Interviews

Interview with Randall Grahm

by Carolyn de la Peña
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

boom-2011-1-1-20-ufigure-1Carolyn de la Peña of Boom recently sat down with Randall Grahm, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard, to ask him about biodynamic winemaking, his views on California wines and their aficionados, and the past and present of his vineyard. Grahm is author of Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology, winner of the James Beard Award and the Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book award. He describes organic winemaking as a wabi-sabi approach to the craft, an approach that embraces imperfection as an essential element of the beautiful and the natural. It is through their flaws, he argues, that wines become haunting, revelatory, and capable of directing our attention to new places and ideas. Bonny Doon’s first biodynamic vintages, grown in San Juan Bautista, will debut in two or three years.

Carolyn de la Peña: When and where did your fixation with wine begin?

Randall Grahm: I grew up in Southern California, in West Los Angeles. When I was twenty years old I had the great fortune to accidentally wander into a wine shop two blocks from my parents’ house. The first thing they asked me was, “Would you like to open a charge account?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes, thank you very much.” My calculation was that I would never be able to afford to drink great wines on a regular basis and if I wanted to experience those kinds of wines pretty much all the time, I would have to learn how to make them myself.

CDLP: What do you think of California wines?

RG: In the New World and anywhere else where wine is studied as a science, what we study is how to control the process, and we’re very much in the realm of “wines of effort,” stylized wines. This has been the strength of the New World, our consistency, our reliability. We don’t have clunker vintages; we don’t have clunker wines. That’s the upside. The downside, however, is that because everything we do is so controlled, we also don’t have the radical, revelatory surprises. We seldom astonish ourselves.

CDLP: You sound like you’re bored with California wines—were they ever astonishing?

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Randall Grahm swirls the wine at Bonny Doon (photograph © Louis Warren)

RG: I don’t know if California wines were ever astonishing, but at one point they were certainly more soulful, more impressive, but perhaps in a quieter way. Right now the wine business is deformed by financial considerations, everything is so corporate; everything is business, everything has to work financially, so that there is an enormous self-consciousness about what one does and this leads to a great conservatism in winemaking style, real aversion to risk-taking. In the old days no one had the expectation of making tons of money in the wine business. You did it just because you loved it. Land was not crazy expensive, and if you didn’t sell your wine one year you’d sell it the next. Winemakers would say back then, “If nobody buys the wine, fuck ’em; I’ll drink it myself.” Nobody says that anymore. Nobody dares do anything without talking to a consultant, and the consultants have consultants. There’s really no room for mistakes or even for experimentation. I think that leads to a sort of homogeneity of product and not to real breathtaking originality.

I don’t think you can make great wine and also do it as a business. I think it has to be a kind of calling, or a subsidized activity.

CDLP: What do you mean when you say that California wines have a “meaning deficit”?

RG: They don’t come from a place; they’re Stepford wines, if you will. They’re technically perfect but there’s nobody home, in the sense that they’re not coming from somewhere discernible.

I think the more personally connected a winemaker is to his or her wine, the more interesting it is. I’m not the only person who’s said this, but God save us from technically perfect wines. I do sincerely prefer slightly flawed wines. Not grossly flawed wines, but wines that are not quite perfect.

Most California wines you can like but not love. They’re not what I would call haunting; they don’t have this deep, infinitely changing, infinitely multifaceted aspect, which I think only comes from the intelligence of nature. If everything is controlled, there’s no room for nature to insert her qualities.

CDLP: Doesn’t nature, in California, just want to give us bad wine? Why should we trust her?

RG: The paradox is that in California staying within the realm of the safe, staying within the realm of the controlled, generally gives you excellent results. So it’s a little bit irrational to try to pursue more “natural” wines. As much as you esteem them—and I do—the path is fraught with danger because the supposition is that you’re going to have the wit to discover an appropriate terroir and you’re going to have the further wit to discover what are the appropriate grapes and root stocks and spacing and trellis system and irrigation strategy and vine orientation and that you’re going to discover this all within a relatively short lifetime, which is dwindling away even as we speak. Are unadorned wines going to be greater? I don’t know. I’ve just reached a point in my life where I don’t have the same need to please people that I once had. But I do have to please myself absolutely.

CDLP: Is it possible to produce good California wine in a way that is ecologically sustainable?

RG: It’d be nice if there were a little more rainfall in the summer; that would really go a long way. As a biodynamic practitioner you really don’t want to import anything from off the site if you can avoid it. Sometimes you have to bring in some specialized biodynamic preps that are just too hard or too tedious to make yourself. But you don’t want to be importing fertilizers or soil amendments in any substantive way. If you’re making any changes to the soil you want it to be done in this very gentle, gradual way, and you’re really doing that through the compost. So your initial choice of a site is very important if you want it to be self-sustaining. And there aren’t that many places in California where everything’s pretty much balanced to start with.

CDLP: What do you mean by saying we need “revelatory” wines in California—and why do they have to be biodynamic?

RG: Well, we always need revelation—about all things. I don’t think biodynamic practice will necessarily lead to the production of wines expressive of terroir—everything else, from the selection of the site to farming practice, has to conduce to that. But it is a powerful methodology that explicitly addresses the question of the individuation or originality of a particular site. When I say “revelatory” wines, I’m talking about wines that will begin to change our vocabulary, the language that we use about quality in wine. I want the language to move in the direction of a discussion of the life force of the wine, the vitality of the wine, not simply in the current parlance: the wine’s voluptuousness or its hedonistic aspects. Rather, does the wine have the ability to age? Does the wine have the ability to change and evolve? Is it going to live for twenty or thirty years? And is the wine wholesome? This is a really dicey area, but wine should not only taste good, it should make you feel good. It should make you feel good while you’re tasting it, and it should make you feel good the next day after you’ve drunk it.

CDLP: Even if you can produce these new wines, the price tag will be well beyond what most typical consumers are used to paying now. Why will they buy Bonny Doon?

RG: Many wine consumers think wine comes out of a wine store and food comes out of a grocery store. When you visit the place where the wine is made or food is grown, you understand it in a different way. I think Napa Valley’s reputation kind of trivializes that. People think, “Oh, yeah, wine country, the place where they’ve got all those spas and restaurants, that’s where wine comes from.” I would love to see a consumer who comes out to look at my vineyard and says, “How come there aren’t any pipes out here for irrigation? And those vines—they look a little different from those other vines. They’re head-trained and they’re kind of close to the ground and they’re kind of small and they’re kind of scraggly. I wonder if that has any relation to how the wine tastes?” Just going into a cave and feeling the physical presence of a cave and how friggin’ cold it is and looking at how the wine is made—this makes an impression that you could never learn from a book or a magazine article. If I could educate people onsite as to what makes my wine different from 98 percent of the wines in California, that would go a long way toward their understanding why it might cost fifty or sixty bucks. Just simply tasting it I don’t think is quite enough to get why it’s distinctive.

Ultimately, you want the vinous equivalent of farmers’ markets; you want to reach people who go to them and who also love wine. The problem is that normally these are two different populations. You’ve got people who buy organic because they’re ideologically committed to organic produce and then you’ve got people who buy stuff just because they like the way it tastes. And these two have not yet merged. If you tell the average wine consumer that the wine is organic or biodynamic, they’ll generally run top speed in the opposite direction. They don’t want wines that are organic; they don’t want wines that are biodynamic. That means funky. That means weird. They want wines that are perfect, or at least wines that won’t embarrass them when guests come to dinner.

CDLP: But didn’t you help create this consumer aversion to biodynamic, slightly flawed and “revelatory” wines in the first place?

RG: I’ve always tried to make wines that were “pleasing,” fruity, maybe not so obviously challenging. And maybe I’ve been more focused on the exterior of the package—the clever labels and marketing. I’m not exactly ashamed, but slightly chagrined by having been such a slick marketer, producing wines that were essentially commodity wines. They were confectionary wines. I’m not saying that they were better or worse than anything else in California, but I wish I hadn’t done it for quite as long as I did. These were perfectly reasonable wines but there was nothing original about them, there was nothing natural about them, and there was nothing necessary about them. The world didn’t need any of these wines. I truly think that original wines—wines that scratch the sense of place—make the world richer. I think they add to the ecological complexity of the world and are therefore worthwhile. It’s like a new species, a new bird or butterfly. The world is better for it. B

Articles

California Sueños

by Josh Kun
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

“California is a tragic country—like Palestine, like every promised land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations—the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories—followed, in each instance, by counter migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward.”
—Christopher Isherwood, “Los Angeles”

In 1967 Los Tijuana Five, a band best known for their Beatles mop-tops and live Revolución Avenue recreations of the entire Rubber Soul album, took on the California dream. On their first full-length album for the US label Pickwick Records, the band recorded a cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” one of the great pop manifestos of mythic Upper California sunshine. Written by John Phillips after leaving LA for a particularly rough and frigid New York winter, the song casts California as its own cinematic fantasy, full of perfect beaches and warm evening winds, a promised land without tragedy. But instead of merely translating the song into Spanish, Los Tijuana Five use it to play with the politics of their location. When “California Dreamin’,” becomes “Sueños de California,” they are singing from California about a longing for California. It’s just that their California is Baja California, not the California north of the line. They change the original refrain “California dreamin’,” into a possessive that happens to rhyme with the English lyric: “California mía,” my California. The California they miss, the illusion they create through their longing, is not the same one that Phillips built behind the frost on his New York City windows. Their California isn’t LA; it’s Tijuana. Their California is their California.

Ever since a war-birthed border split the two Californias in the nineteenth century, the idea of California—its sunshine myths and romances as much as its noir realities—has been a prime subject of musical interpretation for Mexican artists across the California-Mexico borderlands. While Los Tijuana Five dreamed their California from their home south of the borderline, critiques of California myths and harsh, dramatic accounts of California realities have dominated the Mexican migrant music made and consumed on both sides of the border.

The migrant experience in California has been at the very heart of norteño music since the beginning of the twentieth century, from Los Hermanos Bañuelos’ dishwasher tale of failed Hollywood hope in “El Lavaplatos” in 1929 to Carlos y José’s wishful thinking in the 1980s in “Me Voy a California” (“I’m going to California, I’m going to harvest money”) through song after song on contemporary Spanish-language radio. It can be heard in the music of Los Tucanes de Tijuana (once Tijuana-based, now in San Diego), El Chapo de Sinaloa (from Sinaloa, but now calling the Inland Empire home), Los Razos (from Michoacán, now living in Oxnard), and Jenni Rivera (born and raised in Playa Larga, a.k.a. Long Beach). For that matter, the entire body of work of Sinaloa-born, Northern California-based Los Tigres del Norte—the reigning musical titans of Greater Mexico—could easily be read as a collective study of the political, cultural, and affective impacts of Mexican migrancy in California and belongs in Literature of California anthologies and on California Studies syllabi, right next to Ramona, The Grapes of Wrath, Southern California: An Island on the Land, and City of Quartz. The Mexican scholar Gustavo López Castro has written extensively about norteño music and other musical styles of migrant Mexico as forming a decades-spanning “songbook of migrancy,” a dynamic, living archive of everyday migrant life, of cross-border feelings and emotions that create communities of sentiment between Mexico and the US. Or to borrow from Roberto Tejada’s important work on Mexican photography, norteño music has created not a “shared image environment” but a “shared sonic environment” between the US and Mexico. Nowhere is this more the case than in the current popular music of California. Music made by migrant Mexicans for migrant Mexicans—arguably the most commercially popular and culturally galvanizing music in the state—has been a key source of migrant articulations of longings and feelings for Mexico and for a better, more just life in the US. It is also, as Catherine Ragland and Hermann Herlinghaus have persuasively argued, a key site for shaping everyday vernacular reactions to the asymmetries, dislocations, and violence of economic globalization.

Don Cheto, one of the top Spanish-language radio DJs in Los Angeles (he hosts the morning show on the massively popular station La Que Buena), has built his entire career on the belief that Mexican migrant music—and its stories of immigration, identity negotiation, and daily economic struggle—is the music of Southern California, the music that most clearly and powerfully speaks to his millions of listeners, be they migrants from Jalisco and Michoacán or the US born sons and daughters of migrants from Zacatecas, Sinaloa, and Sonora. A character created by Juan Carlos Razo, a thirty-year-old immigrant from Michoacán, Don Cheto is a seventy-year-old immigrant veterano who wears a campesino hat and a big gray moustache and, between the latest banda and norteño hits, dispenses wisdom and advice about immigrant life in LA. When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids LA factories, plants, and warehouses, he sings “Ice, Ice, Baby,” putting an agitpop immigrant spin on Vanilla Ice’s late-eighties hip-hop hit. Earlier this year he released “La Crisis”—first on the radio, then on YouTube, and only later on iTunes—a comical song about the impact of the global recession on family life in LA that takes shots at both President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Don Cheto has become the unofficial poster boy of Mexican migrant music and a leading cultural mouthpiece and media icon for LA’s massive (and thriving) Mexican music industry. This industry is a formal and informal commercial network of record distributors, multinational record companies, homegrown indie labels, swap-meet vendors, neighborhood record shops, corner grocery stores, nightclubs, clothing stores, and weekend jaripeos, rodeos, and bailes that stretches from Westside beaches to South LA, from Orange County and East LA to the eastern suburbs of the Inland Empire and beyond.


Los Tigres del Norte performing in 2008
Image: courtesy of Jose Cornide, www.alterna2.com

That is the California we’re welcomed into on “California,” the single released earlier this year by the Michoacán-born, South LA-raised hip-hop duo Akwid. It’s a classic “welcome to California” song, but their hook is “Bienvenidos a California,” and while it’s still a land where “all of your dreams become reality,” their California is “the land of my people . . . California, Mexico . . . the land of the sorcerer wetback.” Akwid’s migrant remapping of California is on the same album as “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas,” a song dedicated to Mexican migrants, or paisas (slang for paisanos), who shave their heads, wear cowboy boots, listen to banda music, and take pride in their working-class rancholo (or rancho-meets-cholo) lifestyle. “I can’t hide who I am,” they rap over slow West Coast funk, “These clothes I’m wearing? I bought them at the swap meet.” Like Los Tijuana Five’s “Sueños de California,” Akwid’s song is a cover, but instead of a California myth makeover they do a Chicano makeover. “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas” is based on “La Raza,” the influential nineties Chicano hip-hop anthem by the East LA-born rapper Kid Frost, which was itself based on “Viva Tirado,” a low-and-slow 1969 cruising instrumental from the seventies Mexican-American funk and soul band El Chicano. (True to California-Mexico form, El Chicano’s “Viva Tirado” was itself a cover; the song was originally penned by the African-American jazz composer Gerald Wilson, who originally wrote it in 1962 as an homage to the Mexican bullfighter José Ramón Tirado.)

Frost’s original call for “Aztec warrior” brown pride was based in East LA; Akwid shift the focus to South LA, Southgate, and Bell, areas that since the 1980s have become hubs for newly arrived Mexican migrant populations. Instead of Chicano pride, Akwid preach Michoacán pride and paisa pride, musical formulations of identity that are as rooted in the urban geographies of LA as they are in the binational migrant labor networks that have historically connected LA to Mexico through a shifting series of loops and circuits. (According to one 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 36 percent of LA immigrants are Mexican and of the one million undocumented in LA county, 60 percent are of Mexican origin.)

Akwid weren’t always rapping in Spanish about being paisas. Originally called Juvenile Style, they were an English-language rap duo whose heaviest influences—2nd II None, King Tee, DJ Quik—were born directly from their 1980s upbringing in largely African-American neighborhoods across South LA. But in the 1990s Akwid, like so much of Mexican California, got banda fever. Due in large part to rising immigration numbers, the music of banda sinaloense became a central part of California’s radio soundscape, producing what George Lipsitz has called “a new cultural moment, one that challenges traditional categories of citizenship and culture on both sides of the border.” The 1992 murder of Sinaloa’s leading corrido superstar Chalino Sánchez—a former Coachella farmworker who had become a migrant icon throughout Southern California—further cemented the relationship between migrants and the rural, working-class music of the Mexico they had left behind. In the Los Angeles of Akwid’s childhood, it produced what the journalist Sam Quiñones famously dubbed “the Sinaloaization of LA.” Mexicans who had previously looked to gangsta rap as a mirror of urban outrage now looked to corridos and banda; closets full of Raiders jerseys suddenly shared hangar space with cowboy hats, belt buckles, and boots.

Since the 1990s in the US the commercial genres banda and norteño have been subsumed under the rubric of “regional Mexican.” The category has rapidly become one of the most commercially and culturally vital genres in US popular music. For this is not just a California story, of course, but a national one as well: the more Mexicanized the map of the US grows, the more regional Mexican music becomes the genre with which to reckon. Regional Mexican is currently the top-selling Latin music in the US, responsible for over 70 percent of all Latin music sales and outselling pop and tropical by significant margins. It is the official music of the geography that Los Tigres del Norte called, back in 1986, el otro México, the other Mexico, the Mexico that lives and thrives beyond Mexico’s territorial national borders and within the spaces of the United States.

Los Tigres reimagined the US as part of a new map of Mexico (or, to borrow Roger Bartra’s formulation, a new map of “post-Mexico”). That they charted el otro México not in the press or in their liner notes but over accordions and snare drums in a song of that title is a reminder of just how central Mexican migrant music has been to articulations and explorations of social and political identity in the US. Regional Mexican music in California is not simply the soundtrack to Mexican migrant life, but, to borrow terminology from Thomas Turino, it is “music as social life” grounded and shaped by “the politics of participation.” “The other Mexico that we have constructed here on this ground that has been our national territory,” Los Tigres sang, “is the effort of all our fellow Mexicans and Latin Americans who have known how to improve themselves.” The “other California” that has for so long been a key part of the “other Mexico” has likewise been its own republic of song, its own binational audio territory, where migrant songs blasting over car radios and cell phones continue to reveal, perhaps more than any other contemporary art form, all the tragedy and all the promise of the California yet to come. B

Articles

The Antidote to the Trope State

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To a greater extent than most other states, California has always been a trope state. Since the Gold Rush, and arguably before, its residents have imbued the place with unreasonable expectations. Those expectations served as the basis of the state’s first and most enduring trope: superabundance. The trope of superabundance was not based on pure fiction: indeed, up through the 1950s, the State provided enough mineral and material assets, enough dreamers, technicians, engineers, and artists, and enough money in its coffers, to make good on the promise of limitless opportunity for the majority of its residents.

But the 1970s introduced stark challenges to the trope. The passage of Proposition 13, the gut-wrenching job losses ushered in by global economic change, egregious violations of human rights and the skyrocketing rates of incarceration forced a new state narrative, which could easily be found in the corollary to the trope of suberabundance: catastrophism. Overstating the uniqueness and the extent of California’s calamity became a cottage industry for critics and scholars by the 1990s and it remains one of the State’s most thriving enterprises.

It the tropes of superabundance and catastrophism are inadequate as foundations for a coherent state narrative, one might reasonably ask, with what should we replace them? I would answer that we really have no need for a coherent state narrative, because any new trope will fail spectacularly to capture the complexity and dynamism and the place. Additionally, no one— perhaps with the exception of the occasional chamber of commerce executive—lies awake in bed fretting about not having access to a coherent narrative of the place in which they reside. A coherent state narrative provides no collective psychological or material benefits that can be measured.

I would submit that a better question to ask would be this: what are the core ideas that inform our lives in this particular part of the world at this general time? By showcasing high quality writing, the results of exacting but accessible research, and the work of California’s most creative thinkers, artists, writers, and performers, Boom is uniquely positioned to answer this question.

Josh Sides
Whitsett Professor of California History
California State University, Northridge

Articles

Subduction Zone

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In Lawrence Levine’s essay “The Folklore of Industrial Society,” he explains that magazines, music, and movies are forms of popular culture that function in ways similar to folk culture. It is even “a form of folklore for people living in urban industrial societies.” Levine’s area of exploration, as is mine, is the Great Depression, and the state of California, (a term I use both geographically and descriptively).  California offered a fascinating trove of industrial folklore during that time, as it always has.

In a state in which political analyses are as common as sunny days, Californians are inundated with information about policy, pricing, legislation and law.  But Levine’s concept of expressive culture as an actual folklore we can record and study provides a necessary and fascinating entrance into the way the people who will live here, under that legislation, attempt to create and often recreate their lives.  It can tell what people see as “normal,” even in the most abnormal of times and trace the methods they use to achieve normal life. It can give us insight in to the reasons and routes people take to interrogating normative patterns that have been ingrained into society but never explained. It does not necessarily explain or predict how we will be living in the future, but it explains in rich ways how we came to live the way we are currently living. The songs people write, sing and download; the fashions they produce and parade; the various forms of communication to which they turn and innovate—all work to produce a deeper, richer history, one that goes beyond the surface to explore the lives of those who live, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “outside of history.”

When I introduce California literature in my classes, I use the metaphor of plate tectonics. In geology, one tectonic plate moves and subducts a second, with the second plate being forced under. Sometimes, the result is a volcano. Sometimes not. In this very loose metaphor, I point to the state’s long history of immigration, emigration, and migration. Over time, one race, or group, or class of people moves to or across the state, and a subduction zone occurs as the new converges onto the old. Sometimes a literary volcano occurs. Sometimes not.

Looking at this pattern of convergences and the new voices that have so often arisen from them allows us to see the various ways that people who live “outside of history” have made sense of a state whose shifting cultures continue to make it both dazzling and frightening.

Jan Goggans
Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts
University of California, Merced