Beaune Again: Pinot Noir in San Juan Bautista

Planting2Life is a recursive circle. We are given our genetic or karmic marching orders, it would seem, as some sort of holographic imprint, a model we follow, and we follow it over and over again, like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, until the end of our days. Maybe, with luck, in each successive iteration, we are able to interpret and act on this internal siren song with ever-greater skill and insight.

My initial impulse to enter the wine business was the result of an obsessive ideational stream more or less fixated on the production of the Great American Pinot Noir.1 The GAPN proved to be systematically elusive – I’m not complaining mind you, as this apparently closed door has opened other vast hallways, vestibulae, populated with other magnificent doors, other wondrous possibilities; I have been blessed with the opportunity to explore the dizzying range of Mediterranea’s Greatest Viticultural Hits. I have, in candor, sowed more than my share of wild grape oats, as it were, en Hautes and en Bas.

But while Pinot Noir has always been in my dreams, I have become a complete realist as to the enormity, if not impossibility of the task of producing The Great American Pinot Noir.2 But, what might in fact be the GAPN and is it indeed something worth pursuing? In what sense might such a wine ever be a paradigm shifter, an expander of the possibilities of the grape?3 A truly distinctive Pinot noir in the New World, revealing unexpected facets of the most elusive grape of all, would be, I would be the first to concede, rather a long shot. We might, with a little luck, achieve a wine with some of the obvious features of Old World Pinot, a reasonably well balanced, varietally correct exemplar, a passing whiff of a vrai Pinot nose, a simulacrum of a village Burgundy from a warmish vintage. But I am still far from persuaded that we in the New World can produce anything like a true vin de terroir from this heartbreak grape; maybe it is really just a technical, band-width problem of not enjoying in the New World the unique set of circumstances obtained in Burgundy, where a single grape variety might be obsessively studied, perfected and adapted to its terroir over multiple generations.4

Randall_PlantingAnd yet, just a couple of weeks ago, we planted a little over a half acre of Pinot noir at our new estate in San Juan Bautista.5 Might this little plantation ultimately yield a wine of great and unique distinction? I will try to persuade you that this is ultimately not the most relevant question.

We are clearly doing a number of things right (and likely a number of things wrong). The little knoll, which is planted on a perhaps 15% slope, has a very sweet aspect, tucked into a protected flank of the property, surrounded by a scattering of oaks, madrones, buckhorns, coreopsis shrubs and an ungodly amount of poison oak.6 Its exposure is north by northeast, an aspect that I believe to be absolutely ideally for Pinot, at least in the New World.7 We’ve found some interesting clones of Pinot and the vineyard is planted without rootstock,8 vignes franches, the French would say, believed to be the most transparent way to express the qualities of the grape variety. There is limestone in the subsoil and we’ve gone deep, as it were, planting very long (18”) rootings, ones that had been propagated in pots specifically designed to encourage geotropic root development. This year and perhaps next water to establish the vines will be parsimoniously delivered, courtesy of a (one profoundly hopes) temporary drip system we’ve rigged up, with “spaghetti” tubing buried at the bottom of each planting hole.9 But, certainly the most distinctive thing that we’ve done is to plant the vines at a claustrophobic density – .6 x 1.0 meters apart. I’m not quite sure how to justify this hyper-close spacing in a clearly water-limited climat, apart from my belief that Pinot vines will appreciate all the more the freshness of the evaporative cooling all of these leaves in their immediate neighborhood provide.10 The vines will be quite small, of necessity, and not trellised on wire, but rather tied up to their own individual stake, northern Rhône-style, further maintaining a nice humidity around the vine and shading the clusters from the direct sun.

We’ve only planted a small section and maybe planting as densely as we have has been a bit of an extravagance. In general, I believe that one should not plant a particular grape variety on a given site simply because this grape produces the wine one most dearly loves or admires – this tenet is a cardinal principle of my belief system. But I have done essentially the opposite. I’ve planted Pinot simply because I love it so much. I’ve planted it against great odds – it just may be a bit too warm for totally brilliant Pinot in San Juan – because is just something I have to do.11

PlantingAfter graduating UC Davis and working a year for Dick Smothers in Santa Cruz, I set out on my own in 1982, leasing some space from Josh Jensen at Calera Wine Company in Hollister. I didn’t really understand much in those days but was able to hang out with a couple of winemakers who actually did know what they were doing – Steve Doerner and Ted Lemon, both working at Calera. I was living in Bonny Doon at the time, twenty minutes north of town. I drove every morning through Santa Cruz, down Highway One through the sleepy town of Watsonville, across the strawberry and lettuce fields of the Pajaro Valley, to Highway 101, then reversing course to head north for a couple of miles, passing the stately, magical eucalyptus portal that welcomed one to San Benito County, terra mysteriosa. Hanging a right at Highway 156, I would drive right past the turn-off for San Juan Bautista, heading out to the Cienega Valley where Calera was located.12 In some deep part of me, I know I was then creating a model of my as-yet-to-unfold career as a winemaker; the repetitive route was a sketch of a dreamscape. Maybe I have come back to this area because it feels so much to me as if I am just now beginning again. You get to San Juan from Bonny Doon by following a bit of a circular route – rather like an ouroboros finding itself.

As the Mutsun would say, “Wattinin-ka rukkatka.” (I am home.)

  1. Alas, for me, I underestimated the complexity of the task by perhaps several orders of magnitude, and my initial results were rather less than stellar. []
  2. Obviously, there is no such thing as a “realist.” We are all surrealists to one degree or another. The more often our hearts are broken, and the more profoundly broken they have been, the more “realistic” we tend to become. []
  3. These questions are in fact so rhetorical as to verge upon the absurd. []
  4. I recently saw the movie Avatar, and apart from the brilliant special effects, was greatly taken with the metaphor of the tree of life, which possessed an extraordinary level of connectivity with other entities, thus multiplying the working intelligence of the entire system. The Appellation d’Origine Controlée, despite nepotism, political infighting, and veniality, does represent something like a collective intelligence, a building upon a learning hard won. []
  5. We’re still working on an appropriate name for the place, researching some of the historical nomenclature. What is significant is that very close to our new property stands a hilltop considered sacred area to the Mutsun, the indigenous people of the area, descendents of the Ohlone. I am given to understand that missionaries essentially co-opted the hilltop and claimed it for their own place of worship. A cross was installed at this site, where it remains to this date. (The ironies attendant to this fact are so legion that we needn’t go there at all.) But suffice to say that there are ample opportunities for some major cultural faux pas. Note to self: Tread very carefully. []
  6. The bucolic woods soften the landscape, but there is peril everywhere! A recent soil analysis disclosed a high titer of oak root fungus in the oak trees proximal to the new plantation. “Experts” are concerned, but I, in my usual blithe state of denial, am not. []
  7. You really want to avoid the afternoon sun for all thin-skinned grape varieties (and thin-skinned winemakers). Direct sun on grapes (especially black ones) greatly increases the internal temperature of the exposed berries, resulting in rusticity at best, stewed fruit/raisinettes at worst. []
  8. There are those who would argue, and very persuasively as well, that there can be no such thing as a vin de terroir in the absence of selection massale, an iterative process that seeks to identify the particular vines most appropriate to a given site. Any vineyard planted to clones, even in some profusion, will perforce be somewhat generic. But wait; there is a way out of this seeming conundrum – though perhaps this way madness runs. If the Pinot noir wine that we produce turns out to be somewhere in the range of excellent to superb, we just may try a scheme that I’ve been threatening to implement for a few years now – the notion of actually propagating vines from seed. The thought would not be to identify the “best” Pinot and propagate it wildly, but rather to establish a set of criteria for inclusion or exclusion of the new seedlings in the population as a whole, with the belief that this very great diverse population – all more or less playing the same tune and variation – would yield a wine of great nuance and complexity. Such a scheme might well create a wine of true distinctiveness, and potentially a genuine expression of terroir. []
  9. Another stratagem to encourage the deepest possible rooting, and provide greater protection against drought stress. []
  10. San Juan Bautista also enjoys quite a bit of morning fog; I wish to create as much surface area as can be managed on which this condensate might accumulate. []
  11. I don’t know whether this is analogous to going back and looking up one’s high school sweetheart some thirty years after graduation, but it does rather sound like it. []
  12. The Cienega Valley is truly mysterious and magical and one imagines any number of Carlos Castaneda-like episodes there involving talking coyotes and the like. In this miraculous land, perhaps miraculous wine might well be fashioned. []

One Response to “Beaune Again: Pinot Noir in San Juan Bautista”

  1. David J says:

    The sceptic & the mystic wrestle within me in the manner of the hands of the preacher Mitchum plays in ‘Night of The Hunter’. Still, from my first visit, San Juan Bautista has been the one place in California that drew me & presented the challenge & the possibility of resettling to call it home. (– a suivre…)

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