A Conversation with Professor Andy Walker (in Long Form)1
Andy, as you recall, the last time we spoke, I was very keen on the idea of growing grape vines from seedlings at our new property in San Juan Bautista. I’d like to catch you up on my current thinking and ask a few questions, as this project is potentially fraught with a non-trivial amount of danger.2,3,4 It would seem that there are some clever things that one might do, and some not so clever ones as well.
I thought I’d review some of my assumptions and hypotheses and also share with you what I am really hoping to achieve with the initiative. The fundamental hypothesis/assumption is that a profoundly mixed (or mixed up) population of genetically distinctive individual plants (if the crosses are made thoughtfully) will yield a wine of far greater depth and complexity than a comparable one made from a relatively discreet number of clones or genotypes.5 Is this utterly far-fetched? I imagine that with this program, the particular varietal qualities of the grape will recede in prominence and potentially, the unique characteristics of the site, that is to say, its terroir, might begin to emerge.6 Now, this hypothesis is a bit tentative, for as we know, scrambling and re-expressing the genetic information of the source plant will generally result in a very different expression of characteristics – usually, though presumably not inevitably, less desirable than those found in the previous generation. Put another way, might you gain more than you potentially lose in re-expressing all of this information, and might the gentle guidance of human intelligence vis-à-vis the inclusion or exclusion of particular individual seedlings in the mix tilt the balance of benefit to the right side of the equation?
As to the issue of what I’m really trying to achieve here: Firstly, the project needs to be fun, great fun,7 and the side-splitting amusement factor may of course have to do with whether we end up producing some eerily dramatic, soulful wines that taste unlike anything else in the world. It would also be just wonderful if the human contribution to the experiment – the thoughtful establishing of criteria (even if they are a moving target) for inclusion or exclusion of vines with certain characteristics – was found to actually be helpful to the process, i.e. bringing greater brightness and definition to the wine. Truly, the overall objective of the exercise is to produce a wine of great distinctiveness, an original wine, bringing something into the world that was not there before. It is of secondary importance to me – it may in fact be utterly impractical – to identify the “best” new grape varieties, but rather, more important to create an experience for the consumer of a wine of breath-taking resonance and harmony. It is my belief that the creation of an “original” wine benefits the world in many ways – enriches our experience as well as our imagination. But there is still another consideration: As amusing as this exercise might be for me, how might I make a real contribution to the world of wine? Might the creation of these new varieties actually yield a particular genotype of real utility for the future? Are there any lessons learned in this exercise that might have application elsewhere?
So here are some more really hard questions:
- My initial thought was to conceptualize some sort of idealized blend, based on assumptions about which varieties might do particularly well on the site, and then set about hybridizing these different grape varieties in some vaguely proportionate manner. One obvious question: What do you need to know to decide which grape varieties might cross well with another? My biggest fear is that I might begin with two noble grape varieties, and in hybridizing them, end up with something that is (in aggregate) absolutely wretched.8 So, for purposes of discussion, I’m beginning with the idea that grapes that have been planted in the same neighborhood, let’s say, the southern Rhône, might in fact have a reasonably good compatibility with one another. Is this a fair assumption? Is there any other way that I might look at criteria for hybridizing one variety with another?9
- So, say we’re going for something like a Rhône-ish blend, of perhaps 66% grenache, 15% mourvèdre, 10% syrah, 6% cinsault and various others from the hood. Does it make sense to hybridize between varieties (grenache x mourvèdre) or hybridize within the variety (grenache x grenache)? Are there any major incompatibilities among these grapes? Amongst the Rhône grapes are there some that make better pollinators, others better pollinated? Are there more dominant characteristics expressed in the male or the female parent, or is this utterly random? Intuitively, for purposes of this project’s stated aims, it would seem to make more sense to hybridize between varieties, but maybe the world at large would be better served by hybridizing within the variety. (Identification of a brilliant grenache or cinsault selection would seem to have some tangible benefit for vineyardists of the future.) Does that make any sense? Also, this is rather a biggie: How much do the seedlings of particular varieties resemble their parents? Which varieties of grape vine offspring tend to remain truer to their patrimony?
- Which brings me to a very interesting project undertaken by an extremely bright young man, Sashi Moorman, down in Lompoc. Sashi has collected a large number of pinot noir seeds (maybe 8000?), and has germinated them, and planted them out in a high density vineyard. Obviously a number of them will not bear fruit10 and he will presumably have to discard them. Sashi is imagining that somehow in this vast number of seedlings, he might be able to identify a particularly brilliant individual. By brilliant, he is meaning a variety that may be slightly better adapted to his site – ripens at lower Brix, with better acidity, with more expressive pinot character, etc. But might any of these offspring actually be truly pinot? Perhaps these very gross parameters might be noted (or notable), but I am myself slightly dubious about the practical ability of making these determinations. So, I think that Sashi imagines that he is doing one experiment – trying to identify a great pinot for his site (and maybe happily find a vine that might also have some other great endearing characteristic, like phylloxera resistance) but I think that in fact he may end up with a different experiment altogether. I am anxiously waiting to find out what the wine made from the totality of his grapes might taste like, and hoping that even if few of them individually look or taste much like pinot noir, they might in aggregate somehow capture the Platonic nature of pinot-ness. Any thoughts about that?
- So, I want to make a wine that captures a sense of this unique property in San Juan, and one element that I want to address is that of drought tolerance. Since I’m hybridizing grapes here, might it make sense to consider adding other elements to the mix that might do that? Is it totally crazy to consider adding some genetic material from vitis californica to this assemblage?11
- You had mentioned once that the best way to hybridize vines of a particular grape variety would be to cross a number of different clones of the same variety with one another rather than simply collect the seeds. As we both know, going through the tedious process of castrating the male flowers of plants and going to the effort of pollinating them oneself is incredibly tedious. Can you tell me again why not simply collect the seeds from a grape, syrah, for example, and plant those out? (Assuming that they being grown in a fairly sequestered area and you don’t have a lot of chenin blanc pollen floating around.)
- Which brings me to a rather geeky question: If we are planting a mother block from which to collect pollen and also to pollinate, how far apart need the different grape varieties be from one another? It would not be very rigorous (at all), but given the essential idea of the program, why not simply plant a small mixed block of grapes in randomized fashion (with a range of different clones of a variety, as discussed) in the proportions that one wishes and then simply collect the seeds from these grapes? – a lot less tedious than going through the whole hybridizing process.
I am sure that I will have a million more questions for you as we get closer to really implementing this project. You may well regret the encouragement that you have already expressed. With very best wishes, Randall
- Andy is a Professor of Plant Science (Viticulture) at UC Davis, specializing in grape vine breeding, the logical person on this side of the planet with whom to have this discussion. [↩]
- And of course, great possibilities of “success” (whatever that is), éclat, and the contribution of something of real value to the wine industry. [↩]
- We are not even thinking about the utter riskiness of planting vines without the protection of a resistant rootstock. A seedling is perforce a non-grafted vine, and hence vulnerable to phylloxera, though possibly far more resistant to other sorts of vine diseases. [↩]
- My intuition tells me that something truly great might come of it, but likewise, it could easily turn into a very expensive obsession, a ruinous folly. [↩]
- You had also mentioned to me that seedlings, if transplanted soon enough, exhibit a much higher degree of geotropism, as compared to rootings. This factor alone may well be significant in creating a more eloquent expression of terroir, owing to a deeper rooting profile, and perhaps also conferring a greater degree of drought tolerance, which would be a very favorable outcome, indeed. [↩]
- It would of course be extremely useful to have some other points of triangulation in helping to identify this terroir. An adjacent vineyard planted more traditionally, i.e. from vegetative cuttings, to the self-same varieties would provide a good point of reference in illuminating the contribution of the difference in rooting habit, as well as the added dimension of extreme genetic diversity. [↩]
- You had mentioned the great likelihood of plants grown from seedlings having the tendency to throw “suckers” (which need to be laboriously dug out with a shovel) essentially for the entire life of the vineyard. This particularly tiresome phenomenon may well negate all of the countervailing fun features of the product, viz. the creation of a dizzying profusion of new grape varieties. [↩]
- The obvious example of pinotage (pinot noir x cinsault) comes to mind. I do not consider myself a “varietalist,” that is to say, someone irrationally prejudiced against a particular grape variety, but in the instance of pinotage, I am quite hard pressed to find any real value in the grape. [↩]
- This is in some sense a bit of a restatement of how does one begin to conceive of a blended wine. In the New World it is particularly problematic if one is planting one’s vineyard from scratch. You can opt for grapes with known affinities for one another – a Bordeaux blend or a Rhône blend (North or South), a Tuscan blend, but what if you really want to utterly break the mold and dare combine varieties from very disparate regions? How do you insure that you are not creating utter chaos? The other significant part of the equation is that you must produce wines that you absolutely love to drink. This problem is largely solved in the Old World, where young people grow up tasting the wines of their region and by the time they become winemakers, they already love those grapes. Deeply. There were no vineyards in Beverly Hills when I was a lad, so I was not imprinted at an early age with a deep vitaceous cultural identity. I just know that there are certain flavor components found in certain wines that just make me insane with – the flavor and aroma of citrus in whites, that of licorice and beetroot in reds. I would be so utterly thrilled if the wines of my dreams would have these characteristics, and certainly I will contrive somehow to make that happen – but obviously, not by “trying.” [↩]
- Just by the by, do you know of any relatively quick and dirty biochemical assay that would show whether a particular plant might be fruitful or not? This would be incredibly useful in avoiding some the cost of planting non-productive plants. [↩]
- If the aim of the project is to truly convey a sense of terroir, maybe adding an element of “indigenousness” is not totally crazy. How one would have any sense at all as to how much to add to the mix is beyond me. [↩]