Wait…What?! Randall Grahm uses (gasp) OAK CHIPS?!

Last week I had the GREAT privilege to finally meet one of  my favorite winemakers in the world, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. He visited New York City and graced us with a “Producer Night” at the ridiculously good Anfora Wine Bar (A personal NYC favorite) in the West Village where Joe Campanale is one of the owners and helms the beverage program. We tasted through several of his wines as he described the vintage, the weather, the vinification process, etc. all sitting rapt with the conveyance of this intimate knowledge.

Randall was telling us about his 2009 Contra. It’s delicious. My tasting notes include the following: raspberries, earth, meat, the kind of herbaceous, subtly leather finish I adore. But I digress. Somewhere in his description of the wine, the words (Insert pregnant pause here.) “OAK CHIPS” (Insert record screech here.) passed his lips  and I sat there dumbfounded. How on earth could this guy—this wizard of biodynamics—use OAK CHIPS?! “Heresy!” my mind cried.  “Off with his head!” Somehow I managed to keep a completely cool exterior as I continued the tasting.

Five minutes later I more or less forgot about the whole thing and went on to enjoy a fabulous dinner and conversation without so much as a single photo or note taken. I was quite proud of myself for that. But I digress again.

A little time passed and the oak chips floated back into my mind and I just couldn’t let it go. I had to ask. So I emailed Mr. Grahm. Below is the entire email thread for your reading pleasure.

image from google images

[Dear Randall]

You mentioned that one of your wines had oak chips used in part of the process. Would you be willing to elaborate on that? I’ve personally been opposed to oak chips and am very curious to hear your take on it.




And here’s the really fantastic part:

Dear Raelinn,

We have been in the habit of using oak chips in our fermenters for red wines for the following reason: The tannins from the oak chips bond with the grape’s anthocyanins and thus keep the anthocyanins from oxidizing and falling out of the wine.  This  helps to support the wine’s structure as well as to stabilize the color.  There is a modest sensory pick up of oak character at this stage, but these flavors are extremely labile and essentially disappear by the time the wine is pressed off.  It’s a bit of a emotional reaction, I would suggest, to summarily reject the use of oak chips in wine, but support the use of relatively new oak barrels.   Myself, I don’t like to use oak chips in wine after fermentation, because at that point, the character of the oak does tend to integrate less well into the wine, rather like seasoning a dish at the very last moment before serving, rather than allowing the flavors to gradually incorporate.  Myself, I think that the flavor of oak in wine must be very subtle indeed lest it dominate and occlude the other more interesting aspects.  I think that for me, one has to be open-minded, and take something like a Tantric view of things – everything that exists can be used as a sacrament of some sort if handled with the right sort of consciousness. Hope this is helpful.

Dear Randall,

Thank you very much for taking time to share your thoughts and methods with me. I am giggling a little at your mention of an emotional reaction to the oak chips vs. the use of a new oak barrel. It most certainly is! I am a hopeless romantic in most things. So the very idea of oak chips is somehow “offensive” to the part of me that loves a good fairly tale and the vision of the wine in its cozy barrel. I rarely prefer new oak in any application, however. I really appreciate the more detailed chemical reasons for the oak chips and also the explanation of timing. And Randall, you nailed it when you said, 

I think that for me, one has to be open-minded, and take something like a Tantric view of things – everything that exists can be used as a sacrament of some sort if handled with the right sort of consciousness.

If only more people would adopt THIS view in general with most things, the world would be a much better place indeed! 

Many thanks and safe travels!
Hi Randall,

You know the more I’ve thought about it, the more I am wondering… would you mind if I publish what you sent me concerning oak chips? I want you to know that it was absolutely not my original intention. But now that I’ve read it a few times, I’m thinking it might be a nice part of a larger opportunity to encourage folks in the wine scene to be mindful of those moments when they are clinging to emotional responses like suspicion of oak chips. How do you feel about that? May I have your permission to reprint it exactly as is? Thank you very much in advance for considering my request.

Warm regards,
And finally, to me from Mr. Grahm:
No problem at all to publish. #transparency  Just about to get on a plane.  xox R.
And there ends the email exchange on that subject. I really don’t have a lot of metadiscourse to offer here other than to say that all too often the wine world gets on a high horse without giving it enough thought. I think that my major “takeaway” is already nicely put above in the email. But I’ll restate it here just for effect…
Regarding the use of oak chips, or really anything at all for that matter:
I think that for me, one has to be open-minded, and take something like a Tantric view of things – everything that exists can be used as a sacrament of some sort if handled with the right sort of consciousness. – Randall Grahm
I would genuinely love to hear your opinions on this topic. 

3 thoughts on “Wait…What?! Randall Grahm uses (gasp) OAK CHIPS?!

  1. Nothing terrible about using chips, as they are potentially similar quality wood as new barrels. We use them as well in red ferments for exactly the reason Randall describes. While he eschews the use post ferment, I agree that it is not a good way to transfer aromatic and flavor components. we have used them successfully, with low exposure, to provide the scaffold upon which to knit the fruit tannins, into longer more supple chains, with nary a hint of wood.

  2. An interesting and educating reportage that could only be the result of a combination of sensitivity, sensibility, common sense and earnestness.
    Thank you and kudos to both of you.

  3. R.Grahm I know is a big proponent of micro oxygenation, and oak chips I believe are often a part of that process. Oak chips, too, are especially innocuous compared to flavor packets and chemicals that are used to treat wines in many commercial wineries. Besides, I think Grahm has earned the benefit of the doubt, to me at least.

    Cool interchange, thanks for posting!

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