Can Wine Be Funny? A Conversation With Randall Grahm
The Bonny Doon "terroirist" can't stay serious long
A man holds his glass of glimmering red liquid up to the light, then swirls it, sniffs it, looks at it askance as he swishes the wine around in his mouth and puckers his lips. It's an almost comic premise, and yet few oenophiles would ever laugh at the act of nosing and tasting wine. Why is wine so serious that we can't joke about it? Randall Grahm is perhaps the most iconoclastic of wine world eccentrics, so when offered a chance to chat with him before a pairing dinner of his Bonny Doon wines at The Spotted Pig in NYC, I set out to talk about why wine and humor don't seem to mix.
The topic seemed to make his eyes light up. After all, this is the man who built and later sold one of American wine's biggest brands, Big House, which he'd named referring to a penitentiary near one of his vineyards. A man who commissioned a comic strip to run as an ad in Wine Advocate. A man who held a mock-funeral for corks to help promote screwcaps. Not to mention his witty wine-soaked, pun-fueled texts (a poem: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Rootstock"; a rock opera, Born To Rhone; a book, Been Doon So Long). So last week, while April Bloomfield and her team prepared lamb's tongue, skirt steak and other dishes to pair with Bonny Doon's excellent Le Cigare Volant wines and a just-bottled Riesling (named, of course, the Heart Has Its Rieslings) in the Spotted Pig's private dining room, Grahm and I discussed the humor question, as well as his 30-plus-year career taking advantage, you might say, of low hanging fruit, as well as what he's working on next.
Let’s talk about a sense of humor in wine, which has been a hallmark of your wines and wineries—
Sure but it cuts both ways. It’s a bit like Woody Allen: when he makes serious films nobody wants to see his serious films; they just want to see his funny films. And when I try to make serious wines nobody is really interested. They want my lighthearted, fun, less serious efforts.
Like Bonny Doon's A Proper Claret?
The claret’s a bit of a re-version, if you will. What I’m most interested in are wines of place. And wines of place are by definition self-effacing. The winemaker needs to step aside and let the wine really speak. The winemaker does not want to be obtrusive at all. So when you clutter your labels with too much shtick, it’s very hard for the wine to come through. It’s a complicated question like the branding: How do you basically say, this time I’m serious.
You’ve even done a comic strip as an advertisement—
Ha, yes, I’m doomed. Dooned.
And the puns!
Oh dear, yeah.
But people who know wine aren’t going to stop taking you seriously because of your message, surely?
I don’t know. I don’t understand anything about luxury branding. There’s a whole set of expectations for serious wines. You wouldn’t want Château Latour to be a comic book label. You just wouldn’t.
Château Latour isn’t from California though.
Right, but the label, everything you do, signifies something. We’re always communicating, we’re always making a statement, and it’s important to manage those statements. You don’t want to micromanage, but it’s important to know what image you’re presenting.
What about the art aspect. That has a serious side. A Proper Claret label has a well-executed painting, and the wine is very food-friendly but it’s not goofy—
Well, except for the guy’s wearing red fishnet stockings.
You've worked with acclaimed artists like Ralph Steadman and Gary Taxali. Who did the Claret label?
I’m so lucky to work with Bascove, who is a fine fine artist. She actually did the covers for Robertson Davies’ novels. She’s painted the bridges of the New York’s five boroughs — not literally the bridges, but representations of the bridges. So she’s a very serious artist but also with a great sense of humor and kind of a mysteriousness to her work. That’s what saves it from being slapstick.
Has having a point of view ever hurt you?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t meant to complain but I’m tarred by the Big House brush until the end of my days. It’s the old joke that, You fuck one goat and what do they call you? Big House is my one goat. It’s been challenging to create a sense of gravitas about the other wines by virtue of association with the lighthearted comic nature of Big House.
You think people fault you for trying to create wines that would actually sell though?
There’s this fine tension between art and commerce. The secret of being a great marketer of a luxury brand is creating the impression that you don’t give a shit whether anyone buys your wine.
"That’s the tragic downfall of Napa Valley. It takes itself so bloody seriously and they don’t really have a right to."
Why is there such a void of humor in the wine world?
We in the New World should have a sense of humor and a sense of humility about what we do, because we don’t have the answers. In Europe, they do have the answers. They know what to grow, they know what to do. Their job is just to not screw it up. Our job is to figure it all out and we’ve got to make mistakes and we’ve got to look foolish and we can’t take ourselves so seriously. That’s the tragic downfall of Napa Valley. It takes itself so bloody seriously and they don’t really have a right to. They haven’t been doing it long enough to have that authority, I think. They’re making it up as they go along and pretending that they’re not.
You were talking about finding the sense of place. California’s trying to resolve: do we have a terroir, and if so, how do we do something with it? How do you weigh in? Where’s it gonna end up?
I don’t know where it’s gonna end up. That’s not my job. I don’t think our wines yet show a sense of place, certainly not in a way that European wines do. If we do something right it’s usually done accidentally. By and large, with a few exceptions, the way we grow grapes in California is not really suited to the expression of place. We drip irrigate. When you drip irrigate, to me it’s a non-sequitur to talk about a sense of place, because you’ve effaced that sense of place. So many of the California wines are just exaggerations. They’re cartoons.
For the past few years you’ve been working on starting a vineyard from scratch in San Juan Bautista. What can you tell us about that?
San Juan Bautista is not known for its grapes. In fact there are no grapes, but it’s a perfectly good place to grow grapes. Interesting soils, really interesting exposures and the climate is good though it could use more rain. That’s the one thing that distresses me: I’d like to see more rain. Here’s the paradox: I want to dry-farm, but if I plant grapes that are more suitable, there are going to be a lot of other vineyards all around, and the other thing I want to do is grow grapes from seed, and that precludes the idea of having neighbors with vineyards because you don’t want Phyloxerra infecting your vineyards. You want to be able to plant on your own roots.
It’s still many years away from realization and all it is is this platonic idea of a new model for wine in California. It’s radical and it may be completely nuts.
You could always say it was just a big joke, right?
Right! I hope not. Even if it doesn’t do what I think it’s going to do, it’s going to be interesting. It’ll be unlike anything else out there. Like any artist who is in new territory it’s a matter of knowing where to put the frame. Is it done? Is it art yet?
Have you planted the vines?
We planted a few but we haven’t yet done the crazy things I want to do.
Are you drawing from a lot of science?
This ain’t science. I mean, there is a bit of science. It’s art and intuition and inspiration and luck and karma and god knows what else.
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