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Fri09182020

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There is a Napa vintner who was born into a winemaking family in France and married into winemaking royalty in California. He loves throwing lavish parties and spraying his guests with Champagne. Even in photos taken in the vineyard, he dresses like he’s meeting James Bond for a game of baccarat. Picture this man.

Now picture his polar opposite. That’s Randall Grahm, the founding winemaker from Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, who drives an old Citroën and writes parodic wine-themed lyrics to Dylan songs. Grahm is in his 60s, and still ponytailed.

“I’m Randall Grahm, and welcome to my nightmare,” he said at a recent event.

This got a laugh, but it echoes his James Beard Award-winning book, Been Doon So Long, where one rambling footnote paints in grim detail the indignity winemakers have to endure to sell wine: They pour their “product” (or life’s work … whatever) in an under-ventilated room full of reps wearing moist branded polo shirts—people who might have been selling prosthetics instead of wine, had that job called first. His quip was no joke.

Grahm does not have as many wines as he used to. He sold his most commercially successful brands—Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim—about a decade ago, reducing by about 90 percent his stake in an operation that was selling 450,000 cases a year. But pumping out hundreds of thousands of cases of those crowd-pleasing brands had encroached heavily on the goal Grahm set when he founded Bonny Doon in the early 1980s: to make vins de terroir.

Grahm glides in and out of French as he speaks and writes, so here is the essence of his conundrum: There are vins de terroir, and there are vins d’effort: wines of place, and wines of effort, respectively. The former are expressions of the land from which they come. The latter are expressions of the winemaker’s work and are, Grahm would argue, what California winemakers actually do well: They take grapes that have proven over centuries to be perfectly suited to their ancestral homes, bring them here, and make them work. When I asked him whether the term vin d’effort was necessarily derisive, he answered: “Mildly.”

The problem is that the little things done to make the wines work—like irrigating, say—don’t limit just their chances of failing, but also their shot at fulfilling their lofty potential. So Grahm is on a mission to plant the perfect grape at the perfect site, intercede minimally, and allow greatness to ensue in spite of him, not because of him. With what appeared to be real candor, Grahm said he was “pretty much chickenshit” for drifting away from that mission over the years. But here he is, refocusing on that challenge in his 60s.

After a years-long search, Grahm used the undisclosed sum he received in exchange for his brands to purchase his ideal site, Popelouchum, located in San Juan Bautista. It’s a place that came to him in a dream and whose name means “paradise” in Mutsun, the language of the Native American people of the area. His excitement about Popelouchum was palpable as he poured us a taste of its nascent wine from a hand-labeled 375-milliliter bottle. The wine is a perfumed and fruity grenache from dry-farmed 2-year-old vines, and it is superb.

Grahm’s history should be required reading. He was at the vanguard of making syrah and other Rhône varietals into California mainstays. He risked significant treasure by bottling the entire 80,000 cases of 2001 Big House Red with screwcaps rather than corks, and continues to bottle all of his wines that way.

What goes into a wine? What determines what comes out? It is an answer that Randall Grahm, throwing himself into a new project nearly four decades into his career, still seeks with wide-eyed curiosity. It is one he is wagering Popelouchum will reveal, when the wine he envisions is a bottled reality.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.

Published in Wine

An eco-activist friend looked at me askance a couple of years ago when I bought a wine chiller.

The small refrigerator keeps 44 bottles of wine at around 60ish degrees. I considered the purchase a survival strategy while living a year in a toasty, not air-conditioned apartment in Honolulu.

While living in Hawaii, I rode my bike to work at the university. I generated very little trash. I didn’t have a microwave or, for months, a toaster.

But, still, a wine refrigerator? Am I a bad citizen of the planet? Environmental guilt is at least as bad as religious guilt. So many rules.

Thou shalt not wear gold jewelry (cuz gold mining’s satanic).

Thou shalt have no other gods beside thine hybrid car.

Thou shalt eat organic; buy local; shop at thrift stores; drink shade-grown, fair-trade coffee; and purchase chocolate bars that promise donations to rain-forest preservation.

Thou shalt water thine garden with recycled gray water from thine bathtub.

I’m all for it.

I’m all for ecological balance, and righting the climate-change wrongs. I care about future generations. My grandkids should enjoy this great, green planet as much as I do. I care for selfish reasons. I want to protect the world’s best grape-growing climates. All I need is the air that I breathe and a glass of tasty cabernet sauvignon—preferably served at about 62 degrees.

But it’s getting hot out there. Climate change is my fault and not my fault. I can do my part. Recycle! Bike! Small changes add up, right? However, it seems to me that real reform will have to come from the Big Polluters (power pushers, industrial manufacturing, gas and oil companies, auto manufacturers). I’m not going to pretend that I can make the world a better place by consuming less wine.

I recently quoted, to a despairing friend, applicable advice from The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff): “Listen, when you get home tonight you're going to be confronted by the instinct to drink alone. Trust that instinct. Manage the pain. Don't try to be a hero.

Like every maker of stuff we love from shoes to road trips to Fritos, the wine industry contributes to the toxing-up of the planet. Wine goes into bottles, the manufacture of which wastes water. Some grape-growers use pesticides. Wine is a monoculture. Corks are bad. Screw tops end up in landfills. Wine gets shipped from Australia to California. Or Chile to California. Or France and Italy to California.

That’s silly.

Most of the wine I drink is purchased from the folks who make it—right here in California. That makes me feel OK. But the best way I’ve found to avoid feeling guilty is, well, by deciding not to feel guilty. It’s tricky. I refuse to call my wine-drinking a guilty pleasure. It’s a pleasure pleasure.

Manage the pain. Don’t be a hero.

It helps my psyche to know that many wineries shifting are shifting to eco-friendly practices. Dozens of wineries are experimenting with eco-friendly packaging. Organic wines are popping up everywhere. The next happy green trend? Biodynamics.

If that sounds eco-groovy, it should. The folks at Chateau Davell in Camino, Calif., allow small animals to roam the vineyards, keeping the land weed-free while not harming the grapes. Cute. Chateau Davell’s a newish, family-owned winery that makes use of solar power when possible.

In Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon Vineyard began using biodynamic farming practices in 2004. The winery promotes its wines as “soulful” and evincing “a deeper sense of place, complexity and varietal expression.” I like it. I don’t often buy white wine, but Bonny Doon crafts an albarino, an obscure Spanish grape that pairs perfectly with summer heat. Last I checked, the 2009 Ca’ Del Solo Albarino ($18) can be purchased online.

At Bonterra, grape-growers engage in the freakishly fascinating biodynamic practice of filling of a cow horn with manure and quartz. The horn is buried in the ground, left to mature, and then finally mixed with water and used as a natural fertilizing spray on roots and leaves. Poop is good food. You’ve probably seen Bonterra in a wine or grocery store, as it’s one of the more widely distributed organic wines.

Bonterra is in Mendocino County, where the red wines couldn’t be greener. It’s a neighbor to Jeriko Estates, where Daniel Fetzer (of the Fetzer wine dynasty) commits to growing grapes without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. Instead, cover crops are planted, and chickens and goats roam the vineyards, taking care of the weeds.

The results? Some elegant pinot noirs. The Jeriko Estate 2011 Pinot Noir Pommard Clone offers complex deliciousness—pepper, sour berries, vanilla and brown spices. It’s $64, so it’s not a house wine. But occasional case sales happen at Jeriko. At a visit before Christmas last year, I walked out with a case of chardonnay and a case of grenache noir at prices that made the bottles less than $15.

After all, biodynamic wines make great gifts.

At Parducci Wine Cellars in Ukiah, the winemakers boast of going beyond mere organic and biodynamic growing methods. They also recycle and reuse water. Take steps to reduce their electricity consumption. Treat their employees well. I read this all on their website.

If you visit Parducci, pick up a bottle of Coro Mendocino ($38), a lovely red blend of local Mendo grapes. Somewhere melded into the layers of robust dark fruits, you can taste Parducci’s teensy-weensy ecological footprint. The tasty terroir of sustainability and fair labor practices.

The Coro is good enough to rate a spot in my wine chiller.

Published in Wine