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Jul 13, 2010
Embracing the Old World notion of terroir--the importance of place in winemaking--a Character Approved California vintner goes his own way to produce award-winning wines using low-tech agricultural practices.
On a recent trip to California Wine Country, we discovered Bonny Doon Vineyard when we got lost looking for giant trees. Our map showed a stand of coastal redwoods somewhere just north of Santa Cruz, California. We never found them, but instead stumbled upon the home of a revolutionary approach to California winemaking.
Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon's founder, owner and idiosyncratic "president-for-life," is one of the original US proponents of terroir, the long-held French idea that besides grapes and climate, the land itself contributes to the distinct flavor and quality of the wine produced there. In 2006, Grahm sold off two large, profitable wine labels--"doon-sizing" his annual production, as he called it, from 450,000 cases to about 30,000 cases--to concentrate on producing fewer, but superior wines intimately connected to place, to the soil. In a speech at University of California at Davis in February, Grahm said that terroir is "more than just a quaint Old World notion. Terroir is... truly 'somewhereness.'"
To better achieve this sense of place in his wines, since 2004, Grahm has strictly adhered to biodynamic viticultural practices. Biodynamic viticulture embraces certified organic farming methods, but also includes ethical-spiritual considerations, viewing the vineyard as a cohesive, interconnected living system. Grahm's vineyards are home to farm crops and even farm animals; all providing a natural balance to the soil that adds to the terroir and, as Grahm says, creates "a vineyard that is in tune with itself."
The mystical elements of this approach invite some skepticism. But a 2004 Fortune magazine blind taste test concluded that, "On the whole, the biodynamic wines were found to have better expressions of terroir, the way in which a wine can represent its specific place of origin in its aroma, flavor and texture."
Grahm is obviously getting it right. Last month, the Culinary Institute of America inducted him into the Vintners Hall of Fame. More important for wine drinkers everywhere, he produces consistently delicious, drinkable, award-winning wines. As serious as he is about wine, though, Grahm is legendary for his humor. He's been called a punster and a jester, the Willy Wonka of the wine world. You'll see it in his wine labels and on the quirky Bonny Doon website, but you won't taste it in his wines.
[Image: Bonny Doon Vineyard]