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Books,Wine,Wine Making,Winemaker,Winery

The Balloon Fairy Meets the Tooth Fairy

It wasn’t until I saw a Tweet from Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard that I realized he’s got yet another persona… the Tooth Fairy.

As a inveterate Tooth Fairy, myself, not only with my children, but also with my grandchildren, I just felt the joy of what he was up to. Can you believe that the Tooth Fairy also leaves money at a grandparent’s house, too? Well, it does.

In the “Fairy” theme, I take Fairies so seriously that I invented the Balloon Fairy years ago. When my first daughter Katie was just two years old, one night while she lay sleeping, I blew up about 100 balloons, and left them all over the living room floor for the next morning. When Katie came downstairs, I said, “Wow… Look, the Balloon Fairy came overnight, because you’ve been such a good girl!”

The Balloon Fairy made many trips to my house, for each of my daughters. I caught my daughter Melanie just before she took a dive into our bathtub. She carefully filled the tub with a floor full of them, and then thought that would be fun to do a dive into them all (porcelain tub). Only three, and she needed serious saving, so be forewarned. The image above was taken of me at my youngest daughter’s preschool. Lyla’s standing in front of me, looking at the balloon that the Balloon Fairy had just given her. Then, I got to hear all about the Balloon Fairy arriving as school when I picker her up… Pierrot face having been quickly removed.

Life’s a blast for those who blasts it, and tell me that this image of Randall doesn’t prove the point. (Image was take by photographer Alex Kraus, in 1998.) Grahm is one of those very special people who was put on this earth to do just that, have a blast… including knowing that the Tooth Fairy is one of life’s most precious roles, while crafting great wine is yet another one… As an alchemist, it’s all very magical… And then there’s Randall, understanding his role as the wizard.

When I first contacted Randall a few weeks ago, I had no idea he has a new book coming out like ASAP. We just started an Email interchange that’s allowed me to ask things I’d love to be asking him, if I was ever given the opportunity.

Low and behold, he’s got a book that I can’t wait to read, but meanwhile… I asked all my questions, and now I can share them with you.

I admire Randall as much as I did/still do Robert Mondavi. Randall’s done as much to bring wine into the forefront in a not-to-intimidating way. I believed going into this that the interview would be very insightful and fun. I apologized for not getting to know him sooner, because – as said to him – I greatly admire the man…the aura.

But the time had come to get to know Randall Grahm, and the following evolved back-and-forth over a few weeks. Given that he’s an extraordinary man, I asked extra-ordinary questions.

[Q]  As a child, what games did you enjoy playing, and why did you enjoy those games. (This will give me a lot of insight, that I won’t find anywhere else on the Web or your site, I’m thinking.)

[A]  I am happy to answer your question, but God only knows how it will inform my ouvre as a winemaker. As a kid, I’m sure that I played a number of different games, but the one that seems to have occupied essentially most afternoons from perhaps 3rd grade to 6th grade was “over-the-line,” essentially a sort of modified form of baseball that you could play with 4 or 6 kids (2 or 3 on a side). We lived just a block away from a dead-end street, which was ideal for the game (minimal traffic), and cars or fire hydrants could be employed as suitable markers for “the line,” (over which one hit the ball). The only possible take-aways from the game, which might at least theoretically inform my adult work, was the ability to improvise – a talent that has served me well as both a winemaker and a label art director. Hitting the ball where you want it to go is also important. I have sometimes said that winemaking is a lot like bowling. You don’t have to throw the ball terribly hard, but you do have to throw it straight for it to stay in balance. Otherwise you end up with the enological equivalent of a gutter-ball. Hope this is useful.

[Q]  This is a really great answer. It also addresses team playing, as opposed to someone who enjoyed solitaire. So… What was your “Aha!” moment with wine, that lead you to wanting to produce it?

[A]  Thanks. There were a couple of linked aha moments, and honestly I’m not sure which one was the one that was the real pivotal one. But, in more or less sequential order, 1) I spent the summer in Europe after finishing (but not graduating) UC Santa Cruz in 1974. I was in Jutland, Denmark for a week or so and met a woman who made wine (elderflower and other stuff) in her bathroom at a community college, where she taught. She was slightly eccentric and there was a definite alchemical quality to what she was doing. 2) Returning to California from Europe, I addressed a “senior thesis,” that was still due my department to complete my degree in Philosophy. I worked on it for about four months, got bogged down, and went to work in a wine shop in Beverly Hills, about two blocks from my parent’s house. I was exposed to some extraordinary wines – a mild understatement. It took a while for me to understand that it might be more interesting to learn how to make wines like this rather than simply sell them, but this was a first step. 3) After I left the wine shop, I took an Extension class at UCLA from Ralph Kunkee on home winemaking, and this made the whole process a lot more real to me. Sometime shortly thereafter, I wrote notes to a number of wineries in California, more or less volunteering my services. (I didn’t hear back from any of them). It was at that point that my direction was set and I enrolled myself at UC Davis in their viticulture program.

[Q]  When you came out of Davis, where did you go from there? Did you work for someone, or did you just begin your own business?

[A]  When I left Davis, I went to work for Dick Smothers (Smothers Winery) in Santa Cruz, as assistant winemaker. At about the same time, I was also beginning to clear land in Bonny Doon to begin plantation of a vineyard (pinot noir, chardonnay and Bordelais (!) varieties). I worked for Smothers for one year (1980) and then addressed myself to the vineyard and first vintage of wine under the Bonny Doon label (1981).

[Q]  What are your other interests, regardless of whether or not it’s related to wine (e.g., sailing, skiing, music, etc.?)

[A] Mostly it’s reading and writing, crossword puzzles, gardening (mostly weeding), and delighting in my six year old daughter.

[Q]  Which aspect(s) of wine do you most enjoy being as being involved?

[A]  I really like it all, apart from the selling end of things, which, alas, is one thing that I have lately been largely consigned to do. There are things that I do better than others, viz. writing about it, but ironically, that is also something that I would prefer to be doing a lot less of these days. In a perfect world, I’d be in the vineyard every day.

[Q]  How has your job changed since you’ve started?

[A]  When I first started, I actually was involved in everything, especially vineyard and cellar work. The business got many orders, and things became more complicated, more or less completely, taking me out of the vineyard and largely out of the winery (and mostly setting me down in an office). My work now is to try to figure out how to get back in the vineyard and cellar without becoming a major menace to the vines and wines.

[Q]  Who inspires you (wine business or outside of it, doesn’t matter)?

[A]  People who are sincerely following their passion, without a great degree of self-consciousness. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how skilled or not they are, it is how true they are to themselves.

[Q]  More questions about the artist in you, because you’re obviously a right brained person. Were you your original artist for Bonny Doon?

[A]   Not at all; I was the original art director for Bonny Doon, a job for which I had no previous qualification. But I was very privileged to work with Chuck House, the brilliant label designer, before he became famous. (He did the iconic Frog’s Leap label, and was responsible for the Cigare label, as well as all of the original Ca del Solo labels, among many others). Chuck was incredibly patient with me, and at least pretended that I had some good design ideas. But our collaboration was enormously successful and very gratifying, I believe to both of us.

[Q]  Brands, like Big House wines – which I know you sold – was created around the Soledad prison… And Bonny Doon from an area… do you find it easy to take inspiration from what’s close by and create the mythology? Does this happen by accident or by design?

[A]  I think that it is impossible for me to make the distinction between accident and design – the two are always intersecting. Chuck and I, both incredibly disorganized people, would typically meet in coffee houses around Sonoma County, always forgetting to bring along appropriate equipment and would often press into service ketchup bottles, salt shakers, etc., any impedimenta that we found lying around to help us in the label design. Certainly if we can create certain kinds of resonances and link one’s images to other, secondary meanings one can create more depth of experience in the label. The original notion behind Ca’ del Solo, for example, now totally obscured, was that it was to be a sort of “alternative Italy” – something on the Piemonte-Soledad border, if you will. I didn’t want the prison to look so much like a prison but rather somewhat ambiguously like an Italian villa. The Soledad prison is not architecturally so interesting, so we appropriated the architecture of the Alcatraz prison, which is certainly a lot more iconic and lodged somewhere in the unconscious of many potential buyers.

[Q]  You must surround yourself with really creative types of people. Where do you find your team members?

[A]  I have been fortunate to have been able to surround myself with some incredibly creative people over the years. I don’t find them; they seem to have crawled out of the woodwork to find me.

[Q] You’ve got a new book about to come out…

[A] Yes, the site beendoonsolong.com will be up by September 15, if nothing goes terribly wrong. The book is a compilation of all sorts of eclectic Dooniana – poems, stories, essays written over the last 20 years, along with some new material and articles collected from other writing that I have done. It’s pretty darn funny and an absolutely beautifully produced book.

[Q] At what point did you realize there was a book inside of you?

[A] There has always been a book inside of me; this one just took a while to come out.

[Q] What was your book writing experience/process?

[A] Well, most of these pieces were written for the newsletter that I had produced for a while. The original idea was that I would select some fairly well known literary piece – poetry or prose and parody it, somehow twisting it such that it became relevant to my particular part of the universe. I did this was Shakespeare, Poe, Basho, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, Eliot, Dante etc. It was enormous fun – really a bit of a puzzle. (And I like puzzles.) The editing/re-writing process was really a kind of polishing and was also a great joy, opportunity to rephrase things slightly more elegantly the second time around, correct embarrassing lapses.

[Q] Headed to the Northwest… After you sold Big House, I remember reading that you were going to be headed to – was it Washington state or Oregon? Did that ever happen?

[A] The story in the Chronicle was a bit misleading. Yes, indeed, I sold Big House and yes indeed, I founded a company in the Northwest, headquartered in Portland and operating out of W. Richland – Pacific Rim Wine Company. But in fact, I remain residing in Santa Cruz, where I continue to operate Bonny Doon Vineyard. The Northwest operation largely operates on its own; I am merely a totemic figurehead. Nicolas Quillé is the general manager and winemaker and he is doing a magnificent job. Pacific Rim is primarily focused on Riesling, made in a variety of styles – dry, off-dry, Vin de Glacière and sparkling. We are also working with some single vineyard Rieslings, including the magnificent Wallula Vineyard, which is being farmed biodynamically. This vineyard has so many cool things going for it – a pergola system, to provide very diffuse sunlight to the grapes, enhancing its aromatic potential and retaining acidity, a progressive irrigation system, to enhance rooting mass, as well as a full-time herd of sheep, eating the cover-crop and adding their special contribution to the terroir.

And there it ended… for now. Today’s September 14, and what a coincidence that this is all part of his hoopla! Congratulations, Randall! You’re right, people just do come to you. I never intended to have this post be launched on the same day as your Been Doon So Long site… Kismet kinda guy that you are.

4 Responses to “The Balloon Fairy Meets the Tooth Fairy”

  1. Sonadora says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading his new book too! Lots of posts this week around the wine blog word about Randall Graham and his book. He’s fun on twitter too, and actually talks to you!

  2. NicoRiesling says:

    Jo,

    Thank you for the good post and the little details I did not know about Randall (I can only imagine Randall running in shorts playing “over the line” in Beverly Hills).

    If you need details about our Riesling project, I will be happy to chat with you. Best.

    Nicolas

  3. Jo says:

    Nicole, talk to me. jo@diaz-communications.com

    Thanks for reading wine-blog!

    Randall doing “Over the line…” I’d like to see that one.

  4. Jo says:

    Sonadora,

    Yes, he’s a ball on twitter. I’m really impressed how he’s embraced Twitter. He *does* answer all Tweets. I believe he’s one of the most an amazing men I’ve met in the wine business…

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