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
On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season
It has been a long, dry season.2 This is likely the driest year in Northern California for as long as anyone has been keeping records, coming off of two previous dry years; that we have experienced now only trace amounts of rain since the harvest season has been enormously disorienting and disquieting to me, (and certainly to everyone else in these parts).3 Is this serious drought a function of global climate change? Maybe, (likely) so, but that’s sort of beside the point.4
I’m depressed about the dry weather and depressed about the dry weather in my spirit as well, manifested as a desire but seeming inability to verbally express myself. It’s been a while since I’ve weighed in. I feel that much the same way one can neglect relationships with friends and acquaintances, I’ve rather unfortunately let this liaison with you, dear reader, lapse a bit, though arguably, it may well be the relationship I have with myself that has slightly gone off the rails.5 It is a bit complicated.You know that life at the Doon has been very tough for the last several years on many levels, not the least of which has been financially. I have worried at times that the grand plans to create new grape varieties from seeds and produce utterly distinctive wines expressive of place, may in fact have been the vivid illumination that the (at least fiscally) drowning man experiences just before the end.6,7
It has bothered me that these days I seem to have so very little to say; it’s a worry that the creative well has perhaps at last gone dry. Some of this silent treatment, as it were, has been a function of an incredibly busy harvest, and following harvest, a rather ambitious, if not utterly crazy course of sales-related travel.8 ,9,10 I have been busy, it’s true, and yet, I believe that my relative lack of inspiration – we are not particularly a-Mused – may be the fact that I’ve been feeling less and less myself, and that my company, which is another way of saying my art, seems, at least by a certain measure, to have diverged a bit from its stated values and aspirations. This is not really how I would design things to be, but it is rather a matter of trying to keep body and soul together as one aspires to the noblest ends. How much might one diverge whilst still keeping an eye to the prize?
I’ve heard and read in so many places that the secret to success in business (and likely in life in general) is to become as congruent as one possibly can be with oneself; this will make it ultimately a lot easier to express the truth of one’s brand (and more importantly, of oneself). You are pulling in a single coherent direction, at least as feasibly as you can, the one dictated by your heart. Intuitively at least, how could this not be right?
This is, in fact, what I have sought in recent years to do with the transformation of Bonny Doon. To focus on making better, more “natural,” wholesome wines, eschewing winemaking “tricks,” paying more attention to the infinite details of winemaking, and of course maintaining the aspiration of someday producing “necessary” wines, i.e. vins de terroir, those capable of capturing and expressing a sense of place, as reflected in the wine.11 Our wines are, in fact, better than they’ve ever been, and while there have been some limitations on our ability to achieve an echt enological éclat,12 we have made some real breakthroughs in our practice, to wit, the recent Cigare Volant and Cigare Blanc Réserve wines, wines that utterly knock me out for their coherence and seamlessness (this is no mean thing), but which, to my great disappointment, have been largely ignored by the wine press.13,14 Nor, for that matter, are our wholesalers doing the ecstatic, acrobatic back-flips over these wines that properly they might.15 Not that I’m complaining, mind you,16 but one really does have to wonder what it takes to sell wine these days.17 In retrospect, my “evolutionary” approach toward revamping the Bonny Doon proposition should instead have been far more revolutionary, and I should have worked harder and faster when there were more resources to hand to establish a more singular identity for the company.18 But the ideas and plans for the new Estate at Popelouchum, if it is to be truly revolutionary, must follow the soul’s path, one that meanders randomly and randally and in fact cannot be rushed.19
I am surprised and frankly a bit chagrined that making more soulful wines through better practice has not particularly translated into a significantly warmer embrace from the people who buy, sell or write about our wines. I understand all too well (cf. footnote #13, supra) that the coherency of one’s narrative is absolutely crucial to convey a mental picture of what exactly it is that you’re selling; to my dismay, this narrative is becoming more labyrinthian and convoluted by the moment. We’ve lost a couple of biodynamic growers and haven’t been able to replace them – very disappointing – and it is not so easy to explain why fewer of the wines now carry the Demeter® certification. This is personally quite poignant to me. More people seem to have gradually woken up to the virtue of grapes (and everything else) grown in “live” soils and I wish we were in a position to bring brilliant Biodynamic/biochar enriched compost to all of the vineyards we work with.20 I am troubled by the fact that despite assurances to everyone who would listen that my company was “doon-sizing,” the number of wines in our portfolio seems to be growing both in volume and in number. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that cynical critics may wish to question the sincerity of my devotion to artisanal wines, and I might well continue to be tarred by the corporate or “industrial” Big House brush.21
I suspect that I might still be the most Pollyanna-ish person in the wine business. Wine is (or at least should be) sold on the basis of its quality, but the real business end of the proposition is, as I’m so painfully learning, the business end of it. I am not bothered so much that I must choose between how to spend the very finite amount of resource that we as a company possess; this is just Reality 101 and we are (for the most part) grown-ups. But I am appalled – this is the Kali Yuga, so what should I expect? – that spending money for marketing and sales promotions seems to yield a much greater return on investment than buying compost (biodynamic or not) for our growers or spending the money for a supplemental crop-thinning pass. It is truly doubtful that viticultural virtue is really much rewarded these days (or maybe if ever) apart from the cases of the greatest wine growers in the world. And I look longingly at that rarified world as if through the looking glass.
I seem to understand better every day what must needs be doon at Popelouchum; there is nothing else I would wish to talk about, dream about than this. But as soon I begin I will just as soon grow mute; the voice inside me always reminding me of the increasingly deeper disparity between word and deed. I am approached by people all the time – especially in this recent season of road warriorship – who ask me, “So, Randall, how’s the seedling project going at San Juan?” “How long will it take to get your first harvest from seedlings anyway?”22 “And, when will we see some wine?” I am utterly embarrassed to tell them that while we have some modest Grenache seedlings in our little nursery plot at San Juan,23 the actual, massively ambitious project of the breeding of new varieties is still several years off.24 What do we have on the positive side of the ledger? We have planted a little over a half-acre of Pinot noir – very intensively spaced, I hasten to add – and we’re likely to see some grapes this vintage. And there are some fairly substantial nursery rows of sundry grapes – Grenache of the noir, blanc and gris persuasion; they’re bearing beautiful, intensely flavorful fruit, even at a very tender age, and some other exotics, notably RuchÃ¨ and Rossese that look incredibly promising.25 I am half, nay 98%, convinced that truly almost anything grown at Popelouchum will be exceptional. (But, how much San Benito County RuchÃ¨ the world is ready to cellar away remains to be seen.)
The problem is that the more I say, the more I elaborate, the greater the set of (unmeetable) expectations I begin to create. I feel like the pathological fabulist who begins with a relatively modest fib and every time he tries to explain or clarify, he is compelled to embellish the original small untruth with greater ornament and dissembling.
How far has it gone? Years ago I planted Bordeaux varieties at our estate vineyard in the rustic hamlet of Bonny Doon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec,26 and produced two vintages (1985, 1986) before grafting them over. (I’m not quite sure I even remember know why I planted the Bordelais cépages in the first place, but the world then was a lot simpler.)27 I laconically called this blend “Claret,” as I had not yet really learned to embrace marketing schtick, but understood well (even then) that there was a certain gravitas to an Estate wine.28 I just loved the simplicity and elegance of the term, “Claret,” tout court.29,30 The two vintages of Claret, even coming from very young vines, were actually quite remarkable.31 But when the wines we were making with RhÃ´ne varieties began to click, it seemed wise to simplify our product mix and graft the Bordelais cépages over to “Roussanne” and Marsanne to focus on RhÃ´ne-styled wines. Even with my limited understanding of marketing principles, I was trying to create something like a coherent product mix and coherent narrative, after all. At that point, I publicly and somewhat theatrically foreswore Bordelais cépages, and rather immaturely essayed to systematically take the piss out of the Napalese and their Medocian monoculture.32 Cab-burn-net, baby, burn.
Now we’re making a Bordeaux-styled blend called “A Proper Claret.”33 I pretend (somewhat half-heartedly) that I have absolutely nothing to do with this vinous adventurism, that it was in fact Some Other DoppelgÃ¤nger Dude (this is slightly far-fetched) who has masterminded the whole project. But this little antic has allowed me to have some fun (fun always useful in these stressful times), trying my hand at ventriloquism in the pseudonymous voice,34 and of course working with varieties I haven’t seen in more than twenty-five years.35 We enclosed a pair of red fishnet stockings for the distributors to try on (if they so elect to do so) as they taste the wine. Frankly, I had hoped to put aside this sort of theatrical hijinx with the sale of the Big House brand, and induce our customers to focus instead on the intrinsic qualities of the wine. I am dooned, it seems, to a life of playing the clown.
I must confess that playing around with the Bordelais grapes I pretend to despise has actually been intellectually quite stimulating and the guerilla marketing quite amusing (despite all protestation to the contrary). By all reckoning, “A Proper Claret” appears to be well on its way to becoming a great commercial success. We’ve produced more in 2013, even adding a substantial amount of Merlot to the blend. Merlot! How strange is that? And how ironic would it be if it were these putatively despisÃ¨d cépages that saved the Doon?36
What I most want to be doing right now is sending you reports of the Great Work-in-Progress. I want to be spending time communing with the Nature spirits of a wildly promiscuous plantation, following the lead of the utterly strange garden book, “Perelandra.”37 I want to be telling you what it feels like to “castrate” a male grape flower.38 Or, to walk a row of vines grown from seedlings, looking for the outward characteristics that might serve as a proxy for grape quality, and to share these febrile impressions with you. It is unfortunate that I am and most certainly will remain a Luftmensch for the rest of my days, but even if I could learn to “see” if not read just a little bit of Nature’s expressive signage in this lifetime, that would represent an extraordinary personal achievement. Most of all, I want to be doing the things in my life that I feel really matter and are potentially exemplary, especially in the realm of sustainability – producing biochar, perfecting the techniques of dry-farming a vineyard. It still seems to be very far away, but objects in the distance may, in fact, be closer than they seem.
Harumph! I’m writing on behalf of Randall Grahm – Mister Smarty RhÃ´ney-pants – who (to my great chagrin) seems to not particularly fancy the noble Bordelais cépages and the brilliant wines they are capable of producing. Pity.
Oh, pardon my manners. I’ve failed to introduce myself. My name is Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite, the loaf behind A Proper Claret Wine Company, temporarily garrisoned at the Bonny Doon Vineyard office in Santa Cruz. I’m currently ensconced at Randall’s desk, while he is still off mucking about with the last of the grapes, as the harvest has well winded doon…
(The letter goes on and on and closes with the hope for “greater Claret-y.”
and to our distributors – writing in my own voice):
…Bonny Doon Vineyard is, as we all know or should know, a strictly Cabernet-free zone, at least it has been for the last twenty-eight years. Personally I have nothing but opprobrium, bordering on vaguely amused disdain for this popular grape variety. I will not bother you with the details of how we came to be entrusted with the distribution of this wine Suffice to say that we grudgingly, harumphingly agreed to do this as a favor to a friend…
As to the label, what can I say? I am just scandalized. It’s hard to countenance opportunistic wine marketeers who stoop to using lurid imagery merely to sell a bottle of wine. Has it just come to this? It is only because I enjoyed the wine so much that I’m willing to put up with the tasteless monstrosity that is this label. “Proper?” Claret. Indeed. [↩]