If You Could Have Dinner with One Winemaker…

We walked toward the entrance of Victor Tango’s, concerned for a moment that we were running late.  As we neared the door, our hosts for the evening appeared, Chuck Weintraub (Owner and Broker for Wineright Inc.) and Randal Grahm (Owner and Winemaker for Bonny Doon Vineyards).

Randal smiled as he introduced himself to me.  “Nice hat,” he said, pointing to a large black beret I was wearing with the name of his red wine “CONTRA” written on it.

“I knew he’d wear the hat,” Chuck remarked.

Weeks into my position as Associate Wine Specialist for Whole Foods, Chuck visits the store with wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard.

“I just can’t quite tell you how great it feels to be selling these wines again,” he proclaims.

There are few California wines I regard as beyond the crowd-pleaser category, so my eyebrows go up with intrigue upon tasting these wholly original wines for the first time.

“Adam, you seem quiet,” says Chuck.  “I’m wondering what you think.”

“I’m really impressed by this rosé,” I respond, referring to the Vin Gris de Cigare.  It has a surprisingly dry and crisp flavor profile I have not experienced since my first tasting room job.  Vin Gris is the pink version of Bonny Doon’s flagship wine, Le Cigare Volant, a reference to a 1954 decree that no flying saucers can fly above Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Here was the alien Californian cleverly concocting a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend and a rosé version of the wine.

I dive into these wines head first, with a chance encounter days later of Randal Grahm’s collection of newsletters Been Doon So Long at Half Price Books.  I had kept an empty bottle of their European Syrah Domaine des Blaguers in my house, not recalling it as a Bonny Doon wine but more interested in the label drawn by Ralph Steadman, the focus of a previous Why Wine? post.  As I read the book, Randal Grahm sounds like a kindred spirit, someone outside the norm in his home of California and its wine business.

Six of us sat at a table toward the back of the restaurant and the night began with two different bubbling beverages.

“Randal has brought a bunch of wines that are not available in Texas,” Chuck began, “so this should be fun.”

He poured glasses of sparkling cider made from apple, pear, and quince, and finished it with a splash of dessert wine to add sweetness.  The cider tasted like dry champagne without heavy-handed yeastiness.

“Are you growing the fruit for this cider yourself?” I asked him.

“Not yet but we’re hoping to grow the pears and quince.”

Then came sparkling riesling.  I took my glass and smelled, and immediately turned to Bianca, my superior and the buyer at our store.

“Bianca I could sleep in this glass,” I said.  In retrospect, a glass of liquid lends itself more to swimming rather than sleeping.

“Yeah, we need this wine,” she responded.  “New Year’s resolution for the store.”

Food began arriving, and kept arriving throughout the night as the restaurant manager and wine buyer joined our table.  We tasted an Albariño, Dry Muscat, Syrahs, a Nebbiolo, and many more.

At one point the topic of stelvins came up.  Most people I know refer to “stelvins” as “screw-tops,” but the simplistic designation of this term bothers me as much as the term “foodie,” for which I prefer to say “epicurean” as I prefer the word “stelvin.”

“Wine ages better with stelvins,” Randal declared.

“Really?” I asked, my eyes widening.  “Because I have always told customers the exact opposite.”

“Oh no.  We have done experiments.”

After dinner, Bianca asks if I am not too tired for a nightcap at the Libertine Bar.  We sit at a stool as she drinks a digestif, me with a Deschuttes Stoic Ale in front of me.

“So what about the whole cork versus stelvin thing?” I ask.  

“There’s a lot of information coming to light about it,” Bianca notes.

“Because I have seriously told customers a stelvin means the wine is ready to drink and a cork means it should be aged.  But tonight Randal told me the exact opposite.”

“Well what we want with wine is controlled spoilage.  There’s a book called To Cork or Not to Cork that tells the whole story of each closure method.”

Toward the end of dinner, my boss Casie asked Randal how he went from sweeping the floors of a winery to the owner and winemaker for one of California’s most respected vineyards.

“Well, I came from a very privileged background…”

Casie brings up his comment afterward, and points out the perception that people think those with Trust Funds never need to worry about money.

“I distinguish between someone with a privileged background versus someone with a trust fund,” I say.

“What’s the difference for you?” Casie asks.

“I’ve been privileged growing up,” I explain, “but once I became an adult, there was not much money to my name.  Someone with a trust fund has that luxury.  It was also hard doing things my parents didn’t understand when they were financing my education.  Strangely they’ve been most supportive of my career in the wine industry.”

“I think your parents realize you’re serious about what you’re doing,” Bianca says, “and they see their persistence and work ethic reflected in your struggle, so they respect you more for it.”

“Interesting,” I respond.  “I can see how that may be the case.”  I think about how our conversations have made tonight’s main event seem more significant for all of us.