The Life in Wine, a conversation with Randall Grahm

Meeting Randall Grahm

Barrel tasting with Randall Grahm

The first time I met Randall Grahm, he began discussing chi within a few minutes of my arrival. We’d stepped into Bonny Doon‘s winery cellar in the Mission district of Santa Cruz. “The ability to tolerate oxygen is the chi of a wine.” He went on, “wine needs oxygen, but it is also affected by oxygen.”

We were standing next to the upright wooden tanks for the label’s signature red blend, Le Cigare Volant, and he wanted to explain the connection between a wine’s chi and it’s contact with lees. The puncheons Grahm uses for aging his blend contain multiple levels of shelving, creating what Grahm calls “a lees hotel.” The wine’s lees settle on different levels, giving “more surface area for the lees to get digested.” As the wine breaks down the lees, they produce savoriness, but the also give the wine a greater ability to withstand the negative effects of air.

But it isn’t lees that Grahm is focused on. The discussion is meant to raise a different point. “One of the main mysteries of wine,” Grahm tells me, “is why some wines live and some wines die. Like good Burgundy, that wine is good for a week.” Asking him to explain further what he means, Grahm refers to the liveliness of a wine after it’s been opened, the way some wines resist oxidation and stay beautiful for days after opening. “We should all be focusing on answering one question, what are things we can do to give wine life, to help wines live?” Grahm says.

The Life of a Wine: The Role of Minerality

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Half a year later, Grahm and I are talking over the phone for an article I wrote on the idea of minerality. In the article, I was able to reference Grahm’s point that a useful place to start would be to simply assay mineral levels in wines themselves. But his discussion went further. He offered a unique account of minerality I didn’t have the word count to share.

In the phone conversation, Grahm returns again to the question of oxidation. “What is the mechanism that leads some wines to resist oxidation?” Neither of us had referenced our previous conversation at this point. The question of a wine’s life is simply central for Grahm. “There are wines whose phenolics,” he tells me, “are not off the charts and yet they don’t oxidize.”

To put it another way, there are wines with obvious characteristics that we know resist oxidation–they are high in sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative; they are low in pH, or rich in tannin. “But subtract these factors out,” Grahm emphasizes, “and there is still a class of wines that do not oxidize, and that is not explained by those physical variables. What is at work there?” It’s the same question Grahm called wine’s greatest mystery as we tasted his signature blend.

Wine’s Mystery Class

Randall Grahm

For Grahm, the class of wine’s that do not oxidize and yet do not carry the understood mechanisms–excess sulfur dioxide, low pH, rich tannin (or perhaps have only one of them in a non-explanatory way)–are the mystery class. He lists examples that seem to produce a higher number of such wines–Haut-Brion, wines from the Saar or Mt. Etna, Chablis, many Rieslings, but his paradigm case is Lesona (an Italian wine incredibly hard to find information on). “Lesona,” he tells me, “you could leave those wines open for a month and they don’t oxidize.”

I ask Grahm if he finds anything in common between the wines he listed as examples, and he does. “Lesona wine, this appellation in Italy, is textbook mineral city.” For Grahm, it is a very particular account of minerality that the mystery class shares. In his experience, Grahm tells me, wines that stay alive after opening always also carry “a sort of experience on the palate.” He describes that experience for me.

“There is a persistence on the palate.” He says. “A savoriness, or saltiness, and,” he pauses to think. “What I call dimensionality to the wine.” He trails off for a second then returns. “Forgive the lapse into synthesia. The wine just seems to have some sort of multi-dimensionality, a non-linearity.” We discuss the shape of it for a while, and I recognize the sensation as a kind of echo on the palate.

“Yes,” he responds. “there is a doubling of the sensation, a kind of secondary aspect to it” as if you catch a scent or flavor in the wine “and then immediately after follows a relief, or accompaniment in the wine,” not another flavor exactly, but an echo of the initial flavoral experience.

The description from Grahm seems to resemble the French account of minerality from Master of Wine, John Atkinson, I discussed in the article. As Atkinson explains his understanding of the French notion, minerality operates as a kind of “organoleptic action of mineral-bitter-salts element” that hinges flavors and structure together. Minerality operates, then, in this account as not just a flavor but a link between taste and acid or tannin, as well as a physical response from the mouth itself. As Grahm describes it, the echo seems to correlate with a kind of overall tension on the palate, as if the wine is directed and the mouth must follow.

Soil and Vinification Correlation

Talking with Randall Grahm

Beyond the sensory commonality Grahm sees in his wines of interest, there is also a correlation with mineral rich ground. He recognizes that current science denies a direct line from the mineral ions in earth to literal mineral content in wine, but the point is moot. Even if the ions don’t literally appear in the wine itself, who cares if such ground so often does generate quality wines? The calcium rich marl of Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Collio I add to the list. He agrees, but he wants to discuss a more ready example in limestone.

What Grahm notices is that the kind of experience he described occurs very often with wines from limestone soils, but most especially in whites. “White wines from limestone soils are more transparent,” he explains. “It can be easier to blind limestone soils on whites because they’re simply less encumbered.” There are fewer elements, such as tannin or anthocyanins, to block the palate expression of the soil. But Grahm points something else out. With limestone soils, such wines “are often very closed when [the bottle is] first opened up, both in whites and reds.”

But the source of a wine’s life doesn’t rest only in its soils, the role of vineyard care, and the winemaker is also clear. I ask Grahm what he’d recommend to winemakers wanting to create wines full of minerality, that last after opening. The answer is straightforward. “Buy some land in a mineral rich area, find soils rich in minerals, then farm in a way that is maximally expressive of those qualities.” For Grahm much of what that means is inspired by the work of Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who emphasize the importance of micro fauna, and micro floral life in the earth. Supporting the longevity of old vines is also important.

The role of reduction early in the winemaking process also seems relevant. By giving wine a shot of oxygen early on, it seems to become more resistant to its negative impacts later. In Grahm’s view such an approach also adds an additional layer of complexity ultimately to the wine. “The reduction aroma initially occludes things present in how you farm. But as it dissipates, it adds another dimension,” giving room too for the terroir to show again. This process of reduction is another way in which a wine closes, then opens up over time.

Atkinson too describes a correlation between this sort of reductive fermentation process in making champagne (though not in the sulfidic sense) and the experience of minerality in both the vin clair and final sparkling wine, as he has studied for years at the shoulder of Billecart-Salmon‘s Chef de Cave Francois Domi. Current thought suggests a likely correlation between this sense of reduction, and the later presentation of minerality in wine. Hildegaard Heymann, of UC Davis, and winemaker Clark Smith are both examples of people that have shared such an account in interviews, or written on it.

Finding the Life of Wine with Air

Bonny Doon wines

It is this point about certain wines beginning closed, then opening up with time that finally makes Grahm’s point. “These wines are changeable.” For Grahm, the idea gets to the heart of appeal for his mystery class. “They move. They start out closed, and then they move and change in the glass.” The description of wine’s movement circles us back finally to an idea Grahm shared when we first met. “A wine that lives,” he tells me, “is responsive to oxygen. It breathes.”

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Comments

4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Patrick,

    Interesting article, but it needed copy editing:
    The Chinese chi is spelled either qi or ch’i
    punch-ins? try puncheons
    the point is mute? I think you mean moot
    can be easier to blind limestone soils? can you mean bind?

    • Hi Patrick,

      Thank you for being helpful.

      I find this terribly funny. One of the side effects of my work here being unfunded, and done by only me is that most of the time I’m up late at night to write and/or draw the work I post here. So, sometimes I’m tired enough my brain doesn’t catch those sorts of edits before I post.

      I’ve corrected “moot” and “puncheons,” both errors as a result of being tired.

      As for “chi”, that is a commonly used spelling of the phenomenon in English, and I did mean “blind limestone” as in being able to taste that a wine was grown in limestone without knowing. Again, a commonly used phrase for that sort of tasting experience.

      Thanks again for your help!
      Elaine

  2. David,

    Accoring to Dr. Roger Boulton at UC Davis, oxidation of wine primarily occurs from free iron and copper ions in the wine when in contact with dissolved oxygen. In limestone soils, where the pH of the soil is higher, there is less uptake of these ions from the soil. This could possibly explain the reason why some of these wines don’t exhibit oxidation… Randall Graham is an artisan for sure, and he has done much for Rhone varietals in California, but his romanticism of the subject can likely be explained by science.

    • Hi David,
      Dr. Boulton no doubt knows all. :) I’m a big fan of his work. He’s done remarkable things at Davis, and even more remarkable things for Davis. That program has been vastly blessed by his dedication.

      As for what you call Grahm’s romanticism–your comment there reads like a misunderstanding of what I take to be his actual point. He’s saying we should all take the time *to study* these questions, because he finds them valuable questions, and believes we’d all be improved by finding their answers. It’s clear that current scientific knowledge has some insights that get the discussion started, and at the same time clear that science hasn’t given us enough insight to adequately explain these questions.

      I believe Grahm’s interests are actually not at all at odds with science here. That is, he does value these questions, but isn’t treating them like a mystic. He wants further investigation. We’ve talked about this at length, and I’ve listened carefully, so I feel comfortable in saying that Grahm’s point was to say he wants us to learn more.

      I take it part of Grahm’s point is that there are multiple factors going on here, and we can’t currently explain the phenomenon. As a quick example: note that the wines he references don’t all come from limestone soils. That was just an example.

      When it comes to a comprehensive understanding of everything happening in wine, its processes, and its expressiveness, we’re still very early in our studies and understanding. There is a ton we don’t know. I believe Grahm’s point is that we should keep studying these questions so we can know more. To put it another way, he isn’t saying wine is a mystery in order to claim “and so we will never know.” He is saying, wine is a mystery and so let’s study it further and find out more! That is exciting stuff–that we have so much to explore still.

      Dr. Boulton continues to encourage such studies as well, as can be seen in the impressive new winery facility he helped design, and develop. The potential for study of truly site specific fermentations, as an example, will no doubt give us further insight into the sorts of questions referenced here and more. I agree with you that these questions can be answered through science. But it’s clear scientific knowledge can’t adequately answer these questions currently. As for Grahm, he isn’t being a mystic. He wants us to focus our efforts on better understanding.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Dr. Boulton really is a great resource for these sorts of discussions, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to clarify ideas further.

      Cheers!
      Elaine

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