December 28, 2011

Appel on wine: To iconoclasts and what they bring to the table


Talk about happy coincidences. I just got the new Tom Waits album, "Bad As Me," and am busy wearing out my Victrola needle delving deep inside its treasures. Meanwhile, I've spent the past couple of days savoring one of the more surprising wines of my year, Randall Grahm's Ca' Del Solo Dolcetto 2007, from Monterey, Calif.

A facile juxtaposition? No, there's context: Experiencing the iconoclastic heterogeneity of a classic American artist alongside the heterogeneous classicism of an iconoclastic American winemaker.

Brief overview of Randall Grahm (check out his website,, or the book "An Ideal Wine" for more info): Kooky Left Coaster in late 1970s wants to make American wine. From Santa Cruz (where else?), he starts doing it, most famously deciding (with a few comrades) that his pocket of the world is best suited not to Cab and Merlot but to Syrah, Grenache and other Rhone varietals. Hence, a nickname accrues: Rhone Rangers.

Grahm is poetic and full of himself, writes crazily (depending on your predilections and/or mood and/or choice of narcotics, it's either fun and enlightening or dreadful and self-indulgent), and is a brilliant marketer, most famously for the Bonny Doon, Big House and Cardinal Zin brands. Love/hate him, Grahm reinvents American winemaking in the 1980s and beyond.

The brands get crazy-big. In 2006 Grahm gets religion, realizing he's sold his soul to make entertainment when what he really wants is to find the true terroir of America. He doesn't want to copy anything anymore, nor continue to make outer-space wine that disappears faster than Duran Duran. He wants to make real wine, biodynamically, wine that speaks from the land and emerges from history rather than rejecting it. Like Walt Whitman or Georgia O'Keefe or Louis Armstrong, he wants to create art in the American idiom.

Tom Waits has been in our culturescape since the 1970s too. Like Grahm, he's unmistakably steeped in Americana but with myriad DNA strands direct from Europe, the Far East, and the moon. Loves to drink, too -- or loved to, until he dried out after decades of overindulgence.

Waits' music veers from ragged, cotton-pickin' blues to crystalline cracked-heart ballads to broken Brechtian opera or Saturnian beep and hiss. His voice can be so gravelly and raw your own larynx starts to bleed, so falsetto-ed the folks in the third mezzanine tilt their heads back, or so 2-a.m.-velvet you just break down and cry.

His wife Kathleen said, accurately, that his songs could be classified as either grim reapers or grand weepers. Greil Marcus' famous characterization of Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes" as signals from "the old, weird America," the one blaring old-time religion and carny-barker come-ons and roads off the grid, applies to Waits even as he places early-20th-century Euro tropes inside the American idiom.

This brings us to the Ca' Del Solo Dolcetto 2007 ($20, National). Dolcetto, or "little sweet one," is best known as a pleasant, everyday sort of wine from Piemonte, Italy. It's not sweet-tasting at all; the name has something to do with the name of the hills where it's planted, or maybe the way the grape looks. I don't know what inspired Grahm to think it would work well planted in Monterey, but he was right to.

The Ca' Del Solo is one of those brilliant instances where an indigenous, prized artifact of one place is imported successfully to another; and where, in this different land, that artifact refers respectfully to its ancestral origins while expressing something that's a) interesting and b) appropriate for its new home.

So, here are notes of iron or blue steel, shockwaves of acidity that will light up many different meal choices, especially ones with tomato sauces, green vegetables, olives. Here too are violets on the way out, and black raspberries on the way in.

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