Our date with Willy Wonka: a staff training with the inimitable Randall Grahm

From the department of “so many great wines and so many great people and so little time”…

One of the best things about what I do for a living is the great wines I get to taste and the fascinating people I get to meet. And one of the most rewarding things about my career is getting to share those wines and those experiences with people I care about.

All of these elements came together week before last when the inimitable Randall Grahm — the Willy Wonka of wine in my view — graciously agreed to do a staff training with the servers at Sotto in Los Angeles where I curate the wine list.

When you work so closely with people as you do on the floor of a restaurant (often in extremely stressful situations), you develop a unique bond with them. And I was thrilled that Randall agreed to come talk to us and sprinkle some of his magic dust on us.

Of all the winemakers I’ve ever met, Randall — a polite and warm man — is perhaps the most erudite. I love the fact that he shares my love of words (philology!) and describes wines in terms of antipodian and podian (his neologism?). I love that he doesn’t mince words (I cannot repeat what he had to say about one antipodian wine). And I love his lyrical approach to describing winemaking and wine. At one point, when I asked him to address reduction in wine and why it’s not necessarily a bad thing. He replied using the follow simile: “Reduction is kind of like the male sex drive,” he said. “It can be ugly but it lets us know that everything’s working correctly and that the wine is alive.” (Reduction can be caused by wine being stored without any contact with oxygen, often the case with screw-cap wines. As a result, the wine may stink briefly when first opened. For the best definition of reduction in wine, see the entry on Jancis’s site — well worth the subscription fee, btw — or see her Oxford Companion to Wine.)

On the edges of our seats, the staff and I were entirely captivated by Randall’s spiel on the spectrum of organic, biodynamic, and Natural winemaking. And we tasted his Syrah Le Posseur together (by the glass at Sotto these days). Le posseur, the pusher in French, was inspired by the way great Syrah is like drug dealer who tempts you with his assortment of aromas and flavors. I love the analogy and I love the affordable and delicious wine (it only gets better with a day’s aeration, btw).

But dulcis in fundo, Randall also shared with us his new hope and faith in biochar — a newly developed form of charcoal that is used to restore balance to the soil. We live in such precarious times, these days (o tempora o mores!). “It is the future,” he said, referring not only to winemaking but also the survival of humankind.

Looking back on our encounter with the ineffably charming Randall, I cannot help but be reminded of the lyrics of one of favorite songs — from childhood to the present day.

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Wanta change the world?
There’s nothing
To it…

Historically and with seemingly quotidian recurrence, Randall seems to seek and find beauty in the world around and in us, too.

This is one of my all-time favorite songs and cinematic moments. I’ll never forget seeing it for the first time and the emotion that filled my chest. It happens, to this very day, every single time…