Mutineer Magazine is all about seeking out the inspiration in fine beverage, and Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard is inspiration stuffed with creativity and wrapped in psychedelic visions of zeppelins hovering over vineyards with mysterious intentions. Grahm has a reputation for being outspoken, which is a refreshing personality trait in an industry that subscribes to public relations filters and politically correct “safe answers”. Grahm shoots from the hip, with controversial and contradicting answers held together by unscripted honesty that is brought to life by everything he’s contributed to wine culture thus far in his career.
We’re proud to present this edition of the Mutineer Interview with the legendary Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard.
Randall Grahm: It’s interesting, because I got my start not far from where you got your start, like eight blocks, nine long blocks from the Beverly Hills Hotel, Santa Monica and Roxbury, at the age of twenty…two. And I was drinking ’64 Cheval Blanc four times a week. I’ve drunk ’64 Cheval Blance probably 35 times, maybe 40 times…maybe 50 times, I don’t know. In its prime. This was my entry into wine. That wine is so good. That wine is sooooo good. We were given these incredible opportunities that normal people don’t have.
Alan Kropf: How did you have access to that wine?
Working in the wine store. They opened it every night. These were the days when ’70s Bordeaux sold for five dollars. Twenty bucks for the ’70 Latour. [Chateau] Palmer, sixteen bucks. I bought a magnum of ’61 Petrus, which I had to return because I couldn’t afford it…I should’ve somehow found a way to keep that. But those were crazy, crazy days.
How long did you work in the wine store?
I went back to school, I went to [University of California] Davis. My palate was informed by French wine primarily.
Any regions that you’re particularly fascinated with right now?
I like Umbria. I love Piedmonte. Friuli is really cool. Weird grapes. Any place that makes unusual things, I really like. I think Austria’s really cool. And Burgundy. I wish I could afford to buy Burgundies. I think we’re so fortunate to be living the renaissance of Burgundy. It’s amazing. The renaissance of the Rhone. And, you know, you see the northern Rhones quite tempted to make their wines more fatter, more sexy, more Parker friendly. It’s hard to stay focused on looking in if there’s such a temptation with the rewards so great, like pleasing, giving the world what it wants. It’s very hard to turn your back on it. It’s very hard to do that.
Do you think you’ve fallen into that trap?
Um, a little bit. I’m not greedy for money, but I want to do the things that work. I wanted my business to succeed. I wanted critics to like the wines, I want people to like the wines. I want them to buy it. So if there was a new designer yeast that could give your wine a little more body and texture and intensity, aromatics, you know, sure, all for it.
Have you ever had a California wine that rocked your world?
Nope. Which, in fairness, I don’t try a lot of California wines, but I’m told that they’re actually out there, and I can never remember which ones they are. I have some wines that impressed me. The Rhys pinot noirs, Rhys, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, I think were very impressive, very impressed with, but, they didn’t rock my world.
What do you want millennials to know about your wine?
A lot. One, wine is alive. Wine has an intelligence. Wine changes. Wine needs time to develop and you need time to understand it. Don’t make the judgment in a second. Don’t think you understand the wine in a second. Be patient. Spend time. Invest time. The average person doesn’t grasp the distinction, doesn’t understand that there are wines that are made through industrial process, that are very dependable, very standardized. You’re not going to have this variation from year to year, but they’re confections, and then there are other wines that are more artisanal, maybe they’re flawed, but there’s something more authentic and real about them…honest.
Your early obsession with pinot noir in Santa Cruz is well documented. Talk about the pursuit of that obsession and the experience of it not working out.
I was young. I didn’t understand…I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t grasp how complex the problem was. I thought I had a handle on it. I had no concept, no clue at how profoundly difficult the problem was, so I just blindly tried to do it, and made a couple of mistakes and sort of gave up. I mean, basically, I gave up because the Rhone varieties seemed so much more promising and more appropriate. It beat me, and I just said, “You know what? I’ll retreat. I’ll fight another day. I’ll do it later.”
Was that hard to accept?
At the time, I think it was a little hard, but the Rhone thing was kind of exciting. I was starting to get mentioned and I guess I was a little intoxicated by the recognition I was getting. There was an article in Wine Spectator, which in those days was a big deal. And then I was on the cover of Wine Spectator, which was silly. Silliness.
What’s the difference between starting a winery when you did versus starting a winery today?
Well superficially, it was way easier back then, way easier. The world was more forgiving. There was also more of a multiplicity of styles; things hadn’t sort of gelled like there is one correct way of making wine. It’s like, “okay, if you make wine this way, you get a 91, if you make it this way, you get a 93, if you just change this thing a little bit.” It wasn’t business. You did it because you wanted to do it. You liked making wine.