What Took So Doon Long
by Peter J Troilo
Winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards is considered a trailblazer in the California wine industry. One of the original “Rhone Rangers”, Grahm has dedicated his career to the proliferation of American grown Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Marsanne in the wine market. His work with other varietals such as Zinfandel, Primitivo, Albariño and Tannat are well documented. His desire to work with these varieties stems from his perverse drive to do something distinctive and successful by carving out a niche where others think is not possible. It started with the quest for what Randall called “the Great American Pinot Noir (GAPN).”
Grahm attended the University of California at Santa Cruz. He admits to being a “permanent liberal arts major”. His career in wine started at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills. In between sweeping floors and breaking down boxes he managed to taste, and subsequently fall in love with, the great wines from Burgundy. He took his studies to UC Davis and completed his degree in Plant Sciences. Shortly after, with the help of his family, he purchased the Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Early attempts at producing a Pinot Noir that showed the finesse and elegance he was yearning for proved futile. The quest for the GAPN suffered major losses.
“Oregon was and continues to produce far superior Pinot Noir fruit. Rather than try to fashion something, I wanted to produce something distinctive.” - Randall Grahm
The GAPN proved too elusive for the land he was farming. The soil and climate were far better suited for Rhone grape varieties and experimenting with Marsanne and Syrah proved extraordinarily promising. His philosophy is to work with what you are given and do what you’re good at. So rather than fashion a superficial wine from inferior Pinot Noir grapes, Grahm planted his vineyards to Syrah, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. In 1986 he released the 1984 Le Cigare Volant, the first vintage in this wine’s cosmic journey - and Bonny Doon Vineyards was born.
“Wine has become a business and financial exercise.” - Randall Grahm
20 years later Grahm found himself involved in projects like Big House Red, Big House White, Pacific Rim wines and Cardinal Zin. He was producing an astonishing 450,000 cases of wine per year. A master with inventive marketing talent, Grahm created labels for rarely seen California grape varieties and used his charisma/charm to sell the pants off experimental wines. His goofy labels and “strange” wines built a cult-like following of “Doon” lovers. He offers that he fashioned sound, tasteful wines that were the perfect product for the market. Critics began to wonder if he might have “sold out”. He might admit that he lost his focus on his mission to produce distinctive wines. But he doesn’t apologize for his techniques. He only provides that he lost his way, momentarily. Bonny Doon had lost its intention to produce soulful wines that spoke to where they came from. Grahm realized this and plotted a course correction.
“Exposure to bio-dynamic farming techniques in Rhone led me to the belief that if we employed the same techniques here, we could see a Germanic improvement in the wines. It was a practical matter. Wine has to be alive. What can we do to bring more life to the wine?” - Randall Grahm
In 2006, Grahm sold the Cardinal Zin, Big House and Pacific Rim labels. He dropped his annual production to roughly 30,000 cases – a 93% reduction. Fueled by the desire to again produce distinctive wines that exhibit delicacy and elegance, he shifted to bio-dynamic farming. Bio-dynamic farming is like organic farming on steroids. It sees each vineyard as a living organism that, when farmed properly, can be self-sustaining. Furthermore, the philosophy treats the Earth as a living organism with diurnal and seasonal rhythms controlled by cosmic cycles. Vineyard management is timed to these cycles and biodynamic spray and compost preparations are used at specific times to heighten their potential benefits. The technique is criticized by many, embraced by few, and understood by less. It was a risky maneuver for Grahm. One bad decision in the vineyard could cost him an entire crop. And that can quickly bankrupt a vineyard. But it was a chance for him to do something “original” that few producers in California knew about, understood or were willing to risk. His risk paid high dividends. His vineyards started producing more expressive fruit which had the unique qualities that he was looking for. His wines improved and so did his vineyards. With each vintage, his wines continue to get better and better. And yet, for the most part, his wines avoid fanfare and press.
“Trust your palate. You can’t drink a point score.” - Randall Grahm
Grahm’s wines have recaptured the attention of a certain type of wine drinker. Tired of the cookie cutter, lab manufactured cult wines of yesteryear, a new market segment emerged, desperately seeking wines from California which show depth and character. There’s a renewed concentration of what’s in the bottle. Authenticity holds more value than point scores. The new wine drinker has turned away from simply asking, “What’s the Wine Spectator score?” - a question that is passé. The emphasis shifted to soil types, changing climates and winemaking philosophies. In the end isn’t that what’s really important? Every wine should tell a story of where it’s from. Without a story, it has no identity. Without identity, it simply becomes another beverage - another SKU for the grocery stores to profit. Each of Grahm’s wines has a story that should be told.
Randall Grahm has long been considered a “deranged” pioneer in the California wine industry. Perhaps his return to crafting wines of great character and finesse using bio-dynamic farming techniques changed the face of California wine. Oddly, he was not included in Jon Bonne’s recent book, ‘The New California Wine’. It’s a glaring omission. Grahm defined the new California wine movement before it became fashionable. He has boldly changed the way many wine drinkers consider what’s in their glass. He’s changed the misconceptions of what’s possible in California vineyards and winemaking. He’s changed the way we read wine labels and pioneered the screw cap enclosure for premium wines. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he has yet to accomplish anything. I don’t agree. For all this work, he has received awards from Cook’s Magazine, James Beard Foundation, and Bon Appetit. In 2010 he was selected for the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame. I’m wondering what took them so “doon” long.
For a full list of Bonny Doon wines available on our website, please click here.