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Bonny Doon sells big brands

Published:  23 July, 2008

When Randall Grahm, sometimes known as the wizard of Bonny Doon, sold off his Big House and Cardinal Zin brands in late July, he cut the annual production of Bonny Doon winery from over 400,000 cases to barely 40,000 cases. An unusual step in the wine business, when every day seems to bring news of the global conglomerates getting bigger as they gobble up the little guys.

Perhaps even more surprising was that Grahm promised not to trash talk 'influential wine journalists'. Grahm says he sold the brands so that he could focus on his limited, super-premium line of terroir-based wines, like Le Cigare Volant, his homage to Chteauneuf-du-Pape, and his Rhne style Le Cigare wines. Grahm sold the brands to The Wine Group, which claims to be the world's third-largest wine producer by volume.

The San Francisco-based company produces a long line of brands, the best known of which include Franzia, Concannon, Glen Ellen and Corbett Canyon. Big House and Cardinal Zin will be added to the company's Underdog Wine Merchants portfolio.

Grahm said he realised that it was time for him to concentrate on producing true terroir-based wines. 'The shedding of product will enable us to do that,' he said.

(While Grahm's move is counter to current wine business trends, others in California have moved in a similar direction, notably Jess Jackson, owner of the popular Kendall-Jackson brand. Rather than sell off his popular brands, however, Jackson has acquired a number of small-production, super-premium brands over the years, operating them as Jackson Family Wines, a stand-alone company. His most recent purchase was in mid-August, when he bought Freemark Abbey in Napa, Arrowood in Sonoma and Byron in Santa Barbara County from Legacy Estates, a winery management company that is in bankruptcy.)

Over the past few years, Grahm has become a convert to biodynamic viticulture. 'We hope to go 100% biodynamic in the next couple of years. We will be nearly there with this upcoming vintage and should be totally there by the 2008 vintage,' Grahm said, adding that the sale will help him achieve that goal faster.

Grahm said he will be planting one or possibly two new vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, with the aim of growing Rhne varieties. They will be farmed biodynamically. However, the ever vinously curious Grahm has no intention of going all-Rhne all the time. He has retained ownership of the vineyard near Soledad in Monterey County, source of the grapes for the Big House brand. 'We are also looking to rationalise that somewhat eclectic vineyard. There is sort of a Noah's Ark of grape varieties at the moment; we are looking closely at expanding the most successful red and white varieties. For the moment, the leading contenders appear to be Dolcetto and Albario,' he said.

He also has plans to build a new winery on the present site of the Bonny Doon winery. Typical of Grahm, he isn't sure at this point whether to build one 40,000-case capacity winery or two smaller wineries - one for red wine, one for white.

Grahm's interest in biodynamics is the result of his desire to make terroir-based wines. 'It is very clear to me that biodynamics is perhaps the most efficient method to help reveal the originality and quirkiness of a particular site. You are not using massive interventions to help the site somehow become "normal", rather just to be itself; you are promoting a much greater degree of empathy between grower and site as well,' he said.

He added, via email, 'It is the intent of biodynamics to help unlock the mineralising processes (a function of active microbial biota) in the soil, i.e. focus on enhancing the plant's own ability to take up nutrients already present, rather than try to feed the plant a scientifically balanced diet. By allowing the plants to come to their own equilibrium with the land, informed by the balancing presence of livestock on site, there is a much more articulated expression of terroir.'

In the press release announcing the sale, Grahm stated, in part: 'I had envisioned a catchy headline like, "Big House brand escapes the shackles of the tyranny of terroirism", but thought better of it.' Asked if he thought his sometimes unorthodox, if not downright weird, marketing style might lead the trade or consumers not to take him seriously, he said, 'I see this as a small, not necessarily insurmountable, problem.

'I do think often that the seriousness of the winemaking in the ancien regime was undermined ever so slightly by the cleverness of the marketing shtick. We were just trying so hard to please people, maybe too hard, and the brilliance of the marketing just got a bit ahead of the wine itself. I know that it will take every ounce of self-control to rein it in a bit, but I will give it a try.

'We are really going to work hard to make sure that the focus is really on the wine itself, and not the circus. In future, I should also try to avoid making provocative or disparaging remarks about influential wine journalists.'

The deal, which was put together by Robert Nicholson of International Wine Associates, Healdsburg, California, would seem to be a good fit for The Wine Group's Underdog Wine Merchants. Underdog was formed shortly before the purchase was announced, with the explicit goal of making and selling wine to the millennial generation of younger wine drinkers. Underdog's international portfolio includes brands such as Pinot Evil from France, Herding Cats from South Africa, Angel Juice from Italy, Devil's Marbles from Australia and Killer Juice from California.

Fritz Lance, Underdog's president and an ex-Gallo executive, said, 'Big House and Cardinal Zin will be right at home with our emerging brands.' He also said that there would be no changes in either brand, either in the wine in the bottle or 'the message to the consumer'. He added that present price points will be maintained, and for future vintages grapes will be sourced at some of the same vineyards. The Big House brand, at some 350,000 cases, is the largest brand in the Underdog portfolio. Lance wouldn't comment on the size of the other brands.

As for the company's marketing plans, Lance said, 'We believe that the Cardinal Zin and Big House brands speak well to today's wine drinkers. We do see growth opportunities in the UK for both brands as well as other Underdog brands, including Pinot Evil and Herding Cats.'

As part of Grahm's plan to focus on his Rhne blends, production of Bonny Doon's popular Pacific Rim Riesling will shift to Washington, where most of the grapes have been sourced in the past. Grahm said there could be brand extensions of perhaps Grner Veltliner and Scheurebe and even a red variety. 'Perhaps true Gamay, if we can find stock to plant in Washington,' he said. The future of Grahm's Italian-inspired brand, Ca' del Solo remains uncertain.

What does seem to be certain is that despite his efforts to remain perfectly serious at all times, Grahm may not be able to deliver. He told one California wine journalist that he does have one new wine planned, a sweet wine called Vin de Pie.