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[whitespace] Randall Grahm Nay Sayer: Don't believe the zinfandel hype, cautions Boony Doon winemaker Randall Grahm.

Hillary Schalit

Zin Infidel

Winemaker Randall Grahm begs to differ about the rush to zinfandel

By Christina Waters

THE RENOWNED WINEMAKER of Bonny Doon Vineyards was crushing zinfandel when I called him last week to discuss that particular grape. Randall Grahm recently, and reluctantly, joined the growing throng of zin producers, but his wine bears the characteristically irreverent Cardinal Zin label picturing an agonized prelate with an exploding head (a la Francis Bacon). He is no fan of the all-American grape. Claiming that he was talked into making the last batch--which he candidly calls "crap"--Grahm looks forward to better things for his current harvest of 1999 old-vine Contra Costa zinfandel grapes.

"What's wrong with zinfandel?" he asks, rhetorically. "Well, one main thing--and really it's not the fault of zinfandel any more than it's the fault of Christianity that bad things have been done in its name. It's really misunderstood," he contends. "Winemakers perceive zinfandel as a warm-climate grape, and it's not. When zinfandel is grown in too warm a climate, the fruit dehydrates quickly and forms a prunelike quality. It adds," Grahm searches for a euphemism, "a certain rusticity to the wine."

In other words, it can taste like anything from raisin-ade to heavy port. "Nonetheless," Grahm sallies forth, "there are many zinfandels that are made with cool-weather grapes, like the wonderful wines of Ridge, especially those from the Lytton Springs estate. And the old Edmeades vineyard, before it was sold to the evil empire of Kendall-Jackson." He adds that Doug Nalle makes a nice zinfandel. Just don't mention the name Turley to Randall Grahm. "It's got a billion-percent alcohol," he says of the operatic zinfandels made by the flaxen-maned empress of oenology, Helen Turley, that sell for as much as $125 a bottle. "We just don't know when to stop." But he's not finished. "Our expectations are wrong," Grahm grunts philosophically.

The man who helped put a Rhône wine in every cellar refuses to see zinfandel as the second coming of pinot noir. "It's a very nice, rustic, simple grape. Sort of like a country bumpkin going to Manhattan." After a pause for dramatic impact, he strikes. "It's still a country bumpkin. And it can't age worth a damn."

Grahm has never had trouble expressing himself. He has spent almost 20 years trying to match the perfect grape with the perfect vineyard, and he believes in the finesse that only comes with aging. "Zinfandel is a creature of a single day--young and exuberant." Not only is it a mere blip on the true connoisseur's screen, it represents for Grahm absolutely no improvement over the dreaded merlot. "Among my many problems," he says, chuckling, "is my severe impatience with the price of wines. You make one decent bottle. You do one thing right. And suddenly it's 40 bucks a bottle!" Grahm, you'll recall, makes perfectly fine, often delightful wines, for under $10. "The pricing of zinfandels is completely mad," he adds.

On the other hand, Grahm admits that zinfandel can be "a great food wine. Fruit is the liaison with foods. But once you've got 14 to 15 percent alcohol, the wines have lost their fruit. You've lost that liaison with foods." There you have it.

Grahm is currently working on the 1999 vintage, which will include a bottling of Cardinal Zin. "I wouldn't go out of my way to make zinfandel," he reminds me, "but I was offered old vines, and if somebody offers you old vines, I feel it would be boorish to blow them off." Surveying the current gold rush of zinfandel production, Grahm is not pleased with what he calls the "amazon.zin" situation. "We don't need more wines. We need less crap."

His position is clear.

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From the October 6-13, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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