Iconoclasts

They smash icons into little bits.

One destroys the golden calf of chardonnay while he sings the praises of Riesling, GrüVe Grüner Veltliner, grower Champagne.

Another abandons the stuffy bourgeois Bordelais vines growing rampant throughout California, planting Rhône varieties and promoting the funkier sideshows of southern Europe.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon asks importer Terry Theise how he lives from day to day with his bizarre lust for northern European wines. Theise asks Grahm how he's survived in his alternate universe of the south.

Here is the entire, unexpurgated, uncut, unfiltered, nearly untouched text of their exchange.


RG: You were out in the wilderness for so long with Riesling, do you now feel a sense of vin-dication?
TT: I suppose I could, but it's better for me if I don't. If I let myself feel victorious then I have to also let myself feel defeated. As you know, notwithstanding the gains we've made, there's still a way to go. So it's best for me to focus on the work itself rather than on polling-points. I've never coddled myself with the fantasy we can ever break through to a mass-market with Riesling; I've only sought to reach every soulful geek on earth.

RG: One of the great difficulties of being a bec fin is that one knows what one likes and doesn't like. The other (dark) side of this is that one's tastes have become so rarified, it is perhaps more difficult to open up to surprises. What do you do to keep your tastes from becoming jaded?
TT:
Happily, wine affects me spontaneously beyond any ability I might have to manipulate my response. That said, I don't feel the need to be liberal and ecumenical in my wine tastes any more. I done did that at an earlier age. Now it seems healthier to identify that which wounds or annoys me, and avoid it.

RG: How are you able to retain your sense of wonder at the extraordinary products that we are privileged to taste?
TT:
I don't know, and it's best I don't know. It's like asking a centipede how it walks without stumbling over its thousand legs. Perhaps I could say the answer to your question is...your question. If the wines are in fact "extraordinary" then what's the appropriate response if not wonder?

RG: Are you ever able to go back over old ground and find something that you overlooked?
TT:
I imagine it's possible if I lived to be 471 years old I might learn to enjoy CalChard.

RG: One of my pet peeves is SO2 in wine. Yes, I intellectually understand why it is perhaps necessary, but that never stopped me from getting bugged by it. I truly think that many people are put off of young German wines by the staggering levels of free SO2, more accurately the "molecular," or active SO2 in Riesling, owing in part to its very low pH. (This phenomenon is exacerbated by winemakers who also leave residual CO2 making the wine both slightly reductive and boiling over w/ sulfur.) German wine connoisseurs understand that sweet Rieslings are wines that greatly benefit from age, and that is no doubt the reason why they are typically pickled to the max. All well in good for German connoisseurs, but murder for the punter who wants to drink Riesling in an American restaurant or does not have the means/sensibility to cellar his/her Riesling. Any thought of trying to persuade your producers to create an "American cuvée" for Rieslings for earlier consumption?
TT:
Absolutely not. It would violate a fundamental principle. I do not believe in manipulating wines to serve a "market," I believe in finding people to cherish beautiful wines.

RG: Alternatively, persuade aforesaid producers to hold back stock for sufficient time for the free SO2 to diminish?
TT:
Well, that boils down to money of course: Who finances holding those wines back? In the modern mercantile climate, no one would want to.

RG: To put the question more broadly: What else is there to be done to improve customers' initial impression of Rieslings?
TT:
I'm not trying to dis your question in the slightest, but I do want you to realize your "pet peeve" over SO2 puts you in the infrared end of a spectrum of responses to young Riesling. The mainstream of consumer reaction to this phenomenon is indifference. To your larger question, I fear my answer will sound pat. I don't believe there's a silver bullet whereby Riesling enlightenment will prevail over the dark lands of wine. I do believe it is categorically vital for me to continue making the case as passionately and cogently as I can. And to remember there's more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.

RG: Do you feel vaguely unfaithful/guilty when consuming red wine apart from Zweigelt?
TT:
Nosirreee! I adore vinos rosso in a range of manifestations. Sheesh, waddaya think I wash a pizza down with, Scheurebe?

RG: What is currently knocking you out these days in the land of red?
TT:
The stuff I always liked: Burgundy, Barolo & Barbaresco, ripasso-method Valpolicellas, Loire reds, old-style Riojas with lots of bottle-age.

RG: What is your thought about the general upping of the ante ripeness- and extraction-wise? Do you think that there has been more of an evolution or devolution in wine sensibility?
TT:
Very big question, Señor. I think there's been both, simultaneously; I think there's a stratification-maybe a polarization-taking place in wine tastes. Battle-lines being drawn...perhaps unnecessarily. The crux of the question is temperament, and as such it's irreducible. Certain people want wines to do lap dances for them, and certain people want wine to be a more companionable sort of being. I detest the "upping of the ante ripeness- and extraction-wise," and my body doesn't like how most wines over 14 percent alcohol feel, both on the palate and in the somatic system. I believe the clamor for moremoremore is infantile. I believe it leads to mischief in every imaginable way. But I also believe in conducting the debate with good humor and civility.

RG: Your catalogue is legendary.
TT:
Yes, it is large and heavy enough to squash really large bugs with.

RG: The specificity of your descriptors is truly awesome. How are you able to marshal such extraordinary concentration to summon up this sort of sense-memory? Hypnotic regression? A Hunter S. Thompsonesque regimen? (Note: no need for self-incrimination for the sake of the article.) In all seriousness, knowing how difficult writing truly is, how do you put yourself in the space where you can create these pyrotechnics?
TT:
Wine puts me there, at least the sort of wine I get to taste for my portfolio. Actually I talk about this question in the catalogue itself. The only conscious effort I make is to try and summon a kind of calm, not to anticipate any Profound Emotional Moments, and to just let the wine come to me and receive it, and say what it felt like. Sometimes that encompasses saying what it tasted like, but not always.

RG: Any pet hypotheses as to the etiology of your uniquely whacked sensibility?
TT:
I owe it all to Noam Chomsky and Vince McMahon.


RG: OK, we all know that our personalities are formed by many factors and that our behaviors themselves are over-determined, i.e. we develop our unique sense of humor to a) allow us to express aggression subtly, b) deflect aggression against ourselves, c) charm the pants off of anyone, d) just screw around for the hell of it, and e) other factors too numerous to count. With this in mind, M. Iconoclast, assuming that your interest in Riesling, gruener and other non-mainstream varieties and styles and your putative contrarianism are not entirely explicable by an Evil Parent who presented overoaked CalChards w/ Vindaloo curry on a nightly basis as you grew up, from whence comes the contrarian, anti-authoritarian streak, if I am not being out of line in thus characterizing it? (And you thought that all those years of therapy were for naught...)
TT:
First, "from whence" is tautological, because "whence" includes the idea of "from". Think I'm so charming now, smart-a**?
RG: My eyes are now open.
TT:
When I was fourteen my friend Jorje shocked me by questioning the wisdom of those responsible for our schooling; teachers, administrators, curriculum designers, et al. I was a naif who believed the world was run by wise adults who knew best what was good and right for me. Jorje came right out and said these people were full of, ah, beans....and I was immediately struck by the idea that one could challenge the status quo, and further, that this was what the SMARTEST people did.
     That didn't mean I went yammering against everything willy-nilly. But it did predispose me to a certain skepticism. You could say it prepared me for the assumption that things weren't necessarily so merely because most people thought they were. In a very real sense it civilized me. Because it inculcated in me the value of thinking, probing, examining, and it gave me a value at first inchoate and later explicit: a crux of our human business is to distinguish the authentic from the bogus and to assert these values ceaselessly.

RG: Without wishing to point out the obvious, the wine world itself is in crisis (at least I believe) between the current lack of discernment between the real and the fake. Any time a reverse osmosis machine is used on a grand cru wine, the distinction becomes more blurred. When a critic raves about a wine that is essentially a confection, the line grows dimmer. I am myself not entirely proud of my own role in blurring the line. We may quibble about the amount of SO2 used in the wines that you import, but they are all honest and authentic wines. How did you make the leap from iconoclasm in life to the aforesaid in wine?
TT:
It wasn't a leap at all; it was typical of the way I approached everything. At the beginning I was "taught" about wine from the writers prevailing at the time, Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent et al. The Classicists, you could say. And also by the growers I visited, beginning with the Germans because I was living closest to them. In those days I had no notion of "true" or "false" wines: everything was wonderful and worthy of affection and study. Even California wines (back in their fledgling days of 1978-82), toward which I was very curious: It was only later, on repeated exposure to them, that I began to have doubts, and it was later still when I began to realize the chasm between agricultural and industrial wines. What I most want to say is the tail didn't wag the dog, i.e., I never set about to smash icons per se, but rather I came upon my sentiments and judgments spontaneously based upon my experience and my temperament.
     I started in the biz right around the time of the fighting varietals, and I never thought "I must find fault with these because other people like them," but instead I found fault with them because it came absolutely naturally to prefer actual wine to these ubiquitous little wine-Twinkies.

RG: If I may jump in with a thought: I think that the biggest part of the problem is a certain character of the American people. We want everyone to love us and by extension, to love our wines. I think that it is deeper than just commercial expediency, though that is certainly the largest part of it. New World winemakers make confectionery wines because their customers seem to prefer them. We in the New World largely make wines to please others rather than ourselves because we generally don't have the self-confidence that comes from being rooted in a place, to know that we have vineyards that speak to us.
TT:
Once I was asked how it felt to have ineluctably unpopular tastes. My reply: just lucky I guess... And now another question for you. At the Madison farmer's market there's a fellow who sells about eight varieties of heirloom popcorn. He has little dishes of each for folks to taste, which of course I did. I never thought very much about popcorn, but suddenly there was variegation and I was immediately engaged, fascinated, and I had to have them all. My question: Do think I need therapy?
RG: Yes, but I've imagined that for a while; the popcorn is just supporting evidence. In relative seriousness, an engaged mind constantly requires new information. Observing and appreciating subtle differences is something that comes naturally to a discriminating person; you may be off the hook on the popcorn.


TT: You can supplant yourself to any one European wine region and immediately make wine from the vineyards of your choice. Lucky you. Where do you go, and why?
RG: This is really a poser, and I have actually gone through this mental exercise more than a few times when I am sitting around in idle mode. The basic problem of course w/RG making wine in Europe is that a) I am an inveterate experimenter, and b) I have a lot of difficulty with authority. I think that there would be an excellent likelihood that I would be placed under prophylactic arrest and incarceration within a week of my arrival. So, assuming that I could potentially live with the economic consequences of a vino da tavola produced in the midst of some ultra-prime viticultural real estate, I would probably be producing Bourgogne Passetoutgrains somewhere in the Musigny area. Wait, wait. That's far too easy. If money were really no object, I think that I might take on the prospect of trying to make pinot noir in Sussex, England (cool chalk soils and minimal viticultural regulation.) At the very least, I would have a better chance of making my case to the relevant authorities when they came to take me away.

TT: Another hypothetical (what if there were no hypothetical questions?): W&S offers you a lifetime position as commentator/gadfly/philosopher-in-residence, with all the money you'd need to live on, the condition being you have to renounce all commercial interests in wineries and winemaking. Do you take it?
RG: No. I think not. I have already said far more than I have actually done, and the time now is for putting up or shutting up.

TT: Please anthropomorphize-and I mean KNOCK YOURSELF OUT-and describe these grape varieties: Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, Grüner Veltliner, Muscat, Petit Manseng, Riesling.
RG: Mourvèdre is a Mediterranean mesomorph, molto masculino. It sweats if not bullets, a certain goût animale. Mourvèdre has been to the mountain, indeed climbed it, and is now schvitzing profusely.
     Nebbiolo is the awkward, perennially adolescent grape, going through puberty either too early or too late. It is the kid who was always a bit different from everyone else, not from around here. These strange, geeky kids slowly are gradually overtaken by the Powerful Normalizing Force or perversely and stubbornly stick to their strangeness and become wondrously great.
     Gruener Veltliner: Groovy, hippie chick grape, putatively a vegan, or at least known to pair exceptionally well with vegetables. A formidably chiseled, virtually glacial interior belies its extremely friendly and approachable exterior.
     Muscat. Earth grapes are easy. The perfume (and virtually everything else) rather too obvious, like too much patchouli on Venice beach. A grape perfectly appropriate to "party" with, but becomes somewhat tedious with prolonged exposure.
     Petit Manseng. Rich and spoiled blonde, well presented, tres soignée. Superficially, p.m. appears quite sweet but she possesses a steely, hard edge and is capable of expressing a very acid tongue. Absolutely insists upon luscious and decadent foodstuffs (lobster, foie gras) at all hours of the day and night.
     I am Riesling, a lioness, the Queen of the Jungle, hear me roar! Riesling is constantly misunderstood as a wine for pussycats, but it is in fact a very big, powerful beast. Capable of dulcet tenderness, Riesling is in fact downright cuddly under the right circs, but it also has very sharp claws and is not afraid to use them, especially if its young are threatened. You wanted me to be anthropomorphic, Terry. Let me give you another analogy. Riesling is perceived (erroneously by some) as an out-of-fashion, nerdy grape variety, sort of like the spazzy Jerry Lewis character in The Nutty Professor. Riesling in fact is the ultimate hipster grape variety, as up to the minute as it gets, perhaps more closely akin to the Buddy Love character (which is in fact believed to be truer to Jerry Lewis' actual persona.)

TT: If you were king of all creation and could make one single type of wine disappear from existence forever, which would it be?
RG: Ah, where to start? Which single wine is responsible for the most vinous misery? Beaujolais Nouveau? Maybe. Domestic "Chablis?" That's a category that I think will soon be legislated out of existence, so lets just let it fade away on its own without giving it a final push over the edge.
     California Chardonnay has perhaps had the greatest impact on number of wine experiences terminally banalized, but I think that it is now toothless and heading out to pasture on its own steam. With all of these juicy choices, upon reflection, I would say that it may well be a toss-up between white zinfandel and late harvest zin, which is another way of saying virtually all of the "red" zin currently being produced. I think that white zin ultimately causes fewer traffic fatalities, so I would pull the plug on all "big boy" zin exceeding the 14.5 percent limit.

TT: How great do you feel is the risk that biodynamic vintners can be so enraptured with the beauty of their theory that they pay insufficient attention to the taste of their wines?
RG: I think that this is a very real danger. The beauty of the biodynamic practice-the fact that it is a fully self-contained system-also holds great epistemological danger. While I am a believer in the primacy of process over product, if you are asking people to pay for the latter, that element of the equation does bears some good attention. For many biodynamic enthusiasts, when you are really into it, your interest in non-biodynamic wines can often drop away. Conventional wines often seem somewhat banal and lifeless. The other side of this is that there are some biodynamic wines, especially those made without any sulfur dioxide, that are the opposite of lifeless-there is too much (microbial) life in them. I think that it is easily possible to become inured to this level of funk unless you are consciously exploring outside of this range. Put another way, one finds that one is gradually speaking in a dialect comprehensible only to oneself and one's inner circle. I think that it very useful work to produce a wine that is truly singular and filled with life-force, but it also needs to be somewhat recognizable qua wine if it is find any sort of audience. If a great wine is so obscure in both its charms and its commercial availability, i.e. if there is no one around to enjoy it, is it still great? (This is the Gravner paradox.)

TT: Thanks Randall. If wine were a religion you would surely be its puntiff.
RG: You're too kind, Terry. Chateau-neuf said.


TT: Inasmuch as your "Brand" is made up (partly) of being the guy-with-the-puns-and-the-funny-varietals, and given your cunning use of theatricality to market both yourself and your "issues," let's look for a moment at legacy. How do you dream the world changes by virtue of your having passed through it? What's the essence of your "message?" Your core values?
RG: Thank you for the thoughtful question. It, or a variant thereof, has been passing through my mind on a regular basis since my 50th birthday, coincident w/the birth of my daughter, now three. To be perfectly honest, it seems that I have somewhat lost the thread from the time of my initial impulse to plant a vineyard and begin a winery. When I began, I had one goal and that was to produce The Great American Pinot Noir, whatever that meant. A fairly straightforward proposition, if you will, but one that I really did not, in retrospect, have the discipline nor knowledge to successfully tackle at the time. Part of the problem was the essential disconnect between what I wanted to do and what was in fact feasible, given my knowledge base; I was incredibly naive. I had planted pinot noir in the Santa Cruz Mountains with some degree of heroic intervention-limestone schlepped in, Basque sheepherders contacted, Samsonite clones, etc. But despite these epic efforts, the grapes turned out to be pretty normal, certainly nowhere near the great pinot that I had fantasized. I was buying pinot noir grapes from Oregon that were infinitely more interesting than the ones I was growing. Maybe I didn't give the vineyard enough time, but I more or less gave up, and grafted or replanted it over to syrah, marsanne, viognier and roussanne (wink, wink) and those varieties, viognier excepted, all did quite well and made excellent wines.
     The failure of the pinot, I believe, implanted the unconscious belief that it was essentially impossible, or at least highly unlikely that one could ever presume to plant a great vineyard de novo, indeed ever presume to plan to make great wine absent a lot of foreknowledge about a particular vineyard site. When we finally succeeded in making some exceptional wines-Le Sophiste (marsanne and "roussanne") and Syrah, the vineyard soon developed Pierce's Disease and croaked. So much for viticultural trailblazing. Without wishing to turn this little interview into an Oprah-outtake, I think that the loss of the vineyard was also a sort of loss of personal mojo. I just became afraid to try again to plant a great vineyard; it seemed to be far more prudent to buy the best grapes I could find, and this is what I have done with all of its implicit limitation. So, as far as a "message," it is somewhat ironic that the core Bonny Doon message heretofore has been, "Take chances" and I myself have been unable to take the biggest chance of all. I am a revolutionary who is working within the structure of an evolutionary organization.
     So, if you don't keep your eye on the ball, you find yourself doing the things that are easiest to do. For me, being clever, witty and irreverently theatrical, the vitaceous Oscar Wilde, came as second nature. And there was secondary gain! People bought the wine, and continue to do so. I am certainly not ashamed of what my colleagues and I have accomplished over the years. There has been quite a bit of innovation at Bonny Doon, with which I will not bore you, and not just the marketing schtick, which has been formidable. I have helped to popularize some putatively oddball grapes and that has been quite worthwhile. The technical innovations are, au fond, winemaking tricks and tricks are for kids. I've given some pretty good speeches as an apologist for biodynamics, terroir and other useful causes. But in balance, there may well have been rather more art than matter.
     In recent years, I have really come to an understanding that there is more to the success of a winery than simply delivering delight to its customers-we have done pretty well at doing that. Rather, if one can really be a revolutionary-show people that the world can be seen and experienced in a very different way-one has accomplished quite a lot. For me, the only wines that are really interesting are vins de terroir, i.e. wines that have a distinctive organization, which derives from the qualities of the site from which they are grown. It is my ambition to produce true vins de terroir in California. I believe that these are the sort of wines that can truly inspire and deeply nourish. Whether I end up with a Grand Cru or a Grahm Cru, who knows, but I will certainly give it sincere effort.

TT: I appreciate the honestly and conscience with which you answered this question. Indeed I am moved by your words. It seems the Saturnine visits us much more often past 50, doesn't it? In the 2006 German catalogue I had a Moment while writing about Merkelbach, which I decided to leave in the text. If you're interested, a pdf can be downloaded from the Skurnik website.
     Speaking as a writer, I've only really started liking what I'm writing the past couple years. I like it when it's difficult.
     I myself feel stratified. One layer is the garden-variety mercantile wine-guy dealing with all the "issues" surrounding the zany categories with which I work. We both know those issues: education, marketing, perseverance, dog-and-pony shows, "working the press." I try to be good at those things, or as good as my fallibilities allow. The other (perhaps higher) layer is less concerned with the job and more concerned with the work. I have a voice which always says "Yes, and?" Thus if I ask myself, what's the net effect of what I do, this voice compels me through ever-more big-picture considerations.
     I sell wine. Yes, and? I help ensure the prosperity of good artisan wine growers. Yes, and? I contribute to the continued existence of cultures containing small artisan wine growers. Yes, and? To remain sustainable I need to tell people why this is a good thing. Yes, and? In telling people why this is a good thing, I have to detail the reasons, which compels thoughts of terroir, of family, of a person's proper relationship to nature and to his human history. In short, I have to assert values. Yes, and? In delineating these values, I find I can't escape matters of soul. Yes, and? If soul enters the equation you can't select what it inhabits, because soul inhabits either all of it or none of it . So what I finally end up doing is placing wine in the context of a life of the soul. Yes, and? So now I am defending and delineating the idea of living with conscience, gratitude, Eros, humor, and all the things soul imbues us with. And further, I'm placing wine squarely within this matrix and insisting we don't have enough time to settle for less. Yes, and? And we seem to need certain things: To know where we are. To be connected to something outside ourselves. To be connected to something inside ourselves. And the only wines that actually speak to our whole lives are authentic wines, which are themselves both located, and connected. And confected wines are not designed for human beings; they are designed for "consumers."
     Just between us, false starts, disappointments and being lost are legitimate markers for creativity and soul. I'm grateful for your narrative, and with respect to its final paragraph, would be honored to stand with you, if you'll have me.

RG: Thank you for your kind words; I will be proud to stand by you. I can utterly relate to what you are saying. If one is not careful one can easily lose sight of "The Work" and simply do the work- that which can be done almost autonomically
TT:
Yes, though that's also OK. I mean, we shouldn't become too solemn about our lofty purposes. It's usually better to just go about ones tasks. But in moments when one needs a tangible connection to something purposeful it's a relief to know it's there and to give words to it
RG: For me, another way of looking at it is to ask myself as often as I can, without driving oneself crazy, "What is it that I have been put on earth to do? What are my unique gifts and how can I be exercising them most of the time? What is the path with the most soul?
TT:
I suppose I'm an existentialist in that manner. In my own life I've found that if I do something that feels urgently necessary, first it's fun, and then it answers the questions before I even have to ask them
RG: The question is really one of connection. What can I do to connect myself on a deeper level to my own powers of intuition and to a general openness to what the universe is trying to teach me. What can I do myself to be a sort of conduit of this information to the greater world? For me the search for terroir is my particular mantra or centering device. Another way of thinking of terroir is to imagine it as a sort of pulse, rhythm or vibration of a particular site. Truth be told, I don't have much of a sense of rhythm in any other arena of my life, but as far as a seeker after terroir, I imagine that I might become some sort of idiot savant
TT:
I very much agree. Terroir is one end of a thread that leads wonderfully into the Mystery. In my new catalogue I added some text to my little terroir essay, because I realized I'd been ignoring the question of why it mattered. (I must say I like my line about "Grand Crus are the earth's erogenous zones, some confluence of nerve endings that tingle at the touch of sunlight.") That's to say I feel the phenomenon is inherently fascinating and poses wonderful questions. And there's a crucial divide between vintners who either ask or ignore those questions. The New World person usually asks first: What can I do? Whereas the Old World vintner asks (inchoately, as he seldom needs to ask at all) What does it want?...
RG: One of my gifts is to somehow discern connections between disparate elements-a synthesizer (or rip-off artist, depending on one's point of view). My obsession these days has been to try to work out how one might fashion a truly distinctive wine, and to do so, one is obliged to plant a vineyard that produces very distinctive grapes. It is my conceit that it is the job of the winegrower to discover the terroir of a site and perhaps work to amplify that distinctive signal. All well and good, but how, apart from the usual prescriptions-lower yields, uniform maturity, respect for the qualities of the vintage, etc.?
TT:
I think the sad-but-true answer to your question is "Do exactly what you are doing and then live to be 247." Because it needs more time than is normally contained within a human life
RG: It was just a few days ago that I had the opportunity to spend some time with the extraordinary Serge Hochar [of Chateau Musar in Lebanon] and we spent hours talking about how to pursue the deepest expression of a particular vineyard site. Apropos of seemingly nothing, Serge began to tell me about an elder Italian viticultural researcher, who had apparently concluded recently that the ideal vineyard design for most Mediterranean sites consisted of head-trained vines arrayed in a heptagonal configuration with a density of 7000 vines/ha. I am still traveling on the road as I write this, so I haven't had a chance to cut out pieces of paper in heptagons and fit them together to see how they look. But the number seven is enormously significant in the biodynamic world-view (seven visible planets, seven days of the week, seven elements etc.)
TT:
...and let's don't forget the seven deadly sins...
RG: ...and I just had one of those goose-bumpy feelings. Perhaps it will all come to naught, but the universe really seems to be trying its damnedest to show me how I might do something really extraordinary before shuffling off. And I have not even mentioned my friend, Viret, in the Côtes du Rhône, who practices something called "cosmoculture," which is a bit like viticultural acupuncture. There is much work to be done.... I hope that there may still be time for me to properly atone for my zins.