I still remember the first time that I heard Johnny Cash’s original American Recordings album. There is something haunting about the vulnerability of an aged Cash’s gravelly voice singing over a simple acoustic guitar. There is an intense honesty that comes across in the music once you have stripped away all of the excess instrumentation and production that had gone into Cash’s earlier albums. I got the same feeling while listening to Randall Grahm’s speech at the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Portland last weekend.
Randall Grahm’s history in the industry has been a colorful one, to say the least. From being one of the original “Rhône Rangers” (or THE original “Rhône Ranger”), to establishing his well-documented penchant for innovative marketing and forays into literary parody, Grahm has become a larger-than-life figure within the wine community.
I will admit to having a bit of what my wife describes as a “man crush” on Randall. As someone who has spent the majority of his professional career in some area of the marketing world, but who also has a strong affinity for the more romantic elements of the vinous universe, how could I not? Grahm is a remarkably talented writer with a highly evolved sense of humor. The famous Bonny Doon Vineyard newsletters, many of which were partially reprinted in Grahm’s wonderful book, Been Doon So Long, are still some of the most entertaining and wonderful prose ever composed on the subject of wine. Add to that the mountain of creative brands and labels that Grahm’s companies released to the world, and you have one of the most incredible marketing minds that the wine industry has ever produced. And therein lies the problem.
The Randall Grahm that I heard speak last week exuded the characteristic humor and literary references I have come to expect, but there was an added tinge of wizened world weariness. This was a more vulnerable version of Randall Grahm, one who laid bare some of the deeper aspects of his persona to our motley gathering of wine bloggers. Having read Been Doon So Long, and knowing about his efforts to reclaim his pursuit of true vins de terroir, I found this incarnation of Randall Grahm to be a natural result of his evolution, and a refreshing voice in a wine industry wilderness. Grahm seems to have weighed the various aspects of his life’s work and found some areas wanting. He expressed his regret about allowing himself to become, first and foremost, a marketer, as well as the “clown prince” of the California wine industry. He also mentioned that he “[doesn’t] really like the wine industry very much anymore,” an admission that the modern state of the industry just doesn’t carry the same magic for him that it used to. The overwhelming pressure of economic forces has sucked much of the creative freedom and, for lack of a better word, the “fun” out of the wine industry as well.
Within Randall Grahm’s address there were a number of themes that seemed to surface in ways both explicit and implicit. Among the most prevalent was the idea that when you are crafting your personal brand, you should be careful what you make of yourself because you just might be stuck with it. Much like choosing a spouse, you have to ask yourself whether or not you really want to live with the person that you are inviting to be a part of your very being. Grahm skillfully positioned himself as a brilliant and eccentric court jester of the wine world, an image that has grown tiresome to maintain.
The laments of the modern state of the wine industry, and to an equal extent the world in general, were not the full focus of Grahm’s speech. Where the first half of the address had the feel of a jeremiad about the marketing-centric landscape that Grahm himself helped to create, the second half took on the same restorative trajectory that the latter part of his career seems to have settled into. Much like his journey to shed the mass market elements of his brand portfolio in order to fully focus on his true life’s calling, Grahm encouraged his listeners to pursue meaning in their blogging endeavors, rather than financial gain (which is an unlikely result anyway.)
While some might view Grahm’s perspective on the exploration of the essential nature of wine compared to the technical flavor profiles and descriptors quixotic and possibly even absurd, there is little question that the true essence of wine’s beauty has little to do with whether the aroma in the glass is blackberry or boysenberry. Grahm posits the idea of wine writing that is a form of wine phenomenology, a nod to the fact that all wine writing is essentially about the wine writer. While most writers would admit (when asked) that wine tasting can be influenced by a wide range of factors, few acknowledge this fact in their actual writing, preferring to maintain the facade of objectivity around an inherently subjective experience. The challenge that Grahm presented, that of developing a new language for wine writing, one that is more reliant on beauty and the exploration of the essence of the wine than on a laundry list of technical descriptors is one that I have heard before, but seldom so sincerely and passionately as Grahm presented.
Randall Grahm would not have been described as uninteresting at any point in his career in the wine industry. Every stage of his life in wine has been fascinating for one reason or another, and this stage in his career is no exception. What you will now find when talking with Randall Grahm is a more balanced and measured figure, less fire and smoke, but generating more warmth. Having taken the wine world by storm in his earlier life, he is now spending his time trying to calm the storm and to simply bring beauty into the place that he occupies. Though not exactly what I was expecting, hearing Grahm speak actually exceeded my expectations. While the cartoon image that was built in his earlier days will doubtless be difficult for him to shed, he does seem to be making every effort to move from scamp to sage. Regardless of how history remembers him, Randall Grahm is now adding meaning to the wine world.