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 (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1
It has been a long time, indeed almost twenty years, since the tragic demise, grace Ã la maladie de Pierce, of the Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon. In the relatively short life of the vineyard, initially planted in 1980, we went through one episode of replanting – grubbing up and/or grafting over the Pinot noir, Chardonnay and bordelais cépages to what I was convinced were more proper varieties, Marsanne and “Roussanne.”2 (We also planted a half dozen acres or so of Syrah in the southeast corner of the vineyard, and this produced heart-breakingly beautiful fruit and extraordinary wines.)3 In retrospect, I think it was quite miraculously that I managed to accidentally hit on such a felicitous pairing of varieties and site.4) The loss of the vineyard was a deep wound that took me many years to process; it did not immediately make me stronger. Instead, I remember feeling incredibly hurt and betrayed by the universe. The cosmos had built me up, or so I imagined in my hubristic fashion, by placing me on the cover of the Wine Spectator5) (I don’t think my megalomania had yet come to full fruition at the time; maybe this was to come a bit later with the explosive growth of Big House), but I did wonder at the time how it was I was going to lead the benighted Chard and Cab-swilling masses out of the wilderness without an exemplary vineyard. I was therefore compelled to do my best with grapes that we purchased for Cigare Volant – ironic, indeed that our “flagship” wine was not made from our own grapes, but rather from those over which we had but a most ephemeral modicum of control.6 It really wasn’t until much, much later, that we are able to even begin to stabilize the quality of the grapes with which we were working.7
I had actually started to plant a new vineyard in Soledad at about the same time I just begun to observe the symptoms appear at the Bonny Doon Estate. In honesty, I can’t really remember why I chose to plant a vineyard in funky or at least challenging Soledad, rather than plant one in a location where I might plant most of the relevant grapes for ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape. Memory is a funny thing, and I think that perhaps the perspective of time has altered the chronology of causality. In my recollection, I planted the vineyard in Soledad because I was fairly certain that the area was not susceptible to Pierce’s Disease, as I could not bear the thought of losing two vineyards in a row. But if I planted the Soledad vineyard before the appearance of Pierce’s in Bonny Doon, maybe it was more a question of really overreaching ambition – the land was quite inexpensive, and I thought that for now I would defer that whole vin de terroir thing; I’d make an interesting, inexpensive, high concept wine that it was as close to a “sure thing,” as one could find.8,9 I would make money with my pan-Piemontese blend, and worry about the great Cigare vineyard another time.10
The loss of the Bonny Doon Estate was a bit like losing a beloved friend or perhaps like being dumped by the Great Love of one’s life. So utterly unfair! I was determined not to have my heart broken again, and I would begin by putting all thoughts of trying to plant a “great” vineyard out of my mind. Distraction is a great strategy for the avoidance of existential issues. I became distracted with maintaining the very large company that the Big House/Cardinal Zin-supercharged Bonny Doon behemoth had become. Sales were good, but the debt incurred to finance these impressive numbers had also grown proportionately and was quite vertigo-inducing if you looked closely enough. Again, I was able to convince myself that it was just not the time to make the additional investment in a great Cigare vineyard. “Later, grasshopper,” I counseled myself.
I ultimately sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, with the intention of at long last shrinking down the company and planting the great Cigare vineyard somewhere. But there was a bit of a problem or at least a hesitation about planting The Great Cigare Vineyard in Bonny Doon itself, which would, of course, be the logical place to do it. In the intervening years, I had been spending a lot of time in France, thinking deeply about terroir, and I had developed perhaps something like an idée fixe that Bonny Doon (the climat), while capable of growing grapes that would yield balanced and intense red wines (we’d doon it once before, remember), but somehow, in light of its very sandy and highly eroded, mineral-depleted soil, was somehow not a place where one would find a great cru.11,12,13
The good news is that ultimately I was able to identify what I believe is a great cru in San Juan Bautista, a beautiful Estate that we call Popelouchum. It’s not perfect; there are some sections of it that seem to have more interesting soil profiles than others.14 The less than thoroughly brilliant sections I am thinking to plant to varietal grapes15 (maybe RhÃ´nish ones?) and the crazy, interesting soils will be dedicated to the somewhat speculative project of creating a highly heterodox field blend of diverse grapes grown from seed.16,17
The project has been stalled the last several years, as (in somewhat of an understatement) we’ve been chronically short of free cash. But it looks as if our picture is improving quite significantly, and we can at least begin to do more than make mere token efforts. While it would be great to plant a slew of proper vines out in the field, we’re not quite ready for that. There is still quite a bit of infrastructure that needs to go in – mostly related to the storage of water to keep the young vines alive through their first years.18 But, for now, we’ve taken delivery of our little Vitis berlandieri seedlings that we were able, with the help of Dr. Andy Walker, to harvest from wild grapes in the hill country of Texas.19 Many of the vines seem to be rather too small to be out on their lonesome for now,20 so these will be planted in the nursery rows in San Juan Bautista, where they can be carefully nurtured. But most significantly, we are establishing mother blocks of source vines, from which in a few years we will carry out our breeding trials. The intention is to create a vast amount of diverse germplasm, which, considered as a suite, might create wines of great complexity, and possibly, as the discreet varietal characteristics disappear, may allow for the emergence of unique soil characteristics in the wine.21,22 This is the pivotal centerpiece of the Great Terroir Experiment – a proposition so hubristically audacious that I have dared not bring to mind in the last year. It is potentially so vast and wide-ranging a proposition: we (or most likely, my heirs or successors) will select some particular clones of some particular grape varieties and assume the Olympian authority to pronounce them more apt or congruent to the site than others.
So, I’m trying not to focus so much on the very top of the mountain, but rather look at the very discreet path that lies immediately ahead. My last blog post was indeed a bit of a dooner, as it were, lamenting the number of most tortuous detours it seemed I was bound to take before I might move smartly into the Promised Land. The last several weeks, however, have brought things into a slightly different focus. I was heartened to meet with a very large corporate account that expressed a great willingness to support the company in truly doing the right thing – making wines (and other fine products) of transparency, authenticity and above all, a sense of place. Just the other day, I met with a grower who expressed the wish to grow grapes for us in a deeply sustainable fashion – dry-farmed, with the intention of achieving the highest degree of vibrant soil health, integrating livestock into the vineyard to the greatest extent possible. Perhaps it is premature to imagine a great sea-change in the public’s thirst for “real wine,” but there is every reason to believe that some new doors are opening, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Carpe doonum.