Can Randall Grahm Be The First To Truly Capture California's Terroir?

It’s been nearly 40 years since California winemaker Randall Grahm planted his first vines in hopes of making the great American Pinot Noir, one as mysterious and awe-inspiring as a fine red Burgundy. When that didn't work out, Grahm planted Rhône varieties, launching him to superstar status for his Bonny Doon wines and earning him the “Rhône Ranger” moniker.

Despite the achievement of Bonny Doon, as well as other successful projects, Grahm has yet to make what he believes is a true vin de terroir. His obsession these days goes beyond recreating Burgundy, Rhône or any other style, but to create a truly distinctive California wine, one that boasts the unique characteristics of the place it comes from.

With that in mind, Grahm has acquired an extraordinary property that he named Popeluchum — a Mutsun Indian word meaning both village and paradise. Here, in the small town of San Juan Bautista on California’s Central Coast, he’s planting vineyards in soils that have never grown grapes before. Along with popular varieties like Grenache, he's growing obscure ones like Furmint and Ruché.

But what he’s most excited about is his ambitious breeding program of brand-new grape varieties. “Grahm aims to produce an entirely new, climate-adapted American varietal by crossing unlikely pairs of European grapes.” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker

Grape Collective caught up with Grahm to talk about the challenges of doing something original.

Randall GrahmLisa Denning: Can you tell us how you got into winemaking? 

Randall Grahm: I got into the wine business by accident because I wandered into a wine shop in Southern California a number of years ago and ended up working there and being exposed to extraordinary bottles of wine as a very young person. Then, as much as I love tasting wine, drinking wine, selling wine and talking about wine, I had the intuition that maybe learning how to make wine would be a more fulfilling life and it has, in fact. It's worked out really, really well.

You studied philosophy in the past. How does that inform your winemaking today?
Excellent question. I know it has an effect and I know it's generally a solitary effect but I couldn't really precisely tell you how. I think it's helped support a sense of curiosity, and I think curiosity is the key to creativity. It's interesting because many times I'm working in areas I've never been before. There's no one I can talk to. There's no one I can ask advice so I have to really work by, if you will, first principles. I just apply logic, amazing as that might seem, and that often helps me work through problems.
In the 1980s you became part of a movement that became known as the Rhône Rangers promoting the use of Rhône varietals in Californina. How did that come about?
That happened again by accident because when I was younger and a student at Davis, I had a childish obsession with Burgundy and Pinot Noir. All I wanted to do is produce a great Burgundian style Pinot Noir in California. Why? Because it was a difficult thing to do and Burgundy is so great. But I was missing the point, which is that Burgundy already exists and what is truly the point of trying to copy it, replicate it in the new world? It's a clever parlor trick if you can do it. But ultimately it's not the most useful use of one's time. I think there are more interesting things one can do.

My efforts to make a great Pinot Noir were, luckily for me, thwarted at every turn. I failed. It was actually Kermit Lynch who got me interested me in Rhône varieties and again, using logical reasoning, it seemed like it was warm and dry in Southern France and warm and dry in the Central Coast of California so maybe the varieties of Southern France would have some utility in California. Simple hypothesis but correct, as it turned out. I've kept doing what I'm doing due to intermittent positive reinforcement. In other words, it's worked well most of the time so I've kept doing it.
Do you think it's possible in California with its hot and dry climate to even create a wine that's as magical as the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy?
No, I don't think so but we should not give up hope because there are other great wines out there. It's one of my obsessions, thinking about how to make an elegant wine in a Mediterranean climate, which does not conduce to elegance particularly. It turns out that there are grape varieties that are capable of real elegance in a warmer climate, like Grenache grown in a cool enough spot. I wouldn't call Fresno a particularly appropriate place to make elegant wines but in Central Coast there are moderately cool spots. And then this funny grape called Tibouren noir, also known as Rossese, I think is capable of real elegance too. I want to make Burgundy. I just have concluded I'm not going to make it out of Pinot Noir. I'll just use something else.
Tell us about your latest project, Popelouchum.
It's a very ambitious project, I'll say. I was fortunate to purchase a property in a funny little town called San Juan Bautista, which is in the Central Coast of California, near Hollister and San Benito County. My principle, overarching aim is to produce wines of place. For me, these are the only wines that matter. The question is how can I produce something like a wine of place, a vin de terroir, in a relatively short period of time without multiple generations to observe and iterate?

The other thing that obsesses me is the idea of producing unique wines. There's plenty of wines in the world. There's more than enough ordinary wine. I'm just tired of making wines that are not needed and I think wines of place make the world more interesting so that's the broad outline of what I want to do and then there's some crazy specific things that I want to do.
The most ambitious part of the project is the plan to breed 10,000 new grape varieties from scratch. The details are still being worked out. For example, I'm still not sure whether I'm going to be able to incorporate any Vitis arizonica resistant grapes into the mix. That would add a number of years to the project but it's something I'm studying, the idea of incorporating Pierce's disease-resistance or mildew-resistance grapes into the genetic makeup. That would be quite interesting if I can do it without sacrificing quality. That's the plan.

Why breed 10,000 grapes? There are thousands of vinifera grapes already and many of them are quite interesting and underrepresented so why do this? The answer is two things. There's two bets that I'm making with this notion. One is that by creating 10,000 new things, you can look at them side by side and observe which ones are the most congruent to the site, which ones are unique and special. This, of course, presupposes that you actually know what you're looking for and that you are able to discern beauty if it's looking at you right in the face. That's one question.

The other question is a philosophical question. What would wine taste like if it were composed of a genetically heterodox set? In other words, each plant is genetically distinctive from the other, all from common parents. The question is, would that sum to polyphony or cacophony? Would it give you absolutely unique new ones that you couldn't achieve any other way or would it just be self-canceling? Nobody knows because no one has ever tried it. I think the answer is that it probably depends how lucky we are, how clever we are on a million things. But, it's possibly a way of producing something that was absolutely not there before and impossible to replicate. Whether it's any good, that's another question altogether. Definitely it would be unique.
Where does the Popelouchum name come from?
Popelouchum is the Mutsun Indian name for the general locality around San Juan Bautista. It translates in the Mutsun language either generically as the village, or as paradise. It certainly is a form of paradise.

Can you tell us about the terroir at Popelouchum and the varietals you're using there?
What's interesting about the site is the geology as we are located right on the San Andreas Fault. It's actually one of the boundary lines of the property and it's quite exciting. There's been a lot of turning over of the soils over the years. We have some beautiful limestone soils, very high percentage of free lime, some granitic soils, some volcanic soils, all of which I think are potentially very strong terroir. 

I'm going to propose a very radical notion, which is that if you have a strong and interesting terroir and a great site, I think you can grow a fairly complex range of different varieties successfully. There are certain varieties like Pinot Noir that are quite specific, but in many terroirs, there are multiple solutions. I don't know that you have to sweat getting the variety exactly right. But, what you need is starting with an interesting site, with an interesting soil. Having said that, we're growing some of the Southern Rhône varieties. The Grenache family looks great. We've got some Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Grenache noir planted and they're doing exceptionally well. We've planted some Furmint. Hopeful for Furmint. We're going to get a little bit of crop this year. We're growing some oddball Italian grapes, one is called Ruché from Piedmont. That's looking really good. I'm hopeful for a grape called Timorasso. We might be a little warm for Timorasso, but it could be good. Down the road, we're going to do some crosses and I haven't yet decided completely what are going to be the parents of the crosses, but I'm inclined slightly towards Furmint and Ciliegiolo as parents. I can't even explain to you why I've chosen those. It's strong intuition and it could be just completely out to lunch. Now I'm trying to find some scientific principles that would perhaps enable me to justify this wild concept.
How many acres do you have planted?
We've only planted probably 12 or 14 acres and most of it is still planted to rootstock. We've done something quite interesting in the land of rootstock. Professor Andy Walker and I went to Texas and collected wild Vitis berlandieri grapes and brought them back to California and then germinated the seeds and planted the seedlings as rootstock and now we're going to fill the bud, the rootstock. No one has ever done this before. It should work but we don't know for sure. We'll see.
Sounds like a lot of experimentation going on.
Yes, which really underscores the need for a good solid cashflow in other areas of the business to subsidize this folly because it's largely not remunerative. Really fun but fiscally, it's just insane.
How far away is it from producing wine?
We produced two barrels of Grenache blanc, Grenache gris that I brought with me today, a couple of bottles. Very small batches. One is 15 gallons. One was 30 gallons but you can taste for yourself and see. They're pretty extraordinary. 
You're doing things differently from a lot of other people. Are there any other winemakers that you look at and you say, "Wow, those guys are doing really interesting things?"
Yeah, most of these guys are not in the United States but Sashi Moorman is. He's doing something quite similar to what I'm doing with Pinot Noir. He actually took Pinot Noir seeds and germinated them. I think Pinot Noir is even more complicated to do than some of these other grapes but it's fantastic that he's done it and maybe he'll find something quite interesting. 

Most wineries are not really plugged into the viticultural research. It's a lot of work and a lot of time and money. As a culture, we generally don't like things with a 15 and 20 and 30 year horizons. That's too long for our patience. But there are people making very good wines in California. That's for sure. There's a renaissance I think, and in Europe. The problem with Europe is that there's so many rules and restrictions that if you wanted to do half the things that I would want to do, they'd just put you in jail prophylactically, just for your own good, because you can't do a lot of things there.
There's all kinds of experimental wines in Friuli, Italy. The Italians are very idiosyncratic. I think they just don't like to copy one another. Just like, "If you're doing this, I'm sorry. I can't do that. I have to do this other thing because I just have to. I'm Italian." But again the problem is they can't do a lot of these things legally. For example, Caprai is working with trying to improve Sagrantinos. He's doing something with Sagrantino seedlings. I don't know that it's legal. I think he's found a little loophole and there are a few other people who are growing grapes from seeds in Europe but most of them are not doing it legally. They're just doing it on the down low, if you will.

Let's talk about the California wine industry these days. There seemed to be two schools, the big, high alcohol, in your face wines versus the more refined, lower alcohol style. What changes have you seen in recent years?
There's probably an infinite number of schools, but I think that's a generally accurate characterization and the former is winning at the moment although I'm hoping we will mount a reasonable resistance. I would differentiate it a couple of different ways. There's what I would characterize as confected wine, and then then there are others I'd characterize as wines of effort or wines of place. There are wines that are very controlled and almost formulaic and they're doing very well these days. They're sweet. They're alcoholic. They're soft. They're formulaic. Real wines come from a real place and they're idiosyncratic and some of them are flawed, but they have real personality and I think they speak to real wine lovers in a deeper way than these confected monstrosities.There is a market for both and of course the marketers, if you will, are doing their best to create confusion between these two categories.

You've been a successful marketer of some big brands. There can be a fine line with marketing, where people almost look down upon it and feel the winemaker is not being authentic. What is your feeling about marketing?

Well, I'm deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, I'm obviously thankful for the success I've had marketing certain wines over the years but I think it has definitely tarred the image. If you are perceived as being too facile a marketer, people may not take the wines that you produce as seriously as they could. I used to have a brand called Big House. I think I've been slightly tarred with the Big House brush. On my tombstone, I'm hoping that the little citation will say, "This time I'm serious." 

Bonny Doon winemaker and owner Randall Grahm interviewed by Dorothy J. Gaiter
What would you say has been your greatest challenge in your career?
That's a good question. I was going to say to make wines that I'm really proud of but I think the biggest challenge is to do something original. It's very hard to do something original, but it's supremely worthwhile. I still feel that I haven't yet met the challenge. On the other hand, I don't know why I feel this, but I feel like I'm at the beginning of my career rather than the end of my career which could be a useful fantasy but hopefully it's useful even if it's a fantasy.

You have made some great wines so it sounds like you're your own worst critic.
Yeah, I've made a couple and I'm quite self-critical alas but I'm told that artists are perfectionists and I think it's not bad to have certain self-criticism.

You're farming your new property biodynamically. Why do you feel it's important to follow biodynamic principles?
Well, I'm not an ideologue at all. It's just empirically it seems to work really well and the whole principle, the whole rationale for farming biodynamically is that you want to produce wines with more life, more vitality by having a healthier microflora in the soil. Anything that builds up a healthy soil is all to the good and I'm using not just biodynamics but other methodologies and techniques to enhance the life of the soil. For example, we're a non-till. We don't cultivate, which is extremely important. We use material called biochar, which is essentially activated charcoal and compost, and that really seems to have a very important role in building up microbial populations in the soil.

Then there's natural winemaking, which some people like and some people don't like but it's somewhat ambiguous to what it really is. What is your feeling about the whole natural wine movement?
On the one hand, I'm grateful that it exists. On the other hand, there are a lot of really undrinkable wines produced in the name of natural wines. I'm certainly very much in favor of minimal intervention and especially the use of additives like sulfur dioxide. But, on the other hand, I don't want to see wines become science fair experiments gone terribly wrong and that often happens when you don't use any sulfur. If you don't use sulfur, you really have to understand what you're doing and you need to be lucky. You probably need to sell your wine locally, not ship it more than 50 miles from where it originated, probably drink it very, very early. Having said that, just last night, I had a wine from Jean-Michel Stephan, a Côte Rôtie, where he uses minimal sulfites and the wine was absolutely glorious. If you can figure out a way to make wine with minimal sulfites and keep the microbes down to a dull roar, you've achieved something great. But just simply doing something and rolling the dice and hoping for the best I think is perhaps slightly irresponsible.

It's your last meal on earth, what would you have to drink and eat with it?
Oh, my gosh. Burgundy of course because I would need some courage. I would be about to enter into this new adventure so Burgundy of some sort, older probably. Maybe Musigny. Maybe an older Comte de Vogue white Musigny would be a very nice way to go. Comforted. As far as eating, I don't know. Maybe a nice, simple plate of cheese. You're not worried at this point about ramifications because it's your last meal. You can live it up as it were.
Just cheese?
Well, cheese and wine. I'm gluten-free but who cares? It's my last meal. I'll have some nice bread too.

Read more from Lisa Denning on Grape Collective and The Wine Chef.

More on Randall Grahm: 

Dorothy J. Gaiter interviews Randall Grahm for Grape Collective.
Alan Goldfarb profiles Randall Grahm for Grape Collective.
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.