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Can Randall Grahm Change His Stripes?

The irrepressible Bonny Doon proprietor wants to be taken more seriously, and his newest wines are backing him up
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 15, 2012 2:00pm ET

Randall Grahm insists he's grown up, as in matured. For those who have followed the zigzags of his career, one wonders whether the new pose is for real, or whether it's just a front for the irrepressible jester in him. He has recast and reinvented himself so many times in the past 30 years that it's natural to wonder which Randall Grahm we're dealing with. Indeed, the new Grahm can't entirely escape the old Grahm.

This much seemed apparent recently when he visited me at my office to convey his desire to shed his whimsical nature and strike a more serious stance. That his new wines are among the best he's made adds credence to his desire to reboot his livelihood.

Grahm is nearing 60, still pulls his thinning hair into a ponytail, thrives on contrarian thinking and has been making wine and waves for 30 years.

In that time, he has pursued many of the world's greatest grapes, with stabs at Cabernet, Pinot Noir in Oregon and tinkering with Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. He is best known for being one of California's earliest advocates for Rhône Valley-style reds, earning himself the Rhône Ranger nickname. His Cigare Volant, now in its 25th year, was one of the first California wines to blend Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre. He also built Bonny Doon into a 450,000-case operation at one point before selling off most of the labels, including Big House, to focus on terroir-based wines, including a new project in his estate vineyard in San Juan Batista, which is near Hollister and east of Monterey Bay.

He has also denounced corks and championed twist-off closures, along with penning a book, Been Doon So Long, a rambling, twisting, smorgasbord of thoughts and witticisms, including parodies of many in wine. It is written much in the same style as his esoteric, eclectic Bonny Doon newsletters and reflects a peripatetic and creative mind that spins like a carousel of flash cards, some funnier and more comic than others.

It's been precisely this scattered madcap pace and inability to stayed focused that Grahm is attempting to address. His track record would suggest this would be impossible. Still, he was persuasive in pitching his newest venture, and newest vintages, all under the Bonny Doon label. The wines are striking for their structure and individuality.

The standout is the 2008 Bonny Doon Syrah from Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley (92 points, $42). It's distinctive, probing the nuances of dried berry, pepper, fresh earth and hot brick. Also outstanding is the 2007 Nebbiolo Monterey County Ca' del Solo Estate Vineyard (90, $40). It's lighter bodied yet racy, with raspberry, wild flower, fennel and mineral notes.

The 2008 Le Cigare Volant Central Coast (89, $38) is sleek and engaging, with supple cherry, currant and dried berry that glide across the palate, ending with gravel and spice box. It includes Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignane. 

The 2008 Le Cigare Volant En Bonbonne Unfiltered Reserve Central Coast (89, $65) is dense and pleasantly earthy, with fresh tobacco, gravel, dried berry and spice box scents, finishing with chewy tannins. It is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignane. 

The 2010 Mataro California Old Telegram ($45) is intense and grapey, with graphite, crushed rock, snappy berry and tobacco leaf.

The 2011 Vin Gris de Cigare Central Coast (89, $16), a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Cinsault, has a delicate pink hue and zesty watermelon, strawberry and spice notes.

The 2009 Syrah Central Coast Le Pousseur (88, $25) is tight, with a gravelly, crushed rock core of dried berry, dried herb, cedar and spice.

I also liked his 2010 Le Cigare Blanc Beeswax Vineyard Arroyo Seco (87, $24), a blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. It strikes a nice balance between creamy notes of lemon curd and details of spice, floral and cedar.

The new frontier is what Grahm calls the great experiment of Popelouchum at San Juan Bautista. This is a property he bought four years ago with plans to create a terroir-driven wine from this site. Grahm describes this as an ambitious undertaking, which "turns conventional wisdom about grapegrowing on its head."

"It begins," he said with a mind-bending "Grahmian" description, "with the premise that you want to essentially obscure varietal character. Allow it to recede into the background to allow a different quality—the unique features of terroir—to become the dominant element. The salient features are old-fangled, low-tech, head-trained, dry-farmed vines, along with the creation of new vinifera varieties via grape breeding and vines grown from seed, rather than from vegetative cutting."

Then there's "bio char," which is essentially activated charcoal mixed with compost, which Grahm believes enhances the soil and its water holding capacity.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. "In many ways, I feel so very much as I did at the very beginning of my career," he said, "when everything was before me, and I didn't know shit, but imagined that I did. I am so enormously excited about the way forward. Everything heretofore has been preamble."

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 15, 2012 3:59pm ET
JL: Good to hear things may have turned the corner at Bonny Doon. I tried the '07 Cigar Volant and found it riddled with brett to the point of being undrinkable. And that's coming from the Rhȏne and Bordeaux guy...!

Graham certainly has his verbose style when it comes to talking about wine, so it's nice to hear they may actually be some steak to go with his sizzle, finally...
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  November 15, 2012 10:49pm ET
Mr. Laube,

I'm glad you took the time to write about the changes happening at Bonny Doon Vineyards. I've felt for a long time that Randall Grahm is one of the most under-appreciated winemakers currently working in California.

He is one of the few California wine people that acknowledges the challenges of American wine growing up the shadow of the 'old world' and the need to discover our own terroirs and the new reality of wine pricing in the 21st century. I feel that this is a bit a soul-searching that wouldn't be out of place in quite a few other California wineries. In this way, Grahm is more like a 20-something winemaker.

I was quite a bit challenged by the ratings (87-89) that you gave the Cigar Volant and Pousseur Syrah. In my own experience, I have found these wines to be stunning at their prices ($25-40.) Wine Spectator tends to bestow 90-93 points for wines like these coming out of the Rhone at these prices and quality levels.

Their difference from traditional Cali wines is their greatest strength. I'd love to see how they'd perform in a blind tasting or mixed with their peers from Europe.

-Austin Beeman-

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