The Restless Artiste of Bonny Doon

Randall Grahm is a restless soul. He’s always looking for new ways to grow grapes and make wine, and when he’s not doing it he’s thinking, writing or talking about it. He’s an artist and philosopher of wine, and like an artist, seems to view selling the stuff as an inconvenient necessity.

“I want to make wines that bring something new into the world that wasn’t there before,” he tells his audience at a recent Sydney event. From anyone else’s mouth it might sound pretentious, but Randall speaks from his essence, and people warm to his sincerity. This is a seeker of truth, who works out of a shed on a Californian industrial estate, who has to sell one vineyard so he can afford to buy the next one. Not one of your IT billionaires glamming up the Napa Valley.

Grahm and his winery Bonny Doon (tastings) are focused on the Californian Central Coast, which was at the cutting edge of America’s exploration of the Rhone varieties. The winery is at Santa Cruz, the vineyards at Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Salinas Valley, Soledad. As a leader of the 1980s gang of winemakers dubbed the Rhone Rangers he produced Le Cigare Volant (tastings), a tilt at Chateauneuf-du-Pape made from the same varieties (grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault), whose name was a joke about Chateauneuf’s alleged fame as a UFO spotting site.

Grahm shows us several vintages of his latest fixations, an excellent albarino named Ca’ del Solo (the 2010 is $48 tasting), and a white Rhone blend named Le Cigare Blanc fashioned from grenache blanc and roussanne. Each is delicious is a quite original way. These are character wines, not necessarily finesse wines. The unfashionability of varieties like grenache blanc is no obstacle to Grahm. Indeed, he relishes the challenge they pose. Seeing himself as a vinous Don Quixote, he says, “I never met a grape I didn’t like”.

His new shtick circles around pinot noir in an amusingly obsessive way. “My life has been a pinot noir quest. Everything else has been an accident that happened along the journey; a wound that came from a lack of pinot noir.” Then why hasn’t he produced one, is the question that no-one seems game to ask. Ahh. One cannot exhaust all of one’s challenges too quickly.

Instead, Grahm’s latest venture is the purchase of land at San Juan Battista, on which he is planting a vineyard with a difference. It’s polyculture, with ‘extremely diverse’ plantings. There are rows of vines, then rows of pears, apples, olives, vines again – all in groups of three rows at a time. Why? “I want to extend the flowering of the plants over a longer period.” Precisely why, is a question never answered.

The other ‘wacky idea’ is to plant seeds instead of cuttings. Most vineyards are planted with tissue (usually a cutting or rootling) from a mother vine, in order to produce a replica plant. To plant seeds is to flirt with the unknown, as grapevine seeds don’t give predictable results. “Nobody knows what the wine will be like,” he says, his already gleaming eyes widening further. “Do you end up with wines of extreme complexity and nuance, or do you just get pinotage? Chaos or beautiful music? It will take a while…a couple of thousand years,” he jests.

Another ‘wacky idea’ is the use of biochar instead of fertiliser. “Biochar mixed with compost is a terroir amplifier: it makes soils more themselves.” Now we’re getting into some serious Doon-speak. Biochar is super-heated vegetable matter such as chaff from cereal crops. “It makes soils more homeostatic: it’s a performance enhancer,” says Grahm. It’s all part of his quest to produce wines that express terroir – a uniqueness that speaks specifically of the place where the grapes are grown. “Old World wines express a sense of place. That’s terroir. It’s something we don’t do well in the New World.”

He’s also convinced the use of biochar from crop residue is one of the ways farmers can work against climate change – which he says 70 per cent of scientists believe is reversible.

We taste his new red wine, Contra 2009. Dark, earthbound, spicy and gutsy. It’s made from mourvedre, petite sirah (durif) and zinfandel. “Close, but no cigar,” Grahm sniggers. There’s also a Cuvee ET 2009, mostly mourvedre, with a bit of carignan.

At one point Grahm gets side-tracked musing about syrah (shiraz), saying that historically Californians thought syrah could be grown anywhere. This resulted in a lot of bad syrah. “I think it’s a crime to grow it anywhere, except in cool climates…” Like Santa Barbara, which is where his two syrahs, Le Pousseur and Bien Nacido X Block, are grown. “There, it’s a lot like my idea of the perfect platonic pinot noir.”

There’s the p word again.

The tasting finishes with four vintages of Le Cigare Volant (tastings), Bonny Doon’s piece de resistance. The ’07 ($85 is voluptuous, fleshy, succulent; the ’05 ($75 tasting) supple, textured, beautifully balanced. This is undoubtedly Bonny Doon’s forte. “It’s our flagship, an homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but I’m not sure I even like Chateauneuf any more,” he confesses. “We’re growing grenache in cooler sites now, cooler than the French, and this gives wines with more fragrance and acidity. In fact, wines that are more like pinot noir!”

Good wines, Randall, but my diagnosis is a serious case of pinot envy.

Retailers include Vaucluse Cellars and Annandale Cellars.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 24 April 2012.


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