Got to get back to the land and set my soul free . . .
This bit of wine news dates back to the end of July, but it only came to my attention when the Los Angeles Times got around to reporting it in this week's Wednesday Food section:
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (last featured on this weblog here) has gone and sold off brands accounting for more than half his production. Bonny Doon will no longer be producing wine under the Big House (200,000 cases/year in Red, White & Pink varieties) or Cardinal Zin (20,000 cases/year of zinfandel from "gnarly old vines") brands. Grahm is considering selling off or eliminating a number of other Bonny Doon wines, and will be spinning off the winery's remaining lower-priced lines as a separate company "Pacific Rim," to be headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
The goal is to return Bonny Doon to its roots as an outlet for Grahm's pet obsession with wine as an expression of the place where it is grown:
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.
Grahm plans to buy or secure long-term leases for two new vineyards. One will be planted with grape varieties particular to France's Rhône 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.
The Big House and Cardinal Zin brands have been purchased by The Wine Group, the enormous if low-profile company behind such mass brands as Franzia (which bears the name of but is not in fact associated with "Two-Buck Chuck" mogul Fred Franzia), Corbett Canyon and [gack!] Mogen David. The erstwhile Doon labels will be rolled into the portfolio of The Wine Group's recently launched subsidiary, Underdog Wine Merchants. [Caution: The Underdog site immediately launches a music player playing acid lounge and techno. Turning down or muting speakers is recommended before clicking.]
As part of the Underdog portfolio, Big House and the Cardinal will join a group of wines from around the world being marketed specifically to "millenials," the young adults who have come of age in the past half-decade or so. (This July 14 press release articulates the strategy.) Underdog's wines feature zippy labels with clever-clever brand names such as "Tempra Tantrum" (Tempranillo from Spain), "Pinot Evil" (Pinot Noir from California's Central Coast and from France), and "Devil's Marbles" (Chardonnay and Shiraz from Australia). They are, in short, everything that Randall Grahm now aspires not to be.
In the LA Times article linked above, Grahm suggests that his decision to prune his winery back to its essences is driven in part by his having turned 50 and become a father in the past few years. Is his renewed embrace of his youthful ideals a symptom of mid-life crisis? Is estate grown, biodynamic wine expressing a spectrum of terroir the viticultural equivalent of a flashy red convertible and a blonde? Time, and a bottle, will tell.
Of related interest:
- The Bonny Doon site's official biographical sketch of The Founder, featuring a somewhat disturbing moving image of Randall Grahm's head adrift in the audience chamber of Oz, the Great and Powerful.
- The Phenomenology of Terroir: A Meditation by Randall Grahm, a paper delivered this past April at the Appellation America Terroir Conference at UC Davis. Link via Tom Wark's Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog. Tom has additional musings on biodynamic farming, here.
- Not linkable, unfortunately, but biodynamics turns up in at least two articles in the current (August 2006) issue of Wine&Spirits Magazine, which by coincidence I picked up yesterday at the Sacramento airport. One article focuses on current developments in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, where wineries including Quivira and Preston are embracing biodynamic approaches, and the other profiles three of the county's grandest, oldest Zinfandel vineyards. There's good wine reading to be had there.