Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 1)

I’m a little bit nervous about characterizing my quest to produce a vin de terroir—a wine expressive of a specific place—as a “spiritual journey.”1 Not that popular literature isn’t utterly littered with accounts of unorthodox methodologies pressed into service for this or that spirit-quest, but in some sense it’s my own disposition toward Logorrhea that has perhaps been the greatest impediment to the journey itself. I’ve been very comfortable—perhaps rather too comfortable—talking and writing about the steps leading up to the journey: the planning, the maps and the guidebooks, the conversations with sage mentors, the extraordinary lessons that the universe is patiently trying to teach me through one serendipitous encounter or another. I worry that even just now in the writing about it I’m somehow deferring to a later moment the journey itself, allowing it to infinitely recede into the future distance like the castle of Kafka’s Surveyor. Any journey must be grounded in genuine action, even cerebral action, as this writing itself might in fact be so. But a real and genuine projection of oneself into the unknown, pushing oneself well out of one’s comfort zone, is another matter altogether. The burbling, sinuous stream of sentences I observe on the scintillated screen of my MacBook are my rod and my staff; they comfort me. (This cannot be entirely good.) But the actual journey, the real boots-on-the-ground work, is of a different order altogether. The work seems to require a rather different level of attention, and perhaps something like a total personal transformation, which of course affrights me to the very core.

rg-blending3

I am a Luftmensch—someone who has his head in the clouds. I idly dream of idealized worlds,2 and my tendency to dream has historically often been a surrogate for action. Not that I haven’t been capable of taking bold action from time to time, but these actions have tended to be more of the grand gesture sort: Let’s freeze some grapes! Macerate some raspberries! Why not try our hand at those Rhône/Italian/Portugese grapes while we’re at it? I’ve been particularly good at formulating catchy slogans: A bas le bouchon! and Vive le screwcap! No, there is no real malaise due to lack of initiative. The problem is really something more basic, and has more to do with my inability to be totally present, especially with all of the fine details that truly matter.

For most of my life as a winemaker, as is the case for many “executive winemakers” in the New World,3 “winemaking” is, or at least can be, a largely weightless, almost magical exercise.4 The grapes (somehow) show up at your winery at an appointed day.5 You move (as if in a dream), through a ritualized protocol—cold soak for x number of days, punching down again and again (the cap always popping up again like the return of the repressed). At last, the anthocyanins have been extracted, wrestled into submission like Jacob’s angel. The wine has reposed in its vessel of conception for a Biblical forty days and forty nights, and you then direct your cellar crew to gently remove it to barrel. Time moves on; the pages fall off the calendar like abscised syrah leaves after the first substantive winter rain. You rack the wine a few times on propitious days;6 this sort of rote exercise begins to infiltrate your dreams.7 You sit at the tasting bench—here you are the master of your domain—enter into a semi-trance, and somehow a few short hours later you find you have composed a felicitous blend.8 Eventually you get around to bottling the distillation of these efforts at what you hope is le moment juste, but more likely is the moment your production manager reminds you that there’s no more room at the inn.

blend-composite3

But is there not more to great winemaking than this? ItÂ’s not as if youÂ’ve been a total stranger to the vineyard. You try to get the pruning right, the crop level right. YouÂ’re strident with your growers on the subject of irrigation.9 Perhaps youÂ’ve made some biodynamic compost for your growers, or even caused some biodynamic preps to be sprayed on their grapes. YouÂ’ve done your best to be a squeaky wheel.

But can you really look yourself in the eye and claim to be a truly dedicated vigneron, a campagnard de terroir? For as long as I can recall, I feel as if I’ve just been going through the motions. I am not one with my vineyard;10 my own rather marginal competency as a viticulturist aside, I’m just not there nearly enough, nor do I yet truly have eyes to see.11 (You can put it down in part to the essential absurdity of the Urban Jew in a rustic setting—the Woody Allen oeuvre would certainly bear this out.12 )

And yet, I have asked both publicly and privately for the universe to give me a sign that it’s willing to cooperate in my new ambitious venture in San Juan Bautista—my effort to discover a true terroir in the New World, to bring the unseen into view. This isn’t something that will simply magically occur; it will require me to push myself to grow in a new way—that is to say, to sink my own roots into a new place and stand and survey what it is that I see. If I’m not willing to see what this place, my land, has to show me, and to learn from it, then I am nothing but a fool.

farm-composite2

Allow me to restate the problem of the plantation of a vineyard in a virgin area ab ovum, as I have done in one form or another in a succession of these communiqués. I aspire to make a great wine—that is given. One must therefore begin with unusually great and distinctive grapes; you must grow them yourself if they are to arrive at the fanatical level of quality that you seek—also a given. So, as a prospective grower of brilliant and original grapes, you really have essentially two options, one more or less straightforward, the other far more arcane: you either find a grape that you love and figure out where to grow it, or find a unique place that you love and figure out what it is (Grapes? Peaches? Olives?) that might truly flourish there.

Certainly, the more straightforward option is to decide that you are hopelessly enamored with a particular grape variety—pinot noir, let’s say—and therefore your ambition/lust/compulsion is to make a great Pinot noir—or perhaps, The Great Pinot noir.13 You spend a number of years combing the planet, trying to find a site you imagine will be ideally suited—climate, geology, aspect, purchasability14 —to the cultivation of pinot noir. Now, you may prefer the wines of Chambertin or the wines of Musigny, or even the Pinot noirs of the Russian River. But whether or not you dare to imagine that your Pinot will ever taste even vaguely (or de Vogüély) Musignian, you likely already have a built-in model in your brain for strategies for success: “special” DRC clones, yield restriction, close-spacing, brilliant trellising, very particular winemaking techniques.15 If you are a reasonably clever person, your wine may well taste a bit like your Platonic Pinot, maybe even (drum roll, here) “Burgundian.”16 And if you present an interesting story and the wine tastes as good or better than similar wines made by similarly tortured and obsessed individuals, you may enjoy some success.

But have you really created something of original beauty? Is your Pinot, however powerful or concentrated it might be, as balanced, refined, or haunting as the humblest Burgundy from a modest appellation?17 I ask you, candidly, what have you actually accomplished, apart from gratifying your own wish to compete on the world stage and to see how you stack up against the Greats?18

I know I’m sounding a little pious and judgmental here. Everything we do is in service to our egos—and really, who am I to judge? Maybe I have it totally backward, but it seems to me that the more appropriate approach to making a wine that the world actually needs is to follow the latter course: to make the sincere effort to identify sites with a (perceived) potential to express a distinctive terroir;19 to determine what variety (or varieties) of grapes would be particularly well adapted to that site; and to do what you might to really accentuate the site’s distinguishing characteristics. Of course, whatever your approach, you’re primarily trying to show the world how clever you are. But at the same time, you may also be bringing true beauty into the world, and fostering diversity; this is to the good.

pinot-sjb3

I have been giving a lot of thought, as you well know, to precisely what I should grow in San Juan—or more to the point, how I might best honor the site and at the same time do something that’s really useful. What I’m looking for, it seems, is a methodology that lets me even approach the question of what is most mete and proper. We’ve had Claude and Lydia Bourguignons, the famous French soil scientists, out to the farm.20 They seemed to feel that the place had real potential and were sincerely excited by the uniqueness of most of the soil types they observed chez nous. They gave us some valuable insights as to the nature of our soils, as well as advice on what steps might be taken to optimally preserve and express their distinctiveness. And yet when I asked point-blank about what varieties might be the most suitable, they seemed to fall back on certain idées reçues, or at least upon historical precedents—cabernet in gravel, merlot in clay, that sort of thing.

“So, ruchè on this windy, gravely slope, Claude? What do you think?”

“I’m sorry, Randall, I just don’t know very much about ruchè.”

We have a wonderful northeast facing limestone hill—I mean a serious limestone hill. “Nebbiolo?” I tentatively ventured.

“Maybe,” said Claude, “but nebbiolo behaves a lot like pinot, and doesn’t want to get too stressed. And it is rather windy around here. What do you think about palomino?”

“Chopfallen” is an expression S.J. Perelman was very fond of.21 Yes, we know that palomino does well in chalk (in Jerez), but does the world really need more palomino on chalk? Or even more palomino on anything?

The way forward must be to look for a method that would build upon the world’s received knowledge, and to allow that knowledge to expand and evolve; one must do the most familiar work differently—smartly, but differently. One must find a method that would allow one to pose a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, iterate, and observe. But how to do this in what remains of one very, very short lifetime?

  1. A Twitter follower (don’t ask) recently asked about the “helical” vineyard I’d once proposed planting in Pleasanton, CA., as a sort of recursive, Borgesian encyclopedic exercise beginning at a certain point (maybe even with grapes that began with “A” (Abrostine, Albariño, etc.) and never subtracting, but always adding, refining. It occurs to me that these essays themselves are largely recursive, maybe even helical, and that every spiritual quest is as well. []
  2. Specifically worlds populated by wine (and cider) bottles filled with liquids so unspeakably delicious and complex they move the imbibers to something the psychologist Maslow might characterize as a “peak-experience.” []
  3. Maybe there is an analogy for executive chefs. []
  4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being Doon. []
  5. In fairness, I do actually visit the vineyards any number of times before the grapes “show up,” but the farther away those vineyards are, the fewer times I visit. I confess that often these vineyard visits are primarily fly-bys; I don’t feel I really know them well from the inside out, and this is largely the problem. []
  6. Ideally, with a waning moon and rising barometric pressure. []
  7. Doing cellar work—something I haven’t done in years (topping barrels in particular)—was terribly vivid for me in the nocturnal hours: removing the bungs—did you remember to put them back? Cleaning up the wine that you had spilled around the bunghole (childhood memories of spilled juice). Wrestling with the physicality of the barrel, like a memory of scuffling with a childhood friend or sibling. You have slept fitfully of course, waking numerous times from your slumber, to taste, perchance to blend, to tweak, to rack no more—all the time imagining that your dream of this wine is mostly a sweet one. []
  8. You always want to check this a few times to make sure the blend remains felicitous, as wines (and tasters as well) certainly have their own ups and doons. []
  9. This recalls the famous Far Side cartoon about what we say to dogs, and what they hear. []
  10. Since most of the vineyards we work with are generally not “great”—all somewhat less than ideal in one way or another—I’m often anguishing over how much effort/expense is worth expending to extract incremental improvements in quality; e.g., how much biochar do we buy for our growers’ vineyards? Do we do this for all the vineyards? Some of the vineyards? The best ones? The worst ones? Vineyards with three-year contracts? Five-year contracts? (It is so incredibly tedious to have to think about these things: I would far rather be applying the very attenuated bandwidth I still possess to actually observing the results of field-trials, rather than squinting at trial balances on reams of spreadsheets.) These long-term investments are likely not justifiable from a strictly financial standpoint, but the effort to do one’s best within one’s financial means is truly the only viable spiritual course. []
  11. I’m spread pretty thin with all sorts of responsibilities these days—to my great chagrin, I’m still spending a lot of time in sales and marketing, PR, and simply playing a gracious host. But I certainly was pretty asleep at the switch with respect to our Soledad vineyard. For years I blithely imagined how virtuous we were with our biodynamic practice, perceiving not at all that our soils had become utterly compacted—most likely a function of the slightly saline irrigation water and the relatively heavy tractors we were using. Sustainable? Not by a long chalk. []
  12. The Ashkenazi population’s predisposition to Asperger’s Syndrome (at least according to David Mamet) is another explanatory mechanism and perhaps a particularly apt one in my own instance. Social and physical ineptness, obsessional flights of ideation, extravagance of language—check, check, check. []
  13. You know you love it because you have tasted it (or something like it) maybe once or twice. But how different it is to imagine that you will love something that you have never seen, heard, tasted, or touched before. Maybe itÂ’s the great romantic in me speaking, but the love of the what-might-be seems to be the greatest love of all (at least potentially). []
  14. The land presumably must be for sale and not located under a shopping mall in, say, downtown Palo Alto, and of course you must have a non-trivial amount of scratch on hand to purchase said land and develop it. []
  15. IÂ’m certain thereÂ’s occasionally some map/territory confusion here, whereby winemakers believe that the technique itself (or the fact that you are doing x) adds value to the wine, rather than the persuasiveness of the flavors of said wine. []
  16. If you can even put your finger on those elusive qualities that make Pinot noir “Burgundian,” you may have arrived at a deep understanding of the essence of Pinot. []
  17. Answer: IÂ’m afraid it wonÂ’t be. It may well be impressive and delicious, but that will be a function of the scrupulous detail you have paid and the enormous capital you have expended, rather than to the absolutely perfect congruence of the site, variety, rootstock, and cultural practice. And, by the way, your wine will likely cost way more to produce than a grand cru Burgundy. []
  18. And of course the opportunity to have your heart broken into a million pieces. []
  19. This of course sounds far easier than it actually is. Apart from the need to determine whether the site has interesting geology and meteorology—sufficient water-holding capacity, adequate cation exchange capacity (important for growing red grapes), and adequate rainfall—there’s really a deeper question of whether the property really speaks to you and you alone. Is your destiny linked to that of the property? How do you know this? []
  20. They work with the fanciest domains in the world, advising on the most felicitous match of cépage and rootstock to soil type, as well as on agronomic strategies for amplifying the individuality of the site. []
  21. I knew that I was succumbing to the same fallacy of the poor and tortured pinot-obsessed; if I love the variety enough, my love will allow me to do something that no one else in these parts has been able to achieve. []

33 Responses to “Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 1)”

  1. nadine says:

    randall! think less, do more! as much as i always want to shake my head in sympathy, you win me over every time when you write about your visions and ideas. the country needs more fresh, local food… less bottled wine. it’s the new frontier! whatever you decide to plant in your new vineyard, promise to also turn your attention towards growing produce, flowers, grains and meats, ok? i wish you luck.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks, Nadine, for your comment. It is perhaps my tragic flaw to tend to overhink things, but in this instance, I really – but really – want to get it right if I can. (Note: Getting it right is more a function of process than product.) I am in utter agreement with you that the most interesting and ultimately sustainable model for this farm is a true polyculture (sometimes called “promiscuous culture.” I am very taken w/ Hans Peter Schmidt’s work in modeling these sorts of systems, and plan to incorporate many of his ideas in the design of this farm. For me personally, there is something quite depressing to seeing vast high tech vyds. I love the organic forms of orchards and the organic forms of grape vines as well; low tech is beautiful. For now, we have already planted olives and raspberries, heirloom pears and apples. Hoping to propagate some peches de vigne this year. But the real art will be in how all of these elements are integrated. Stay dooned.

  2. [...] are no references. That’s the magical part. That’s the challenge.” And Grahm wrote in a blog post just today about his nervousness in calling his vin de terroir quest a spiritual [...]

  3. Hi Randall: Talk about serendipitous! I read about you last year in Hemispheres. That stayed with me into this year as I was contemplating my own journey into the unknown. I’ve been working on an essay about sabbatical and was trying to find the Hemispheres article online for it. I finally found it today and was able to finish the piece. As a final touch, I was looking for a link on you to share with my readers, and I found THIS blog post. I couldn’t believe you’d posted it TODAY.
    About this post: I love how you wrestle with yourself, your grandness of mind and spirit, and your desire to do something extraordinary. And the ego: so needed for fuel but important to keep in the position of pushing not leading one up the hill. I so look forward to following your quest.
    BTW: I linked to this in my post, not realizing that mine would show up here. So that is why you have a blog post from me in your comments.
    Cheers.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, and for your encouragement. I greatly look forward to reading your post. Will try to make some sort of intelligent comment on it as soon as I can.

  4. Frank Delsing says:

    Hi Randall, perhaps the answer to your dilemma of how to best honor the San Juan site and at the same time do something thatÂ’s really useful is already present in your blog. You have put your question online and requested feedback to get closer to a solution. What if you would take it one step further: share the San Juan case online to tap into the worldÂ’s received knowledge through the web. Create something of an ‘open source’ vineyard. Share the technical data of the site and let the crowd evolve the best solution for the site within your framework of objectives and constraints. It would be interesting to see how fast a community would be able to iterate through hypothesize – test – observe cycles, and what the result would be.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks very much for the suggestion, and in fact, this is what I think I may already be doing, in my very circuitous, elliptical way. In Part 2 to this post, I will really try to get down to more concrete cases and to a bit more detail on the proposed methodology of these complicated decisions. As has been pointed out on multiple occasions, I am largely off the grid here, flying by the seat of one’s pants. The idea of hybridizing grapes to plant in a new location is truly terroir incognita (forgive me). But, it is a great idea to really open oneself up to the entire bounty of the universe, and one subset of that would be the folks who follow these posts. It is a very great adventure, and I’m very glad for the company along for the ride.

  5. Isabelle says:

    Randall, you post is a wonderful description of how terroir comes to those who care and try, but it takes time, and how could you speed it up ?

    You could live in a small village, maybe in Corbieres or in the North of Burgundy. Your father, grand father,etc, have planted vines and have made the wines as they were told; over the years, they made careful experiments, and even more careful changes; and you will do the same, comparing years, listening to what the neighbours say and donÂ’t say, keeping in mind what the regulations require, and you will add your own experimentsÂ… (and maybe you would get a bit bored ?)

    Ah. You don’t have tradition, you don’t have time, you have to guess everything, quickly. Of course you have encyclopaedic culture of what the world does, you can compare your hill with one in Piedmont, and your gravel with one in Medoc … and of course you know which winegrowing practices are going to accentuate the characters you want. But still, it seems to be a puzzle in several dimensions. Because if you choose Nebbiolo, you may make it work, your way; but if you choose Barbera, you may make it work too; and you will never know which one was right in the first place… and what does “right” mean, after all ? You have far too many choices to create ONE terroir. As you say, you need a methodology. This is going to be fascinating – but one thing is sure, it will integrate your own vision and intuition, your respect for the place and your desire to express its beauty and character. You are an integral part of the experiment.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thank you very much, Isabelle, for your comment; you are always so very perceptive and do distill matters down to their essence. Totally agreed that time (measured in generations) and the willingness to iterate are the most effective ways of discovering the most expressive terroir. Not however a possibility. (Long sigh.)

      However, I am now thinking (perhaps delusionally) that the methods that I am pursuing will very likely produce something like a vin de terroir, but whether will also produce a wine that I (or anyone else) will really enjoy to drink is more of an open question. There are certain things that one does that undoubtedly favor the expression of terroir: Dry farming, vibrant soil microbiology (achieved through use of biochar, skillful cover-cropping, skillful composting, etc.), limited yield, geotropic plant stock, and genetic diversity of vineyard (which I will get in spades). I will do the things that I believe will favor terroir, but undoubtedly there is an element that I’ve overlooked or miscalculated or simply will take years to work out; in these instances, this is where the need to become present, observant is crucial. A great intuitive sense also would come in handy.

      The site itself is composed of varying soil types, and some of them are frankly more expressive than others. My thought is to plant something like standard varieties (ruche, sagrantino, etc.) on the more “standard” soils, and save the hybridization experiments for what I believe are the more expressive terroirs. (Richer mineral content, better water holding capacity, ability to support high mycorrhizal populations.) I truly believe that the great genetic diversity of the planting will work in favor of bringing out the gestalt, or relief of terroir, as an element in the wine, especially if the different blocks are kept separate. The scary (and wonderful) thing of course is that one might hybridize any number of different things, and there is likely an infinite number of solution sets to a given site. You do need some data points from which to extrapolate, and certainly after Version 1.0, we will have plenty. Just hoping that there will be time enough in this life to get to Version 1.1.

  6. Randall – thank you for this great post which I stumbled upon. Honestly it looks to me that whatever varietals you choose to plant at San Juan Bautista, they will make beautiful wines. (I tell everyone I can that the best Albarino to be had is yours from California). Serendipity again as I look forward to having lunch with you this Friday in Charleston. Perhaps you might explain “adequate cation exchange capacity” to me then? Very best and travel safe!

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks so much for your note and looking forward to meeting you soon. But you should know, I don’t discuss adequate cation exchange capacity with just anyone at first meeting. #positiveattitude

  7. Wayne says:

    I find these thoughts, although deeply personal to you, as if they were partially penned by my own hand, certainly they are words partial to my own heart. While I will not presume to bore you with the details, I find myself at a similar cross roads, perched precariously on top a pile of possibilities.

    Given my own deep penchant for Logorrhea (for example, my long-winded ramblings on this very wine blog on topics past and future I promise), I can sympathize with you. While the tongue certainly gets ahead of my body (more specifically my schedule), without these endless discussions, verbal and internalized, I would be at the vista I find myself today, with the same views that I have. Without all of the that’s: “the planning, the maps and the guidebooks, the conversations with sage mentors, the extraordinary lessons that the universe is patiently trying to teach” you, you could not have this: the chance to do something breathtaking and daring.
    But alas, words must become action…for you and for me.

    Perhaps the hesitation you feel at present, is not a fear of a wine of terroir, something so beautiful and unique that the World is a sadder place without it, but in the terror of what is required to become a winemaker of terroir, what the land will do to you and how you “see it”, how you relate to your very existence in this world as a winemaker, as a farmer, as Randall Grahm. You cannot produce terroir, unless you have allowed the land to truly effect your being, as you say, see what this place has to show you. The terroir is already present, terroir is an unplanted field as a dear friend of mine says. The beauty and art, as well as the treachery of terroir, is in finding it, then listening to it, and finally giving it voice. You have to yield to it, to change. An ancient Japanese artist said you cannot paint the fish until you know the fish. The fish does not change, it is you who must. This is all a fancy way of saying, changing who we are and what we do it terrifying.

    What is more, you have exposed yourself to man, made your aspirations known, shared your dreams. How could that not be intimidating, and terrifying, and exhilarating? You have said, “this is what I have come to do, this is what the many roads, and conversations, and words, and voyages have lead to.” All things are now naked and exposed, the plans laid bare, you have made yourself vulnerable to judgements and to words. And so you must separate the wheat from the chaff, the work from the chatter. Jacob wrestled all night, but he also prevailed over what was impossible, even if slightly wounded.

    There will be great effort. There will be wounds. But, there will also be great discoveries in terroir and in self. These you well know.

    In all voyages there comes a time when we gather our maps and our compasses, or charts and our graphs (grafts), our expectations and our hesitations, and with a lump in our throat and spark in our heart, we step aboard the craft that carries us into the unknown.

    I find this voyage (to steal a word) utterly fascinating to follow. Perhaps I read WAY to far into some of this, but you have articulated my own hopes and fears better than I can. I, and many many others, are with you. San Juan Bautista or bust!

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Wayne, Thank you for your most heartfelt comments. Your words are very moving to me. You are absolutely right on the mark in stating that the real work to be done is on ourselves; the outer landscape will follow. I wish you the very best in your own personal quest. Do not tarry.

  8. Renee Allen says:

    Hi Randall,
    The writer has luxuries that the winemaker cannot afford. As a fellow Luftmensch, I can appreciate wanting to keep your ideas captive in your head for as long as you can before transforming them into reality. In oneÂ’s head, ideas remain pristine, idyllic, perfect and, most of all, safe. Once earthbound, things can go wrong, terribly wrong. But will the fulfillment you seek only be satisfied by a perfect product, or will the joy come from the journey?
    I would never suggest depriving the world of your philosophical ruminations, but why not, for the time being, limit your writings to what you have accomplished rather than what you hope to achieve? Perhaps this will provide you with the incentive and focus you need to get your hands dirty. Some things cannot be ascertained by mere thought and conjecture, but require trial and error. Plant a few different varieties and allow the grapes themselves to steer you. In effect, let the grapes write the story and take on more of the role of observer, rather than controller. And, along the way, you might serendipitously find yourself down a path that even your wild imagination could not have predicted.
    As for creating a sustainable vineyard which incorporates wildlife, I wholeheartedly agree. How do you feel about bees?
    Renee

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, Renée. You see that I’m playing around with the paradox of talking (or writing) about things in lieu of doing them (by talking/writing about things) in an infinite recursive spiral.. But certainly thought is the mother of the deed, and this particular talking cure is definitely taking me closer to the brink of action. (I am getting my hands dirty, though not as dirty as I would like; just the other day I helped repot several hundred grenache seedlings). In fact, I really do need to write about these things to better understand what it is I think about them. It would be terrible, or if not terrible, at least quite different, if I were to only write about what it is that I have done or imminently plan to do. It is just my inveterate nature to have minimal interest in what has happened, and maximal interest in what might happen. (This is probably a great spiritual flaw.) Agreed that the whole project really is about learning how to let go and to observe. I’m just hoping that soon there will be some interesting things to observe. And I think that bees would be….just the bee’s knees.

  9. Bill Russell says:

    Randall,

    Long time no see.

    I’ve been wrestling with our terroir for 25 years now. At first, the effort was unrecognizable: we were farmers to a newborn. The baby was laid in one of a dozen Perspex-clear hospital basinets. With rows and rows stacked alongside others, any father would be forced to ask, “Which is mine?” Except that in this case (my understanding of terroir) the question was, “What? I’m a father? How did that happen?” My brother Rob and I were young men in our early 20’s when we started. We weren’t prone to philosophical musings. We were simply trying to understand our farm (and survive economically).

    Decades later we’ve come to understand terroir as a term that describes, perhaps summarizes, agricultural effort. Marketers use it for any number of reasons. But at its very core, it is about farming. In Burgundy (where the Mason/Dixon rivalry between villages sets the backdrop for the classic understanding of terroir) the question of goût agricoles is inbred: why does my farm taste different from yours? And to be grounded in agriculture is to be sensitive to economic reality: does my terroir demand a better market price than yours?

    In my opinion, all vineyards have terroir; it is inescapable. Where there is soil; where there is sunlight; where there is rain; where there is wind; and in that location there are vines, there is terroir.

    Instead of asking if my farm has terroir, I ask “Is my farm’s terroir any good?”

    Am I being sensitive to my terroir? If so, can I sustain myself based upon its aroma and flavor? If IÂ’m feeling magnanimous, does my farmÂ’s terroir inspire others to join my quest? Do their terroirs help me better understand my own? Are they able to charge more for theirs than I am for mine? Why did I hope for neighbors? Damn them and their terroir. Mine is better and this is why: I was here first. I have the original terroir…I digress.

    Seems to me that you’ve begun your quest by discovering “a unique place that you love.” I think this is the best way to commence this journey. I have heard that limiting one’s liberty (in your case restricting yourself to a specific farm) creates a stumbling block for creativity. I disagree. It is when we recognize limitations and labor within them, that we find genuine creativity and freedom. As the soil and sunlight of one small plot of land proves reluctant to perform annual parlor tricks on cue, some might find the limitation too much. I admit, falling in love with one patch of dirt is often frustrating. To express oneself through the land one loves is humility itself.

    Tactics? Perhaps plant one varietal. One. Let the land speak through it. And do not let others do the work for you. You must be involved: tasting, trying, pushing, prying, digging, spraying, pressing, racking, cleaning. There is no way to delegate the journey, if it is one you wish to take. (OK, perhaps you can delegate the cleaning)

    There is not much time.

    After 25 years of Massachusetts’ viticulture, I am beginning to understand our farmÂ’s terroir. I donÂ’t have many more years before I lend my own uniqueness back to the soil.

    I wish you the best.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks so much, Bill. Your words do ring true, and I particularly enjoyed your riffs. Agreed that all sites by definition possess terroir, but of course, some terroirs are more eloquent and expressive than others. For this reason, I’m thinking to plant more or less the same grape (of course it won’t technically be the same grape, but rather this crazy set of grape siblings that somehow share some common characteristics – at least one parent in common.)

      It is that I am just not sure that I will be able to arrive at a wine (or wines) of sufficient complexity given but a single parent. As I mentioned in the post, even if I make an inspired choice for the site – nebbiolo, f’rinstance – there is no question that nebbiolo at San Juan Juan will fare far better on some of the terroirs that we possess than on others, but most likely not nearly as well as virtually any of the terroirs of the Langhe.

      Yes, in a perfect world I’d like to do all of the work. Well, maybe not all of the work. Clearing the poison oak should probably be delegated to someone who is not allergic to the stuff. Developing the property is really far more than a one person job. But I certainly need to figure out how I can be there almost every day and really be profoundly involved in the physical labor (especially while I still have a modicum of physical strength and endurance). Besides, with all of these winemaker dinners I’ve lately been doing, I could use a lot more exercise. Thanks again for your comments.

  10. Great post! I support your effort to discover a true terroir in the New World, to bring the unseen into view.

  11. Pete CS says:

    Hi Randall,

    Terroir what a wonderful obsession. What does one plant in a new terroir, its not so much that your options are open, but that the more you think and consider your options, they become less. Old world terroir dominates and at the same time numbs your brain, making this decision almost impossible.
    These great places and their vines e.g. Piedmont/ Nebbiolo stand in your way, yet can not be ignored. When you mentioned Nebbiolo my mind instantly flashed to thoughts of Barolo, its light colour, extraordinary aromatics, dryness and length. This can not be equalled let alone bettered I mumbled.
    This might be a fascinating problem, but a problem none the less.

    Time is also a great issue for you, I can only guesstimate 7-9 years to first wine producing fruit. 25+ years to mature vines and first “great” wine, yet you also fear not having enough time for the hands on work you feel you need.

    These are just two of the problems you face, the reason you are obsessed with terroir and compelled to risk much on this project is because it is difficult, (the thrill of the chase) this alone makes it worthwhile. Life is immediate, there is no tomorrow, so enjoy. Can you really imagine not having San Juan on your mind when your head hits the pillow, Dude its your drug of choice.

    We choose to do this, not because it is easy, but because it is difficult.

    Because its there.

    Kindest Regards,

    Pete.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Pete, your words inspire me. Agreed that there is only the present moment, and one must seize it.

  12. Michael Roberson says:

    Another fine example of why I have been reading your work since the newsletters were actually printed and mailed. Thank you.

  13. Randall Grahm says:

    No longer leaving as significant a carbon footprint; still not sure if any of it makes any sense. #actionsspeakloudest

  14. mark says:

    Shears flash in winter
    Even the ladybug hides
    Ashes announce spring

    • Randall Grahm says:

      Mark, you are clearly in far greater synchronization w/ the ebbs and flows of the cosmic forces than I am. Cheers.

  15. [...] des mots et de la poésie…Evidemment, il a un blog avec un dernier article à lire sur ses tribulations terroiristes à lire absolument. .. une idée du personnage ? extrait de l’article ici [...]

  16. Miguel Raton says:

    I want to tell you how much I enjoyed that limited supply of 2009 Cinsault you released this year. I can tell that you were at least pleased with the positive buz it generated (a little birdy told me so), and perhaps even with the wine itself. I am wondering, though, how a wine like this fits in to your quest to produce wines that express terroir. Can a wine made from two vinyards nearly 200 miles apart be a vin de terroir? Can two terroirs be expressed in a single wine, or is it the winemaker’s skill at blending the two that is the dominant expression? You were very clear on the back label about what each vinyard was brining to the party, and those different qualities I assume can, at least in part, be attributed to terroir. When they come together can the wine express a sense of place that is Claifornia?

    • You bring up an excellent point, and possibly one of the glaring internal contradictions of the current Bonny Doon portfolio. In a perfect world, we would be producing only single vineyard wines and farming them in such a way (dry-farming, biodynamically, etc.) that would allow them to optimally express themselves. But, this would presuppose that the vineyards themselves were exquisitely attuned to the site (they’re not). As a result, the blended wines are just (IMHO) more interesting than the single-vineyard wines. (For now.) But this will not deter us from pressing forward and planting vineyards that we believe will be able to stand on their own. Glad that you enjoyed the Cinsault; it knocks me out as well.

  17. andrew h. says:

    Randall, have you read Alfred Korzybski? Your note that the map does not equal the territory smacks of General Semantics. This would be an excellent viewpoint to bring to the analysis of your site/varietal conundrum. There are only so many data points we can absorb and pay attention to. The best we can do is observe and know that our perception is but a reflection of the physical reality happening in front of us.

  18. lefty says:

    Constance asks me this almost every day: “Did that nice gentleman winemaker send his book to me yet…?”

  19. [...] some open issues have largely been settled since my most recent communiqué here. It’s now very clear to me that the earlier notion of collecting seeds from self-pollinating [...]

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