Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard has blazed his own wine trail for decades. But it’s not just what’s in the bottle that has garnered attention. From Le Cigare Volant to A Proper Claret and beyond, the labels that adorn Grahm’s creations are equally compelling and original. He talks with us about the first labels that captivated him, breaking from the traditional design and his collaboration with a myriad of artists.
“My problem is the subversive part of me. I’m not capable of repressing it. It always comes out a little bit one way or another.”
Do you have early memories of wine labels, and how did you react to them as a wine drinker?
I had a really bizarre experience. I was pretty oblivious to wine labels, truth be told, because my first experience with serious wine had to do with great wines, mostly European wines. German wines first, and then French wines. The labels were very classical and not flashy, not ostentatious.
The whole idea of provocative labels was utterly elusive to me. This is a little known fact: The first Bonny Doon labels I produced were, oddly, very austere, stately, restrained labels…I called the wines “Claret” and “Vin Rouge.” Understated. I realized that wasn’t going to work very well.
Was there an epiphany that motivated you to break away from traditional wine labels, to convey something different?
Clearly, Cigare Volant. It was, and is, an extremely elegant label, but it’s also a subversive one. It would be possible to potentially unite my desire for elegance with my proclivity for subversion. That’s what engendered Cigare Volant….When you’re producing wines at different price points, and wines from varieties no one’s ever heard of, or well-known, you need to meet your customer halfway, in a sense. Be friendlier and engage that customer.
I intuitively, gropingly found my way towards humor and visual humor in the labels…This was a way of reaching out…We did that principally with the Ca’ del Solo series of wines, the Ca’ del Solo il Pescatore, Malvasia Bianca and any number of labels after that. Some of them just got more outrageous than others.
We were trying to fuse an artistic sensibility with visual humor…some more successfully than others.
“They say limits help define opportunities. The fact that [wine labels are] constrained is probably a good thing. If you had a giant canvas, you wouldn’t know where to stop.”
Looking at the label art page and the number of artists and wines, did certain wines seem to ask for a kind of label?
Every wine label has its own wine logic, and you’re trying to make a statement, to create a glimpse of what’s on the inside by looking at the outside. You’re setting the customer’s expectations, trying to communicate some quality about the wine itself. You’re trying to find your people. Ideally, it happens in milliseconds, you’ve got not very long on the shelf to make that connection.
Art and Wine Through Time
1935, Casket with silver cork-screw and bottle opener, artist unknown; silver, Britain
Does the look of a label help translate what’s inside?
Absolutely. I’ve always believed that if you want customers to know how careful you’ve been with your winemaking, how thoughtful you are about your winemaking, you can theoretically communicate that, telegraph that to you customer. You want to show them how careful you are in your design as a proxy for how careful you’ve been in your winemaking.
You want to communicate something about the essence of a wine. If it’s a lighthearted wine, the label wants to communicate that joie de vivre. If the wine is a more serious wine, a more expensive wine, a high-quality wine, obviously more gravitas is required on the label.
My problem is the subversive part of me. I’m not capable of repressing it. It always comes out a little bit one way or another.
How do you find artists for labels?
My former colleague John Locke, who is unfortunately no longer affiliated with the company, somehow had a great connectedness to the artwork. He was instrumental in finding a number of artists, Gary Taxali and others. Some I found somewhat randomly. Bascove, I loved the illustrations she did for Penguin Books, the Robertson Davies novels. I had in mind a certain look I wanted for the labels, and I called her up out of the blue over the phone and engaged her to do a whole series of wine labels for us, which have been quite successful.
Using Ralph Steadman was a felicitous stroke of luck. We were doing some business with Oddbins and I asked Steve Daniel to make an approach on my behalf and made the connection for me, and was able to rope Ralph in for some labels.
I’ve not been entirely successful in getting artists to do work for us. I’ve been trying to reach Robert Crumb for the last 10 years, unsuccessfully.
Were there surprising labels, ones you didn’t see coming?
There are some labels that have been home runs, out of the park. One of them was Steadman’s Cardinal Zin label, which was clearly a genius label. We sold that particular wine largely based on the brilliance of the label.
Just so many other packages I really love. I love Bascove’s series she did for us, the Italian labels, the Il Circo labels with various figures from the Italian circus. [Also] the Le Pousseur, the Tarot card…And, of course, Chuck House has done great work for us over the years.
Some labels, for example, are hard to get right. We made a wine called Vin d’Glacière for many, many years and probably went through four or five different iterations. And to my mind, we never quite nailed it.
If all your labels were lined up next to each other, what would you say about that lineup of wines?
There’s different phases. John Locke, when he was aboard—and he was for many, many years—there was a certain thematic or style more pervasive in that era. You might call it more manic. It was wilder. Less constrained.
The earliest labels were quite elegant…and I’m trying to return the labels to more of a fine-art quality, more restrained.
There’s often an element of anarchy in many of the labels. Although again, I’m trying to keep it slightly under control.
It’s been incredibly satisfying for me to work on labels. I didn’t imagine I had one artistic bone in my body, or one artistic thought in my brain. It’s been very fulfilling to collaborate with artists such as Chuck and Bascove and others.
And then, of course, to see it finally on the bottle is really quite satisfying.
There’s not a lot of real estate on a wine label. Is that a challenge, to convey something in a limited space?
They say limits help define opportunities. The fact that it’s constrained is probably a good thing. If you had a giant canvas, you wouldn’t know where to stop.