The Rhone Ranger Continues to Dig the Unknown

If you’ve ever read Been Doon So Long, you’d appreciate how well Randall Grahm lives wine, philosophizes wine and satirizes funny behaviors around the industry in shockingly talented writing. Coined by Wine Spectator in 1989 as “The Rhone Ranger”, the pioneer of Rhone grapes in California has never ceased his quest for charting the unknown.

What led up to your pioneering work with Syrah in California? 

I ended up working with Rhône grapes rather by accident, as it turned out, because my earlier efforts to produce a great Pinot Noir were more or less thwarted at every turn. Very likely if I had been more successful w/ Pinot Noir, I would never have discovered Rhône grapes. I discovered Rhône grapes mostly out of a great desire of success but equally due to a great fear of failure. It was my reasoning – it’s warm and dry in the Central Coast of California, as it is in Southern France – that brought me to work with Rhône grapes, but the devil is always in the details. I was enormously lucky to have discovered some reasonably good old vine Grenache vineyards which enabled me to have some success early on. If I hadn’t, I could easily have gotten very discouraged.

What does it mean to localize a new varietal? Looking back would you do anything differently?

It’s really a matter of some observation and reasoning (and a good deal of luck). You are trying to somehow replicate the salient growing conditions of a particular variety from the Old World in a new area. In California, of course, most people concentrate on the climatic conditions, the length of the growing season, maximum and minimum temperatures, and what are called “heat summation units.” In other words, you’re trying to find grapes that will ripen at more or less the optimum window in the New World (typically late September/early October) with the appropriate sugar/acid balance, and of course sufficient flavor development. (The French tend to focus to a greater extent on the most suitable soils for particular grape varieties; I believe that one must consider both.) While this work is intellectually challenging, there is also an element of luck/chance/karma involved, and you never quite know how things will come out until you’ve tried it. I’ve been surprised over and over again (both positively and negatively) about how things have either worked (or didn’t.) Maybe I will change my mind about this or my new efforts will come to naught, but I am now taking a slightly different tack with respect to new grape varieties.

In the nursery @ Popelouchum

In the nursery @ Popelouchum

I now believe that simply figuring out which new cool grape variety to grow is slightly beside the point. What is far more interesting is to first identify an interesting terroir (as I believe I have in my new farm in San Juan Bautista), and then figuring out how to best express those unique characteristics. I have a very radical notion that perhaps these terroir characteristics might well be best expressed through a very large number of genetically distinctive varieties in a particular area, not a single varietal or clone. This is getting into somewhat unknown territory, and may prove to be either the very best or worst idea I’ve ever had. I’ve written about this project at our new vineyard, Popelouchum, in San Juan Bautista, extensively on the website.

Your vision at Bonny Doon – “On a spirited adventure to make naturally soulful, distinctive, and original wine”. How does one go about it?

Oh, I wish I really knew. It’s truly an adventure. Lots of stumbling and a few missteps along the way. The longer I’ve been in the business the more I have come to realize that one’s intellect will only take one so far. There are a lot of soulless wines produced by winemakers of prodigious intellect. I have generally been a lot more successful when I’ve followed my intuition rather than my head. And as the Buddhists remind us, “Never give up.”

What does Biodynamic mean to you?

Farming from the principles of Rudolf Steiner, of course. I am not a very good biodynamic practitioner, I confess, but to do it properly is really a kind of spiritual discipline. It is as much about self-transformation as it is about transforming one’s vineyard. One gradually learns to become more present, more aware, ultimately more empathic and intuitive to one’s farm.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your career?

Several major challenges, the first one being the demise of my beloved Estate Vineyard in Bonny Doon, which was also where I lived, due to Pierce’s Disease. It does make one aware of how utterly vulnerable we all are to any and all catastrophes (especially when one least expects them). This was a bit like getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Just shocking. It has also, in total candor, been very difficult in recent years to rebrand the company at its smaller size. I’m not so sure that people are really taking in much new information any more. The greatest challenge really lies ahead: Will we succeed in producing something like a true vin de terroir in the New World? This of course carries with it the implicit challenge: Even if we were lucky/clever enough to succeed, will anyone be interested enough to actually buy the wine?

What changes would you like to see within the wine industry?

I can’t speak for the entire industry, maybe just for the wine industry in California. But my main complaint is that there is too much ordinary, industrial, mass-produced wine; the vineyards that grow grapes to produce this wine are to me a bit of a blight on the landscape. Just because you can plant a vineyard wherever you want to doesn’t mean that you should. I would really like to see grapes grown in California in a much more sustainable fashion – not depleting so many of our ever more limited resources. For one, I’d like to see grapes dry-farmed, i.e. without supplemental irrigation. While this would dramatically cut down on the yields of the vineyards, the wine quality would likely improve dramatically. Grapes would then not be grown everywhere, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hugh Johnson thinks that you are “the only one person who has conceived the wine, made it, then given us reason and opinions  with great humor and edge.” – What are your influences?

I’m not sure if anyone has ever asked me that question precisely. I am of course profoundly influenced by the great winemakers I have known and those whom I’ve never met but who have created extraordinary, memorable bottles of wine – which have and continue to inspire me. I studied Philosophy and Literature at

Aging Le Cigare Volant Réserve "en bonbonne"

Aging Le Cigare Volant Réserve “en bonbonne”

University; I’m not sure how it has made me a better winemaker, but I’m sure it has. Maybe as an existentialist, you understand that your life (as well as your wine) is the result of all of the many decisions that you have made. (The most important winemaking decision, by the way, is where do you plant your vineyard.)  As far as literary influences, it would be Thomas Pynchon and S.J. Perelman, the former slightly more interested in airships but both lovers of rather extravagant language.

What is “proper syrah”? What are the best food pairing you had? Any Asian food?

“Proper” Syrah is Syrah that has been grown in a very cool climate but brought to fully ripeness; it is insanely and opulently perfumed and tremendously elegant. Truly proper Syrah is grown from the antique variety, Serine and seems to originate from Cote-Rôtie. It is not particularly high in alcohol and maintains good acidity; it should smell like white pepper, anise and perhaps bacon fat. Proper Syrah will complement a range of dishes, but seems to do particular well with fattier or gamier cuts of meats, such as pork ribs or lamb. I think that Syrah can work well with many Asian dishes; one just has to be careful to make sure that the dish is neither too sweet nor too umami-intensive. (For me, a crisp Riesling or Champagne is still the best overall pairing with the widest range of Asian dishes.)

Your wife is from Taiwan and you visit there frequently. What’s your impression and how do you like it there?

I love almost every aspect of Taiwan, apart from the weather and traffic, but the food is arguably the best in the world. (I’m also a big admirer of the beverage fruit vinegars that are made there.) The people are incredibly warm and extremely innovative. I have also been very impressed with the vibrancy of the cultural scene – in music, theater and the arts. Now, if I could only speak Mandarin (or Taiwanese) and grow vinifera grapes there, I could be very happy.

How do you think palate sensitivity occurs from culture to culture?

I would only be guessing as the mechanism of differential palate sensitivity – how much is nature and how much nurture – but there are certainly very dramatic differences. I would imagine that apart from the heavy-drinking cultures of the Northern Europe, the differences in preference for different alcoholic beverages would

Very tightly planted Pinot Noir @ Popelouchum (14,000 vines/ha)

Very tightly planted Pinot Noir @ Popelouchum (14,000 vines/ha)

presumably take their clue from the broader culinary regimen. It is interesting how in France, for example, wines with less aggressive tannins and lower acidities are generally more appreciated, whereas in Italy, something like the opposite is the case; it is certain that over time, wine culture co-evolved with gastronomy in different regions to produce the most aesthetically pleasing result. It should be noted that these preferences likely took many generations to become fixed. It is interesting to look at populations that have not had a history of wine culture and extrapolate how given beverages actually fit in, given the other existing elements. In the U.S., for example, there is a culture of “more is more” from the “never-empty cup of coffee” to the typically grossly oversized portion sizes in restaurants. It is therefore perhaps not surprising to find that, at least for the moment, the idea of making stronger wines (in alcohol, tannin) and also sweeter seems to have caught on at last on a macro level. (We can only hope that this execrable fashion does not persist.) In Japan, with the extremely refined and subtle cuisine, it is quite obvious how milder, gentler and above all, subtle and complex wines would be very greatly appreciated. As far as Chinese food, I am convinced that ultimately lower alcohol, high acid and slightly sweet white wines (such as Riesling) will ultimately prevail over the strong cultural preference for red wine. (It might take another century.)

What’s next?

The most important thing for me is to now plant my vineyard in San Juan Bautista and attempt to produce something like a real wine of place. (I would also like to try my hand at making some fruit vinegars à la façon taïwanese.)