A Response to Randall Grahm on NPR


Last Sunday I tuned into National Public Radio about halfway through one of my favorite shows — The Splendid Table. There’s usually lots of interesting talk about food and sometimes twine, and this week the host was interviewing Randall Grahm, who is a very well respected California winemaker and wine industry leader, as well as the creator of the Bonny Doon label. He was apparently promoting his new book, “Been Doon So Long,” but I turned on my radio (i.e. got into my car, which is where I always listen to NPR), while Grahm was talking about Australian Shiraz.

Actually, he wasn’t just “talking,” he was criticizing Aussie Shiraz. He seemed to be suggesting that it’s substandard wine that has no redeeming qualities, not even as an entry level wine to launch beginning wine drinkers on a road that will eventually lead them to better quality wines. He was comparing Aussie Shiraz to French Syrah, and saying the folks Down Under pale by comparison.

Now there’s LOTS of Australian Shiraz out there, everything from tooty-fruity slightly sweet stuff to very serious and highly-rated wines. Does he really mean they’re all bad — that the output of an entire continent is questionable? And if Aussie Shiraz is all bad, is French Syrah really all good?

Obviously not, so let’s talk realistically. The Shiraz I assume he’s criticizing is the veritable sea of cheap, slightly sweet stuff that flooded the U.S. wine market several years ago — stuff such as Yellowtail, Little Penguin and the like. Many had goofy cartoon animals on the label, like kangaroos and wallabees, and they came to be known as “critter wines”. (Grahm says he won’t buy any wine with an animal on the label.)  These wines took off in the American market because they apparently met consumers’ needs: they were cheap, they had decent flavor although they did pander to the American preference for perceived sweetness; and they were cheap.

But look at what had been America’s best-selling wine until the Aussie invasion: White Zinfandel! Yellowtail Shiraz seems like a step up from there. So the Aussies didn’t “ruin” America’s palate — we did that ourselves.

And did any of those Shiraz or White Zin drinkers eventually move to drier, more interesting, more complex, and more costly wines? Of course they did: I’m one of them. I’ll fall on my sword right now and admit that The WineLady, wine professional and enthusiast, once drank White Zinfandel. Obviously, I didn’t stop there.

And neither did the hundreds who come into my wine shop looking for good everyday wine, or something better for a more special occasion. I sometimes recommend one of the many higher-end Shiraz that I love (you can click to read my reviews of Boxhead Cabernet , Some Young Punks “Squid’s Fist”, or Shinas Estates “The Verdict”).

Customers sometimes say, “Is this the same grape as Syrah, and does it taste the same as French Syrah?” I’ll say, “Yes and No.” While it’s genetically the same grape, the Aussie and French versions are light-years apart in every respect. They’re supposed to be different, because wine is a reflection of its place, its terroir (to use the technical term).

The climate, soil and topography are totally different in the Australian and French Syrah-growing regions, and Randall Grahm would be the first to agree that they should each express their terroir. If he holds that the Aussie version is inferior, perhaps because the alcohol content is much higher than the French and the palate much more fruit-forward, then he’s making a value judgment with which other wine drinkers (like me) would take issue.

My point is this: let’s not label an entire anything, be it wine-producing country or religion, as all good or all bad. Let’s acknowledge what’s good and what’s bad in each, and recommend accordingly. And I’ll recommend a good kangaroo wine any day.


  • Share/Bookmark

2 Responses to “A Response to Randall Grahm on NPR”

Leave a Reply


Wine Accessories

Switch to our mobile site