Obituary: Richard Graff

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The Independent Online
RICHARD GRAFF was killed when the single-engine Cessna he was flying hit an electricity pylon and crashed into a greenhouse. He frequently flew himself between his house in San Francisco and his work at Chalone Vineyards, in the Gavilan Mountains in Monterey County, three hours' drive south of the Bay area.

A versatile man, Dick Graff had studied Zen Buddhism, knew the Dalai Lama, brought Burgundian wine-making techniques to California, was a partner in the first American premium wine company to be publicly quoted, and, with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi, founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. He also had a special interest in continental organs, and could take a complicated instrument to bits and put it back together.

He graduated from Harvard, where he studied music in 1958. There followed three years as a naval officer, and then a job in a bank. He was rescued from the bank by his father, Russ Graff, who asked Rodney Strong (who before becoming a winemaker had been a dancer on Broadway and in Paris) to give Dick a weekend job at the vineyard he leased at Chalone. Dick Graff immediately recognised that he had a vocation, spent a year studying oenology, and in 1965, with a loan from his mother, bought Chalone. He made his first vintage in 1966, but did not release any wine commercially until 1969.

He once told me that he had seen a similarity between the property's limestone and the vineyards of Burgundy that he loved, and realised that the concept of terroir was applicable in Monterey. He introduced to California winemaking the French technique of fermenting chardonnay in oak barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, and promoting malolactic (second-stage) fermentation, and soon his chardonnay and pinot noir had a cult following and commanded high prices.

Graff and his partner, Philip Woodward, an accountant, had no trouble attracting new investors, though some of them were probably more interested in acquiring the fairly rare wine than in owning the shares. In the 1980s the company acquired two other wineries, Acacia in Hapa Valley, and Carmenet in the Sonoma Valley. Chalone went public in 1984. It now owns 50 per cent of Edna Valley Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County; 51 per cent of Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Washington state; and 24 per cent of Chateau Duhart-Milon in Bordeaux. Domaines Barons de Rothschild, the owner of Chateau Lafite, is a Chalone shareholder, and it is a happy tradition that their claret is drunk at Chalone's AGM.

Graff still retained enough of his Harvard classics in 1981 to propose the pleasingly obscure motto "Inter folia fructus" ("Among the leaves the fruit") when starting the AIWF, which he intended to be an institution to study and celebrate the pleasures of the table, rather than the bloated body dedicated to the interests of producers that it has become. He invited me to San Francisco in 1981 to report on the founding of the organisation, and I remember flying to Santa Monica (in a commercial plane - his own was being serviced) for lunch at his friend Michael McCarty's restaurant. We carried bottles of Chalone with us, carefully, on our knees.

He took me to meet Robert Huttanback, the Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, with whom he was in negotiations to found an academic department of gastronomy. This evolved into the AIWF, but not before Graff got stung by arranging for the loan of a large sum of money to rescue the rump of the Andre Simon / Eleanor Lowenstein collection of historical cookery books. But Graff persevered and interested Robert Mondavi, Julia Child, the British- educated San Francisco chef Jeremiah Tower and, most significantly, Danny Kaye, in the project.

Graff was evidently on good terms with the actor, for he took me to tea (a glass of chardonnay, actually) at his house. There Kaye told us of his own passion for Chinese cooking, and showed us his photograph album with a picture of himself at the stove with Paul Bocuse, plus others of Kaye conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, assisting Dr Michael De Bakey at open-heart surgery, and at the controls of a 747.

Graff was himself on the board of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and among the books he wrote was a particularly beautiful example he published privately called A Vision for the Millennium: towards a new civilisation (1995). He had recently retired from the active management of Chalone, and since 1996 had produced a tiny amount of wine from Chalone grapes marketed under the Richard Graff label.

The hundreds of people present at Graff's (non- denominational) memorial service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco remembered, as his many British friends do, a complicated man with an almost alarming sunny nature, physically fit, even tough, but with an immediately accessible soft centre. Dick Graff would work the vineyards himself, but he was a grandee at heart. He once asked to borrow my London flat. I warned him it was a slum, but he said he was on an economy drive. The next day he invited my wife to lunch, returned the keys, and moved into the Ritz.

Richard H. Graff, winemaker: born Connecticut 24 January 1937; died near Salinas, California 9 January 1998.