July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
Lately, in thinking long and hard about what grape varieties (and anything else) we might plant at the new estate in San Juan Bautista, I am facing yet another variant of the New World Conundrum.1 I’ve publically proclaimed myself to be a “terroirist,” i.e. someone committed to “expressing the unique individuality of the site.” All well and good, and while this sounds quite noble when declaimed from the mountaintop, what exactly does it really mean? What precisely have I signed up for? I’m standing at the altar, and suddenly, momentarily, feeling a bit weak at the knees.
Implicit in the commitment to seek terroir is the notion of honoring the site by growing the grapes most appropriate to the site, those most capable of expressing its unique character. The New World focuses on climatic appropriateness, the Old World on the felicity of the soil/grape variety union. Growing pinot noir in Fresno is an obvious example of what one absolutely mustn’t do; cabernet sauvignon on the extreme Sonoma Coast is also clearly contraindicated. Merlot is said to love clay (but not too much of it); cabernet, gravel; gamay and syrah, granite; riesling, slate; carignane, schist; pinot noir, a limestone/clay mix. In the Old World, your path is generally bright and clearly delineated. In the New World, you know where you should definitely not go, but it is far less evident how you will be delivered into the light of perfect vitrimonial bliss.
If you have found a wonderful site for grapes, with a longish growing season and bright but temperate days, you can well imagine that there are many varieties you might grow in your vineyard that will do well. But what will do best? What will, as they say, sing? Which grape or admixture of grapes will produce a wine of such distinction, that this nectar – still in largely eidetic imaginary form – will mount the world stage as a “classic” of its genre?2,3 Yes, there is likely to be an immense satisfaction in producing a wine that will universally (or nearly so) be regarded as “great,” and sincere wine lovers admire all great wines. At the same time, it seems that if you are going to the trouble to try to make great wine, simply admiring that wine is not quite enough. You want to be crazy, silly, absolutely besmitten, head-over-empurpled-heels-and-toes in love with it.
So how do you know if your match is really right, if it is a love that is truly meant 2B, as rhapsodized about in old-time pop ditties? This is the question that star-crossed pairs have been asking themselves since the age of Courtly Love. In the Old World, the love of a particular grape or wine literally comes with mother’s milk;4 if you are a Burgundian in the CÃ´te de Nuits, you could not possibly fashion loving another grape more than pinot. If you are Jean-Louis Chave, the thought of growing anything other than syrah would strike you as being a non sequitur. But planting a vineyard in the New World de novo is a bit like being an orphan, a dogie. No mother, no mother’s milk. Like an “ugly duckling,” you are just trying to figure out where you fit in in the Grape Order of Being.5
Returning to the question in a slightly different form: In the New World, how do you know that you will love the wine that you plan to make before you make it? Can you learn to love the wine that is the product of your terroir, presumably if you have a deep love of the place, before it has even shown itself as a great terroir? If the wine that you produce is mostly or entirely a projection of your own aesthetic bent, despite the fact that you haven’t irrigated, you’ve massally selected, yield restricted, eschewed over-ripeness, maybe even laboriously found the recherché knife that allows you to cut surface roots,6 in other words, performed all of the outward obeisances that known terroirists are known to perform, are you still not, in the end, producing something more akin to what might be called a vin d’effort?7 How do you ultimately find a harmonious, felicitous blend of your own aesthetics with the deep qualities of the inchoate Stranger?
The question raised is a little bit like the one implicit in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Can you truly be said to love something or someone that is essentially a reflection of yourself? If your wine is so solipsistic as to be simply a refashioning of your own aesthetic, are you truly honoring terroir? It would seem that there is something of a false – or at least incomplete – joy in merely building a wine rather than in discovering a true terroir.8 Without a very gradual unfolding of the mystery of the Other, the exercise of producing a “great” wine would appear to be a rather sterile one. And yet, I am as nervous as a bridegroom on the eve of his wedding night, that I will, even after deep contemplation and in deepest consideration and respect for the terroir of our site, have somehow made a great miscalculation, that we will end up with a wine from our San Juan Estate that is technically proficient, impeccable even, but somehow doesn’t touch my soul.9 I yearn on a daily basis to find my soul/soil-mate in a wine, a product of something utterly beyond and outside myself, and yet something with which I have been terribly intimate and of which I am inordinately proud. Will pinot always be my fantasy-grape, the girl in the T-Bird, who winked at the stop light and motored off into the night?
Claude Bourguignon and his wife Lydia, the famous soil scientists and possibly terroir’s greatest advocates and interpreters, are coming in the next few weeks to our new San Juan Bautista property to consult. I need to understand a lot more about how they work – their work is almost all in France, and not much of their published work shows up here. I understand that Claude has famously pronounced that he has yet to observe a vrai terroir in the New World. Perhaps this is because we do not have a co-evolving wine culture – of human and vine – in the New World, nor anything like a cultural esteem for terroir,10 or simply because we have not yet had enough grape growing history for terroir to truly disclose itself. Claude and Lydia apparently make recommendations to their clients about what kinds of grape varieties and rootstocks they might best plant where on their property, as well as what sort of cultural practices they might deploy to best express their respective terroirs. So I am, of course, tremendously curious to know what they will say, and slightly fearful that they might throw up their hands as to the suitability of the property for terroir’s expression – too much clay or not enough – or perhaps they will recommend a number of grape varieties in which I have no interest whatsoever – some terminally rustic cépagesi.11 What if they suggest, indeed insist upon, pinotage?12 Carnelian? Cynthiana? Madeleine? Angevine? Or – God forbid – Merlot?13
There are some wine styles that we have worked on for quite a number of years, and for which I have some deep sentimental attachment – Le Cigare Volant, for one. This wine has worked for me as a vin d’effort, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes when I’ve been too clever by half, a tad less well, but it has been enormously fun and stimulating to produce. However, in the end, making the wine largely turns out to be somewhat of a purely technical challenge, a bit like those chefs on food reality television shows being given a market basket of ingredients and charged with producing a tasty/showy dish that will wow the etiolated, jaded critics. I end up with wines that I greatly enjoy, because that was my intention in how they were produced.14,15
So I am a bit torn. I would like to respect the historical continuity16 of Cigare, partially out of sentiment, partially out of a recognition of certain commercial realities.17 On the other hand, this new estate is the opportunity to create potentially a different paradigm and to think about the wines we produce in a very different way. Dare I introduce an Italian uvaggio into the RhÃ´ne blend? Does this road not lead to madness? How important is it to color within the lines – to plant a suite of grapes that have some sort of history of relationship with one another?18,19
Here’s the gist of it: It truly doesn’t matter to me (apart from wishing to avoid economically ruinous decisions) what grape varieties we end up growing at San Juan. But like finding an appropriate romantic partner, there are certain minimal criteria that just must obtain. You don’t want to be shacked up with an ax-murderer or someone heavily into Ozzie Osborne – for me, this would be the equivalent of having a site that absolutely demanded its grapes attain 14.5% potential alcohol to be interesting. I know that there are certain flavor characteristics and even certain pH ranges20 that absolutely push my buttons (in a pleasantly driven to distraction kind of way). For whites, it is higher acidity, minerals and citrus.21,22 For reds, there is a certain complex of flavors and a particular kind of way in which they are organized, that at least for me, signify absolute organoleptic bliss.23,24 Then there is the phenomenon of “licorice.” God only knows why this should be the case, but virtually every red wine that really knocks me out has, to some degree or another, a slight (or not so slight) suggestion of licorice.25
Maybe I’m just worrying too much about doing it right. The relationship I have with this land and the grapes and wines it will produce is certain to be an ever-changing one, a dance, a true give and take. I will try to exert my will, my aesthetic, with the land and the vines at times, taking the lead, treading on more than a few toes.26 Of course it is largely up to me and my colleagues to give this great estate real form and definition, but this will require me to personally dig deep and find attributes in myself that are sometimes elusive – patience and the ability to listen and to observe, to trust. In the end, all of this discussion about whether I will direct the vines or the vines will guide me may likely be moot. The male (in this relationship) imagines that he has some control, but this is merely his fantasy. I fancy that it was I who has chosen the site for my grand polycultural dreams, but it really is the site that has chosen me, and it will have its way with me. I will do my best to hang on for the ride.