Red Wine, White Wine, Blue Ocean

I was given some rather vague marching orders when asked to talk to you. ((These remarks were delivered at the annual meeting of Ohio wine and beer distributors, held February 18, 2011, in Napa Valley.))  Something something something about what was interesting to me about the Napa Valley. (Pregnant silence….)

You should probably know that I’m not really from around here, I’m from Santa Cruz—and there is no shortage of baggage that comes with that appellation. Surf’s up, dude, and just what kind of Cigare are you smoking? But for me, coming to this part of the world is a bit like traveling to another planet. Maybe Planet Wine Hollywood?

What I’d like to talk to you about, in fact, is the state of the wine industry, at least as I see it, and maybe reflect a bit on what the future might hold for us all.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped any of you that the California wine industry is in a rather parlous state these days. There is no longer as much good-natured competition among neighboring colleagues; the discourse is dominated instead by rather grim zero-sum calculations, as we each vie for a diminuendoing slice of the pie. We are competing now with winemakers and wineries from all around the world, large and small—from sheep-loving Kiwis; with militarily-efficient Chilean operations; with the artisanal, vowel-challenged winemakers in Slovenia and other parts of Eastern Europe; and with of course the opportunistic virtual wineries or “negoce” businesses—those creatures-of-a-day brands that are predicated on sourcing wine in bulk, (well below the cost of its production) and selling it on the principle that one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.

Meanwhile, up on the higher end, it does appear that every high net worth individual—be he rock star, aging professional athlete, plastic surgeon or periodontist, windfall millionaire or billionaire—has simultaneously decided that he (it usually is a he, because the wine business is largely dominated by male hormones) needs to have a second life, a new avatar, as it were, as a winemaker or winery owner. Maybe this phenomenon accrues because we live too much in the cult of celebrity; most of us don’t have the chops to become great actors or great chefs, but winemaking…you buy some grapes, hire the best consultants that money can buy, and suddenly you’re a winemaker—or God forbid, a vigneron.

I submit to you that the tragic downfall of the California wine industry is largely a function of its great success in recent years. In an earlier, simpler day, people gravitated to the industry because they loved the life of a grape-grower or winemaker, and they had no illusions about making either a large or small fortune in the wine business—simply being part of the business was thrill enough. Winemakers would typically say things like, “I make wines to please myself; I really don’t care if people don’t like them. %#@* ’em, I’ll just drink ’em myself.” These days, the wine business has become a real business. There is more capital investment needed than ever before, not least because land prices, especially in these parts, are staggeringly expensive. And so as a result, essentially nobody says, “I’ll drink it myself” anymore. The wine’s just too darn expensive to drink it oneself.

What is really more troubling to me is that at least at the super-premium level, winemakers have become even more dependent on the killer wine score from Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. As a consequence, they have become far more risk-averse, and rather tragically, many wines—especially, dare I say, some from around these parts—are beginning to taste more or less the same, seemingly all following a certain stylistic prescription.

I am acquainted with a man named Leo McCloskey—a nice enough fellow whom I used to know when he lived in Santa Cruz. He operates a company in Sonoma called Enologix, which purports to help its clients make wines that will get higher point scores. Note: not wines that are more distinctive. Not wines that are somehow more expressive of their particular terroir. Rather, using models that are reverse-engineered from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker palates, they guarantee wines that will squarely hit certain stylistic parameters and will therefore be “successful.”

This is not a happy outcome; it’s oenvil, as I’ve characterized it—and is not a sustainable model for the future of the wine business. That this particular opulent, overripe style is also essentially undrinkable—at least more than a glass of it is, for me—is also somewhat troubling.

As far as the staggering amount of competition out there, I’m sure it’s not lost on you that far more effort is needed these days to sell a bottle of wine than ever before. Whether this sort of competition is “healthy” is anyone’s guess, but for now it’s just a fact of life, like the weather, and I don’t imagine this weather is going to change any time soon. I’d venture that there are currently perhaps twice as many wineries or wine labels in the brandscape than can actually carry on a sustainable, profitable existence. The larger end of small, as well as “mid-sized” wineries—I’m not even sure what that term means anymore—are particularly vulnerable to challenges in distribution, and by extension, in sales and profitability. They’re too big to be desirable in virtue of their scarcity, and too small to have the marketing clout to make much of an impression on your lot.

For small producers, the scale that might actually work is the true no-frills, micro-model, with very few employees and, through wit and or particularly good karma, the ability to produce wines that a) are truly distinctive, and b) have the ability to communicate that true uniqueness to the end user. Alas, the combination of these two skill sets is not often found in the same set of chromosomes.

There was a famous Harvard Business Review paper published in 2004 about how one can find success in business in times of extreme competition. The postulate was that success can really only come if you are capable of finding “blue ocean,” i.e. delivering a product or service that is so utterly differentiated and superior to that of your competition, that you essentially have no competitors. In the world of wine production, it is my most tenacious belief that, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, producing a distinctive vin de terroir is the only lasting way that a wine producer will ever be able to find blue ocean—a truly sustainable niche. In other words, chasing scores by changing your winemaking practices to favor a particular à la mode style may offer short-term success, but in the end, is a fool’s game. Winemaking trix are for kids, and we must grow up.

But to the question of the real value of terroir: I’ve written before that vins de terroir are more interesting than composed or confected wines—vins d’effort—because they somehow manage to reflect the deep complexity of nature itself. Maybe we grasp their depth—if, that is, we are paying attention—similarly to how we grasp the depth, intelligence, and sensitivity of an individual we might meet. We look for affect and expression, responsiveness, some evidence that they are switched on, connected. Maybe we look for something analogous in wine—movement or change, the ability to evolve, even as we experience it; these wines have a real presence (at a minimum), and maybe even something like a rudimentary consciousness. At least that’s how it seems to me.

But you’re probably not so interested in these wooly philosophical musings, and so perhaps some concrete examples of what is lately most interesting to me these days, in my own personal quest for a vin de terroir, could be germane. I’ll get to that, but I’m also still determined to give you the larger philosophical context. Please bear with me.

I recently had dinner with my best friend from high school, a psychiatrist, as it turns out. I talked about how challenging the wine business had become, and he somewhat facetiously—though not entirely facetiously—suggested that I consider peddling my wares (presumably virtually) in the virtual world on a site called Farmville. There, participants act as if they are growing various virtual crops, bringing them to virtual market and attempting to operate a virtual profitable enterprise and so forth. (Note: this is actually more or less what I’m trying to do in real life.) The model for monetizing this business is that the site provides the opportunity for participants to “upgrade” to a better virtual tractor by spending non-virtual, i.e. “real” dollars in Farmville. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by explaining that the solution he was proposing was essentially a great part of what I see as our current problems, namely the inability to differentiate between actions with consequences in the real world, and actions that simply make us feel slightly better about what we are doing. This is a conundrum maybe worth considering here in quasi-virtual “wine country.”

The digital world is incredibly rich and powerful, as far as the opportunity it provides us to connect with people. I’ve experienced this myself. But a wholly virtual world also carries with it a certain implicit danger, which is that by participating in it, we may at a certain point lose the ability to differentiate between the really real and the virtually real. It is certainly beyond the scope of these remarks to comment on whether the formation of “virtual relationships” ultimately erodes our ability to form “real” relationships, but I do believe that the world we live in right now is beginning to offer us something like a forking path. On one fork: the opportunity to embrace the truly real (a very scary proposition, I might add). On the other: the opportunity to allow something like pernicious irreality to gradually, imperceptibly seep into our belief systems.

Granted, delusional thinking has always been with us, but it seems more prevalent than it has ever been. In the wine business, this fantasy may be something like:

“My domestic Pinot is every bit as good as Romanée-Conti—blind tasters (or critics) tell me so;” or,

“My ‘Meritage’ just smokes Cheval Blanc;” or,

“If I could just figure out how to get a certain influential wine writer to like my wine, my depletion issues will be solved;” or

“If I could just figure out how to get millennials to purchase my wine, my business will be saved;” or

“If I could just get my distributor to return my phone calls, my business will be saved;” or

“If I could just figure out how to master social media and sell all of my wine on-line, I will be poised for success.”

I’m not sure if this last delusional thought is entirely delusional, but regardless, the list goes on and on.

Which brings me to the meat of my message, and perhaps the larger lesson to be learned:

I honestly don’t believe that there are any silver bullets, any recipes for success, including the evil ones that Mr. McCloskey is peddling, and as I said, that kind of “success” is, I believe, as fleeting as a passing cloud. What I’m suggesting is that real success in the wine business simply may lie in making real wine, and of course having the ability to communicate about this real wine you have somehow achieved. In this era of the illusory, of the virtual, of the half- or three-quarters baked, the real shines as brightly as a diamond.

Now, bear in mind that for most of my career as a winemaker, I’ve lived something like a virtual existence. Yeah, I’ve done my share of cellar work, though not so much lately, and I’m of course always present at the blending bench. I do also still visit the vineyards that supply us grapes—usually to complain about some error of omission or commission, and generally too late to effect any real positive outcome. In truth, Bonny Doon wines have traditionally been created by one sort of winemaking legerdemain or another—we’ll throw some of this stuff in, and maybe some of that. I might toss in some sort of cute trick I learned kicking around southern France, where there is no shortage of cuteness in winemaking. And in truth, it has—or had—worked out reasonably well; customers couldn’t seem to get enough of the flashy, clever labels.

However, this is no longer acceptable to me. I am now possessed of a deep thirst for the real, for wine that comes from a place. And I firmly believe that to be able to express that sense of place, one needs to be thoroughly present. For me personally, this will require some non-trivial psychic and spiritual retooling, but I am up for it; it is the only path forward for me.

At Bonny Doon, we’re presently into some pretty esoteric practices—some on the drawing board, and some being implemented even as we speak. We’re growing some of our grapes from seeds, creating a vineyard of vast genetic diversity and potentially great complexity. (We can talk about why this may be a particularly brilliant idea—or not.) We’re aging some of the wines in glass demijohns, which, while strictly speaking is a form of legerdemain, is still incredibly cool. I’m very keen on experimenting with aging wine in amphorae, especially if we can fashion the vessels from clay collected at our new property in San Juan Bautista.

We’re also learning how to produce a material called bio-char, essentially a form of activated charcoal, and mixing it with compost and incorporating it into the soil. Bio-char dramatically enhances the microbial life of the soil, which is in fact the real repository of terroir. Also, and non-trivially, the use of bio-char is a carbon-negative process, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil, and maybe helping to do a small part to reverse global climate change. Our new vineyard in San Juan Bautista will not look much like a conventional vineyard. I am completely dedicated to the idea of establishing true biological diversity in the vineyard through the plantation of a real polyculture—fruit and nut trees, flowering shrubs and aromatic herbs interplanted among the vines—in order to foster a balanced and truly sustainable ecosystem. I’m hopeful that with these practices we may well be able to farm our new vineyard without irrigation and produce wines filled with life and expressive of the place where they are grown.

Maybe it is a bit paradoxical, but embracing the real, as I have said, does not mean gritting one’s teeth and hoping for the best. Embracing the real requires the realization that one must look deep within oneself to find an imaginative path toward success, maybe one that has never been attempted before. It is the understanding that there is no longer any way at all to “play it safe.” There is only risk. In other words, maybe I am utterly deluding myself to imagine that we might produce something like an authentic vin de terroir by growing grapes from seeds, dry-farmed, in an area where there have never been grapes before. But, we will just have to see now, won’t we?

When I first thought about giving this talk, I wasn’t really sure what kind of good information I might offer to you, a group of wholesalers. So, I will only tell you this: hang on to the suppliers who are doing or attempting to do something real. Add real value to what they have to offer. Make your portfolios as coherent as they can possibly be; let them stand for something. Lastly, try to find the joy that is still present in this very challenging business that we share.

Thank you.

    56 Responses to “Red Wine, White Wine, Blue Ocean”

    1. Loved it! I believe the Ohio Wine and Beer Distributors must have too.

    2. Pamela Archambault says:

      Another great piece of writing Randall.

    3. Adam Mahler says:

      Amazing speech as always Randall. I would have killed to have been a fly on the wall for that. And now, the resulting humbling epiphanies will re-shape this market!

      • Let’s not count on a mass enlightenment, the spontaneous Opening of the Third Buckeye. A few seemed to be paying real attention. But I think that harsh economic realities will carry with them a lesson that will truly sink in. Even in the fairly well protected world of wholesale commerce in Ohio, everybody has to add value to what they do or they will ultimately become irrelevant.

    4. Alas, I fear these prudent and timely comments fell on not enough ears.

      I am a millennial, I am the future of wine. I know this because many talking heads told me so. I like flashy colors and wine labels that are 1. Ironic 2. Sinister (Orin Swift, SQN), or 3. Cute, like twin five year old girls holding rabbits in pink dresses.

      Some of this holds true. I do relate to labels that have a connection (meaningful or otherwise) to my life.

      But most importantly, I will not be pandered to. If I am the future of wine (and I am), let me speak for the future.

      I do not care for Critics, not on a personal level, but on a general level, I just don’t care.

      I like family owned operations.

      I like finding my own wines (which includes varietals I don’t always know how to pronounce), not drinking what the “adults” do.

      I like winemakers who are winemakers, not phoning it in.

      I like my local wines and why I do not propose that we should only drink local, I can say I will continue to consume large amounts of wine produced from within a few hundred miles from my home.

      Wine is going the way of other beverages like beer (I hope any way). Budweiser will always have NFL and Yellowtail will always have Sizzler, but at home, we are increasingly drinking micro-brews and Cinsault from that guy down the street that makes 1,500 cases of wine.

      I see the future smaller, more personal, more “social.” I see it being an expression of a community, a region, a terroir. There will always be mass producers and this is needed in some ways. But the future of wine and I base this off of dozens of interviews from all over the State, is not in Critics, but in real producers making real wines who connect with real customers.

      So soldier on Mr. Grahm. There are more with you than may be evident, especially when traversing the wine Disneyland that is Napa. These statements are faithful and true. I should know, I am the future of wine after all…PR companies told me so.

    5. Thank you, Wayne, for your very heartfelt comments. Now, you know that I love hip, arty, ironic wine labels perhaps more than is strictly healthy – maybe it is a tragic addiction. We all at some point have to put away our childish toys. I am personally less concerned with arty, ironic labels than with the more pernicious trend of sweet, jammy red wines that cynically target millennials; a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. You can eat your dessert – your cupcakes or layer cake or sweet bliss whilst sipping on a sophisticated adult beverage. That is true pandering. I truly hope that we are right in believing that small, soulful wineries and vineyards are the way of the future for the New World. I do, however worry, that with the immaturity of the wine culture at least in this country, it will take a generation (maybe more) of drinkers to really grok the aesthetic and bliss of soulful, natural, unadorned, makeup-less, wines of place, in comparison to the “easy-sipping” confections that appear to be ubiquitous.

    6. chiara says:

      [please, give me Mc Closkey phone number…]

      ’till then, we’ll keep searching our “blue ocean”, which is sort of what we’ve been doing in these last 20 years in our winery, sometimes it’s a sysyphean fatigue but I don’t see any other coehrent way. Thanks Randall for your truly interesting reflections, which in fact could easily apply to european wine world as well.
      and, yes, let’s take the risk!


      • You don’t want to visit “Leoville.” You want to take the first train in the opposite direction. Your wines, especially the Freisa and Malvasia are so incredibly distinctive. You are already swimming in the blue ocean. (The rest of the world just needs to figure that out.)

    7. Judy Phelps says:

      Thank you Randall, makes me feel better. I own one of those ‘real’ wineries of which you speak, ~1500 cases per year. I can tell you that the big, jammy Zin with a little residual sugar outsells my estate, austere, terroir-driven Cabernet Franc, 2 to 1! The Zin pays the bills.

      • Oh, dear. It is very difficult to argue with what empirically seems to be the case. I’m just the (slightly overwrought) messenger. I honestly think that it would be a great idea for you to start cultivating those customers – maybe just both of them – who are interested in the less ubiquitous style.

    8. Scott McReynolds says:

      Great read and thanks for not following the crowd. The thing I love about wine is the variety, even from bottle to bottle of the same wine.

      When everyone is trying to make the same big fruit, chocolate, licorice bomb then it becomes hard to find something different. I like that style too now and then with a big juicy steak but not every day. I know we can find a nice change of pace with Bonny Doon wines.

      • Thank you so much. But we have not yet begun to show what perhaps can be done in CA. This chap, Peter Schmidt, whom I had mentioned in the blog, makes pinot noir without the use of sulfites, though is not at all an ideologue on the subject. His method for determining whether his wines need sulfites or not is to leave them open for an extended period of time. If they don’t oxidize after three or four weeks, he feels confident he can bottle them sans SO2. I aspire to make wines like this.

    9. I love artistic labels, if what is on the outside is backed up by a wine of substance. The examples referenced above (Orin Swift, Sine Qua Non) are examples of wines that may not be stylistically appealing to everyone (my wallet has no stomach for them, I asked and he said “I don’t open that far Sir”) but to show a sense of craft and labor on the outside and inside of the bottle. This is not the case for mass marketed wines, such as the ones from down under. But it is not limited to them.

      A friend of mine, Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers in Santa Barbara, makes compelling, low alcohol, expressive wines reminiscent of his time and studies in France. His is a young guy and his marketing and designs are brilliant, fresh, creative (best tasting room ever – after Bonny Doon of course). He has a line of wines called Bright White (Riesling), Bright Red, and Dark Red. Beautiful approach to the concept and easy for newer wine makers to grasp what the wines are.

      Then comes along Bear Flag Wines with their Bright White and Dark Red blends. They are hip, they are colorful, they appear to be made by some cool indie winemakers from Modesto CA? Wait a minuet, isn’t there another winery from Modesto I have heard of? Let’s click on the Trademark link and see what we find:

      “Bear Flag, Bear Flag Wines, Bear Flag Republic, the Bear Flag logo, and the Bear Flag design are registered trademarks of E. & J. Gallo Winery.”

      Sad. The big box winery is behind the bear mask.

      At any rate, I digress. While big business will try to reinvent its self as smaller, more boutique, I hope my generation continues to push back against it. We all need to keep educating people about the importance of craft and place.

      I hope it doesn’t take another generation to change the kind of wine drinking society we are, but there is a lot of work to do for us all to do Randall. You are doing your part, but we need to continue to encourage more alternate voices in the media (both social and traditional), encourage more substance in wine writing and less statistics and scores, and we need to support real, honest, and meaningful brands.

      • As my generation was wont to say, some 40ish years ago, “Right on!” The problem of greenwashing or perhaps it’s “smallwashing” (the big bad wolf masquerading as a small ovine) will undoubtedly continue to persist, and likely will continue to fool many if not most of the people most of the time. Don’t know quite what the lesson to be derived here, apart from the need to read the small print – front label and back – very carefully.

    10. RG, please change the title of your upcoming book tour to something else. Calling it the “Bataan Death March” leaves something to be desired, IMHO. Pace e amore. ‘vid.

      • You’re undoubtedly right; it is a bit outré, and maybe more than a bit self-dramatizing. The Long March? One Small Schlepp for Mankind? I promise to give it some thought and come up with something maybe a little more palatable.

    11. David Hance says:

      Entering my 30th year in the wine business, your remarks, with their blue ocean emphasis, are very timely for me. I don’t even want to think about the number of times my labors have swung back and forth between taking the (potentially) game-changing new path and sticking with the other sheep on the well-trod trail. I’ve been particularly anxious these past several months, as recessionary times had me and my fellows figuring out more and better ways of being the same, for safety. Then, just a few days ago, I read in the S.F.Chronicle about wines from the Canaries. I had to procure and share some immediately, and they arrived just in time for a small birthday celebration this week. I regaled my guests (not all wine folk) with information about these Canary wines, and about some very ripe, high acid, no oak Chardonnay bottlings from the Santa Rita Hills. We all need reminders (well, maybe not you, Mr. Grahm) that there are untold opportunities for the new, and old-made-new. My reminders this week were in my wine glass, and on my computer screen, reading your words. Thank you!

      • Thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, there are signs and portents everywhere. These are certainly very challenging times for almost everyone in every walk of life. Bad things happen to good wineries, and good winemakers, so it’s a bit hard to speculate on the teleological meaning of all of this. But if the wine world (and indeed the natural world) ends up becoming more diverse, it will not be such a terrible outcome.

    12. Barry Bassin says:

      You nailed it!

      Everything you said played a large part in my decision to retire from the wine business.

      • D’accord. The business is just not nearly as fun as it once was, and slogging away to fight for the same piece of cheese with all the other rats is most dispiriting. I am so incredibly fortunate to be able to pursue a project that I am hopeful will be far from the madding crowd. Certainly, there is no guarantee of success, but being able to grow at least a portion of one’s own produce is a bit of a comfort these days.

    13. Randall, It is always a pleasure and a reality check to listen to your views. We growers and producers that have our own vineyards of a given terroir are gambling it all that the real brands that come from the soil will be the winners in the end.
      Thanks for putting it into words.

    14. paul dolan says:

      Thank you again Randall for your thoughtfullness. This is a agreat reminder for us who have been in the business so long. I find myself looking at the simple question of what truely is imporant to me in my life. In the end i want to be fully expressed in what ever I do. When it comes to the wines I make I want the to be as authentic to the place they come from as posiible.
      Do I succeed? Occasionally. But it is not so much the success or not but rather the exploration. Each season brings renewed possibilities.
      Thank you so much for your inspiration and immagination. They are the spark that brings hope.

      • Paul, you are far too kind. You are certainly my inspiration – someone who has made things happen in his life, rather than simply talked about it or around it, and has made the world incrementally better for his efforts. Continue to fight the good fight. We only have one very short lifetime – far too short to monkey around with anything less than those things that bring us real joy and fulfillment.

    15. David Rapoport says:

      Mr Grahm,
      First off let me say that I have a great deal of respect for you, even If I find myself agreeing with you palate more than your philosophies. You do make some valid points, however I think there is some danger lurking, namely in the form of resentment bred from polarization.

      I’m, on the whole, NOT a big fan over the hyper-ripe, high alcohol wines that are being produced; let’s be clear, however: these are not limited to CA or even the “new world”. That said, nor do I find it useful to pre-judge a wine based on the declared ABV on the label as some well known and popular sommeliers and merchants have started doing. These practices are absurd and completely miss the point that great wine is not some fixed, platonic ideal

      Additionally, I’m not a great fan of Mr Parker’s writing, nor the Wine Spectator. At the same time, I’m really not a big fan of, say Decanter’s taste by committee process. Critics serve a purpose, but ultimately the consumer makes the decision. How confident a given consumer is in their own taste, will drive to what extent they follow a critic. From that it is very easy to blame critics on a collective taste. I think this is an unfair practice. Assuming that the critic is being honest with his or her taste, that is not reviewing based on financial or oeno-incentives, they will review what they like. Regardless of how much you or myself my disagree. Their power comes from the following that they amass. So if we are going to blame the critics, we need to lay equal blame on the consumer as well as the wineries that choose to follow them.
      Having said that, we mustn’t forget the importance of the honest critic, regardless of his or her taste. The average consumer does not have the financial, or hepatic strength to know every wine that they might buy. If we are to hope for any kind of branching out into less known wines. Someone impartial needs to do some QC. I certainly haven’t forgotten the plethora of horribly thin, overcropped, expensive, Premiere and Grand Cru Burgundies that I wasted my money on in the late 80s and 90s. Or the Bordeaux and Rhones that were rife with Brettanomyces. As a young adult wanting to try as many wines as possible, I lost a fair bit of my grad school stipend on some pretty poorly made wines. I quite frankly, I’ve come to trust my own palate over the years, still, I want to be able to do some research to see if I’m dealing with a flawed wine, particularly an expensive one, before I purchase. Merchants are good sources for that, but there is a potential conflict of interest there and I’m often finding wines at merchants that I don’t know. So critics have there place and its down to us, the consumer, to temper how we use them.

      When frustration with an extreme happens, it is very tempting to counter that extreme with the opposite one. I understand this. Still, I feel it is important NOT to make that mistake . Polarization whether its from the Helen Turley’s, on one side or the Alice Feirings on the other, can alienate consumer. Balance is important, and not just in the wines we love

      Thanks for reading

      • I feel your pain – not just hepatically. I agree that there is a absolutely a role for wine writing and wine criticism; as a practical matter, the world of wine, like the universe itself seems to be expanding at the speed of light. I do take great issue with a tasting methodology that purports to evaluate a wine based on a 30 or 60 second tasting experience. In fact, I would suggest that there is absolutely no truly “efficient” way to taste a wine – to really “get” a wine requires the investment of maybe so much time, that the effort of reviewing may be something that is best considered pro bono. I, too, have been sold so many bum steers over the years by wine merchants, even after painfully extensive discussion about my stylistic preferences, predilections. An honorable, astute wine merchant is a rare gem indeed, and once you have found one, one should cherish that relationship. I agree with you that one must try to remain as open–minded as possible, and not carry too many prejudices or too narrowly define what is considered great in the world of wine. Myself, I am not a big fan of many Australian wines, and also not a big fan of most Chardonnays, apart from white Burgundies. And yet, a couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to taste an Australian Chard – Bindi “Quartz,” a wine that utterly blew my mind. Thanks for all of your comments on this blog.

    16. David Rapoport says:

      Let me just make one clarification on the above:
      My ONLY connection to the wine or beverage industry is as a consumer.

    17. Matt Brady says:

      Cheers to embracing the real! Well said Mr. G.

    18. Phil Burton says:

      I see some old fart names in the comments- Dolan, Vergari- not to mention Randall himself. My thoughts exactly. In a newsletter some 30 years ago, I wrote that my favorite wineries are where the lees run down the driveway. The saddest thing in my tenure as a barrel guy is the corporatization of the biz- don’t take this personally KJ, I need the money. I’ve been working a lot with the brewery folks of late since wood is the new tweak and this crowd is like the winery upstarts of the 70’s and 80’s- start a brewery.

      • I’m with you, Phil, except I never want to see lees run down the driveway. (They are too precious to waste, and are best incorporated into the wine itself, if that can be managed.) So lovely to hear your voice, even in this slightly disembodied form.

    19. I’m not at all in the wine business, nor a Californian. Although an enthusiastic drinker of wine I can certainly not be said to be in any way shape or form, an expert. I agree though with the sentiment that wines are becoming more and more alike. From my point of view any reasonably sane human being in need of renewal and challenge needs to find other territories of taste now and the only way forward seems to be to take a step back.

      Apart from following Mr Grahm for his excellent writing and extremely interesting journey what i find interesting in this text is that what he sees as the future of wine is also very clearly a strong movment forward in almost any other product/sustenance consuming group or tribe.

      The movement towards finding “blue ocean” within a smaller geographical area or tribe of people is present not only in the closely related area of food but also potentially in businesses like housing and most obviously in IT development.

      I think that what Mr Grahm is seeing here is the only potential way forward to create a sustainable western society. In that context and in what I would see as the most desired way forward “critics” (in any business/genre) will become unnecessary because taste and expression will be based within communities that are small enough to not have to be given general direction by an all defining outside force.

      I know, there is a clearly utopian thought here, but it is also balanced clearly by a positive movement where entities and movements once again become of a size where people are allowed the space and time to think for themselves and to make their own decisions in relation to what they want to put in their mouths and how they want to live their lives.

    20. Erin McGrath says:

      As someone in her third year in the wine industry (at Wally’s in L.A. currently) I have to say – this post made my day. My year, actually. Beautifully written, Mr. Grahm.

    21. David Rapoport says:

      Mr Graham,
      I couldn’t agree more: 60-90 seconds is not nearly enough time to really gauge a wines merits. Sadly though, it’s a zero sum game: thoroughness comes at the expense of volume. Given the number of wines in the market, both are important, so a balance needs to be struck.
      I think my key point, however, is: WE consumers need to take some responsibility in how we use critics: Tool or Crutch. Seems the unfortunate balance is to the later. We should, as a group, be more confident

      • After you have mastered or at least feel reasonably comfortable in a certain domain, it is hard to remember the time when you were not as comfortable. It is not easy now being a newcomer into the very vast world of wine.

    22. Ryan Crosbie says:

      Your words and wines have always left a huge impact on those who are lucky enough to experience them.

      What Id like to say, hopefully not falling on deaf ears (blind eyes in this case) is that sales and marketing is the buzz in the industry. Winery techniques are need to know and technology is the latest thing that comes over from france or Switzerland. “Flash detante, nanofiltratrion … sure! But don’t tell our customers!” Winery doors are closed. Sales channels are open.
      The sales and marketing game, or what I like to call S&M, is all that the public sees. What appears to be a blue ocean is for those in S&M to take that reality to the streets and customers. Put the reality to the test and let’s help the customer make informed decisions. There’s a lot of people who read Mr Grahams speech that still have decades in the wine industry. It’s everyone’s role to create what’s best. The product should be real and the message should be clear. Let’s continue to build what he speaks of as a ‘real’ industry that’s still a lot of fun.

      Thanks Mr Graham for sharing your wisdom and thanks for list’nin.

      • Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. People in the wine business do what they do for a reason – they add Mega-purple to their wine because they imagine that their customers will have a better image/experience of the wine. They do hire Mr. McCloskey for a reason, because getting higher point scores is probably an economically reasonable thing to do. But my suspicion is that these tricks will work with increasingly less efficacy. In fact at a certain point I don’t imagine tricks will work at all. It really is only the real that will prevail (or at least I believe), but as we are both suggesting, an effective and sincere presentation of what is real is also very much a part of the success of the proposition.

    23. Alex Davis says:

      Chapeau Monsieur Graham!
      You are one of the greatest writers on wine of our time (I can’t say wine writer because of your day job- yet I can’t say quit your day job, because is one of the greatest jobs to be had.)

      So my comment is to say thanks to you for “telling it like it is”. You have achieved a rare clout and accepted dissidence that allows you to state publicly what many winegrowers hesitate but wish to say. For I have chosen the hard road in my career yet I am a little less lonely knowing that you have blazed a path somewhere in the same jungle trying to make wines that you believe in. In the end, it is intentions, self worth, and perseverence that give terrior a chance to speak.

    24. dwight says:

      Thanks Mr. Grahm for a wonderful article which wholly speaks to the way I want to make wine. As one of the ex-docs who left the stress of that lavoro to become a contadino subject to the whims of nature, I believe truly Il Signore makes the wines, with my sweat and blood helping out in the vineyard and winery to give expression to what the year gives me. It is a real quandary as the costs of planting a vineyard and building a winery are enough to influence one to pull out all the tricks and additives to make something clean and safe while I want to make natural wines. I really have appreciated, over the last 20 years or so, your willingness to go against the grain and to keep a sense of humor in a field where too many people are serious as a heart attack.
      My winemaker has said “The hard part of wine making is growing good grapes, the harder part is making good wine from the grapes and the hardest part is selling the wine”. While I might exchange the 1st 2, I know with the blue sea of wine available in the world, it will be a challenge, this new life. Hopefully I am a part of one of these wineries-“For small producers, the scale that might actually work is the true no-frills, micro-model, with very few employees and, through wit and or particularly good karma, the ability to produce wines that a) are truly distinctive, and b) have the ability to communicate that true uniqueness to the end user. Alas, the combination of these two skill sets is not often found in the same set of chromosomes.” I hope you don’t mind I pasted this link on my UCD enology class forum.
      Here’s hoping for good karma!

      • Thanks so much for your great comment. I’m not really sure I agree with your winemaker on Point 2. Hardest part is perhaps growing great grapes; the winemaking really is quite trivial if you begin with great grapes. And then for sales…. I’m back in agreement with your winemaker. It really is brutal out there. I wish you the very best of luck in your endeavors. You are definitely on the right track in your embrace of natural wines. I am always happy to come visit at UCD if I can help stir things up a bit.

    25. David Rossi says:

      Your business acumen is right on the mark. Probaby why you have been so successful. While I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from you in terms of how I make wine(I’ve never been as free-sprited as you) and I could be considered the anti-Graham in this respect, I find that we are kindred spirits at the core. It is about the wine and the ability to communicate about it that leads to prosperity(such as it is in the wine business).

      This blog took me from an ignorant deridder of you Mr. Graham to someone who see’s you as really a leader in the industry. I must admit that my characterization of you as the “hippy dippy weatherman” was wrong.

      I’m not going to approach my winemaking with crystals anytime soon, but I have a healthy respect for someone who I may have more in common with than I thought. Thanks for your thoughts and what you have done for us winemakers who want to make wines true to our own vision.

      • Thank you very much for your comments. Don’t know much about my alleged business acumen; I think that in general I have been (mostly) far more lucky than astute. But I do feel that I have lately been learning to listen more attentively to myself, and really am learning how to follow my own instincts. I have historically tried far too hard to please other people – Mr. Parker, the Wine Spec., my distributors, parents, employees, etc. Sometimes in the desire to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. But whether I succeed or fail in making a great vin de terroir, I will have the knowledge that I really did give it the old college try.

    26. Dave Larsen says:

      Randall, Right on! I always enjoy reading your articles and learn at least one new word every time.

    27. dwight says:

      I am only at UCD electronically, living the dream hehe in the Marche where all my savings decided to settle.

    28. Rudstei says:


      cette façon de voir la viticulture est l’avenir du vin. Les amateurs sont à la recherche d’authenticité. En passant, est-ce que vous voulez faire de la bio-dynamie?

      • Merci pour votre réponse. As I said, I don’t know if we will actually succeed, but it does appear that we are at least moving in a direction that might well open some great possibilities. We do plan to farm our vineyard biodynamically, and trust that our implementation of extreme biodiversity will be well supported by that practice.

    29. Allyn says:

      You had me sold with your initial thesis about the unnatural acts performed by winemakers to build a consumer market in a crowded industry. I cheered your conclusion that the best response is to focus on producing “vins du terroir. What a tragedy it would be to find that Australian wines, Chilean wines, and California wines all pretty much taste the same because they reflect the wine-making style du jour! If you wanted to produce the next “two-buck-chuck,” I daresay you could. Thanks for not selling out.

      On the recent Santa Cruz passport weekend, I tasted Santa Cruz wines for the first time. Had all the wine-makers adopted the “flavor of the year” approach, I would have been unable to learn what makes wines from your area unique, and I was impressed most with the wine-makers who demonstrated fidelity to the terroir. Their wines gave me a sense of what makes Santa Cruz unique.

      I admire your courage and determination, but worry that the solution doesn’t lie in the depths of “the winemaker’s imagination”. I recall visiting a small winery in Burgundy, chatting with the winemaker’s wife as she drew the samples from the barrel. She laughed as she described earnest conversations with many visiting American winemakers as they attempted to wrestle the truth about making incredible wine, and their discussions about various “methodes scientifiques” for producing it.

      She said, laughing, “The grapes tell us what to do.” Perhaps the “imaginative path to success” is to convey, with fidelity, what is unique and special about the Bonny Doon terroir and the clones that are most at home there, by discerning what the fruit tells you. And then pass on to me, through your wine, what it is telling you.

    30. Allyn, Thanks so much for your comment and for your your encouragement. Absolutely d’accord on the need to “let the grapes speak.” This is an utterly reasonable thing to do, if one has the benefit of centuries of iteration and observation, knowing well that the grapes are very capable of articulate, indeed of moving speech. The challenge in the New World, of course, is that one has no a priori knowledge of what combination of grapes, rootstocks, soils, training regimens, row orientations, row spacings, etc. will work out to be the most felicitous. So, a New World vigneron really does need to sit quietly in a darkened room and project him/herself on an imaginative/empathic journey, to the aim of divining what might actually sing in the vineyard. I’m convinced that all of the ratiocination will yield little; some divine spark of inspiration may well be needed.

    31. Angelica Rivadeneira says:

      Just found your very interesting article and enjoyed it very much. I spent some time (4 months) in Chile recently, until harvest, and had the wonderful opportunity to visit some smaller wineries. I talked to their winemakers and owners, some of them winemakers as well, and tasted their wonderful wines. There’s so much truth in what you mention in your article for so many smaller vineyards down there, about finding the terroir, extracting what Mother Earth can give to their grapes and preferably going biodynamic and being polyculturists. In fact one of the vineyards I know, will now become totally organic certified and will produce their first grapes without irrigation. Another one had just bought 60 young sheep to graze among and around the vineyards to control the weeds. Most of them did all the work by hand and horses. I’ve seen so much pride and professionalism in all these winery owners, mostly family owned, people that love their soil and products and will not be sold on fame and money but on the quality of their products. One winery owner told me, I want to be known and remembered by the distinctiveness of my wine, I want my wine to be remembered for its quality and be chosen among others because people would recognize them by their taste not by their label.
      Wish you good luck with your wine and applaud your ideas of biodynamic farming and aging the wine in noble containers such as anphorae.

      • Angelica, Thanks for your very thoughtful comment; it is so incredibly heartening. Myself, I have labored under the misconception that much of Chile’s wine produce was standardized/industrialized (rather like California’s). Apart from the fact that it is likely only through the search for real individuality in wine that one can find a viable niche in this incredibly competitive market, the personal satisfaction and pride in producing a distinctive wine that enriches the world is essentially priceless.

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