can we expect to see commercial wine from Popelouchum? What varietals/crosses?
Hoping that within the next 18 months there will be a commercial wine; it will be Grenache Blanc/Grenache Gris.
Moving forward to Popelouchum, what will be your business plan — big, small? Are you working on hardy breeds for the benefit of the wine industry or to make money?
Small. Working on breeds for both intellectual interest and, if I can benefit the industry, that’s great. Don’t have great expectations that Popelouchum will be a great economic engine.
Here’s a question that can really be debated by winemakers all over the world. How much do you think the site itself, or the terroir, contributes to a wine, and how much do the winemaker’s choices contribute?
I’ve read or heard, years ago — I don’t even remember what the number was — but I’m personally of the belief that the quality of the wine is determined somewhere north of 70% by the site itself. Depending on the wine, and how it’s made, minimum of 65–70%. Which is to say, just having a good site is useful, but if you don’t do a good job growing grapes, that doesn’t help the cause. But the point is, I think, you start with excellent grapes. Unless you really make an effort to screw it up, you’re going to end up with excellent wine. All you can really do is mess things up. But if you start with good grapes, you’ve got many runners on base, you’re in very good shape to begin with.
Why is wine important?
Wine is not important for everyone, to be sure, and maybe not all wine is equally important. Different kinds of wines serve different purposes. Obviously, most wine consumed is not “great wine,” but rather serviceable wine that helps to complement a meal, act as a social lubricant, etc. But great wine — the kind that is most interesting to me — is truly one of the great blessings of Creation. It can inspire us and offer courage in what can be an otherwise rather discouraging and cruel world.
Follow Randall Grahm on Twitter at @RandallGrahm
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