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Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard's Latest Mission

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Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge Famed winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard at his winery's tasting room. - JEFF KIRSHBAUM
  • Jeff Kirshbaum
  • Famed winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard at his winery's tasting room.
Jeff Kirshbaum
Famed winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard at his winery's tasting room.
Bonny Doon Vineyard's founder and winemaker Randall Grahm wants to do something really different. Once he ran the 28th largest winery in the U.S.; these days he's on a quest to grow grape vines from seed. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the wine world it's pretty much considered reinventing the wheel, as most new vines come from vine cuttings (clones) grafted onto root stock.

Grahm's mission plays out on his 75-acre biodynamic farm and estate vineyard in San Juan Bautista, a lush farming region east of Santa Cruz, just northeast of Salinas. Using a "totally esoteric technique," per Grahm (explained in depth on his award-winning wine blog) Grahm will be producing grape vines via hybridization. The result: vines that will be genetically distinct and more prone to geotropism, meaning they will root very far down, eventually resulting in original, terroir-driven wines.

And what's so special about terroir driven wines?

click to enlarge A selection of Bonny Doon Vineyard wines at the Cellar Door restaurant, Santa Cruz - KATHY A. MCDONALD
  • Kathy A. McDonald
  • A selection of Bonny Doon Vineyard wines at the Cellar Door restaurant, Santa Cruz
"Wines of terroir: they have life force or chi," says Grahm. Noting that "it's not just hippie-dippy, it's demonstrable, and as they resist oxidation, they're more stable once a bottle is opened." With almost 30 years of winemaking experience, he's found not all vineyards are created equally. "Just like with people, some are extroverts, others are not, some terroir is more expressive," says Grahm, who aspires to producing a true vin de terroir. "A great terroir stands out; it is remarkable," Grahm writes.

The paradox, says Grahm, is that it will be eight to ten years for the project to come to fruition. But "no great wines exist without great vineyards." In the meantime, using the latest 19th century sustainable farming techniques, he's growing row crops on the acreage: parsley, basil, sage, zucchini, melons, potatoes and seven tons of heirloom tomatoes to come. A polyculture, heirloom fruit trees will be planted alongside the vines in addition to 500 olive trees.

Some of the produce is intended for Grahm's restaurant, Cellar Door that is adjacent to his winery tasting room on Santa Cruz's Westside. The menu changes daily to reflect what's in season. Recent choices ranged from smoked fingerling potatoes served with aioli to a Garden Green pizza with local Bellwether ricotta. (The greens -- basil, arugula, parsley and green garlic -- were all from his farm).

Grahm opened Cellar Door to showcase his wines, which are intended to pair well with food. "These are not high-scoring Parker wines; they're not fruit bomb wines; they are elegant wines, and the restaurant is an occasion to expose the wines well," says Grahm. More philosophical and articulate than your typical winemaker, Grahm's blog is nominated again for a Wine Blog Award and his book, Been Doon So Long, earned a James Beard award in 2010. He also has close to half a million followers on Twitter (@randallgrahm). Bonny Doon's wine labels reflect that artistic and literary bent: Ralph Steadman famously created a label for Cardinal Zin.

Grahm grew up in Beverly Hills and got his start in the wine business at the Wine Merchant, where he tasted extraordinary first growth wines almost every day. (A 1964 Cheval Blanc, for example). He eventually realized that to afford wines of that quality he had to make them himself. "I really want to make wines that will age and can go the distance," says Grahm. "I think we can do that." Discover firsthand as Grahm pours some of his latest releases at DomaineLA on Thursday night June 23, paired with appetizers from Salt's Cure.

Among the wines he'll be pouring are Bonny Doon's 2010 Vin Gris de Cigare, a pale but perfect rosé of Grenache and his well-balanced 2009 DEWN Cinsault, sourced from two vineyards.

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