This is a speech that Randall Grahm delivered in Washington, D.C., at the Inc. Magazine Conference, September 2009 (part 2 of a 3-part series).
Some back story. I started the company in 1981 with the naïve aspiration of producing the Great American Pinot Noir in the little hamlet of Bonny Doon. My efforts were systematically thwarted, but I discovered Rhône grape varieties and my efforts were intermittently positively reinforced, so I’ve continued to do what I do. Bonny Doon grew and grew organically, which is to say in a random, unplanned fashion and ultimately became quite complex and convoluted, beautiful in its way, but mostly untenable, kind of like a Citroën automobile.
I had always been a lover of European wines and the one thing about them that I found irresistible about the best ones was their ability to communicate a sense of place – what the French call terroir. I was giving speeches and writing articles about the beauty and uniqueness of terroir, but there was nothing in what I was doing that was particularly congruent with what I was saying. Further, I had discovered biodynamic farming – this is a fairly esoteric practice based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, involving coordination of one’s agricultural activities with the celestial rhythms and using what are called the “biodynamic preparations,” which essentially are a form of agricultural homeopathy. Biodynamics does not in and of itself lead you to produce great wines – you still need to be a good farmer and grow grapes in a brilliant and appropriate location – but it does seem to give you healthier soils with more life in them and that does seem to give the wine more of a mineral structure, “life-force,” or the ability to tolerate oxidative challenge.
But what is relevant to the story is that at the time – just three years ago – I had many growers, most of them unreconstructed and unreconstructable. I was trapped in a life and a business that was just not congruent with my core values. I had recently turned fifty, fathered a child, and survived a serious medical issue; it was definitely time to change my ways. If I were to die any time soon, they would say, “What a great marketer he was,” and that would be utterly unacceptable to me, even being dead. My initial thought was that I would need to sell Bonny Doon outright.
The problem of course was that nobody actually wanted to buy Bonny Doon, at least not for a reasonable price – it was far too complicated and white elephantine – so in September of 2006 we shrank our production dramatically. I had hoped to be able to redefine the company – as producers of wines of substance, of this aforementioned life-force. How have we done in rebranding the company? Well, frankly, not as well as I would have hoped, but not for want of effort. I commissioned a beautiful piece of which we ran in the Wine Spectator, detailing the changes we had undergone.
Our new labels were not nearly as wacky as the old ones, but were still visually interesting and tried to capture a sense of the differentiated aspects of our brand. Here is a picture of our Ca’ del Solo Albariño label, which features a “sensitive crystallization” of the wine itself – this is an obscure methodology involving crystallizing the wine in a petri dish, and while it may be a bit New Agey, it speaks eloquently as to what we’re trying to achieve.
Part 3 of 3 continued Monday, October 5.