Randall Grahm has been busy building wine culture in Santa Cruz ever since he founded Bonny Doon Vineyard in 1983, in which time he has pioneered Rhone blends, popularized funky, irreverent label designs, and “made the world safe for screw tops” on nice wines. It was for these reasons and oh-so-many more that, just last week, the California Travel Association named Bonny Doon the 2011 Winery of the Year. I recently sat down with Grahm over a glass of freshly bottled Le Cigare Volant (their flagship wine, for those of you who have yet to enter The Dooniverse) to discuss everything from biochar (he swears “it’ll save the world”) to the new wine scene on Santa Cruz’s Westside. Pour yourself a glass, read on, and enjoy.
Talk us through ‘The Dooniverse’—what exactly is it?
It’s a goofy term, but basically it is an attitude of openness to exploration and possibility, and understanding that not only is life too short to drink bad wine, but life is too short to drink the same wine. We should embrace diversity and heterogeneity in our experience. It’s really boring if all the wines taste alike, so we like exploring, experimenting, perfecting and trying to find something truly distinctive to do. That’s my mantra these days—find the things that are truly unique. Ultimately, that comes from place. In other words, there are only so many winemaking tricks that exist and so, ultimately, real distinctiveness comes from location.
Speaking of place, you recently purchased an estate in San Juan Bautista. What are the plans for the new location?
We’ll be doing permaculture and polyculture, which is kind of unusual. It will be more a garden than a farm. We’ll also be growing produce there for the restaurant [Cellar Door Café]. We’re using interesting new tools that I’m pretty excited about, particularly one method called biochar, which is amazing; it’s actually going to save the world. Essentially it’s charcoal, however when you mix it with compost it takes on some other properties, including the ability to hold on to water very tightly. It enhances the water-holding capacity of the soil, and more importantly it enhances microbial life in the soil, so the beneficial microbes grow exponentially and you get much healthier, more nutritious crops with better disease resistance. And just better tasting wine.
Does it make for more nutritious wines also?
I can’t claim that, of course, but I’m almost certain it does. I can’t explain the mechanism of how this works, but what I’m looking for in wine are wines with life force—in other words, wines that resist oxidation. I am completely convinced that minerals play an important role in this—in other words, soils that are rich in minerals and soils, and that are rich in microbes that extract minerals, tend to produce wines that have this life force. And it’s not this mystical thing—you can observe it.
Following the closure of your Bonny Doon estate, your presence here in Santa Cruz changed a bit also. You’re now one of 12 wineries packed in the Westside.
This is an interesting area on the Westside. Because of the proximity to the university and a number of historical reasons, this is an arts and crafts community. We have a lot of artisans, metal workers, wood workers, sculptors, fine artists, many of whom have worked on various parts of the project here. The Westside is becoming a very…[long pause] … It’s becoming civilized. It’s taking time, but it’s happening. We’ve been here in one incarnation or another for 20 years. We used to have the whole building [on Ingalls Street], and we shrunk it.
How did that downsizing come about?
It was slow, but then it was cataclysmic. Five years ago I sold our large brands—Big House Red and Cardinal Zin—and dramatically shrunk the portfolio of the winery. We went from 450,000 to about 35,000 cases [a year] and we’re shrinking—now we’re at about 24,000.
What was your intention with that?
Focus. I was not totally happy with the wines we were making at the time. I felt I’d lost the thread of why I’d gotten into the wine business in the first place. I turned 50 and had my first, and only child, and had a whiff of mortality—a moment of “Is this really all I’m going to accomplish in this lifetime?” I thought it was time to aim higher, and even if I failed, I wanted to at least have felt that I tried to do something very special. Not just make the world safe for screw caps (which was fun) or for goofy labels, all of which was great. But I wanted to do more.
And by selling some of your Westside property, it allowed for the influx of wineries that formed this cluster.
It’s great. The only regret I have personally is that I would love to be in a vineyard. There is the little bit of ambivalence about being in an industrial area. That’s the one part I’m missing. I am hoping to rectify that soon by planting more vineyards, possibly even up in Bonny Doon again and [at our new] San Juan Bautista estate.
Most of the wineries here don’t have nearby vineyards. It’s sort of an urban wine scene here on the Westside.
There are issues in Santa Cruz given that there isn’t much land for vineyards—land is very expensive and parcels tend to be very small. Not like Paso Robles or other places where there are larger, contiguous parcels. … My point—and there is one—is that in areas where you have large concentration of wineries, like Napa, the good side is that they all force each other to reach a certain quality level, and therefore the minimum level is very good. The bad news, however, is that in those areas, sometimes, there’s an enormous pressure to conform. In other words, there’s an expectation that ‘this is how things are done.’ So I think that is the weakness and the strength of Santa Cruz. We are individualists and non-conformists, and we don’t necessarily have the model that it has to be done a certain way. Everyone does it [his or her] own way, and we tend to be independent thinkers. That’s either a really good thing, or a really bad thing.
But overall it makes for an interesting bunch.
Do visitors flock here from faraway places?
Santa Cruz goes crazy during the summer, and we see a lot of European visitors, which is nice.
What do Europeans think of your wine?
Well, they recognize it as wine. I shouldn’t speak ill of my colleagues, but many New World wines are so intense and overblown and overdone that when a European tastes them, they just shake their head—they don’t recognize it as wine. They aren’t sure what to make of it. Europeans are less interested in wines that make a statement; wines that are important. They want wines that go with food, wines that they can drink—they actually like wine. It’s not so much about impressing people, or flaunting what you have, but about having wines that you can enjoy.
Yeah—what a concept!
Do you have a personal favorite from your wine list?
My personal favorite is the wine I am going to make next year, whatever that will be. I dream of wines that are utterly different. I think about wines the way people think about discovery of new species, or new planets. New stars. I think a great wine should be as distinctive as a star, or a planet, or a bird, or a fern, or a frog. Something that exists as a singularity.