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The Woody Allen Of Wine Making

November 23, 1990|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Take Woody Allen. Make him taller and huskier, and lose the glasses and the Angst . You wouldn't have Woody Allen any more, of course. You'd have a Californian who quotes Beckett, Heidegger and Perelman a lot.

Turn him into a wine maker and you'd pretty much have Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. The wines Grahm produces in a wooded hamlet about 75 miles south of San Francisco, like Allen's films, are idiosyncratic statements in an ever more standardized industry, serious works with hyper-literate comic trappings.

In fact, the comic labels on some of his wines may be better known than the wines themselves. Le Cigare Volant bears a parody of a French wine label, an antique-style engraving of a wine chateau with a flying saucer (called a "flying cigar" in French) lurking behind a tree and sending down an ominous beam of reddish light. Then there's Old Telegram, the name referring to the venerable Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyard Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, with a label like a creased old telegram, complete with raised strips bearing the text.

There are jokes within the jokes, too. The flying-cigar business has to do both with a tobacco-leaf flavor some tasters find in the wine and the fact that in 1954 the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape passed a law forbidding flying saucers to land in its vineyards. Vin Gris de Cigare, Grahm's rose wine, has the same flying saucer label plus a text that reads as if badly translated from French ("Is there something not entirely self-evident about a wine that proclaims itself a gray wine of cigar?"). However, this label is glued on the bottle backward; you have to read it (if you can) through the wine. In other words, if you want to know anything about this wine, you may have to drink it first. It's Grahm's baroque way of saying this rose is for current consumption, not for aging.

The wine behind these convoluted labels is unusual in its own right, most of it made from Rhone Valley grapes rather than the familiar Burgundy or Bordeaux varieties. Grahm has already taken out all his Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and half of his Chardonnay, that mainstay of California vineyards. On Bonny Doon labels you mostly see unfamiliar names such asGrenache and Syrah and virtually unknown ones such as Viognier, Mourvedre, Marsanne, Roussanne and Cinsault.

They're idiosyncratic wines, reflecting Grahm's personal theories about wine making, and wine writers have sometimes cast aspersions on them. One problem is that most of them are designed to be aged, and nobody yet knows whether they will. The public likes them, though. The 300 cases of Le Cigare Volant sell out in about a month, and 600 cases of Old Telegram have disappeared in as little as a week.

One secret ingredient in Grahm's success is his sales rep in the Los Angeles market: his 65-year-old mother, who carries around her sample bottles in a wicker basket trimmed with ribbon and lace (earlier she used a plastic Gucci bag). One day she was working on Rafael Nazario, 72 Market St.'s wine buyer at the time, using a battery of sales techniques that included joshing, flirting and even pinching his cheeks. He turned to an observer and commented: "You see how it is. If you have a hard time telling a guy you don't want to buy his wine, try telling his mother." Ruth Grahm laughed and blushed violently.

"I'll tell you what she really does," Nazario continued. "She goes around telling everybody there are only a couple of cases of the wine, or a couple of bottles. She makes it sound as if there's hardly any to be had."

"Well, I never know how much there really is," she protested, looking around for reassurance. "I've just always been paranoid about selling people on a wine I couldn't give them."

"But that's her secret," said Nazario. "Immediately it's an in-group thing to stock the wines. In L.A., nobody wants to be left out of the club."

She's a songwriter by profession, not a saleswoman. In the beginning, as she admits, she didn't even know anything about wine--not even how to use a corkscrew. But she's not only a charmer, she's exceptionally persistent. "You could set your watch by her," says another restaurant wine buyer. "If every winery had a Ruth Grahm representing it," says Steve Wallace of Wally's, "wine sales in this country would double."

Running a winery was not Randall Grahm's original scheme, if indeed he had a scheme. In a meandering seven-year undergraduate career he majored mostly in philosophy but also completed a premed curriculum and transferred to MIT for a while. Premed was his parents' idea. "It was a dark day," says Ruth Grahm forebearingly, "when he told his father he wasn't going to be a doctor."

But what exactly did his parents expect? They'd sent him to UC Santa Cruz, known throughout the state as Pepperland-by-the-Sea. With his T-shirts and long, curly hair, Grahm still looks deceptively like a '60s- or '70s-vintage student/seeker.

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