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Bonny Doon stifles mirth, talks terroir

Times Staff Writer

AFTER two decades of not-so-gently ribbing those who dare to take wine seriously, winemaker Randall Grahm is dismantling his successful Bonny Doon Vineyard to create a smaller company that will take wine, well, very seriously.

Last week, Grahm sold his famously tongue-in-cheek 200,000 case-a-year Big House wine brand as well as the whimsically named 20,000 case-a-year Cardinal Zin line to the privately held Wine Group for an undisclosed price.

“I cashed out of the cash cow,” Grahm says. The deal slashes his company, which he says produces 400,000 cases of wine annually, by more than half. To further distance himself from Bonny Doon’s well-known mass-market wines, Grahm plans to isolate the remaining low-priced brands in a separately operated division called Pacific Rim, which will be located in Washington.

Going forward, what’s left of Bonny Doon will have a singular focus: making small-production, vineyard-specific wines using the extreme organic farming philosophy known as biodynamics. Expressing terroir -- the French term connoting wines that reflect the specific place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made -- is the goal.

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What’s next

GRAHM plans to buy or secure long-term leases for two new vineyards. One will be planted with grape varieties particular to France’s Rhone Valley for Bonny Doon’s most ambitious wines, sold under the Le Cigare Volant (Flying Saucer) label. The other will be devoted to Pinot Noir. Bonny Doon’s 125-acre Soledad, Calif., vineyard will be renovated to reduce the number of grape varieties grown there.

Grahm now is picking through his Santa Cruz-based company’s remaining wine brands, discarding some and keeping others to be reconfigured into a company tightly focused on making high-quality wines “with bragging rights,” he says. Bonny Doon’s current list of more than 30 wines will be reduced to fewer than eight.

Anyone familiar with Grahm’s penchant for whoopee-cushion humor and joyous lampoons of wine-world pretensions is probably waiting for the punch line. After all, this must be a joke. Bonny Doon wines are playful blends made from grapes Grahm often purchases from several regions.

His forte is maniacally clever marketing schemes that have introduced new, younger consumers to wine. Remember the “Death of the Cork” funerals he staged a few years ago to introduce screw caps on his wines? His widely read company newsletter is a jewel of self-deprecating humor.

“Randall is always pushing the envelope,” says Larry Stone, general manager of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate and one of America’s leading master sommeliers. When California vintners were narrowly focused on making Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot, Grahm made Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. “He explored what other people ignored and became more successful than he ever imagined. He is a serious winemaker who has made very good wine.”

“I have profound respect for the guy,” says Mark Mendoza, sommelier at Sona restaurant on La Cienega. “He made people aware that drinking wine is an everyday event.”

Jancis Robinson, a wine critic in Britain, has applauded Grahm for “injecting some fun into the world of wine.”

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One of Grahm’s now widely imitated strategies has been irresistibly amusing labels. The Big House wines refer to the Soledad vineyard’s location near the prison; the Le Cigare Volant labels carry illustrations of hovering cigars.

Even after Ohio banned Cardinal Zin wines from store shelves because the satiric label illustrations might be offensive to its citizens, Grahm betrayed no hint of a sober side. Cardinal Zin’s labels were never changed. The ban was eventually dropped.

But, Grahm now says, “I’m going to be in wine hell for a long time for provoking so much irreverence.” He has come to realize that his voluble wit masked the fact that he was making wines he knew could be better.

American wine critic Robert Parker shares that view. “It’s a shame one of the wine world’s most talented, innovative as well as funny people has become a poster boy for massive quantities of industrial-styled, innocuous wines,” Parker notes in his critique of the 2004 Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin Zinfandel.

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To fix the problem, says Grahm, he couldn’t just “get off the ride.” Overhauling the company would mean laying off half of his staff. As Bonny Doon racked up year after year of 20% annual increases in sales, Grahm says he was too successful to just quit because he wanted to make better wine.

Last week’s announcement was the culmination of a five-year transformation that Grahm says started when he began spending more time in Europe, where he learned about the biodynamic philosophy. And turning 50 years old and becoming a first-time father forced him to confront the gap between what he was saying and what he was doing, he says. “When you have a child, you can’t be a hypocrite. What you say and what you do have to be the same,” he says.

Grahm, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, originally set out to make great Pinot Noir. In 1979, after an extended stay at UC Santa Cruz as a philosophy student, followed by a stint at UC Davis’ School of Enology and Viticulture, Grahm bought vineyard land in Bonny Doon, near Santa Cruz, and worked hard to realize his Pinot Noir dream.

Unfortunately, he says, “the wines weren’t particularly good. That brought me up short.”

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He quickly abandoned Pinot Noir, grafting over those vines with Syrah and Viognier. His new wines were more successful and he gained attention as one of the early American vintners to focus on Rhone wines, dubbed the Rhone Ranger when he dressed up in a cowboy outfit and mask for a picture on the April 15, 1989, cover of Wine Spectator.

But after his vineyard became infested with Pierce’s disease, he sold it and began making wines with grapes from other people’s vineyards. As more American vintners began working with Rhone varieties, Grahm’s wines were quickly eclipsed.

Rethinking his strategy

THE problems in the vineyard “made me leery of making a commitment, of trying again to make great wine,” Grahm says. “I protected myself by making wine with grapes I bought. Just minimum expectations, rationalizing everything.” (He never had to worry about his sales staff questioning his decisions. His mother, Ruth Grahm, was his original Los Angeles salesperson and still represents Bonny Doon at events in Los Angeles.)

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In 1990, Grahm bought the Soledad vineyard, adding Italian varietals to his Rhone focus. By then, Bonny Doon was a marketing phenomenon, selling more than 30,000 cases of wine a year. Over the years, the product line expanded in a haphazard fashion, with wines being introduced, and abandoned, without a master plan, says John Locke, Bonny Doon’s creative director.

Today, the Bonny Doon website describes the Ca’del Solo wines, made, in part, from grapes grown in the Soledad Vineyard as: “an oenological kingdom in exile whose ancestral lands are located at the spiritual locus of the Soledad-Piedmonte-Liguria frontiers.”

It’s not clear what that means, nor is it clear that the Ca’del Solo wines will survive, says Locke. Bonny Doon’s executives are meeting daily trying to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t in the new company. “We come up with more questions than answers,” he says.

Production will stop on Bonny Doon’s Muscat Vin de Glaciere, Framboise, Malvasia Bianca, Clos de Gilroy and Old Telegram wines. Grahm is ending his European projects in Italy and France.

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“It’s a little scary, but not totally crazy,” Grahm says.

The “insurance policy,” he says, is the 120,000 case-a-year Pacific Rim brand. The division will produce the popular $10 Pacific Rim Riesling and Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc, introduce a Riesling Vin de Glaciere that will replace the Muscat, and make a new mass-market red wine. “If all else fails, Pacific Rim will be fine,” Grahm says.

Also expected to pad the bottom line is a shift to additional high-profit direct sales. Rather than rely on traditional distribution networks, Grahm wants to expand to 25% from the current 2% to 3% of Bonny Doon wines sold directly to consumers from the winery.

“I’ve been gun-shy. It’s time to get over it and try for something great,” Grahm says.

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