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Book Review: Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology

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Many more people will praise this highly anticipated book than will actually read it. In that, it’s something like “Finnigan’s Wake” or the “The Divine Comedy” and other tomes Grahm has enjoyed parodying in his Bonny Doon newsletter, works that few can get through but nonetheless thought they should respect. In fact, the book consists largely of old material from the newsletters, and if you couldn’t finish one before, it’s even more unlikely you’ll be able to get through all 318 pages of them.

Randall Grahm is, of course, the California vintner who started Bonny Doon in the 1980s and was made famous by — well, by himself, by being eccentric and interesting to the media and innovative (the word “visionary” is frequently used), and by having one of the most unusual newsletters in the industry. His wines never rose to the level of First Growth, but they were good enough to get by. He deserves proper respect for having been an early proponent of Rhône varieties.

Now, in this new publication, from University of California Press, Grahm adds another credit to his resumé: book author.

The Introduction and the chapter following it, “The Etiquette (and History) of the Bonny Doon ETIQUETTE,” both of which were written for the book, are its most interesting and readable sections. Grahm, always known for a tongue-in-cheek candor, informs us how throughout his career he has been an opportunistic winemaker, making wines of convenience and sometimes even interest, but seldom of terroir, although terroir was what he spoke of incessantly and criticized other wines for not having. Along the way he slams those villains that long have piqued his ire: “the adult theme park, Napa Valley,” the international style of winemaking, winemaker “tricks,” Italian-American wine salesmen wearing “two kilos…of gold chain,” Robert Parker (“Parcade”), the Wine Spectator, Chardonnay, the 100-point system. He comes out of the closet, as it were, as perhaps a greater marketer than winemaker , while promising us that his best days lie ahead.

The reprinted newsletter parodies take up the brunt of the book. They occasionally tickle the funny bone, eliciting laughs (an ostensible wine periodical is “The Avocado del Vino,” “a bimensual publication” which “resembled nothing so much as pulp fiction…lurid and juicy.”) The repeated references (I stopped counting after a while), both direct and indirect in the form of satire, to Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave me pause. Grahm puts them down so thoroughly and savagely, you have to wonder why he’s so obsessed with them. He’s like a crime victim who can’t stop thinking about his tormentor. Or perhaps the Stockholm Syndrome explains this curious fetish.

Despite the occasional chuckle, more often these wordy take-offs are just boring. Grahm tells us how much fun he had writing them, but it’s doubful any reader will even be able to finish the overlong, overly wrought and dense sendup of Dante’s Inferno. In truth, Grahm’s commentaries on his parodies, also written afresh for the book, are far more interesting than the parodies themselves.

The “Poesy” section again allows Grahm to display his verbal pyrotechnics in full glory. The man obviously knows how to write (and comes dangerously close, here and there, to admitting to being a better writer than winemaker), but, once again, I suspect this section will be impatiently skimmed, not studied. Ditto for “DoonTune,” the section consisting of too-clever-by-half takeoffs on rock songs (“Born to Rhône”).

“Enough Rope” contains yet more “extracts from the nooseletter,” with additional wordplay, in-jokes and puns. If you like this sort of stuff, it’s a romp. For me, it’s a slog. Grahm is fiendishly smart, but the polysyllabic swamp and self-conscious (and self-referential) stylistic flourishes eventually got to me. Too bad. There are a lot of good ideas in the book, but they’re so elaborately oaked, so intervened with in bells and whistles, that it’s hard to appreciate them; their terroir is masked by 100 percent charred new prose. Sometimes, in writing as in wine, less is more.

Still, Grahm at his best is, well, Grahmifying. He’s a boon-afied jokester; you can’t help but to relate to almost everything he says. When he drops the literary pretense and just lets himself be silly, he’s a riot. “The Heartbreak of Wine Geekdom” is classic. (The snob brings “his own Impitoyable tasting glasses to the restaurant.” Sweet.) The essays that conclude the book — reprints of speeches — contain important thoughts, but in a tendentious style. It is as if Grahm wanted to show a more serious, academic side, to counter-balance the wit. But they make for very difficult reading, like transcripts.

I suspect “Doon” will sell well. It’s a handsome book (as are all U.C. Press books, including mine), and Grahmanatics will happily display it on their coffee tables. It’s not a bad book, and in many respects an admirable one. I just wish it were, doon it, better.

  1. I’m sorry if Steve felt that the book was somewhat of a slog. Perhaps like some of the winemaker dinners I’ve attended in my time, there was just too much overly rich nutriment served up; savoring the prose and poesy in more digestible bites would probably offer some relief. Steve’s observation of the perhaps clinical aspects of my seeming obsession with Parker and Wine Spectator is certainly well noted, and I found myself at times shuddering. (You should see all the material that ended up on the cutting room floor.) Yes, I could have (maybe should have) been a little more temperate in my remarks, but the book is somewhat of an historical record of where I have been, and I felt, rightly or wrongly, or maybe just narcissistically, that I should present the record in a largely unvarnished fashion. But, there’s one point that perhaps I should make: Yeah, maybe there is more than a little bit of a psychopathology in my obsessions, but the reality is that if you do satire w/r/t the wine biz, as I pretty much do, there is a sort of inevitability that you are going to start whacking at the piñatas that are most readily whackable. The point scoring system, the Napocracy (sorry, couldn’t help it), the disappearance of stylistic diversity in the New World, the hyper-selfconsciousness of the modern wine biz, are all subjects that are all important to speak up about, even if the voice does tend to get a bit shrill.

  2. Surprised that Steve wasn’t also a bit put off by the footnotes, which are plentiful. I am a hopelessly compulsive annotator, as this annotation to my earlier note attests. Here is the most important take-away point to the book that I hope readers will get: In winemaking, as in life, there are those who primarily worry about pleasing the Other, and those whose primary focus is to please themselves. Certainly for most of my career as a winemaker and human being, I have fallen into the former category. My spiritual and professional path have coincided, where it is now my work to attempt to sincerely habitate the latter category at least some of the time; it is a very difficult discipline and one that I have to meet head-on every day. The pursuit of terroir is my mantra and the book, I hope, is a spirited defense of this very precious notion. If I can truly focus on expressing a sense of place in the wine, I am certain that the distractions of being loved/unloved, understood/misunderstood will all fall away.

  3. A fair and candid review. Call the Grahm book on one’s coffee table an aspirational purchase. Many people buy Cal T-shirts who have never slept through a lecture in one of those 800-person classes either.
    While it is certainly true that an hour alone with Randall Grahm’s mind can be a frightful and synapse-clogging experience, five minutes is a sheer delight. And has been for well over 30 years. I love to quote him to my friends. And that facet alone is a gigantic contribution to the California wine industry. I’ve always felt his most severe limitation as a marketing man was his genetic inability to say the same thing over and over. When you are constantly coming up with new material, rather than endlessly repeating your best stuff, by definition some of your material is going to be sub-standard.

  4. Hi Bruce, it’s been too long! I still remember a wild and crazy ride with you down from Nob Hill to BART. How are you?

  5. Ron McFarland says:

    Sounds like the book highlights the journey and the changes we all experience enjoying wine. This is what makes it so enjoyable.

    Will check out the book next time in the bookstore.

  6. Your statement about Dante’s Inferno is so true. I remember when I was teaching myself Italian, it was after I had just recently come off four years of Latin. For my birthday my brother had gifted me an edition of The Divine Comedy which came in both English and the archaic Italian (an odd blend of the transitional phase between latin and italian). Anyway, it’s as you said, I only got about half way through. The book still sits near me, waiting to be recovered. Maybe I will reopen it one of these days.

  7. Steve – I responded to your review on the Beendoosolong.com site at http://bit.ly/1acvhu – I think you really missed this one.

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  1. My Disappointing Review | Been Doon So Long - [...] own man.1 I won’t try to paraphrase Steve’s critique. You can look up the review yourself at www… But …

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