How Might the New World Really Matter?


When I first started in the wine business almost thirty-five year ago it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea to pursue the varietal wine of one’s dreams. Broadly speaking, you were either a Cab guy or a Zin guy or a Pinot guy. (There were a few outliers like the eccentric Charbono Society of Inglenook in the ‘40s and ‘50s (how wonderfully, strangely weird that was, but I digress.) I was a Pinot guy. After all, I loved Burgundy deeply and truly as any proper wine snob did and does.


Further, the Great American Pinot Noir had proved to be incredibly elusive at the time. (As it still does!) Tchelistcheff had achieved a great one in 1946 at BV, but I don’t think that even he himself could work out why it came out so well; it was a true unicorn wine. So, therefore, loving Pinot as I did, and the fact that making a great one was something really, really, really, monstrously difficult to achieve… I just jumped in. Does a guy need much more justification than that to throw in all of his psychic, financial and emotional resources to this quixotic end?


Well, yes, he does, as I hope to explain in a minute. It turns out that I had greatly underestimated the degree of difficulty of producing the Great American Pinot Noir – despite a lot of thought and effort, the results were disappointingly lackluster – but this in fact was a blessing in disguise, as it persuaded me of the wisdom to stop trying to square the circle, beat my head against the wall, fight City Hall, stub my toe on the Great Chain of Being. These metaphors all express the notion that if you are growing certain grapes, not just chosen varieties but also clones and rootstock that are not utterly congruent to the site and the cultural practice appropriate to the site, you will always be playing catch-up or be in the role of vinous wannabe (winous vannabe?) to Old World wines of true elegance, finesse and complexity. In fact, my disappointment with Pinot led me to discover the brilliance of Rhône grapes in California, which, in my experience at least, represented a generally more consistent fit for many of our vineyard sites. So with this slight possible evolutionary advance, if you will, at least I was notionally moving in the direction of the idea of “appropriateness” or congruence of fit of grape variety and site; I believe that the perfection and refinement of this concept is at least one definition of viticultural success.


And yet… this begs the question of whether we can in a short lifetime ever find a degree of congruence of site and variety, rootstock, clone, sub-clone, cultural practice, etc. as perfect as has been discovered in the Old World? Will we ever find a site for a particular set of Pinot noir clones as perfect as DRC has found for, say, La Tache, as perfect a match for Syrah as exists in Hermitage, as brilliant a site for Nebbiolo as you find on certain hillsides in the Langhe? But more to the point, is there any utility in driving ourselves crazy trying to be this kind of wannabe? Does that really create a sustainable model? How hollow is the claim of having produced a “Burgundian-style Pinot noir.” With no disrespect to the organization that does such very good work, I’m not sure if my highest aspiration at this point is to be a Rhône Ranger.


I would rather be a California Ranger (or Deranger), specifically a San Benito County (De-)Ranger or more precisely a Popelouchum Ranger. (That’s the name of my farm in San Juan Bautista).
Perfect congruence is undoubtedly too difficult to achieve in a single lifetime, and maybe even too abstract a notion to entertain; while “appropriateness” or “fitness” or even “elegance” may all be words that describe my vini-viticultural aspirations, at the end of the day, what I want to do is produce a wine that is, pardon my French, just fucking great, a wine that will bring tasters to their knees in astonishment and wonder, a gustatory choir of angels, etc. How might one achieve this kind of complexity, depth and soulfulness?


For the record, I’ve made some very nice varietal wines over the years, but generally they have lacked that secondary element – call it “soil characteristics” or finesse or depth or even “life-force” or “minerality,” that characterizes the greatest varietal examples of the Old World. I’ve also made some very elegant and complex blended wines over the years, Le Cigare Volant, most notably, but this wine has been an assemblage of grapes from sundry terroirs, and lacks therefore a sense of the somewhereness that would imbue it with a much greater degree of gravitas and coherence. (The fact that a wine can also represent a place adds an incalculable dimension of depth and meaning to a wine.) So, having personally reached a bit of a dead-end, I’ve been wondering if there might be an approach that will enable California to create truly unique wines that are unlike those of anywhere else.


I have a radical notion that might represent a route for vineyards in California who are seeking to find their own unique path and grow grapes to make wines that are utterly differentiated in style. This idea is based on a number of assumptions, many of them yet untested and unproven, but for me at least representing one possible solution to the question of how one might produce truly distinctive wine in California, as well as how one might grow grapes in a more sustainable fashion in this part of the world, especially in light of Global Climate Change.


The idea (it’s really two ideas) is the following: To breed new grape varieties, customized to our individual climatic and geophysical circumstances, therefore more congruent, seamless, less needful of heroic levels of intervention. Apart from identifying unique vines that are optimally suited to a given site (this might take some time), the ancillary benefits of this program might be the discovery of varieties that have a broader utility in the warmer and dryer world that we seem to be creating, perhaps even having enhanced resistance against particularly pernicious disease pressure.


Professor Andy Walker is currently working on developing new varieties that are resistant to Pierce’s Disease and other pathogens; perhaps his work could be taken further to focus on issues of grape (or wine) aesthetics, above and beyond the most obviously discernible gross characteristics; are there, for example, any genetic commonalities to be found in those grapes we call “noble” or is “nobility” really only a quality that emerges when a certain vine has found its true home?


(“Nobility” such as we understand it in grapes, oddly seems to emerge from two contradictory considerations: either the variety can perform brilliantly in a variety of climates and soils (that would be Cabernet Sauvignon) or it emerges from the opposite set of conditions, where it is a fussy, fastidious, eccentric genius grape like say Nebbiolo or perhaps, Pinot Noir that really only does its thing in a very limited area, i.e. it has been very studiously adapted to those sites.


Or perhaps another way of thinking about this might be that we have to get over the idea that it is the choice of variety that is the most important determinant of wine quality. I would humbly suggest that it is the brilliance of the site itself – its ability to enable the vine to achieve a state of homeostasis – that is the great determinant of ultimate wine quality – and the varietal choice is likely of secondary importance.


There is no shortage of utterly brilliant wines made from fairly innocuous grape varieties (I’m thinking Chasselas, but we might also say Chardonnay) which when grown on very special soils can produce wines of enormous complexity, or so I’m told.
Then there is the second part of the idea that I’d like to propose to you: In a breeding program, by the sheer volume of iteration and genetic re-assortment that takes place, you create a few offspring of the total number that are very different, outliers, if you will – some interesting and others maybe clearly inferior (infertile at the very least), but mostly you are creating a lot of members of a vinous family that have minute but very real differences between them; they are really siblings.


The question is whether considered as a suite, might this large set of slightly differing offspring of common parents produce a wine of new and startling complexity that might not be achievable through a more conventional plantation of a discreet, finite set of clones? This is another way of asking from whence does complexity in wine arise. Or to think of it another way, might the intentional suppression of discernible varietal character create an opportunity for other aspects of the wine, to wit, soil characteristics or the sense of place to emerge?


(This has been the strategy successfully taken up by Jean-Michel Deiss in Alsace, in his grand cru vineyards that are comprised of a thoroughly mixed varietal plantation.)
The assumptions here, as I’ve said are quite breathtaking in their presumption. Will one have the wit, insight, or even just the dumb luck to identify a set of parents capable of siring offspring with desirable flavor characteristics?


Will a diverse range of germplasm – all presumably selected to ripen at approximately the same time (that’s not too hard to achieve) and with some thoughtful selection of favorable characteristics (including fruitfulness!) – create something more like polyphony than cacophony?


Of course, it would be disingenuous not to note that grapes grown from seedlings, while having some wondrous aspects, i.e. the enhanced property of geotropism, or tendency to root straight to China, are at the same time quite sensitive to the threat of phylloxera, so therefore could not be planted just anywhere. As brilliant as it might be, this sort of very eclectic vineyard would likely need to be replanted with Version 2.0, after it was well observed and carefully curated for a number of years.


I’ve threatened to talk today about “How Might the New World Really Matter?” and really my deeper theme is that if we are ever to find true distinctiveness, hence real sustainability, we might do well to focus on the deeper question of what might give our efforts a greater value over the long term, not simply finding temporary success by accidentally becoming the hot flavor of the month.
I’d like to propose a few thoughts about how we might achieve something like true sustainability, and would humbly propose the motto: Forward into the past! (or Backward into the Future!)


The simplest ideas can be the most powerful, and the idea that a wine can somehow reflect the place from where it’s grown, the notion of a vin de terroir, is simple and powerful, and it is in the unfortunate parlance of business-speak, the ultimate value-add, and ultimate guarantor of true sustainability.
While it is true that the French have dined out on this notion for so very long – you don’t necessarily get it until the light goes on and you get it – but once you grok the unique value proposition of a wine of place, it is essentially impossible for you to ever really take seriously a wine that is what one might call confected. Not wishing to cast aspersions on how we typically farm grapes in the New World, but what we do often works against the expression of terroir, and thus defeats the most interesting part of the value proposition.


Over-ripe fruit, high yields, drip irrigation, big vines, new oak, the use of cultured yeast, enzymes, MegaPurple, etc., acidulation, dealcoholization through spinning cone, etc. all efface the uniqueness of what it is we are trying to do; it turns our wines into generic “products.”
So, with this in mind, maybe it’s time to return to an older, simpler model: Low-yielding, perhaps head-trained where appropriate (especially for upright growing varieties) and relatively widely spaced, dry-farmed grapes, farmed organically or biodynamically, given an opportunity to express soil characteristics. This model is predicated on the idea of considering the cost of land as a sunk cost (maybe this is another breathtaking leap of logic), but could at the same time be achieved with minimal inputs – an old-fangled vineyard with no trellising, no wires, no end-posts, no drippers. Call me a tenderhearted aesthete, but vines that are arrayed in this sort of organic form I believe convey a greater sense of the intention of the wine-grower and possibly connect with the consumer on a more visceral level.


The greatest thing we have going for us in the New World is the relative lack of restriction on our practice – we can generally grow grapes anywhere that we want, any way that we want with a much broader range of permissible cultural, winemaking and wine labeling options open to us. But we don’t take advantage of this great freedom. The crazy planting scheme of growing grapes from seeds is only one possible solution set to the conundrum of how one might produce an utterly distinctive product; there are an infinite number of possibilities. But I would suggest that you might focus on what are the features that differentiate your practice from everyone else’s.


Lure your customers out to your vineyard: Show them what you’re doing, how your training system or irrigation scheme or the oddball varieties you are growing are so utterly unique. The small domaines in France generally are closed to the public, and you have to jump through some very high hurdles – you need to be Kermit Lynch’s best customer – to ever garner a visit to the vineyards themselves. The French are different than we are in that way, very private; the walls are quite high.


I don’t need to tell you how insanely competitive the wine world has become; there is a great opportunity to those who can not just tell but show their customers what they are doing, thus providing them with a deeper, more authentic experience.

Born to Rhone: (Part 1)

I grow tedious in continuing to reiterate that the great conundrum in the wine business – at least for those among us who think of ourselves as serious – is that you really need to grow your own grapes to make a truly special and distinctive wine, but if you fail to properly identify a great site from the outset, (and even the best areas within that site)1 you will likely be consigned to making good, perhaps even very good, but never truly great wines for the life of that vineyard, and possibly your own life as well, as not everyone is given more than one shot at the viticultural piñata.2,3


So, it was a bit of a shock to me, a slap really, to realize that my Estate pinot noir vineyard in Bonny Doon was likely never going to make great wine. It’s a bit like figuring out that you’re never going to be President of the United States or an astronaut or will cure cancer or end world hunger in your lifetime. There are still plenty of worthwhile things to do with your life; you just have to figure out what they are.

While it was clear to me that the site was likely never going to produce great Pinot Noir, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the property altogether, as I suspected that it was still quite capable of growing exceptional grapes.4 The Marsanne I had planted seemed to be quite good, indeed, distinctive, at least it was for the first few years,5 and this had encouraged me further to plant “Roussanne.”6 And the success of the “Roussanne” encouraged me to plant Syrah in another part of the Estate, on an east-facing hillside. I was lucky to have planted the “Estrella River” clone – the only really proper clone of Syrah available at the time.7


But I am getting ahead of myself. I mean to talk about when the light went on and I more or less decided that the primary focus of the winery was going to be Rhône grapes; this seems to have occurred in 1986.8 The Bethel Heights and Temperance Hill Pinot Noir grapes had produced marvelous wines for me in 1983 and 1985. But in 1984 Oregon seemed to get a fair bit of rain just before the vintage, and the two-day voyage par camion from the Willamette Valley to Santa Cruz made no one happy but the acetobacter and the sundry Oregonian fungal stowaways.


I was not yet an ideological locavore but I did realize that after the successful 1985 vintage I had really been pushing my luck schlepping grapes all the way down from Oregon and that this was not really what anyone could call a sustainable practice. It was time to put aside my youthful (and likely permanent) crush on the heartbreak Pinot Noir grape and begin to give the winery a greater degree of focus. I had never taken a marketing class, or indeed any sort of business class in school (now, that’s a surprise!) but intuitively understood enough to know that consumers needed something like a coherent story; as a brand you needed to have a “hook,” as it were – and not the hook that was dragging the Chardonnay off the stage.9

4_FinDeLinea10 I don’t think that I had any real marketing plan for the grapes at the time. But I had made a lackluster Pinot from the Arundel Vineyard in ’81 and the home ranch Pinot was not looking so brilliant either.11 Some part of me clearly understood that it was time to start casting further afield for something like a Plan B, and the Grenache grapes from Besson were pretty inexpensive – I think they may have been going to Almaden for rosé for a few hundred dollars a ton – it seemed as if there was a good likelihood of delivering a lot of wine at a reasonable price.12 It’s a bit difficult for me to reconstruct my thought process from this perspective, as my story (which has always conveniently begun in 1984 with the first vintage of Cigare) has become a bit obscured.


I had been a patron of Kermit Lynch’s tiny little storefront in Albany, even when I was a student at Davis. It was often just Kermit in the store, and he was a lot less busy then than he is now, so we had a great opportunity to chat about the world of wine, specifically as it was grown in southern France. I don’t remember a specific conversation where he suggested that I might try my hand at Rhône grapes, but certainly, I was already buying bottles of Clape Cornas,13 Chave Hermitage, Domaine Tempier Bandol and of course, Vieux Télégraphe.14,15 Remember, Syrah had not yet become a “thing” at this point, quite the contrary. Estrella River Winery, down in Paso Robles, was playing around a bit with it, mostly turning it into an off-dry blush wine, which did OK for them. Joseph Phelps was also producing a Syrah from their Estate vineyard in Rutherford, and those wines were seriously weird – very high in pH, soapy, in fact, with a strange unnatural color. There were also alleged to be some older Syrah vines in Napa Valley, but these were also believed to be heavily virused, so the prospects for Syrah at this point were somewhat less than stellar.


So, while I personally found Syrah to be the more interesting grape, it seemed that I might have better luck beginning with Grenache, especially after I had tasted David Bruce’s efforts of ’70 and ’71, one of which was still quite vibrant and delicious (both were still on the shelf of Hi-Time Liquors in Costa Mesa as late as 1982). The owner of the vineyard, George Besson, reminded me a bit of Walter Brennan; I think that the best term to describe him was “folksy;” he was given to piquant malapropism and had a laugh that easily morphed into a cackle, a most endearing character. The vines were maybe forty-five years old at the time we started working with them, head-trained and not irrigated. They were slightly virused and (unlike modern “clean” selections) heroically struggled to achieve much beyond 23.5° Brix. Maybe it was not the greatest Grenache vineyard in the world, but it did serve us well for many years and was always the backbone of Cigare.16

Josh Jensen was kind enough to lease me some space at the Calera Winery in the Cienega Valley of San Benito County,17 where I crushed the first Grenache in 1982, as well as a smattering of Bordelais varieties from the B.J. Carney Ranch in Boonville18,19 1982 was a cool vintage in California, and that really was a wonderful thing for Hecker Pass Grenache, which almost always seemed to do better in the more temperate vintages. I commuted every day from Bonny Doon to Calera – it took about an hour and a half each way. The outskirts of Hollister hadn’t as yet seen the emergence of noxious ranchettes, and driving Cienega Rd. was a magical adventure.20 7_Coyote The road itself, thrust up and cast down, presumably by intermittent but intense seismic activity over time, was a bit topsy-turvy and the landscape had a magical, surreal, almost Dali-like quality to it, a vivid wildness. Maybe it was just the end of the psychedelic era, and I was then (and now) rather a magical thinker; I was (like most everyone else at the time) reading a lot of Carlos Castaneda; it didn’t seem unreasonable to me to chance meeting a coyote with whom one might strike up a casual conversation.

The one Grenache tank I had crushed came out wonderfully,21 but the Cabernet was a bit problematic – maybe a little too herbal and weedy. I bottled the Bordeaux blend as “Claret” and took a portion of the Cabernet Sauvignon and blended it with the Grenache and bottled it as “Vin Rouge,” with an extremely conservative, plain label.22,23 The Vin Rouge was a modest commercial success; it would have had its brains beaten out these days with the level of competition we now see in the commercial marketplace.24 Having worked with fruit from so many disappointing Grenache vineyards in the intervening years, it was frankly, a major miracle that my first efforts worked out as well as they did. One could argue that there was an angel watching over me, insuring that I would indeed become the Rhône Ranger, and not get too discouraged in the earliest going.

Having tried my hand at Grenache in 1982, it seemed that the following year it was time to further my Rhône education with Syrah. (I didn’t quite have the financial resources to purchase them both. There weren’t many Syrah options, as I had mentioned, so I went with Cliff Giacobine’s fruit at the Estrella River Vyd in 1983. We continued to purchase from him until the Bien Nacido Syrah came into production and became our default source for Syrah. Not a lot was understood about Syrah in the day; these vines were terribly over-irrigated, and over-cropped; the blistering hot climate of the east side of Paso tended to really efface varietal character and led to grape musts the acidity and pHs levels of which were totally out of whack.25

I remember pleading with Cliff to consider lowering the crop level of the Syrah from six tons/acre down to perhaps four. I was just a young pup with no credentials at all, so why should he listen to me? Somehow, I persuaded him to let me thin a section of the vineyard, and to my amazement and delight, this actually did appear to improve the character of the fruit. I produced a varietal Syrah from Estrella for the next five or six years, and of course used the fruit in the Cigare Volant, (being careful not to use too much in the blend). Mr. Parker was quite charitable to this latter effort; I think that he was doing his best to encourage me and by extension, to encourage the entire category to grow and improve in California, which indeed it has.

  1. I was later to grow “Roussanne” (it was actually Viognier, as we’ve come to learn) at our Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon in one section of the vineyard and the wine that it produced,“Le Sophiste,” was utterly brilliant. At the same time I was growing four other clones of Viognier in another part of the vineyard and the wine those grapes produced was utterly lackluster. []
  2. This is the very heart of the New World existential dilemma – faced with infinite possibilities, can you choose but one, and of course, which one? Therefore, it is not really a great surprise that people choose to grow Cabernet Sauvignon on the Rutherford Bench, with the knowledge that they will have a largely predictable and generally favorable result. []
  3. Despite the fact that if you prick me, I bleed vin de terroir, this assertion is not without some controversy. It has recently been asserted that the vineyards under cultivation by the highly celebrated Vega Sicilia are by no means the most favored sites in the Ribera del Duero; the winemaking, or perhaps the stylization of the wine, however, has historically been suffused with genius, and the Unico arguably is or at least has been the greatest red wine of Spain. Put another way, absent a first-rate and distinctive terroir, can a wine that is made brilliantly ever achieve the level of “quality” (and what precisely might that be?) of a wine made from a grand cru site? Then, there is Grange Hermitage, a wine that comes from essentially nowhere (and everywhere); some people get pretty hot and bothered by it, but, alas, it has never really done much for me. []
  4. The area called Bonny Doon receives a lot of rainfall, and for this reason, its soils are pretty well leached in minerals, and that seemed as if it might be a bit of a negative feature.  Historically, however, the district enjoyed an international reputation for great wines; perhaps it was a function of the relatively infertile slopes (and lower yields), as well as the bright sunshine and cool night time temperatures that contributed so much to wine quality. I had named the winery, “Bonny Doon Vineyard,” so it did seem like a reasonably good idea to attempt to grow grapes in a place called “Bonny Doon.”  Further, I had built a home on the Estate, lived there, and was obviously less than keen to immediately relocate.  This is not really a cogent defense for growing grapes in sub-optimal locations, but it is very easy to understand why people continue to do so. []
  5. There is a distinctive phenomenon whereby sometimes vines produce extremely expressive grapes in their first few bearing years, then go into a bit of a funk for some time after that – the awkward teenage years – with a return to form in full adulthood.  The most convincing explanation of this syndrome is that in the early life of the vine the root system has not yet fully developed and the vigor of the vines is still reasonably moderate.  For any number of reasons (mostly that California soils are often deep and rich and are often over-watered), many California vines are excessively vigorous, with canopies far too dense, not allowing efficient interception of light on the fruit clusters and leaves, diminishing flavor intensity. []
  6. My decision making process in those days (or even now) was hardly scientific. The Marsanne grapes I had tasted at the National Germplasm Repository in Winters, CA (a beastly warm area) had a seductive almond and apple blossom/marzipan aroma. If they could produce a distinctive and flavorful grape in infernal Winters, I reasoned, they might produce a truly stellar product in far more temperate Bonny Doon. As a footnote to this footnote: Some years later, I had the privilege of sitting at dinner with Dr. Maynard Amerine, the founder of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, at a wine dinner in San Luis Obispo. Mind you, I grew up in Beverly Hills and had no real anxieties about meeting television or movie celebrities, but I was utterly petrified of Dr. Amerine, whom I knew to be someone who did not suffer fools. “You won’t know who I am…,” I stammered. “I know perfectly well who you are,” snapped Dr. Amerine, and I have to tell you that I never did like Marsanne!” (I think that it is just wonderful that the Great Man could have been so wrong about at least one thing.) []
  7. This clone of Syrah (which I personally believe may be the antique variety of “Serine”) has largely fallen out of favor in recent years, supplanted by modern clones that are beefier, darker in color, but lack the distinctive peppery spice of the proper Syrah we love from the Northern Rhône. []
  8. In fairness, this was likely more of a slowly unfolding decision, which began in 1986 with the decision to give up on Pinot Noir at the Estate. There had been an article in the Wine Spectator by Mort Hochstein, occasioned by the release of the first vintage of Cigare Volant, and this attracted some attention to the winery. But the new direction of the winery really became more solidified (of course to be amended again and again, as appears to be my wont) in 1990, with the decision to graft over the Estate Chardonnay to “Roussanne,” and to officially cease all Chardonnay production at Bonny Doon Vyd. I hate to imagine that I was so crass as to allow the fair wind of the press to affect my decision-making process, but there was a second article in the Spectator, with me on its cover as “The Rhône Ranger” in 1989 and distributors throughout the world rang up in earnest, clamoring for Cigare and the rest of the Doon range. []
  9. We had been producing a commercially successful Chardonnay from the “La Reina Vineyard,” in an area that was later to become popularized as the Santa Lucia Highlands.  As we prepared to bottle the 1990 La Reina Chard (and final vintage for us), I asked the designer, Chuck House, to frame what was an otherwise staid and conservative label with an illustration of a proscenium, for this, the “Cuvée Fin de Linea,” a visual depiction of the word “Chardonnay” haplessly getting pulled off the stage by a hook.  This sort of Chard-dissing schtick was part and parcel of my puerile, provocative persona (and alliterative proclivity) and contributed to the notion that I was just flipping everyone off. []
  10. David Bruce had made at least one successful varietal Grenache bottling from the Mary Carter vineyard in the Hecker Pass area, but it had just been ripped out the year before I had contacted David.  With a little poking around, however, I was fortunate to have discovered the Besson Vyd., just up the road from the Carter vineyard, and a few years later, the Bertero vineyard as well. The Bertero Vineyard, unlike Besson’s richer, alluvial flood plain was planted on a rockier, north-facing hillside, essentially across the highway from Besson.  I recall that when I had approached the Berteros, the vineyard had not been cultivated for a few years, but they were keen to see their old place producing again.  (It’s truly mind-boggling to imagine old dry-farmed Grenache fruit going begging, but that’s how it was in the day).  There had been a bit of a tussle between the grapevines and the weeds and poison oak that had crept into the vineyard in the intervening years. The grape clusters from the Bertero Vineyard were exceptionally small and intense – an appropriately stressed vineyard – and were very helpful in allowing us to maintain the quality of Cigare as the production began to slightly ramp up.  (This was not always to remain the case, when the grape sources and varietal formula changed and production levels became more ambitious in the ‘90s.) []
  11. Perhaps some years of hypnotic regression will bring back the memories, but I have conveniently repressed any recollection of how precisely I sold off the insipid Home Ranch Pinot that I had produced.  I don’t reckon that more than a couple of vintages were produced, but it’s fate remains opaque to me.  (Maybe this failure has been just too hard for me to look at.)  I do recall that at some point, I made the decision to turn some (all?) of the Estate Pinot grapes into pink wine, and ultimately the vines themselves were replaced with “Roussanne.” []
  12. This was the real modus of Bonny Doon for many years.  I looked for grapes – Ugly Duckling varieties primarily that were terribly undervalued – but sometimes also for other fruit (raspberries, strawberries, etc.) as well – and essayed to add value to them by some reasonably clever winemaking and even more clever packaging, to be sure. []
  13. Approximately $12/btl., if memory serves, and you had to buy some of the white in order to get the red. []
  14. The ’78 vintages of same, alas, all drunken up a few years back. []
  15. I remember my first visit to Vieux Télégraphe, which had to have occurred shortly after the first vintage of Cigare.  I was very taken by (what seemed at the time to be) a rather modernistic facility.  In retrospect, it probably wasn’t/isn’t the most tricked out/high-tech winery in France, but I well remember that their crusher moved on a sort of rail system, out over the tanks, thus avoiding the need to pump the must.  This little glimpse into the French propensity for convoluted engineering in the extreme (all in service of extreme rationality) may have set the stage for my later enamorment with le Citroën. []
  16. That is, until George’s son, who had taken over the management of the vineyard maybe fifteen ago, took it into his head to re-train the vines and converted them from head-trained three-dimensional plants into two-dimensional objects, trained out on wire, for ease of cultivation, (and now drip-irrigated, in the bargain.) I can’t furnish a scientific explanation of why this was a particularly bad idea, but it just was a bit like asking brittle, fragile older people to take up skateboarding and/or break dancing. []
  17. This was well before the proliferation of custom crush facilities. I don’t think that Josh had ever done that before (or possibly since), but he himself, as a young, aspiring winemaker, had been given this opportunity to custom-crush at Chalone Vineyard. It seems that on some level, he may have been trying to settle a certain karmic debt. And I am forever in his debt. []
  18. Now it is the Roederer Estate and replanted to varieties that are presumably more appropriate to the region. []
  19. How I ended up in very cool Anderson Valley for Bordeaux varieties is a bit perplexing, but in the day (and even still now), I was obsessed with cool climate viticulture, utterly persuaded that the main thing wrong with California viticulture was that grapes were grown in areas that were just too warm.  1982 was a cool and exceptionally rainy year in the already very rainy Anderson Valley.  The Bordeaux blend that I made from the Carney Vyd. in 1982 was perhaps not the most brilliant wine I have ever made (the ’83 was far superior), but was not nearly as bad as it easily might have been.  I do wonder sometimes if the major (and minor) decisions in my life don’t always carry some gastronomic subtext.  I liked the coolth of Anderson Valley, but what I really liked was arriving in Anderson Valley in time for lunch at the Boonville Hotel – this was the heyday of the Vernon and Charlene Rollins regime, and the food was outlandishly great, outlaw-wonderful.  After lunch, I’d put in a few hours in the vineyard, and then of course, it would soon be time for dinner (at the Boonville Hotel.) []
  20. I drive the same route (a slightly attenuated version) these days, traveling from Santa Cruz to San Juan Bautista, which apart from triggering major episodes of déjà vu, also make me feel as if I’m beginning my career again from the beginning, which in so many ways, I am. []
  21. Apart from one minor mishap. I had accidentally dropped a pair of sunglasses into the tank whilst punching it down. I don’t think that this inadvertent addition of Matter Other than Grapes did the wine any good, but most likely did not irreparably harm it (I hope). The Grenache (before the Cabernet and sunglasses addition) had the most uncanny aroma of fresh raspberries; it might have been a tad simple, but its fragrance was truly haunting. []
  22. I was so utterly naïve and idealistic in those days.  I imagined that an understated wine name along with an understated trade dress would be compelling evidence of the winemaker’s sincerity and gravitas. (Boy, did I have a lot to learn!) []
  23. This was my first experience (apart from the previous year’s disappointing Pinot) of having to work with a lot of grapes that were not really up to snuff, and needing to rely on one’s wits as a wine blender to find a viable solution to the problem of finding a home for all of your wine.  (Selling off the unsuitable wine in bulk can work sometimes, but generally, if you can come close to recovering your costs, you’ve done well.) Over the years, I don’t think that I’ve ever really become a great or even particularly good technical winemaker, but I have developed a certain aptitude for wine blending, a fairly demanding exercise which compels you to manage many parameters, optimization of wine quality, quantity, and (reasonable) fiscal return on investment.  When we were producing tens of thousands of cases of Big House Red, it became a very large safety net that allowed me to take more audacious risks for many of the other wines, knowing that we could likely bury any of the more egregious mistakes without detection, as the solution to pollution is dilution. []
  24. The wine labels I used in 1983 were likewise rather plain and conservative.  I am not quite sure I can remember what took me to the somewhat revolutionary Cigare label.  Maybe it was as simple as grokking the fact that you really did have to differentiate yourself from your competitors in the business, and introducing wines from such a new and different category really required putting your customer at ease. []
  25. One of the many ironies of my winemaking career was that despite being a “cool climate” kind of guy, many of the primary sources of fruit in the early days came from infernally warm regions, viz. Oakley and Paso Robles.  Perhaps these memories have crept into my unconscious and partly inspired me to write “Da Vino Commedia,” which treated of my many seasons in Wine Hell. []

Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundy Days (Part 2)

1_VogueI may have mentioned once or twice that it was during my tenure at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills that I had became obsessed with pinot noir, and this mania achieved full-flower when I was a student at UC Davis.1 I didn’t have a chance to taste so many Burgundies when I worked at the shop, but I was privileged to drink the ’49 de Vogüé Musigny (out of magnum, no less!), the Dujac wines that were just beginning to come into the U.S. (I don’t think I really understood them very well at the time), as well as sundry wines from DRC.2 Remember, though, that the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s were really the doldrums for Burgundy (and elsewhere); there had been a number of changes in viticultural practice in the ‘60s – the adoption of herbicides (unmitigated disaster), more productive clones with consequent higher yields, the use of cultured yeasts, the adoption of new barrels when not appropriate, all practices that worked against the expression of terroir and with the exception of the wines from a few impeccable growers (Jayer and several others), Burgundies had largely become pretty dicey. But the fact that there were so many ordinary ones (though still expensive) made the rare extraordinary ones all the more special.

When I was a student at Davis I had actually begun to scout for land and on holiday breaks and weekends would spend a fair bit of time driving around coastal California as well as further afield. It doesn’t really take years of psychoanalysis to understand why I was so quick to rule out the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez area. 2_SanfordWinerySanford and Benedict were already producing sensational pinot noir in the region, and if “coolness” of site was truly the primary criterion for grape quality in pinot (as virtually everyone but Josh Jensen seemed to believe), I should, frankly, have taken the area a bit more seriously. I told myself that the region seemed to be a bit too “dry” for pinot noir and a cursory study of geological maps suggested as well that there was no limestone to be found. But the real reason I was loathe to look too closely at sites in the area was that Santa Barbara County was just a bit too close to Los Angeles, and I was determined to try to get out of the orbit of my familial system if I could.

I looked for land up and down the coast of California and into Oregon.3 On one weekend I visited three quarters of the extant wineries in Oregon, visiting both the Willamette Valley as well as southern Oregon, which I quickly disqualified as being too warm for pinot. I remember particularly well the visit with David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyard and the godfather of Oregon viticulture.3_DavidLett

“You don’t want to come to Oregon,” David said. “It’s miserable here. The grapes really struggle to ripen, the yields are terrible. You’re much better off staying in California.”4 I met Dick Erath, who proposed charging me a consulting fee to talk about Oregonian viticulture. (I was pretty shocked and politely declined.)5 I’m not really sure why I was so quick in deciding to rule out Oregon. For one thing, it just seemed a bit too “far” not just geographically, but, also I imagined culturally,6 and I was certain that there was no limestone soil in the state. (I was still holding out hope that I would fine limestone soils somewhere in an area that was relatively cool.) And I had the notion (mistaken as it turned out) that the Oregonian soils were all quite “heavy,” i.e. exceptionally rich in clay. I wasn’t then (nor am I now) the world’s most astute viticulturist, but I was very nervous about moving to an area where it seemed to rain all the time, and plant grapes in soils that absorbed water like a sponge and would produce vines I imagined would continue to just grow and grow, like Jacques and the Beanstock.
I landed in Bonny Doon, owing to the confluence of a number of factors. I had been a student at UCSC and had heard tales of Bonny Doon – this was still the early ‘70s and things were pretty wild in the day. The little hamlet (its boundaries were magically a bit amorphous) was mentioned in rather hushed tones, possibly correlative to the unmentionable goings-on that one imagined were occurring there. If Santa Cruz had its own magic (as it certainly did for me in the day), Bonny Doon might have represented an even deeper more mysterious, virtually Druidic enchantment, replete with mysterious woodland creatures. Maybe it was Brigadoon, or perhaps Avalon; I always imagined it was someplace that might mysteriously come into view through the fog-enshrouded mist.

5_HippiesBonny Doon was mentioned in the Winkler text, “General Viticulture,” aka the Bible, specifically for its particularly cool climate, which appeared cooler (in every sense, I extrapolated) than any of the other grape-growing areas mentioned. Based on the Winkler system of “degree days,” it appeared that Bonny Doon was one of the few places in California that really seemed comparable to Burgundy as far as climate,7 one of the coolest areas in the state where grapes were grown. Even as a student at Davis, I was beginning to spend some time with Ken Burnap, the owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. Ken seemed to have a pretty good gig; you came to visit him at his mountain retreat up on Jarvis Rd., off of Vine Hill (not far from Smothers) and the bottles and the conversation just flowed and flowed.8 He poured for me his inaugural vintage, the 1974, and I was just floored.9 Put in simplistic terms, it was “Burgundian,” or expressed more elegantly, it seemed to speak of the Platonic essence of pinot noir, a pinot that would “se pinot,” as the French sometimes say.10)

6_KenBurnapI imagined that as far as climate, Bonny Doon couldn’t be too dissimilar from Burnap’s location. The property that I had located didn’t have limestone soils. Okay, we’ll just work around that, I thought;11 I bethought to schlep in heroic volumes of calcaire, and sheep manure and shed-loads of compost as well, while we’re at it. I sought out what I imagined was a superior clone of Pinot noir from a research station in Espiguette, France. I would plant the vines to an exceptionally close spacing, which all the literature suggested was absolutely crucial. How could I possibly miss? I sincerely thought that I was doing most everything right. But, of course, I had greatly underestimated the degree of difficulty in finding or creating the right conditions to produce a truly great pinot.

After leaving the employ of Smothers I got it into my head that I didn’t want to wait for my own grapes to come to maturity, but rather, I wanted to advance the learning process more rapidly with the purchase of grapes – pinot noir, of course, but ultimately some others as well. The theory being that by the time my own vineyard would come into bearing, I would have learned more about this fickle grape, and would have gotten the major winemaking mistakes well behind me. It was getting a bit close to harvest time in 1981 when I was able to get in touch with Warren Dutton, the famous grower in Sebastopol. He didn’t have any grapes available from his own vineyard, but he was able to sell me some fruit from the Arrundel Vineyard on River Road, which he managed. I visited the vineyard just once before harvest, and was struck by the seemingly preternatural vigor of the vines… Here goes nothin’.7_WarrenDutton

I made the first Bonny Doon Vineyard wine at my friend, Chuck Devlin’s winery in Soquel in 1981. Chuck, Bill Arnold and several other members of the Santa Cruzoisie wine circle were in a tasting group with me; this was a way for me to continue to expand my wine knowledge, and also pretty much represented the metes and bounds of my social network at that time. We weren’t drinking first growths, of course, as I had at the Wine Merchant, but this was a way to begin to back-fill the enormous gaps in my wine knowledge.

Warren delivered the fruit himself, as he did in those days, and we didn’t really start crushing till maybe 8:00 p.m. It was my first harvest on my own, and this was before the days of sorting tables. So, as the bins were being dumped by fork-lift into the crusher, I was manually pulling out individual bunches that I felt were not quite up to snuff. This became an incredibly tedious process, taking much, much longer than it normally would and I think that we did not really finish till well after midnight. Warren was just fuming – partially because I was throwing away perfectly good fruit but mostly because he still had to drive back to Sebastopol that night, and be up at the crack of dawn the next morning to harvest another field. I still feel terrible to have put him out so much.
The first grapes came in from the vineyard in Bonny Doon in 1982. They were fairly large bunches – that was quite discouraging – and somewhat devoid of much pinot noir character. In retrospect, I didn’t give the vines much of a chance – they were really just adolescents in the world of grapevines, and undoubtedly they would have settled into a state of better balance. But, it did not appear quite likely that these grapes were not really going to take me where I needed to go, and ultimately I ended up grubbing them up and replanting them to marsanne and “roussanne.” In 1983, I returned to the Willamette Valley and there were now significantly more players than there had been and the wines were also beginning to enjoy greater acceptance and acclaim. I met the wonderful Casteel brothers, Terry and Ted, and was quite impressed by the fastidious of their Bethel Heights Vineyard.12 The yields from their vineyard seemed lower than what I was finding in California, and of course the harvest dates were significantly later, owing to the cooler location.

It was a bit of an adventure in figuring out how to bring a truckload of grapes from the Willamette Valley to Santa Cruz, but I did in 1983, and the wine that I made from those grapes was really exceptional.13 I forgot what score the Wine Spectator awarded me on the wine, but if memory serves, it was far and away the highest score I was ever to receive from them. The pinot grapes that I was buying from the Casteels and then a few years later from Temperance Hill, were infinitely better than the ones that I was growing myself, which gave me no end of existential angst. One of the essential conundra of the wine business is that in general, if you strive to make a great wine, you will have to control all aspects of production, especially the growing of the grapes, which are overwhelmingly the most important factor in the wine’s quality. But, if you somehow fall short of the mark in producing grapes that are anything less than magnificent, you will be forever afflicted with “the Curse of the Home Ranch fruit.” My failure to grow magnificent pinot was, however, the impetus to move into a new direction and explore the grape varieties of southern France.

  1. I exaggerate only a bit to say that professors would duck into janitorial closets when they saw me coming. But only just. They really were slightly frightened of the barrage of questions they could routinely expect to hear from me or maybe they just felt they didn’t have the time to spend with such an exigent student. (Dr. Dinsmore Webb, the Chairman of the department, to his great credit, was really exceptional in this regard; he was happy to spend as much time with me as I needed to discuss my questions in depth; he told me that it would be a good idea if I were to write them all down, and even suggested that I keep a notepad by my bed if I were to wake up with some brainstorms or even a new line of questions. (This was adding fat to the fire.) I desperately wanted to understand what were the salient factors that made pinot so extraordinary and what were the roles (and their relative importance) of: 1) limestone soils (with an explanatory mechanism furnished as well, if you don’t mind) (Note to world: I’m still waiting.); 2) latitude of the vineyard (correlative to day-length throughout the growing season); 3) diurnal variation of temperature; 4) clones (or mixture of clones) and rootstock; 5) vine-spacing; 6) soil microbiology (what were best practices to promote?); 7) manuring of vineyard (I had been told by certain Burgundians that sheep manure was quite helpful in helping to make minerals more available to the plant; 8) phenology, i.e. maturity parameters; 9) juice chemistry (Low pH seemed to be quite crucial, but on the other hand, there were the unquestionably great wines of Romanée-Conti, which tended to be rather high in pH); 10) minerality in wine? Qu’est-ce que c’est? 11) “minerality,” as it relates to the ability of a wine to resist oxidation, and what, by the way, was the operative mechanism? And for the extra credit question: 12) Why do European wines tend to resist oxidation whereas California examples tend to be DOA the day after they are open? I truly felt then, as I do now, that the research arm of the UC Davis Dept. of Viticulture should drop everything else they’re currently working on, and start addressing these last two questions in earnest and ASAP. The aforementioned issues, of course, don’t even begin to really address the zillions of winemaking decisions that are made and the overall vision that informs them – to delay ML (or not)?, conserve lees (or not)?, whole cluster fermentation (when to use, when not to use, how to decide what percentage?), how much SO2 is appropriate?, small barrels vs. puncheons?, how much new wood is appropriate (and from which forest, and air-dried for how long?), is it possible to truly achieve “physiologically mature,” i.e. thoroughly lignified stems? (I found out the answer to this question just this year, and it turns out to be “yes,” but maybe only achievable after the grapes are harvested, at least in California.) []
  2. I also had a chance to taste some of the utterly spoofulated wines of Dr. Barolet, including several of the legendary “’34s.” I’m not sure if anyone knows what went into those “Burgundies,” but they were remarkably lively for 40-year old wines. []
  3. I was very struck by the area on the Sonoma Coast, adjacent to Cazadero, and it struck me as a sort of Bonny Doon analog, with similar elevation, vegetation, rainfall, etc. It could well have worked for me, but it didn’t have the advantage of being located close to Santa Cruz, which was an area that already felt quite familiar to me, as close to anywhere in the world where I felt I was at home. Ironically, some of the best pinot noirs in California are being produced in this area. []
  4. As a relatively recent arrival to Oregon, David had taken on the (thoroughly obnoxious) habit of wanting to shut the door on any new émigrés to this as yet undiscovered paradise, especially those of the Californian persuasion. Many years later when we had become friends, he apologized profusely for the assumption of this very negative pretend posture. []
  5. This happened again not too many years ago with a very successful “colleague” winemaker on the Central Coast – if by successful one means the ability to craft high octane wines that score extremely well with you know who – who proposed charging me a consulting fee to discuss how to grow Rhône grapes on the Central Coast with him. []
  6. I had no real idea how truly wonderful and civilized Portlandia was (and is). Certainly from a “cultural” standpoint, relocating to the Portland area would likely have represented a major upgrade in the quality of my life. If I had somehow managed to relocate to Oregon, undoubtedly I would have continued on the pinot path for quite some time, and would have either mastered pinot (whatever that might mean) or not. I would likely never have discovered Rhône grapes, never have had the opportunity to work with many of the oddball Italian varieties I’ve been privileged to know, and probably never would have allowed my thinking to evolve(?) to the point of considering some of the hare-brained notions I now have as far as an approach to the discovery of a vin de terroir. []
  7. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it turns out that these weather data were somewhat misleading. There is an inversion layer along the coast of Central California; if you are below the inversion layer (where these measurements were undoubtedly taken), it is generally pretty damn cold. Above the inversion layer, where my vineyard was ultimately located (and which in fact, comprises 95% of “Bonny Doon”) the climate is significantly warmer, so much warmer in fact that when I lived in Bonny Doon and came into Santa Cruz – almost always to buy PVC pipe supplies from Orchard Supply to patch up an irrigation line – I was always woefully underdressed. []
  8. The schmoozing school of wine sales may certainly be an interesting sales and marketing model and has been adopted by any number of small boutique wineries. But it presupposes an owner who has the ability to schmooze, and that is, alas, not in my skill set. []
  9. While Ken did make some very good wines after that, nothing ever came close to the ’74, the profound virtue of which may well have been due to the preternaturally low yield achieved (maybe ½ ton/acre?) and the particularities of the vintage. []
  10. Pinot noir can of course express itself in a myriad of ways, but the Ur-pinot for me always contains an element of earth, beet root, humus and truffle. “Ca sent de merde,” (“It smells of shit,” Anthony Hanson reassuringly tells us. []
  11. Even though I did bring in literally tons of limestone – maybe on the order of 10 tons/acre – I’m not convinced that it really made that much of a difference in changing the fundamental structure of the soil. While changing the pH of the top few feet of soil makes certain oligo-elements more available, it seems quite impractical to add enough limestone to really make a big difference in the soil’s fundamental nature. And if you ever did get to that point, you will have grotesquely altered its basic terroir. (What’s the point of that?) The meta-question, one that I never really addressed at this juncture, was what was I trying to achieve in growing pinot noir? I naively thought that it would really be a great accomplishment to make a Burgundian style pinot noir. In candor, that was really the horizon of my aspiration, and one that now seems rather hollow in retrospect. []
  12. It did seem that there were a substantial number of Biblical names associated both with the Oregonian vineyards and with the place names of the towns themselves. Maybe on an unconscious level, my hesitancy to jump to Oregon was partially based on, how can it put this genteelly as it were?, the state’s seemingly ineluctable goyischness. []
  13. The salient learning here is that if you begin with really great grapes, you often don’t need to be a winemaking genius to produce really good wine. The grapes make you appear to be a lot cleverer than you really are. []

Reflections on the 35th Vintage: The Oily Burgundian Days (Part 1)

I’ve had recent occasion to meet up with a number of “old-timers” in the wine biz, guys (mostly) I’ve known in some capacity over the years and with whom I’ve chanced lately to become reacquainted, bumping into them typically at industry trade shows, and even at times in far-flung vineyards I’m sniffing out. (They, sly dogs, are also sniffing). If we haven’t seen one another in a while and the time-frame is somewhat close to harvest, the opening conversational gambit inevitably goes something like this:1 “So, what number (i.e. which harvest) is this for you?” The really old-timers will volunteer, “It’s my forty… or even, fifty-something-eth vintage (This was perhaps before progressive labor laws and pre-OSHA, i.e. a little before my time; many of these guys seemed to have started awfully young.) 1_tankcleaning So, while a number of folks have left the wine business after just a few years after discovering that, for example, carrying a bag (wine sales) was just not for them, or freshly recruited to the cellar crew, learning that cleaning out tanks at 7:00 a.m. in the morning in their rain suit was likewise not their cup of Jo-berg. But, it seems that if you have managed to stick out the first few years of the wine biz, it was quite likely you would more or less stick around this way of life forever.

So, when a recently discovered acquaintance asked me how many years it was for me, I did a brief calculation and concluded that it appeared to have been thirty-five years. “Appearance” being the operative word, as the sheer vastness of this length of time seemed to me both endlessly long, and at the same time, as fleeting as the briefest instant. And of course, the next thing I remember (neurotically) thinking was, “Thirty-five years in the business and what the hell have I accomplished?”2 2_Rhoneranger I have learned some things over the years, but it has seemed to mostly about what one should not do. What to not do: Don’t listen overmuch to other people!3) Don’t imagine that wine (as great as it is, and it really is great) will utterly fill up your world. Try to find some other outside interests. (Haven’t been particularly successful in that regard.) Don’t imagine that in your cleverness, you will figure it out for yourself. (Rather, try to figure out how to put yourself in relation to circumstances such that the Universe might possibly teach you something,4 or alternately, try to make wine in such a way that you are allowing Nature to do all the real heavy lifting.)5

The first year out of Davis I worked for Dick Smothers at his Vine Hill Vineyard in Scotts Valley, just outside of Santa Cruz. I had loved “The Smothers Brothers” television show as a kid, admired their anti-war stance, and empathized greatly with their extreme difficulty in dealing with authority (a problem I’ve continued to wrestle with, pretty much consistently since then). 3_SmothersbrothersDick wasn’t terribly involved in the winery at that point; he pretty much left all of the winemaking decisions to Bill Arnold, his winemaker, whom I had known briefly when I was at Davis. Bill was a singular character, a personage seemingly from another century – tall, lanky, slightly stooped, with sharp Yankee features, vaguely Ichabod Crane-like in appearance – misanthropic, cynical, anguished, embittered, but arguably one of the funniest humans I had ever met, with a great love of ornamental language and the exquisite mot.6 Something rather disturbing clearly must have happened to him somewhere along the way – I suspect it was his experience in the Army – which by his account was unspeakably traumatic. (His issues with authority were even knottier than mine.) His obsessive and continuous kvetching anent the imbecility of former bosses, wholesalers, growers, vendors, or other winemakers – “Butchers!” or better yet, “Bouchers!” – was equal parts Ignatius Reilly and H.L. Mencken and endlessly entertaining to me – maybe, it was not to everybody’s taste – and I imagined that it wasn’t easy being Bill.7
4_H.L. Mencken
What I remember most about my time at Smothers were the preternaturally long, virtually hallucinatory nights of pressing white grapes in the tiny pneumatic press,8 Bill was very insistent about cleanliness and hygiene, so every nook and cranny of the press would have to be scrubbed and hosed out both before and after the press cycle. And of course the stainless steel tanks would have to be thoroughly scrubbed before they would receive any juice or wine. 5_tankwasher(This was before the days of relatively easy cleaning presses and the ubiquity of automatic tank washers.)9 I’m not sure that Bill’s obsession with cleanliness greatly informed my subsequent winemaking efforts, but it certainly brought home the message that winemaking is really all about great attention to detail. You can certainly use your time more productively than manually cleaning a tank, but you were never going to make great wine without attending to the infinite details.

I vividly remember my first press-load of Riesling. You might call the set-up “semi-manual.” A 6” diameter nalgene hose fed by a must pump, that behaves more or less like a python in extremis, is bungee-corded to the doors of the press and the grape must is peristaltically egested.10 (Visqueen must also be deployed in some fashion, duct-taped, to be sure, to re-direct the flow of precious errant juice, which might otherwise land on the non-food-grade pavement. 6_Visqueen The cellar hand usually stands on the press in some non-OSHA-prescribed fashion, raking the must into one vacant corner of the press or another. But, what was extraordinary about pressing the Riesling was that I just couldn’t believe that, apart from discovering an actual hive, how could there be so many yellow jackets in a single place?11 The unfortunate junior member of this small crew was compelled to put himself squarely in the thick of things, which turned out to be, most relevantly, an apian swarm.12 Again, I’m not quite sure what life-long lesson I derived from this: You have to suffer for your art? Wasps (of the buzzy variety) know the good stuff? Stop complaining; you will always get stung in life, whether by bees, yellow jackets or by the reviews of misguided wine critics, who might erroneously mistake elegance for wispiness.
I loved my time at Smothers – maybe it was partially due to the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever – and if the dominant sense memory of it remains the sense of being continually cold and wet, my memory of what was to come next was perhaps its inverse. I was incredibly fortunate to have persuaded my parents to purchase some beautiful land in the magical hamlet of Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is where I lived for almost twenty years, and for me was really a kind of paradise.13 I had previously studied Plant Science at Davis, and while I had gained some rudiments of viticultural knowledge (mostly theoretical), I was still largely in the dark about most of the practical issues of operating a vineyard.14 Let’s face it: I was Eddie Albert in “Green Acres.”15 8_EddieAlbertApart from a few slightly misguided efforts in driving the Kubota tractor to disc the vineyard – I should, for the record, never (either then or now) attempt to drive a tractor (it is a miracle I did not kill myself) – my most vivid memories of the vineyard are of the long summer days, and the magic of working at near-dusk, when the passage of time was semi-suspended. There was endless repetition to the work – mostly suckering, shoot-positioning and tying – but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment; I was gently guiding my charges in the right direction and making what I imagined was a positive, if incremental contribution to wine quality.

There was one season, when the vines were still getting established, that I undertook to do all of the hoeing of the vineyard – approximately twenty-eight acres, to be precise – myself. Granted, hoeing weeds is not precisely rocket science, maybe even its exact opposite, and I certainly could have found some minimum-wage workers to do the job, 9_zenmonk but this had become a sort of obsession. Take it from me that there is perhaps nothing as mindless/Zen-like as hoeing; it had become a personal challenge to me to see if I could subject my Monkey Mind to this sort of rigorous discipline.16 (Maybe this little episode in my life was as close as I have ever gotten to something like a spiritual practice.)17

The hamlet of Bonny Doon, at an elevation of 1800 ft., receives quite a bit of rainfall, typically twice the amount of Santa Cruz, and it takes quite a while for the soil to dry out. What this means is that even if you start hoeing in the early spring, let’s say mid-March, to get slightly ahead of the problem, as it were, by early May a new crop of weeds will likely have grown back. 10_WaitingforGodot I don’t really remember for certain whether this actually happened – my memory is notoriously unreliable in this regard (many of us will inflate our modest accomplishments to epic proportion over time) but I do seem to recall a slightly Beckettian moment of completing one complete pass through the vineyard (which took months), only to find that it was my work now to do the precise job again, taking, as it were, from the top.18,19

So, I don’t know that I could ever really properly call myself a farmer, but I do know that there is one truth about farm work, whether it is plowing a field or pruning a vineyard. The tasks are enormously repetitive and at a certain point, at least for me, life began to merge into a kind of dream-like state. To remain happy, you have to give yourself over to this repetition, exult in it, in a sense, almost as a deepening of your spiritual practice.20

(This is Part 1 of a longer article.)

  1. It may not be a surprise to you that wine production and grape guys are not generally possessed of Wildean or Shavian wit (I include myself in this assessment); they tend more toward the Shane-like locution. []
  2. Expanding beyond the dominant Cabo- and Chardo-centric paradigms to introduce the New World to Rhône grapes? (Yes, a reasonably clever idea at the time, but the smell of garrigue was already in the Zeitgeist air.) Freezing grapes for a less expensive dessert wine? (Cryo me a river.) Making the world safe for screwcaps? Puh-lease! []
  3. Everyone has an opinion about what you should or should not be doing. Most people told me that I was utterly crazy when I stopped making Chardonnay in 1990. I was still a very young winemaker at the time, but knew enough that making wines that held absolutely no real interest personally was likely going to be somewhat soul-deadening. There remain a number of people in the wine industry who (amazingly) make very successful wines that they personally cannot abide. Somehow, it seems to work for them, and it is not my place to judge. (Perhaps they have kids who want to go college. []
  4. I remain utterly humbled by my experience a few years ago when we mounted an ambitious vertical tasting of twenty-five vintages of Le Cigare Volant (en grand format), and the two most interesting wines of the evening were the ’84 and ’85 vintage, produced when I knew absolutely nothing about winemaking and possibly even less about the wines and grapes of the Rhône. But, I had somehow accidentally put myself into some sort of favorable position with respect to the universe vis-à-vis creating some sort of openness to its instruction. []
  5. This is really the key part of my strategy moving forward on the “10,000 New Grape Varieties” project. I will do my best to follow sound “first principles” – focusing primarily on soil health, as I am certain that many wonderful expressions of the grape flow from there. I think that truly the best way I might deploy my human “cleverness” is to try to work out the most interesting ways to leverage Nature’s raw combinative power to create the conditions for a unique, unexpected and strikingly beautiful Gestalt to emerge. But to intend an imagined, particular configuration would be the highest folly. []
  6. I owe him a great debt, not least for being my first winemaking mentor, but as well for creating a certain persistent association in my mind between wine and humor, (or maybe it was work and humor). In any event, while Bill certainly took his own work very, very seriously, he alerted me to the rampant pretension of the industry, and since then I’ve been a bit cynical myself – maybe it’s part jealousy – with regard to the fancy-schmancy wines produced slightly to the north of these parts. I still, of course, believe in wine. Great wine itself is (or can be) utterly sublime, but we mortals are always making fools of ourselves in presenting ourselves as infallible arbiters of its merit. We properly should adopt an attitude of gratitude and humility for its great gift. []
  7. He and I both shared a great admiration for S. J. Perelman’s withering wit. []
  8. I can’t help but add that wineries then and now largely now operate on three essential elements, a sort of vine qua non, as it were – bungee cords, Visqueen (polyethylene sheeting, for the uninitiated), and, of course, duct tape, the universal method of plugging leaks and adhering Visqueen to whatever surface was required. []
  9. You were given a scrub brush, a pail of soda ash dissolved in hot water, and a hose, and you didn’t leave the tank until all of the wine-stained tartrates had disappeared from the sides of the stainless steel tank. Apart from arachnophobia and apiphobia being non-starters for cellar workers, claustrophobia also would instantly disqualify you. If a young intern at a winery found that he or she were beset by any of these psychological issues, he/she would generally be consigned to work in the tasting room, where it was warmer, dryer and significantly less insect-intensive. []
  10. In those days, “whole-cluster” pressing of white grapes had yet to be adopted as standard practice. These were the days of “skin-contact” for virtually all white grapes; the real question was for how long. []
  11. Bees and wasps are very highly attracted to aromatic grapes, notably Muscats or other high terpene varieties. (I’m told that when Muscadelle de Bordelais grapes are picked, every wasp on the European continent comes out for a sniff.) When you’re pressing aromatic grapes, you hope for a very cool and foggy day, which seems to keep the swarm at bay. []
  12. I’ve never really had “pressing duty” since then. The closest thing in recent history has been my routine presence at the sorting table, where one is systematically subjected to spiders, earwigs and other unexpected forms of insect (or other life forms.) Thank goodness we no longer deal with machine-harvested fruit at the winery; then you really have the opportunity to see the outer limits of MOG (material other than grapes). []
  13. It really did feel as if I was being kicked out of paradise with the arrival of Pierce’s Disease in 1994. []
  14. Farming is really in the details – when to plant your cover crop, for example, to be prepared for the torrential rains. One year (1982) we weren’t really properly prepared and suffered substantial losses due to erosion. I was not winning any awards for most switched on/ecologically-minded farmer that year. []
  15. The locals saw me coming from miles away and were quite prepared to “help” me for a very modest fee. []
  16. Could I ever become a (Sl)hoe Learner? []
  17. There was another unexpected spiritual practice I was accidentally roped into learning – PVC pipe repair. I am not what you might call the most gifted person as far as manual dexterity, but one skill I was compelled to learn was the installation of irrigation systems, which primarily consisted of the gluing of PVC pipes and sundry fittings (elbows, tees, reducers, valves, etc.) and their inevitable repair when a disc nicked a valve manifold or a ripper shank encountered a sub-main. While in fact there are some “real” engineering guidelines for the design of an irrigation system, visualizing how it works is a bit like pruning a vine. Instead of visualizing the nutrients flowing to the sundry parts of the vine, you want to make sure that the system is designed to allow for the even flow of water to all of the farthest rungs of the system. You begin to internalize a certain sense of balance and proportion. For someone who generally has a pretty scattered mind, this enforced discipline was enormously helpful in gaining important lessons of patience and calm. Even now, I can still smell the pungent scent of purple PVC pipe primer. []
  18. Ever tried. Ever hoed. No matter. Try Again. Hoe again. Hoe better. []
  19. Waiting for God/Good-hoe? []
  20. As I think back on the time when I lived at the Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon, another memory came up. You walk up and down the rows so many times a day, you develop a route, and this becomes a sort of mental map. But not just a mental map, but a map that seems to become deeply imprinted in your very being. Perhaps in the same way that we come to identify and in some sense internalize the house in which we live as an extension of our bodies, we do the same thing with the land with which we are so intimately connected. You always know, as a sort of proprioception, the location of the avenues, the fences, certain significant trees, the swales and valve manifolds, the artesian springs, the poison oak patches and wasp nests. []

The State of the Doon: A (Possibly Supererogatory) Kvetch with a Moderately Happy Ending

Maybe not enough time has gone by to really breathe the deep sigh of relief that I am longing to breathe. And maybe I’m being a bit indiscreet in talking about matters that are generally not spoken about so openly.

I almost lost the Doon. Not because the wines were no damn good. Really, rather quite the contrary.1 After selling off the large brands eight years ago, it proved unexpectedly to be monumentally difficult to right-size the company, i.e. find a scale that was profitable, whilst remaining more or less congruent with my truest values and the stated aspirations of the company.2,3 Further, rebranding, is/was, as they say, a bitch, or at least it would so appear in an age of complete information (and misinformation) overload.4 There is still an enormous amount of misleading noise that continues to circulate about the company, or the “brand” as it is known, even so many years after the sale of Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim.5
Big House Red
We came perilously close to the edge with an impatient lender, who was tired of seeing red ink, and, despite the fact that the company possessed significant assets, and the amount borrowed was relatively paltry relative to those assets, the aforesaid lender remained uninterested in extending the precious lifeline of a credit facility. This was despite evidence that the service of the debt was, at least to my green eyeshade wearing viewpoint, more or less a morçeau de gâteau, a piece of piss, as the Brits would have it; indeed, certain structural elements had been put into place that would allow for the virtual certainty of sustainability if not imminent profitability, but “loan fatigue” as it is known in the business had enervated the banco to the point where it had to lie doon in a darkened room with cold, witch-hazel soaked compresses on its febrile P and L statements.
Book keeper
I learned a lot about people, viz. bankers, lawyers and other diverse algal slash muciligenous life-forms, specifically how utterly greedy and gratuitously craven they could be. But mostly I learned that it is a very cold world; you have to look out for yourself and cannot necessarily count on having an angel at your back simply because your cause is virtuous (or your wines have much improved).6
The company is now making money – not tons of dough, of course – but on a nice pleasant upward inflection, one that will take some time to build to any real significant accumulation of capital density, if you will. Our new lender7 has us on a relatively short leash, which is not entirely a bad thing,8 as the very last thing we wish for is to be caught in a cash crunch, unable to promptly fulfill our obligations to our sometime long-suffering vendors. And yet there are a number of projects that I am extremely keen to move forward and prontissimo of course, it goes without saying. These projects largely focus around getting the very ambitious Popelouchum germplasm-diversity plantation back to full-speed ahead, as this project has a non-trivial temporal horizon, which, to my great consternation, already seems to have begun to recede into the mid-distance.9

So, instead of spending my days in glorious rapture at Popelouchum, sunscreen-slathered, Tilley hat bedooned, diligently at work in the springtime castration of the male flowers of carefully selected vinifera grapes (with the intention of pollinating them with a worthy male parent),10 and in the fall, making careful observation of the results of these breeding experiments,11 teaching myself the rudiments of plant genetics in the evening hours, here’s how I spend my time these days: repairing and goading/enlivening our wholesaler distribution network.12,13,14
Flowering grape cluster
I am far from a maven on the subject of the 3-tier system in the U.S.; there are some strong plusses and minuses to it, but the amount of effort it takes to sell wine through the system is now truly ridiculous for wineries of our size who are on a limited budget.15,16 We have a relatively heterogeneous distribution network – a few large distributors (generally relics from the Big House era), a few very small ones (possibly a function of my desire to distance myself from the Big House association), and a number of mid-sized ones, a scale which seems to work reasonably well for our portfolio, apart from the vexatious fact that they seem to continually be getting snapped up by the large ones.17
Enormously large wholesaler warehouse
I’ve learned a lot of interesting things in this quest to shore up our sales network, many of which I should have assimilated when I was in junior high. Some of our distributors have been enormously successful in selling our wines; others significantly less so. But, it’s the same damn wine! What inferences might be drawn as to why the wines work some places and not in others? I have to think that it comes down to the matter of perception, and as such I can’t help but feel like I’m back in junior high school again. When you’re in junior high, you’re either riding high (relatively speaking) with a coterie of friends who think you are the coolest, or you’re on the outside, looking in, which can be very lonely, indeed. (In elementary school, a few years prior, this dichotomy was represented by whether or not you were believed to possess the “cooties” contagion by the alpha members of the savage clan.)
Bratty kids
Now, as grown-ups, if your brand is large enough, you don’t really care if you’re thought of as being cool or not.18) (You are rather more focused on whether you are growing marketing share and/or making reasonable margins.) But if you’re smallish to middling as we are, how you are thought of by the people who sell your wine is absolutely crucial; they are truly the gate-keepers, and will determine whether that Cornas-loving independent retailer somewhere in the wilds of the mi-ouest will ever be shown Le Pousseur. Dealing with wholesalers (properly) requires a significant amount of care and feeding. The point of all of this discussion of the vagaries of the wholesale system is that while I am personally quite fond of a number of our distributors, the reality is that excessive reliance on this channel makes us somewhat subject to the whims of fashion – are we hot (or not) this decade? And more significantly, it makes us subject to any number of forces well beyond our control. Will the brilliant, sensitive and responsive fine-wine distributor with a soft spot for Rudolf Steiner, suddenly get acquired by an Evil Mega-Wholesaler from, say, a major Southern state?
Rudolf Steiner
But, most significantly, I am just tired of all of the schlepping; I would like a simpler life, and not have to work so hard, spending so much time on airplanes and air-conditioned hotel rooms.19 We must learn how to get a lot better at selling our wine directly to customers (DTC), which, if we play it right, could take a tremendous amount of pressure off of the wholesale channel.20
The light recently went on when I realized that not only am I planning to engineer possibly the coolest grape-growing project in recent wine growing history, i.e. the creation of perhaps 10,000 new grape varieties at Popelouchum, through a very focused grape breeding project,21,22 but perhaps I needn’t necessarily wait until the company is throwing off massive amounts of cash to finance this laudable, if slightly risky, venture. The project is not obviously monetizable – it will take a very long time before it yields any real tangible results – but it is a supremely interesting project and one that has potentially real value to the viticultural community as well as to the larger world.
Enormous diversity of grape population
I am turning over in my head the opportunities we might be able to proffer to a potential investor. For an investment of X, perhaps you might have a grape variety named after yourself, and achieve some sort of immortality. Maybe the Bruno Koslowski grape, for example, might become the next Pinot noir? The Wanda Berkowitz grape the next Nebbiolo?23 I would certainly wish to design the creation of this multitude of new varieties to exist as something like “open code.” No doubt that figuring out the logistics of just precisely how to do this might be a bit challenging, but let’s say you are a viticulturist somewhere in the world, for the investment of Y, you might be able to tour the vineyard (when it comes to fruition), and pick out the one or two or ten varieties that truly speaks to you, and secure cuttings (phytosanitation restrictions permitting, and all waivers duly signed) of same to take back to your planet of origin – Texas or Australia or South Africa or wherever. Maybe it would just be the ability to attend a great party once a year at the incredible site or the ability to purchase Bonny Doon wines or the first produce from Popelouchum at a significant discount?24 But, it would seem that there is certainly something of real value that we might offer above and beyond the knowledge that one has done something useful.
CSA produce, fava beans
But for now, it’s pas mal d’aeroports and beaucoup de Marriots and Daze Inn and highly caloric winemaker dinners (I try to remember when I can to eat vegetarian while on these trips or at least to skip at least one of the intermediary courses), and the Midwest in the summer and the Southeast in the spring and winter, and remembering to pack my 200 mg. of Zen in order to stay focused at all of those sales meetings.
200 mg. of Zen
I’m writing this to you from a Starbucks in a very pleasant town in the Midwest, one that I will certainly visit again soon; the 3-tier marketed schleppeur du vin follows Nietzsche’s Law of the Eternal Return. But jet lag and insomniacal thrashings and Nietzsche aside, there is a slight spring in my step, knowing that with a little planning and the beneficence of some enlightened Doonstahs, this need not be something I will do forever.

  1. I truly believe – and I am one fussy character – that the Bonny Doon wines greatly over-deliver in the price/quality relationship, at least by New World standards; this, counter-intuitively of course, is part of the problem, i.e. we use fairly expensive grapes in wines that occupy challenging market niches. I swear that if I hear one more time from a wholesaler or retailer or consumer, “Show me whatever you’d like as long as it isn’t Syrah,” I will…” Well, I don’t quite know what I would do. But it continues to bug me that the most interesting wines that we are making – the Cigare Blancs (normale and Réserve), the sundry Syrahs, the premium Rhône blends (you know which out of this world wines I’m talking about), are among the wines that are begging comprehension, … even still. []
  2. I have written elsewhere about the poignant irony of producing wines from bordelais cépages chez Doon. Le Randall d’antan – the one given to Wildean aphorisms like “I will not kiss lips that have (recently) used oak chips or “It takes a strong dose of courage to swallow wines made from bordelais cépages” – would be spinning in his Graves, as it were. []
  3. While idealism is an exceptionally admirable trait, perhaps my initiative to produce wines that were somehow more “pure” than those of the pre-existing line-up was not received with as much éclat as I had hoped. That we were producing more biodynamic wines was greeted with a yawn, as was the quixotic initiative to introduce ingredient labeling to our wines. After the sale of the big brands I chose to eschew the high-tech, “unnatural” process of cryo-extraction, which we had previously used in the production of the insanely popular and highly profitable product, Vin de Glacière, in favor of the decision to patiently and virtuously await the (significantly less dependable and far more expensive) benign arrival of botrytis, the “noble rot.” But, what price nobility? []
  4. Like many other things in life: rebranding is much harder than you expect, takes much longer, and is way more expensive than you could ever imagine. It should only be attempted by a qualified marketing professional, one who understands the complex intricacies of the ever-changing wine business. (That totally rules me out.) I am Kemo Sabe, moi, I who know nothing. The problem, very simplistically stated, is that everybonny knows, or imagines he or she knows what the wines of BDV are like. (Fun, fruity, relatively inexpensive and insouciant – just check out those funny labels! – is the response that most often comes to mind. But this view of the brand or the current State of the Doon, just no longer obtains, as I will protest till I’m blue in the face.) []
  5. The oddest and most disturbing thing I often hear is that it is believed by some that I no longer own Bonny Doon, and that I’m enjoying something like a leisurely retirement, presumably playing a lot of golf. I am playing a lot of gulf – the chasm that exists between what I would truly like to be doing and how I actually spend my days. []
  6. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve always had the fantasy that I was in some sense untouchable, that no matter how bad things looked, a path to safety would emerge. Of course I now realize that it is not through an external agency that this path appears, but rather through lots of thoughtful if gut-wrenching searching, a lot of work, and some fortuitous luck thrown in. []
  7. To whom we are incredibly grateful. []
  8. Though not entirely a good thing either. It has not quite reached the unwillingness to purchase green bananas phase, but I am arithmetically challenged as far as having a fairly sucky denominator of truly productive years remaining. []
  9. The most imminent project calling out for completion is the excavation of a reservoir, allowing us to store water to irrigate young vines and fruit trees, but as importantly, bringing avian life to the site, and by extension, freshness and vitality, which all of us could use in no small measure. []
  10. Vinifera grapevines are hermaphroditic and will self-pollinate, which is not what you want to see happen, as it will lead to the expression of recessive genes, and far less interesting and robust progeny than you had with the parents (vegetatively propagated from cuttings). []
  11. In summer, it’s tying up vines, suckering, thinning and hoeing, the latter activity being about as Zen as it gets. []
  12. This mostly means lots of visits to the sundry markets, speaking to the salesmen and “brand managers” at sales meetings, “work-withs,” sometimes known regionally as “ride-alongs,” the perils of which (mostly having to be a passenger in a car with a salesperson who texts while driving and steers with his knees, whilst inputting an order before the witching hour of 4:00 p.m., when all orders for next day delivery are due, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic), I am certain I have shared with you at least once. Then there are the “trade lunches” and “winemaker dinners.” Truly no one likes eating out at nice restaurants more than I do, but the sheer enormity of animal protein as well as the butter and cream-enriched everything proffered at these dinners has not changed significantly since I wrote, “Lard, Randall, My Son,” so many years and eddying arterial circuits ago. []
  13. But there’s also the issue of replacing certain distributors who for whatever reason are not doing the job. This is somewhat analogous (and almost as much fun) as breaking up with a romantic partner. Not that there is truly much heartbreak associated with these separations – business is business after all – but one can’t help but ask oneself just how one went wrong. Was it us or was it them? (Note, it is usually, but not always “them.”) And what was I possibly thinking when we started up with them in the first place? But you wonder: Maybe if I had just paid more attention, visited the market more often, perhaps the relationship could have worked out differently. When I go on these visits to non-performing markets, the first question I ask myself is: Can this relationship be salvaged, though I usually know the answer to that question before I go. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time talking like a Dutch Uncle to underperforming distributors, meeting potentially new distributors, attempting to gauge the sincerity of their affections and whether their promises are real or are they simply empty pretty words. And of course, it is conceivable I am on these distributor dates because we have on a few occasions been the dumpee rather than the dumper; this has taken a little bit of getting used to, as certainly in the heyday of Big House this would essentially have been unthinkable. []
  14. These distributor “dates” have a lot in common with so-called real romantic dates, i.e. figuring out if your prospective partner has two dimes to rub together, whether you and your prospective partner enjoy anything like ideological/philosophical compatibility (what percentage of their portfolio runs 15+% EtOH?). Do they in some sense really “get” you, will they remain true, i.e., will they return your calls long after the courtship is over? Because, it must be noted, your relationship with your wholesaler is not strictly speaking a monogamous relationship. Your wholesaler has quite a number of other suppliers in his stable; your potential partner has a virtual hareem, if you will. And to continue the analogy, you don’t want to be just a pretty face in the crowd; you want to know where you fit in the overall ecology, where you stand in the uxorious ranking. []
  15. Its utility has largely broken down for both mid-sized wineries as well as for mid-sized distributors. Wineries on the very large scale and a select few on the very small scale generally seem to be the most successful. In the middle, where many of us live, it’s just rough. []
  16. The modern 3-tier wholesale wine and liquor distribution system in the U.S. is, as you know, a direct outgrowth of Prohibition, after which the new wholesale wine and spirits industry (many if not most former bootleggers) were charged by the individual states with the task of writing the legislation that would regulate them. (N.B., this has been in some cases the cat guarding the henhouse.) The 3-tier (supplier/wholesaler/retailer) system was in most states largely designed to insure the orderly disposition of goods through the relevant arteries of commerce, such that all players would receive a fair “cut” of the action. The resemblance of the 3-tier system to the Mafia practice of dividing up territories and proscribing appropriate mark-ups to such industries as narcotics, prostitution and gambling, is quite striking. But, to its credit, for many years the system has worked quite well in bringing wines and liquors to market in an orderly fashion. []
  17. I have in fact introduced our wines to a new distributor at one sales meeting, only to hear at the end of the aforesaid meeting that the company had just been acquired by a significantly larger (and unfortunately evil) one, thus utterly negating the utility of that visit. []
  18. Though “cool” is generally desirable, all things being equal. If you’re a large brand, you probably have a young millennial on the payroll, charged with navigating FaceBook, Twitter and InstaGram, in the vague hope of understanding how social media might work in attracting members of this mysterious demographic to your generic and generally beside-the-point brand. (You are most likely keeping your millennial in hipster cocktails and cappuccino, but probably not accomplishing much else. []
  19. While we will never cease doing business through the wholesale channel – it’s quite crucial to maintain a presence or visibility on a national scale – when you have a limited amount of wine to sell that is highly in demand, you just don’t have to work as hard to sell it. This is Supply & Demand 101. []
  20. I am also utterly persuaded that the existence of Estate wines, specifically an Estate bottled, dry-farmed Le Cigare Volant and Le Cigare Blanc, will represent a much more compelling sales proposition through whichever channel it is sold. This is perhaps too important to mention in a footnote, but we are working quite diligently to see this vineyard established. []
  21. The thought here is to try to identify unique individual plants that may be particularly well adapted to the growing conditions of Popelouchum, but also, more broadly, to world-wide growing conditions, which have been sufficiently altered due to global climate change. Further, the project is really a deep study of the proposition of true sustainability. Can grapes (and other crops) be cultivated in something like a truly self-enclosed system or at least with absolutely minimal inputs? Can we find a methodology that will lead to the creation of truly unique products, thus capable of forever competing on the international stage, which will confer a greater degree of economic sustainability? But the real value is, as I believe, the creation of a massive amount of new germplasm, which is potentially an extremely valuable gift to the future. []
  22. But also to observe what a suite of grapes, all slightly different one from the other, but still related, are able to contribute to the complexity of an utterly unique wine. []
  23. This is not to say that the identification of what constitutes a brilliant grape variety will be particularly easy While it is relatively easy to identify some of the overt indications of wine quality – smaller clusters, aromatic or flavor intensity, evenness of ripening, disease resistance, etc., some of the more subtle indicators – the ability to transparently transmit soil characteristics, most notably, may be a lot more difficult to detect. []
  24. It will be a little while before we have wine or olive oil in sufficient quantity to purchase, but I could certainly see subscribers participating in some sort of CSA, with a lot of fava beans (they’re very good for enriching the soil) coming their way. []

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

Bonny Doon VineyardIt has been a long time, indeed almost twenty years, since the tragic demise, grace à 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.4Wine Spectator cover, 1989The 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 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Ca' del Solo, our former estate vineyard in Soledad, CAMemory 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.

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 Rhônish 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

Popelouchum in San Juan Bautista, our beautiful Estate vineyard and farm.

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  Vitis Berlandieri seedlingsMany 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.

  1. Phew. []
  2. I have come to believe that there are many solution sets to a successful marriage of grape variety and site.  Marsanne, Roussanne and Syrah were coherent as a suite from a marketing perspective, but I am certain that other varieties might well have worked every bit as well. []
  3. I was fortunate enough to have planted the “Estrella River” clone of Syrah that had been imported by Gary Eberle.  While this particular clone does not perform particularly well in warm sites, it is utterly brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant clone (even still) of Syrah if one grows it in a cool site.  I had no way whatsoever of knowing this at the time, just had the good fortune of having an Angel guide me, though said Angel did balance the scales of Fortuna quite soon thereafter. []
  4. Despite the fact that it turned out I was mistaken in my identification of “Roussanne” (it was actually Viognier, the wine that we produced from these grapes, Le Sophiste, was truly amazing and original. It must be added that both the Chardonnay and Bordeaux grapes were exceptional as well; it was only the Pinot noir, the one thing that I most deeply cared out, that was singularly prosaic and banal.  (I was buying Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley that was orders of magnitude more flavorful and balanced. []
  5. Despite having essentially minimal experience or track record as a winemaker, the phone just rang off the hook from distributors who were looking to carry our wines and participate in the “next thing,” as California Rhône wines were then believed to be. (Granted, they often had no idea what to do with the wines after they had brought in several pallets.)  In my youthful hubris, I convinced myself – maybe a bit the way that Clayton Moore convinced himself that he was in fact, the Lone Ranger – that I was in fact the  Rhône Ranger.  (I adopted the slightly obnoxious habit of turning up to various large public events, clad if not entirely en costume, than at least taking up the mask, which I sometimes insufferably left on throughout the tasting or winemaker dinner. []
  6. I made things worse by attempting to expand the production of Cigare, purchasing grapes, primarily Grenache, from other vineyards, which turned out to be not as interesting as the grapes of the original Cigare.  Part of the problem was that I was now “stretching” Cigare with what turned out to be less interesting fruit; the original vineyards and vineyardists from which we had sourced were gradually either diverging/mutating for the worse or were somehow no longer available. There was a lot of fancy footwork just to try to stay in the same place, at least as far as quality.  We were not particularly successful in persuading growers to plant exotic, “special” clones of Grenache on our behalf.  They wanted certified virus-free material, which, as it ironically turns out, generally does not produce particularly interesting fruit for the highest quality wines. It wasn’t really that we had planted Grenache at what was formerly my vineyard in Soledad, Ca’ del Solo, were we able to guarantee ourselves a source of weapons-grade Grenache for Cigare, the real backbone of Le Cigare Volant. []
  7. One of the lessons that I have learned that I must always keep in mind is the fact that it truly is not always possible to predict with great certainty the ultimate quality of a vineyard until you’ve had a chance to work with it over many years.  I have purchased grapes from vineyards that at least “on paper” looked utterly perfect.  Soils, check; climate, check; clonal material, check; viticulturist, check. And yet, at the end of the day, the fruit was absolutely nothing to write home about. Then there are grapes planted to other vineyards – the Grenache at the aforementioned Ca’ del Solo vineyard – the vines and fruit have looked at times just utterly beat to shit – but have produced the most extraordinarily elegant wines. Go figure! []
  8. Boy, I sure got that wrong! I had the quixotic if slightly misguided notion of wanting to plant Piemontese grapes in the Salinas Valley – Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Freisa. I was planning to call this wine, “Big House Red.” It was a high concept wine – how cool would it be to introduce the world to the wonderful berry fruit of these varieties – that at least on paper seemed interesting, if not compelling. But, unfortunately, this imaginative blend only really worked in my mind; on the ground, it was a bit of a mess. The only grapes that really worked consistently were the Nebbiolo (which we were compelled to crop at ruinously sub-economic yields) and the Freisa, which while utterly brilliant, proved to be a very difficult if not impossible wine to sell. I even resorted to blending Freisa (“strawberry” in Piemontese dialect) with fraises, or actual strawberries for one of our wine club shipments. I somehow conveniently forgot that strawberries have an unholy amount of pectin in them, and even blended with a red wine with a lot of tannin, the precipitated an unholy goopy proteinaceous mess. This was Black (or more accurately, Deep Purple) Monday for DEWN, as many less than completely intrepid souls, just bailed on their membership when they beheld what had arrived in their shipment. The virus-free Dolcetto – there was but one clone available in California at the time – was a Brobdingnagian grotesque, producing the world’s largest bunch, which we were compelled to trim doon to a manageable size. But by the time we got through cutting off the wings of the cluster and the wasps and yellow jackets had had their way with the densely packed, bursting at the seams fruit, it was all a bit of an unholy mess. And yet, as a winemaking/marketing idea, how could Dolcetto possibly fail? The fact is that if you are trying something new that has never been done before, there is always the possibility of great success as well as dramatic failure. I do painfully keep this in mind as we move forward into the great Popelouchum adventure. []
  9. I had even conceived a high-concept label for this bomba di frutta, which featured a sort of Arcimbaldo-esque illustration of multiple red fruits. []
  10. Of course this “other time” continued to get pushed out further and further into the horizon. But, the reason for this was certainly the trauma of the loss of the Bonny Doon Estate, which for me was a kind of dream-like Eden. After losing one great vineyard, I did not wish to dare to reach for yet another one. (Would this be tempting the gods, who were already apparently quite cross with me?) []
  11. Sandy soils, often associated with highly eroded soils, are typically quite low in organic matter as well as in exchangeable cations, thought to be important in producing wines of longevity. Most plausible hypothesis for the need for a certain range of clay in a “smart” soil is that this magical percentage conduces to a greater degree of homeostasis in the plant, thus enabling “physiological maturity,” i.e. flavor development to proceed in parallel with sugar development, rather than allow the latter to arrive at the finish line well before the former (which seems to be a common problem in the New World.) []
  12. I may well have been (and continue to be) utterly wrong about this. Despite all of my ideation on the subject of what constitutes a “great” terroir vs. let’s say, a terroir ordinaire, the fact remains that the wines we produced from grapes grown in this putatively non-expressive terroir in Bonny Doon, were absolutely great – highly complex, distinctive and capable of long ageing, all excellent criteria for a great terroir. This would suggest that there are still many natural phenomena the utterly inexplicable nature of which we must respect, despite our inability to posit anything resembling an explanatory mechanism. []
  13. The extremely low-pH soils of Bonny Doon (just hovering above 4.0), may in fact have a lot in common with the terroirs of Lessona, the fairly obscure Piemontese appellation that is situated roughly equidistant between Torino and Milano. The iron-rich soils of Lessona, while nearly toxic to grapevines, yield wines exceptionally rich in iron and manganese, (and one hopes not too much aluminum), and have an almost preternatural resistance to oxidation. The wines that we produced from the old Bonny Doon Estate seem to share this odd property of great longevity, and I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the low pH soils that enable this. []
  14. The scariest deficit that it carries is the fact that the climate (even not under drought conditions) is rather dry, and that dry-farming may well be quite problematic.  But if we can pull it off – dry-farming in a fairly arid area – it will be a very useful model to an increasingly warmer and dryer California. []
  15. It is an insight into the somewhat upside-Doon nature of my world-view that holds that “varietal” wines, (at least in the New World) are essentially the most banal thing we can produce.  I maintain that it is most unlikely that we will find a more congruent match in our New World sites between variety and <em>climat</em> than already obtains in Old World examplars; in planting varietal grapes in the New World, one is essentially throwing macaroni at the wall. (“Macaroni wine” is an Italian locution for the most basic plonk.)


  16. How is one to define “interesting?” For soils, it would be those that are rich in particular minerals, have good water holding capacity, and possess a vast internal surface area, capable of supporting a robust microbial population. []
  17. The notion (possibly misguided) is that this strategy might well allow for more vivid articulation of soil characteristics. []
  18. I am looking forward to the construction of several reservoirs, not only for their ability to store the water that we hope to pump from our somewhat anaemic, feckless wells, but also, as a feature that will draw avian life to the property.  Normally, birds are not natural friends of grape vines – indeed they are rather too friendly by half – but their presence augurs well – at least according to the Taoists – for the continuing vitality of the property. []
  19. Vitis berlandieri is among the most drought tolerant native species of grapes found in the United States.  Drought tolerance is incredibly important for the success of the plantation at Popelouchum; while it is slightly worrisome that no one, to my knowledge, has ever established rootstock from seedlings, an examination of basic scientific principles would suggest that this approach might work well indeed.  But, as Euripides continually reminds us, the gods decree many surprises. []
  20. In a perfect world, we’d sow them directly out in the field this year, where they would presumably have a greater chance of retaining an undamaged taproot (very useful for enhancing a greater degree of geotropism, or vertical rooting). But, needless to say, we will be very careful to preserve the taproot before replanting them next spring under field conditions. []
  21. This is a great leap of faith, as the creation of a suite of new germplasm may well yield a muddled mess – producing wines with “challenging” or insipid organoleptic characteristics, the so-called Pinotage phenomenon. []
  22. In principle, we might have considered jumping ahead (as would certainly be my wont) and simply started random breeding trials from grapes imagined to fare well in San Juan, and just hope for the best. It would, however, seem to be more useful to observe actual vines perform in situ, and from that try to imaginatively extrapolate what their offspring might possibly yield. []

On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season

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
Erato (the muse of literature)
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 Ruchè 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 Ruchè the world is ready to cellar away remains to be seen.)
A Proper Claret
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 Rhône 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 Rhône-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 Doppelgänger 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 despisèd 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.

  1. Bear in mind that while this note is indeed a genuine cri de coeur, things could in fact be much worse (for everyone). The title of this piece could have been “On Being Incontinent.” []
  2. I must apologize at the outset for the slightly whiny and at times seemingly self-pitying tone of this narrative. I am, in fact, quite grateful for the incredibly great fortune I have enjoyed over the years: I’ve had a remarkably long and fruitful run (that is by no means over, to be sure.) This little exercise in abreaction is my own attempt to vent some frustrations, try to cleanse them from my system, and get on with the business of bringing some great and important wines into the world. []
  3. That dry-farming is the centerpiece of my intention for the Popelouchum Estate creates yet another rather poignant irony. []
  4. Whether we can ever establish with 100% certainty that the causes of climate change are man-made is moot. It should be compellingly obvious that we must act as if the very survival of the species depends on changing our behaviors to mitigate climate change, as very likely it does. I’ve written about the use of biochar in farming as a strategy to effect carbon sequestration. For the planet, it is likely the most practical, feasible strategy that we can adopt at this point to rapidly mitigate climate change (and enjoy numerous other salutary benefits besides, including but not limited to enhanced soil fertility (and concomitant eschewal of outside inputs), healthier and more nutritious crops, and significant water conservation). However, to my great consternation, neither Bonny Doon nor the planet has seemed able to respond soon enough to forestall a potentially catastrophic end for either entity. []
  5. I mentioned this fact to my shrink the other day, and in fact, she proposed that I consider the opposite proposition. (She is undoubtedly right about this.) It has been so tough in recent years that perhaps I have been unable to really get in touch with my feelings. It is only now that the coast is clear (or maybe more accurately, slightly clearer) that I can allow myself to feel all of the dread and apprehension that I’ve blocked out in the recent past. []
  6. Happily, the company is doing far better than it has doon in years. I am completely certain we will make money this year, not a crazy amount, but some. It is just that some of the things that it seems we have been compelled to do as a company make it a bit more difficult to really line up as congruently with myself as I would ideally like to see. Had I been more skillful in managing things over the previous years, perhaps this slight diversion from the True Path might have been at least partially averted. []
  7. In the last few years I have grown accustomed to relative deprivation (at the very least in the land of capital expenditures) – i.e. anything that did not seem to result in a fairly immediate return on investment or a project that was on some level considered “fun,” i.e. suspect, was immediately relegated to the back burner. Therefore, the recent glimpse of the possibility of now advancing the planting if not planning agenda has induced a slight feeling of vertigo, perhaps even a tinge of panic. I am reminded of the character in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who throughout the book is working on building a boat. Whenever he is near completion of his boat, he feels compelled to rethink the entire concept and design of the project and must begin again from scratch. This is due, of course, to the fact that he is utterly terrified of going into the water. []
  8. Another enormous feeling of incongruence has come from the observation of what it is that I do most every day and comparing/contrasting it with the misty fantasy of how I imagined my life to be at this juncture in my career. What I had imagined was that I would be able to spend most of my time doing what I loved the most – primarily working outdoors in a beautiful vineyard, deeply reflecting upon and observing how one might fashion a truly original wine, one reflective of a sense of place. And on another level, meditating on how one might fashion a truly sustainable wine, elegantly minimizing external inputs, discovering the potential synergies one might have in fostering a complex ecosystem in what is called a “promiscuous culture.” What in fact I am mostly doing is flying on airplanes (as I am at this very moment), arriving or leaving airports, spending time in hotel rooms, presenting the Bonny Doon range at distributor sales meetings and public tastings, (though sometimes at fancy restaurants, which is not too bad lest there be six enormous courses of Animal Protein’s Greatest Hits, the plates of which I will inevitably polish to a high degree of reflectivity, down to the last pea or baby carrot in fact, to comfort myself and ease the slight feeling of anxiety, because I am (still) nervous talking to strangers, and with too much frequency being driven around by unspeakably and dangerously mindless salespeople, who will talk or text on their cell phones whilst driving – just got to get that very last order in before the warehouse closes – steering with their knees – this has truly happened on multiple occasions – as they navigate lane changes at a heart-stopping rate of speed. []
  9. This explanation doesn’t quite wash, because, in fact, I’ve done some of my best writing while traveling on airplanes, trains, and in the odd hotel room in the odd state. (And some of the states to which I’ve traveled recently have been plenty odd. []
  10. And to my great chagrin, another utterly ridiculous, epic travel cycle will shortly begin again. []
  11. There are really no top secrets to making great wine, apart from paying attention to the zillions of details involved in the process, and most significantly, beginning with great grapes, which can come your way if you grow them yourself (skillfully), or alternately have the wit do discover/discern them and have the deep pockets (likely) necessary to purchase them. Alas, California’s cache of great undiscovered/undervalued grapes has largely (but not completely) been picked over/depleted, with some significant exceptions, cf. infra. I have written elsewhere about the existential Angst associated with the planting of a new vineyard – how it seems like such an utterly random and contingent choice, and one might well live in great dread of the “Curse of the Home Ranch Fruit,” but I am completely over this potentially debilitating fear, I assure you. []
  12. This would undoubtedly be rectified by the appearance of a dry-farmed Estate vineyard, ideally planted to a unique genetic mix of grape varieties (and God knows what else), which I’ve been talking about for years. I think that within the press there has occurred something like “Randall Fatigue,” or to put it another way, a certain wariness of “The Boy Who Cried Terroir, which is to say that unless and until I can stand and deliver the really authentic goods, it will likely continue to be difficult to be noticed much at all. []
  13. Which is not to say that these wines are anything like vins de terroir, indeed they are anything but. Apart from deriving from multiple vineyard sites of diverse geology and geography, the wines are somewhat stylized (what is one winemaker’s stylization is of course another’s transparency); they are just Umami Central, due to the zealous degree of lees conservation and incorporation. []
  14. One hurdle for our future success will be our ability to acquire the skills to market a “luxury brand,” the clientele for which is not exactly the typical BDV cohort. I’m not sure what sort of psychic deformation might occur in the acquisition of these branding skills, but it can’t be pretty. I’ve chanced to recently spend small intervals of time at a friend’s country club; maybe homeopathic exposure to high net-worth individuals will help this effort. []
  15. This may well in part by due to the ever constricting nature of the 3-tier system – wholesale distributors are becoming generally less adept at building brands (and in some sense, BDV is much like a start-up), but equally, a function of our lack of expertise in marketing a “luxury brand” – whatever the hell that is – or perhaps just the seemingly oxymoronic juxtaposition of BDV and the luxe value proposition. (Rebranding is, as they say, a bitch.) I’ve written about this issue quite a bit over the last several years, perhaps even obsessively, trying my best, like Job, to understand why the Order of Nature seems to work in such mysterious ways. Maybe the problem stems from the deeply conservative nature of human perception. It is my operational theory that wine critics who should in fact know better, are largely (and somewhat tragically) incapable of discerning the evolution (especially if subtle) in winemaking styles, and perceiving that our wines (just for example) are in fact much better than they’ve been in ages. (It is a lot easier for them to discover relatively new producers whom they are looking at with new eyes and relatively fresh palates.) I think this may partially be due to what one might call, in Dali-esque fashion, “the persistence of taste-memory,” i.e. you, that is to say, everyone, has a certain idea of how things are, or at least were, and barring a major, shocking re-set of those perceptions (more about that in a second), one continues to “see” things not as they actually are, but largely as they were. Wine tasting and wine judging is actually incredibly difficult to do (not that I really want to take these critics entirely off the hook). There have been numerous studies that show the utter capriciousness of “objective tasting” and the enormous disparity of tasting results at wine competitions. If you are making wine for any of the highly influential wine publications that shall remain nameless, it is, in fact, fairly easy to predict if you have a likely winner or not. You might cynically and somewhat simplistically say, “Just look at the optical opacity and textural density of the wines.” But charming the more subtle palates of the wine press and public and overcoming their preconceived notions about a wine or winemaker is a far more challenging proposition. As percipients, we use the “knowledge” (whether factual or not) we have about the world to inform our perceptions and fill in the vast liminal areas surrounding the generally incomplete and blurry phenomena we are experiencing. Maybe it’s a function of our intuition that we can’t entirely trust our own senses (it’s true, we can’t), and that we really need to rely on something like “objective” data to avoid colossal and embarrassing error. (When tasters are told that a certain wine is more expensive, it consistently tastes better; 1st growths almost always taste better than 2nds, especially if you’ve been privy to see the label.) You can think of this as a sort of perceptual Auto-tune. Therefore, I would gently suggest that while we could no doubt make better wine, and indeed we should continue to strive to do so, our problem is not so much that our wines aren’t quite good, or even quite price-worthy, but that we haven’t properly created the right set of received signifiers that offer the conceptual rationale for a revaluation of our wines. There is no doubt that, irrespective of any real changes in wine “quality” (itself a term fraught beyond words), simply by claiming that the wine comes from old, head-trained and/or dry-farmed vines, or was Estate grown, or utilized 100% whole clusters, or was farmed biodynamically or was aged in 100% new, 4 year-old air-dried barrels from the recherché Romanée-Conti cooperage, (or better amphorae from rare clay dug from the Estate itself,) or was produced from a special suitcase clone from the aforesaid Burgundian domaine, or even resulting from privileged winemaking communiqués via Ouija board from the spirit of Henri Jayer, would likely result in the perception of our wine (or indeed any wine) in a new and more flattering way. Maybe it is beside the point that an Estate grown Cigare would likely be truly extraordinary (though we won’t use 100% new barrels, or indeed possibly any barriques at all), but this sort of dramatic paradigm shift seems to be what is necessary to create a real change in the perception of the brand. []
  16. I am complaining and bitterly about the essential unjustness of the world, which, of course, I am in no position to change. []
  17. I will, in fact, tell you in just a moment. []
  18. But, what’s Doon is Doon. []
  19. This sounds to me, as I read it, like perhaps a bit of a rationalization of my own behavioral limitations. My own process is in fact quite slow, maybe just too slow to accomplish what must needs be doon in the remaining years allotted to me. Or maybe I’m subconsciously just not rushing things (as much as they could be expedited) with the knowledge that when the vineyard is fully planted perhaps my work in this lifetime is doon. []
  20. The virtue perhaps, but not necessarily the value. The harsh reality is that farming biodynamically, while a supremely beautiful and noble thing to do, has not, at least in our case, particularly enhanced our ability to raise prices or to increase the velocity of our sales. []
  21. The public and wine industry still remain remarkably confused about where I currently stand in relation to the entity that is BDV, as well as to the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands; many know that I sold something a few tears ago. (Everyone has a slightly different story, but many just assume that I sold the entire company, and have been enjoying something like a life of leisure for the last seven years. []
  22. For the record, it seems to take three years in the ground from planting at Davis, CA and approximately ten years in Torino, Italy. In San Juan Bautista, I would venture that we could split the difference and say perhaps six or seven. []
  23. Remember these are the offspring of the self-fertilized Grenache vines and as such they carry a number of recessive genes, resulting in the botanical equivalent of hip dysplasia in collies, hemophilia and cretinism in human beings. []
  24. We must begin first with establishing mother vines, and observing how they perform, then make the most thoughtful, intuitive extrapolation possible as far as what sets of parents might make the most felicitous union. This is viticultural matchmaking at a very high level. []
  25. Whether it was the biochar that we used in the preparation of the nursery rows, or (one hopes) the biochar in conjunction with the magical qualities of Popelouchum itself, every bit of produce that we have grown from grapes to tomatoes or strawberries, or olives, has evinced incredibly intense flavor and concentration. Maybe this is too important a point to bury in a footnote, but the disparity of the sheer brilliance of the fruit and veggies that we are growing at Popelouchum and the scale at which it is being grown causes me a level of psychic distress that I can only begin to convey to you in this missive. []
  26. Even then I was drawn to the proposition of blended wines, or perhaps intuitively understood that it made sense to hedge one’s bets. []
  27. I also planted Chardonnay and Pinot noir as well; the former was actually quite nice, the latter rather lackluster. This, of course, turned out to be a rather lucky break, as it led me to the Rhône varieties, which, in sum, have worked out quite well for me. I could have quixotically continued to chase after Pinot for all of these years, and ended up sadder, poorer and likely no wiser. []
  28. I am perhaps greatly belaboring the point here but when you produce an Estate wine you are telling the world precisely (and literally) where you stand. If the grapes you are growing make sense and you do it skillfully, there can be no greater expression of congruity. []
  29. The rest of the California wine scene was becoming rather keen on varietally designated wines at that point. []
  30. I lobbied (albeit not so strenuously) for the use of the term “Claret” as a substitute for the incredibly lame term, “Meritage.” []
  31. The take-home lesson here is that a great site, as the original estate seemed to be, will produce wonderful wines from a vast range of grape varieties. []
  32. There is now at last a legitimate reason to take the piss, as with but a few exceptions, the ubiquitous overripe and overwrought style of Cabernet in Napa and elsewhere is just beyond the pale. []
  33. The predominant percentage of the grapes for this wine derives from a vineyard near the Arroyo Seco of Monterey County, generally considered to be the coolish limit for Cabernet. But another instance of utter incongruity here: These grapes are pruned to a style that is called “box pruning,” which is to say they are mechanically pruned as if to resemble a box hedge. I had seen this style of pruning while a student at Davis and was utterly horrified. The vines are ginormous; they clearly use a vast, presumably unsustainable amount of water for their upkeep. And unless you have spent a lot of time in the San Joaquin Valley, you have likely never seen so many grapes on a vine. Virtually everything about this set-up made it my first impulse to flee in the opposite direction. And yet, looking more closely at the vines I observed that all of the fruit was borne on the outside of the plant, well exposed to the light (but not sunburned), and further, the clusters themselves (albeit prolific) were exceptionally small in size, as were the berries themselves. Most significantly, they all appeared to be more or less uniform in their degree of ripeness. This is quite important because underripe Cabernet, especially in a cool climate will give you very unpleasant vegetal flavors that are the kiss o’ death as far as far as drinkability and certainly, commercial viability. But my intention here was to make an elegant wine, with good natural acidity, restraint in alcohol and tannin; at least based on first principles, it seemed as if this programme might work to achieve this end. And of course, it did. I do feel quite pleased with myself to have identified some perhaps undervalued assets (Cabernet and Merlot[!!!]) and to have added incremental value to them. []
  34. As an example of this self-indulgent foolishness, I reproduce for you here an extract from of one of the pseudonymous notes I sent to the retailers and restaurateurs on our mailing list:

    Dear Stockist/slash/Restaurateur,

    Harumph! I’m writing on behalf of Randall Grahm – Mister Smarty Rhôney-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. []

  35. This in fact has been quite rewarding and quite useful, requiring me to move far outside my own vinous comfort zone. If the new Popelouchum experimental vineyard is to succeed, I will need to learn how to taste wines that will likely be rather foreign to me, and to develop enough broad-palatedness to embrace them in their (undoubted) strangeness. []
  36. The Merlot is actually, unexpectedly truly delicious, which makes me really wonder if I understand anything about anything any more. []
  37. “Perelandra Garden Workbook” by Machaelle Wright is a rather strange but compelling practicum in guided meditations helpful to communing with nature spirits. It thinks of these spirits as sagacious counselors, informing the myriad number of decisions taken in planting a garden or farm. []
  38. This is an integral, if painful step in the creation of new varieties, and rather tedious, exacting work. []

Terroir and Meaning: An Interim Recap

WDoctorhat do you do with your life to make it as meaningful as it can be? It has been a while now that I’ve realized that I was not cut out for a brilliant career as a medical researcher, who might potentially find the cure for a dire disease, nor, has it turned out that I really have the aptitude or inclination to be a great social crusader or enlightened politico (if that is not too oxymoronic for words). My sole talent, at least as far as I can tell, seems to be that of a winemaker, an eclectic one at that – a métier that might perhaps allow one to make a very small, eensy, discreet contribution to the sum of human happiness. For great wine, even sometimes wine that is less than great, can be a wonderful comfort to life’s sorrows.

Baby Boomers
Now, the problem is that I, as an aging baby-boomer, confronting his mortality, want ever more meaning in my life, and at least for now, I’m trying to achieve more meaning in my chosen work. This might not be intuitively obvious, but there are some real issues with finding great meaning in growing grapes and making wine in the New World, such as I do, and the issue has something to do with our problematic relationship to the Old World; we suffer from the “anxiety of influence,” in Auden’s phrase.
W.H. Auden
In other words, it is not clear what we can do in the New World that is not hopelessly derivative of the Old World, either by attempting to emulate Old World styles or by defining ourselves in our rejection of the Old World aesthetic and sensibility.

The Old World, through the sheer chance of felicitous historical circumstance – geography, culture, and social organization – found fertile ground, as it were, for the development, at least in some areas, of a high wine culture.
Medieval Monk

It was primarily the church, monks to be specific, working over centuries in the same sites, who were able to accrete subtle and detailed knowledge about the practices leading to the creation of the most sublime nectar – all for the greater glory of God, of course. This knowledge led to the identification of the truly great sites for wine growing in Europe – the grands crus, if you will.
Clos Vougeot Vineyard
As a winemaker in the Old World, if you are fortunate enough to be entrusted to care for one of these great vineyards, your job is really two-fold. First and foremost, you are not to screw it up. Secondly, if you have the wit to manage the first part of your imperative, your secondary task is to explore as deeply as you can, discover, as the French would say, your particular terroir, i.e. the individual distinctiveness of your site. By the way, it continues to amaze and delight me that a winemaker whose family has been making wine in the same location for more than 500 years still talks earnestly about continuing to “discover” his or her terroir. The great crus of Europe are a gift to the world and a winemaker entrusted with their care has been given a rare privilege.
Cote Rotie Vineyard
Why are vins de terroir, or “wines of place” so special? The French make the distinction between vines de terroir and vins d’effort, or “wines of effort” that we do so well in the New World, i.e. those that bear the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker, where the winemaker attempts to control as many variables as possible (drip-irrigation and cultured yeast, for example), and it is his or her intelligence that largely dominates the wine. These wines, to their credit, tend to be very consistent, and generally do not surprise us greatly either positively or negatively. Winemaker in Lab CoatThe problem is that they are only as intelligent as we human beings are, which is to say, not so very. A wine of terroir is one that somehow captures and reflects the great intelligence of nature itself; it opens up a vast breathtaking vista – kind of like the Grand Canyon in a glass – and can awe us with its great depth and complexity. It creates a visceral link to Nature within us and this is a priceless gift. These are wines with life-force, i.e. derived from grapes that have drunk deeply from the soils in which they have grown, imparting a distinctive carte d’identité of their appellation of origin.
Grand Canyon
So, returning to my own existential dilemma. What are we to do in the New World that will permit us to make wines that are as distinctive as the great European wines of place and are somehow also truly relevant to the consumer who is looking for meaning, i.e. real originality? In the New World, we’ve already figured out through winemaking legerdemain how to make wines of superficial charms, better living through maquillage, that fool most of the bright, sunny New World palates most of the time – these wines like Dracula, do not throw any shadow.
Robert Parker
As much as the American wine critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator may love these wines and the producers who make them, deep down we know that what we are doing is really throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that some of it will stick.

In California, we’ve rejected the notion of geography as destiny in favor of reliance on our wits – isn’t this the American way? – seeking technical solutions to making “great” wine, wines made by formula and by the obsessive control of as many variables as possible. We’ve being doing this, I suppose, because it’s more or less worked out well for us, at least for now. California wines are consistent and generally absent conspicuous flaws.

But producing a pleasant wine that doesn’t offend anyone is a rather different proposition than wishing to make a wine that will make its imbibers swoon in ecstatic delirium. To paraphrase the famous Meg Ryan scene in When Harry Met Sally, I’d like, please, what that latter producer is having. When Harry Met Sally
So, you want to do something great in the New World. How do you begin? It should be obvious that you have to grow your own grapes, but that begs the fundamental question: “How do you know you’re growing the right grapes in the right place?”

While there are an infinite number of stupid ways to decide what to grow – you grow Pinot noir in Fresno because you love Pinot noir and you live in Fresno and you like it there – there are really only two reasonable solution sets to the problem of what to grow where. Fresno, CAYou either begin with a grape that you love and try to find a place where you reckon it will be happy, thrive and produce expressive wine, or you begin with a place that you love (and love it not the least for its unique agronomic virtues) and figure out what it is that you might optimally grow in your very special site.

The first solution, which is pretty much what most thoughtful growers pursue, apart from the silly ones who are stuck on Pinot in Fresno, is not, I believe, the best way to creating a unique and distinctive wine.

Multiple Layers of Soil
It is most unlikely that we will find a piece of real estate in the New World as congruent to the unique requirements – climatological, pedological, or hydrological – of a given variety, clone or clonal mix of grapes as you’ll find in any of the great Old World vineyards, which have been finely tuned and adapted over centuries.
Burgundian Winemaker
Our Pinots will not se pinot, if you will – the Burgundians really use this expression, by the way – in the New World without a truly Herculean effort. If you love Burgundy, it’s ultimately a lot cheaper to buy all of the Burgundy you’d ever want to drink.

I have of course forgotten to mention the important reason, if stupid one, why winemakers, at least male winemakers, attempt to grow grapes where they do, and that is a question of testosterone titer. We fling ourselves in the direction of pinot, for example, the “heartbreak grape,” knowing how impossible it is to win her heart.

Photo of Cyrano de Bergerac

Or alternately, we hire surrogate suitors, à la Cyrano de Bergerac – they’re called winemaking consultants – to put in a good word with the fickle mistress.

My contention is that while there are indisputably certain grape varieties that are more interesting than others, what may ultimately be at issue is not the superiority of one variety over another, but rather the appropriateness of fit of a grape or set of grapes to a given site, as well as the potentially unique characteristics of the site itself – maybe there are an infinite number of solution sets to the mystery of how to express terroir – and that brings us to what I believe is the superior strategy of first identifying a truly great site and then working out what it is that you are going to plant.
UC Davis
What is a great site for grapes? Even now, there is still a great philosophical divide between the Old World and New, with the Old World remaining staunch defenders of the primacy of geophysical characteristics, while the savants of UC Davis, at least when I was a student there, claiming that the real issue is one of climate and everything else is a work-around. Clearly, both factors – climate and soil – are crucial, but at the very least you want to avoid the need for a vast number of heroic interventions in your farming practice.
Baggy-pants Vaudevillians
As the old vaudeville joke goes, “Doctor, I broke my leg in three places. What should I do?” “Stay out of those places!”

Certain soils are particularly interesting for the expression of terroir – calcareous, granitic, schistous and volcanic soils, for example, probably because they are mineral-rich and have a lot of interior surface area to support a large population of mycorrhizae, the symbiotic fungi that live in the roots of plants and transport micro-nutrients into the vine.

(You can think of these microorganisms as terroir’s amplifiers.) But there is a slightly tortuous path between vibrant mycorrhizal populations and a glass of wine that makes us want to cry out in joy and wonder. I fear I may be getting a little bogged down here in geeky scientific detail.
Dalai Lama

What I really want to talk about is winemaking, or more specifically, wine-growing as a sort of spiritual pursuit – a quest for excellence, but also a quest for balance (personal as well as vinous) and for communion. We don’t have quite the same pathway available to us in the New World – that of the custodianship of a rare treasure – but perhaps there are some aspects of the notion of terroir that can inform our efforts, and maybe even inspire a new paradigm of this seemingly inviolate, sacrosanct ideal.

In a certain sense, the language of terroir has a lot in common with the language of the spiritual acolyte. One finds one’s personal truth in service to an ideal or reality beyond oneself. The great European wines are named after their place, not after the winemaker – often incorporating the unique geographical features of the site. Discovering terroir is a rigorous discipline, a devotion, you might say, that allows the vine-tender to approach, ever closer, the object of his adoration.
I and Thou
You might call it an I-Thou relationship, in the language of Martin Buber; the site is not a thing to be used, but rather to be embraced and honored. Winemakers – they’re not even winemakers, they’re vignerons, vine-tenders – they come and go, but the terroir goes marching on.

In the New World, we have not received The Good Word, the prescriptive code of viticultural virtue. We are perforce all vinous existentialists of a sort, and have to make our own personal choices about what is beautiful, and might only accidentally discover the truly original. In the recent past, the New World has often taken the path of focusing on wine’s superficial charms but to my mind, this is clearly a dead-end; now it’s time to meet the wine and vines in a new way, but how?

There has always been an implicit cultural aspect to terroir - the notion could not exist without the Cartesian mind-set and the Gallic attitude toward property and historical continuity as the nation’s true patrimony – Avatarand human beings, as interpreters, were and are still always obviously required for terroir to speak. But, maybe it’s now time to expand the notion of terroir beyond the strictly geophysical, or allow a new idea to emerge, the idea that perhaps human beings might in some sense become explicit co-creators of terroir. The most obvious problem for the discovery of terroir, of course, is one of time: The elucidation of terroir has historically been something that has unfolded over centuries.

Unless the technology depicted in the film, Avatar, is on the immediate horizon, it would seem one can’t get there from here, at least in a single lifetime.
Deep Rooted Vines
I have not yet told you my own perhaps crackpot idea for enhancing the possibility of the expression of terroir without the benefit of centuries of iteration and observation.

My notion is to grow grapes in a way as to enhance the soil characteristics of the wine – dry-farmed, deep-rooted vines grown in a healthy, vibrant soils, but also to de-emphasize varietal characteristics themselves, by creating something akin to the old field blends of yesteryear, but with a significant difference. I would propose to grow grapes from seeds, the result of vinifera crosses, rather than from clonally propagated material, as is typically done to retain the desired characteristics of the mother vine.
Head Trained Vines

This would yield a vineyard of extreme genetic diversity, each plant a distinctive genotype. But the questions remain: Will you gain subtlety, nuance and complexity in the resultant wine or will you have cacophony? What degree of difference do you want to see within the population?

Sorority SistersDo grapes that are close enough genetically synchronize their phenology, their ripening patterns, as happens with the menstrual cycles of women living in close proximity? Do you cross two varieties that derive from the same geographical area (Grenache and Mourv̬dre) Рones that you know play well together from a palate perspective, or do you cross varieties Рthis is generally a better idea from a genetic perspective Рfrom very disparate bloodlines, as it were? All of these questions are very highly fraught.
Strong Taproot
Seedlings are interesting for a number of reasons – you find a recapitulation of all of the genetics of the forebearers, favorable and less so. The plants themselves, if you plant them correctly, exhibit strong geotropism, or the tendency to root straight downward, which is quite interesting from a drought-tolerance aspect, and should certainly enhance the expression of soil characteristics.
Gestalt Illustration: foreground/background
But what is perhaps most interesting is perhaps the Gestalt phenomenon of the suppression of one set of taste impressions to allow the emergence of yet another.

I’ve ridiculed a bit the growers who allow emotion (or hormones) to cloud their thinking in making good decisions about what to plant, but what I’d like to now suggest is that what is most needed for terroir to emerge in the New World is for wine-growers to learn a kind of deep empathy above and beyond empirical observation.
Tonio, the Clown from Pagliacci

In the same way that we are now seeing an explosion of the possibilities of consciousness through the rapid expansion of our computational capabilities, allowing for a sort of externalization of our minds, maybe we can think of terroir, or actually, something beyond terroir, as no longer reposing exclusively in the actual physical site itself.
Bill Gates
But, the real power of this idea – to create a vast population of genetically distinctive individuals on a single site is really twofold: a) Might one find an unprecedented level of complexity and distinction when you blend them together? b) In the fullness of time, might there be a particular individual or set of individual plants that really stands out as far as its unique degree of adaptation to the site, selection massale on a very vast scale? (Perhaps that observation may require more than a single lifetime.)Great genetic diversity Bear in mind, there is a human being who is making choices about who are the worthy parents in this experiment. This human being has to be guided by intuition and inspiration, and in the end, his choices are perhaps a bit arbitrary. In the end, the resultant wine ideally should be a delight to his sensibility and aesthetic.

Maybe it’s the narcissistic, somewhat pantheistic Baby Boomer in me, who maintains the fantasy that I, or some transformation of me, will live forever.

Cosmic ManMaybe, what I’m really dreaming about is perhaps a bit tangential to a real expression of terroir. But, if this project allows me to developer a deeper degree of empathy for the vines or even just presence – which is the aspiration of every spiritual pursuit – it will have been highly worthwhile. Also, not a bad thing to perhaps create a slew of new germplasm – remember each vine will be a new and distinctive grape variety – as a paying it forward to the future. I have been so incredibly blessed with the extraordinary opportunities I have been given, this is the very least I can do. Thank you.

This speech was delivered to the International School of the Peninsula on October 6th, 2013.

Wine Quality: Talking the Elusive Vin de Terroir Blues

1_Rapper_MuscatI’ve been asked to talk about the somewhat abstract notion of “quality,” as it pertains to wine. Of course, every winemaker or winery owner thinks about or should be thinking about quality in some sense, but I believe that any discussion of “quality” should have a context and arise from a larger value system or a philosophical aspiration. I tend to think about “quality” in a very immediate existential sense, i.e. it is that elusive thing you must figure out how to express in your wine, lest you perish rather sooner than later. Certainly, these days, it seems that unless you are on an upward trajectory of wine quality, you are likely doomed (or in my instance, dooned) to the slag-heap of wine history. The only other alternative, it seems, is to find an ascendant rapper who happens to be particularly sweet on your sacchariferously over-achieving red wine and let nature take its course. (I’m sorry; that’s a pretty unfair comment, at least to rappers.)

I suppose that many wine producers may generally have a slightly different conception of “quality” than I have; when I was a student at Davis “quality” was a bit of a slippery entity, the ghost in the machine, in a sense, and at least by implication seemed to have more to do with consistency, reproducibility, and possibly, absence of defect. 3_chateau_pavie_bottle_parker_jancisAs winemakers, we may imagine that we are attempting to create something like a Platonic ideal of excellence—balance, complexity, and perhaps even “intensity” (whatever the heck that means) but often this idealized form is rather tricky to define—remember Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker’s slight difference of opinion (“Jancis, you ignorant slut!”) about the infamous bottle of Chateau Pavie.
At the very least, notions of “quality” seem mutable over time and are somewhat prone to fashion, witness the slight discontinuity of wine style of Continuum Estate with respect to the Mondavi Cabs of an earlier era.

I would argue that “quality” in wine is something like the articulate expression of real distinctiveness (in a good way, of course). Having said that, one very disturbing trend I’ve observed is the alarming degree of sameness in many California wines, especially in the larger production, price sensitive segments. 2_73cab_continuumIt is as if there had been a secret conference (a kind of Yalta Summit on wood chips) that set out guidelines as to what are the acceptable and unacceptable attributes in wine. I’m not wishing to be disrespectful, but larger wine companies do tend to be a little bit conservative, shall we say, and often, considerations of “quality” can be another way of saying, “How can we offend the least number of consumers?” In fairness, if you are driven mostly by economics, maybe offending the fewest number of customers and using your marketing clout to establish product differentiation is a reasonable strategy for the short-term, but I’m not convinced it really works so well for the long term.
I would propose that we think about wine quality in a somewhat different way, but I believe we have to begin with throwing out the idea of “giving the consumer what he or she wants.” For one thing, I’m not really sure that the customer really knows what he or she wants, and the other point is that the customer wants a lot of different things under different circumstances. I believe that consumers generally like everything that is made well—big, powerful, tannic bruisers as well as lighter, more elegant reds; fresh and crisp Rieslings and rich, buttery Chards, depending on the mood, the occasion and the season, of course.

I had a most eye-opening experience a few years ago when I sat on a panel with the head of grape research for an exceptionally large unnamed winery in Modesto, CA., and we were ostensibly talking about promising grape varieties for the future. He was a nice enough guy, but how he talked about the grape research at this very large winery was a bit disturbing. 5_gallo_bldg_logoIt turns out that his group had identified certain kinds of flavors, aromas, textures and visual appearances of certain wines that their focus groups had associated with “quality,” and conversely, a number of flavors and aromas that were associated with lack of quality or in other words, “defect.” So, for example, bright fruity flavors like raspberry, cherry and licorice were all to the good. Good color intensity, weight and persistence on the palate, palpable but soft tannins bravo, indeed extra bravo. Grapes that produced wines that were exceptionally high in acid, lighter in color or had anything like bitter, green or herbaceous flavors were immediately disqualified.
So, as you can see, if pinot noir, cabernet franc or nebbiolo were to be considered de novo, they would likely not make it past the first cut. And yet, these are perhaps the genius red grape varieties—I might add “syrah” to that short list, and we all know how well that has worked out of late, especially grown where it has been grown. The point I’m trying to make is that any consideration of “quality” is enormously contextual. Italian grape varieties generally have a different sort of tannic structure than say French varieties, and stylistically, tend to be higher in acid; they work better with Italian food.
But I would not want to say that French grapes make better wine than Italian ones. I would also argue that if you are only interested in producing wines that are all sweetness and light, without shadow, if you will, you will end up producing something that is essentially banal. It is ultimately the play between all of the elements of a wine that create real complexity and interest. But perhaps more to the point, the congruity of fit between the grapes and where they are grown, as well as their ability to convey a mysterious additional element—the elusive, quasi-mystical notion of terroir, may well be the most important quality consideration of them all.
This brings me to an exceptionally important point in any consideration of wine quality, and that is the tension between the efforts of the winemaker to make a “successful” or at least consistent wine and his efforts to make a “truthful” wine. Put a slightly different way, what is the appropriate balance between the expression of a defined winemaking style and the elucidation of the qualities that somehow inhere in the grapes or wine itself, or more accurately, in the site from which the grapes derive?
The French, a somewhat dichotomous, Cartesian lot, make an important distinction between two kinds of wine: what they call vins d’effort or “wines of effort” and vins de terroir, or “wines of place.” You can think of this as a sort of dichotomy, but I prefer to think of it more as a continuum.
Wines of effort are ones where the winemaker has exerted a lot of control over the many variables in grape growing and winemaking and has made a very strong stylistic imprint on the wine—from the use of selected clones in the vineyard, to drip irrigation, cultured yeast and inoculated ML bacteria, enzymes, wood chips, micro-oxygenation and organoleptic tannins.
All of these interventions are done to create a certain consistency of style and to overcome the putative “deficits” of a particular vintage. These are the sorts of interventions—you can think of them as efforts to improve “quality”—that we in the New World are particularly good at. In a certain sense, this is really what we do best, and for that reason, our wines have great consistency from vintage to vintage and are arguably “friendlier” to the consumer. It’s not just the tannins that are friendlier, but the fact that the consumer has a reasonable expectation of what he or she is going to get every vintage.
But I would argue, that this kind of intervention, this great power to determine a wine’s stylistic fate, is, in a certain sense, a sort of Faustian compact. We have gained the world (and a lot of market share), but have lost our souls, or at the very least, quite often our soils. We’ve created a real glass ceiling as far as potential complexity; our wines are only as interesting and clever as we are, and unfortunately, I would submit, that is maybe not so very.
Let’s consider the other category: vins de terroir. These are the wines where the winemaker strives to somehow capture and reflect in the wine the inherent qualities of the site from which it derives, as well as the characteristics of the vintage, and by extension the great complexity and intelligence of Nature itself. They can offer an extraordinary added level of complexity to wine—literally a sort of extra-dimensionality in several respects.
The mineral aspect of these wines (let’s pretend for a moment that we understand what this really means) deriving from special, particularly expressive soil types—volcanic, limestone, schist, shale, granite, most markedly—can offer a distinctive aroma—whether the flintiness of limestone, the wet stoniness of basalt, or the “hydrocarbure” of schist—and gives the mid-palate a special kind of length or “sustain,” if you will. (This is a kind of structure given to the wine above and beyond the structure provided by the tannins and the other elements of the wine’s antioxidant profile.)

This opens the door to a much broader and ultimately crucial discussion about wine quality, to wit, the ability of a wine to resist oxidative challenge. 14_los_bermejos_vineyardIn very simple terms, you open the bottle of wine, drink a glass or two, put the cork or screwcap back in or on and the wine will be good two days, three days, a week, sometimes even several weeks after it’s been open. I will just come right out and say it:

We, as an industry, have utterly failed in not identifying the essential wine mystery and the key feature of wine quality: Why do some wines live and some wines die? What strategies might we undertake to give our wines greater qi, greater life-force? (Hint: In my humble estimation, this all derives from the vineyard and the practices employed therein to make minerals available to the vine.)
One way I think about terroir is to use the terminology of communication theory—the signal/noise ratio. The winemaker is still working exceptionally hard, but with a different intention—to minimize any sort of jarring element, the noise of too much oak, the pruniness of over-ripe grapes, the vegetative aromas of underripe ones, and also the pleasant but potentially deformative aromas of certain cultured yeasts, and for that matter the deformation from spoilage organisms such as Brett. At the same time he or she is trying to boost the intensity and clarity of the signal, which is or at least should be the distinctiveness of the site, and I’ll talk about that in a moment.
The aesthetic of terroir can be somewhat subjective and every winemaker will interpret his terroirs a little differently. We must remember that the tools in the modern winemaker’s toolbox—cultured yeast, enzymes, the sugar used to chaptalize, the tartaric acid used to acidulate, the organoleptic tannins—are all in some sense “natural” products, or at least analogues of what one might find in the grape itself. But what is “polishing” for one person can be a sort of airbrushing or the application of excessive make-up, maquillage, for another. There is something creepy about faces that are too perfect; they don’t quite feel right or real.
While there is certainly a great degree of artifice in winemaking, you don’t want to see the seams. In a great vin de terroir, the winemaker has humbly painted himself discreetly into a corner; somehow it is the unique qualities of the site that take center-stage—the Musignyness of Musigny, for example, and add an aesthetic frisson to the experience.
So, what are the positive steps that a winemaker might take to accentuate the unique character of his site, its terroir? This is really the meat of the matter. Let’s begin in the vineyard: Lower yields certainly can be dramatically effective in improving quality (but not too crazy low, as that can create a deformation), closer vine spacing while holding yields static (there was a famous study in Chianti that demonstrated this or more accurately, a more favorable ratio of root mass to fruit volume).
This is probably the single most consistent determinant of grape quality, all things being equal. (A little parenthetical note here: Drip irrigation or worse, fertigation, as is our wont in this part of the world, generally works pretty much against the achievement of this critical ratio.)
Then, there is the practice of organic or biodynamic farming, which has been shown to significantly enhance mycorrhizal populations, providing for healthier plants and significantly better mineral uptake. (Ah, minerals…. As I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the subject of another very, very long discussion.)

There is also just plain old good management practice, beginning with thoughtfulness of vineyard design and meticulousness of management.

Balanced, homeostatic and thrifty growth is what you are looking for: smaller leaves, smaller clusters, shorter internodes—you want to be a kind of viticultural Goldilocks in this regard, and get your vigor “just right.” Old vines (ideally, dry-farmed), if they live long enough, have figured this out by Nature’s innate wisdom. If you can get to a dry-farmed solution sooner than later, I would humbly suggest that allowing Nature to do the heavy lifting will give you a more perfect kind of balance than that which the cleverest agronomist might suggest. Uniformity of ripening, achieved by rigorous thinning, I think, is also a pretty important quality factor.
But, in the end, where you’ve chosen to plant a vineyard and what you’ve planted are the most important qualitative decisions you can make. In general, we’ve planted grapes in areas that are far too warm for the optimal expression of varieties, and we’ve farmed them in a way that doesn’t send the right hormonal signals to the vines, gentle suggestions that they might consider getting on with the business of ripening their fruit.
Dry-farmed vineyards carrying modest crops will ripen three to four weeks earlier than conventionally farmed vineyards, and this of course opens up all sorts of possibilities.
The major work to improve wine quality is, as I’ve suggested, done in the vineyard with the aim of avoiding heroic levels of intervention in the winery—acidulation, de-alcoholization, addition of yeast nutrients, the deployment of sundry microbial inocula, and so forth, but there are certainly things that can be done in the winery to improve quality, and the among them might be strategies to greatly reduce the use of sulfur dioxide.
Cold cellars, delayed malolactics can greatly reduce the total amount of sulfur dioxide required. But why stop there? It’s not inconceivable that with the right focus and intention one could eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide altogether in the winery and still produce wines that were not inordinately funky and remained fresh. Why not think about organisms that might perform a tertiary fermentation, depleting the wine of nutrients that would otherwise support microbial spoilage?
So, to close the loop on wines that express a sense of place: We, in California, generally don’t get there from here. For one, our soils are often not particularly interesting or appropriate for a vin de terroir—the old soils, for example are often heavily weathered and depleted of minerals, nor do we farm them in such a manner that might allow for the expression of terroir. Nor, fundamentally, as a young wine-drinking culture do we particularly esteem the earthy/haunting wines of place; these flavors are subtle, and subtle is not yet a quality that is currently greatly appreciated in the din of the wine agora, but this certainly can change.
And I have not even mentioned how utterly challenging it might be to identify the most appropriate sites in California for a terroir-expressive vineyard at least in a single lifetime, and the difficulty in working out the most congruent rootstocks and grapes to grow on those sites. In light of this disappointing news, why would one even choose to get out of bed in the morning?
Samuel Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And it certainly does make sense for us here to go on. There are in fact extraordinary things that we can do in California to lend distinctiveness to our wines and to truly improve wine quality. There is a company that is working to help wine growers isolate and identify unique yeast strains that exist in their vineyards—those that are perhaps the optimal performers for their site. There are several exceptional soil amendments—one notably, biochar, or activated charcoal, that can really help in the uptake of minerals in the soil, conferring a greater expression of site.
The use of well made compost, especially with the addition of biodynamic preparations and rock dust I find to be among the single most useful things one can do to improve the health and vitality of a vineyard. Myself, I am particularly keen on the idea of growing grapes from seed (phylloxera-risk permitting) and thus creating a tremendous range of new and unique germplasm; this could provide the complexity of a gamut of unique genotypes in a given vineyard. This project will last longer than a single life-time, but ultimately could generate absolute individuality and uniqueness to a wine, as well as enormously accelerate the process of selection massale, undoubtedly the key to enhanced congruity of variety, clone and perhaps sub-clone to a given site.
In other words, how cool would it be to have uniquely bespoke varieties for your vineyard? In the end, the greatest advantage we have in the New World is our relative youth and the ability to see the wine world with fresh eyes.

There is also the other small fact that we are incredibly blessed that our industry is largely unimpeded by the vast tangle of rules and regulations that European wine growers must contend with.
I’d like to mention a fellow I know in the Valais in Switzerland, by the name of Hans-Peter Schmidt, who is doing a lot of work with biochar in vineyards there and in France. (He, by the way, reckons that biochar doesn’t really improve things much in the mineral-rich, glacially deposited soils of the Valais, but could be quite interesting in soils that are more depleted.) Strangely enough, he is producing wines without any SO2, and which also, counter-intuitively, don’t seem to readily oxidize, nor develop any significant levels of volatile acidity.
I’m not quite sure how he has come to this conclusion, but he believes that he has brought into his cellar a particular species of bacteria, an endophyte, through the roots of the vines, that has persisted through the course of fermentation and cellaring and is somehow keeping other competitive spoilage organisms in check—he’s been attempting some DNA profiling to try to get a handle on what it might be. I don’t know if his theory is utterly crackpot or not, but I’ve tasted his wine and it does seem to confound every received wisdom I’ve entertained about immutable winemaking truths.
So, in conclusion, I would suggest that the best course to improve wine quality in our part of the world is to remain open to the possibility of phenomena we can’t explain, and above all, remain humble to the fact that if we want to be particularly clever, we should attempt to leverage the greater intelligence of the natural world. And in this intensely competitive wine world that we inhabit, truly differentiated products arising from the originality of Nature’s intelligence, will ultimately confer the only real sustainable competitive advantage. Thank you.

This speech was delivered July 23rd to a Conference on Wine Quality, conducted at the Asilomar Conference Center, under the auspices of Diageo Wine Company.

“Maybe Not Racked” by Syrah Mix-A-Lot

“Maybe Not Racked”1 by Syrah Mix-A-Lot

I like big butts2 and I cannot lie

You other winemakers can’t deny

That when you taste great wine like the “Hill of Grace”3

And a lot of funked-up esters in your face you get sprung

I’m talking about juice that got da funk

Not the spoofulated shizzle that gets you crunk

Talking anaerobic élevage,4 yo
With some sick cépages, yo, ain’t no mirage, bro

(The truffe will set you free.)

Oh, what am I gonna serve wit’cha?

Some baby-got-back-ribs, pretty as a Bon Appétit picture

My homeboy Marvin, tried to warn me in the Specta-ta

But that 500 liter butt you got – I got to investigate her

Ooh, Horse-rumpo blanket, you ridin’ bareback

Sippin’ on a ‘45 Latour or some other nasty Pauillac5

Well excuse me, excuse me,

I aint no point-score groupie

The palate impression is really dancin’
To hell with sip and swirl romancin’

It’s got dat funky saddle-sweat,6 yeah, wet

Da microbe dat dare not speak its name: (Brett)

I’m tired of those wine magazines

Saying that big fruit and Def Jamminess is the thang

Take the average wine geek and ask him that
If his main juice squeeze is a fruit bomb tease – soft and pHat7

So Wine Geeks


Wine Geeks


Has your vino got the funk?
(Hell yeah!)

Tell ‘em to aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate that funky butt!

Maybe get racked!

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Maybe get racked!

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

I like ‘em dusty and not too big

And when I’m throwin’ doon at a winemaker dinner gig

I just can’t help myself, I like the scent of animal
Now, (pay-atches),8 here’s my scandal

I wanna drink you at home

In UH, a double-mag UH UH!

I ain’t talkin’ bout 95 point wines

‘cause you open them up and next day they’re in steep decline,9

Talking DOA, a perfect flat-line


I don’t want ‘em extra thick and juicy

Like a raspberry milkshake or worse a double

Syrah Mix-A-Lot’s in trouble

When it’s so funked up it begins to bubble

So I’m lookin’ at Nicolas Joly in a Bio-D video

No herbicide, baby, kill them weeds with hoes

You can keep them fancy chateaux
I’ll stick with funk-master, Jacques Reynaud10

(He was kicking some Ray-ass)

Now a word on thick, overripe mixtures; I just can’t seem to get wit’cha

Just can’t drink ya, I gotta spit ya’

But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna UH!

Sip on that fancy space- juice ‘til the break of Doon!

Yeah, that wine’s really got it goin’ on

And forgive the commercial message in this song

‘Cause some critics like to hit it and then quit it

Don’t know if this Ci-gare is on anyone’s radar

(It ain’t from around here.)

So wine-man!



If you can tolerate a little mercaptan


Then splash it ‘round! Swirl it ‘round!

And a clear tone you will perceive

Even white wines got to breathe11
Maybe get racked!

Maybe get racked!

Yeah baby, when it comes to a final arbitrator

It ain’t gonna be the Wine Speculator

Or even Tanzer or the even fancier

Burghound – Dawg, you gots to throw me a Beaune,
Cause I want my wine waiter to be a wine-lover not a wine-hater.12

90 plus point wines? Ha, ha, only if they’re vintage ‘59

So your young Wall St. trader is rolling with the Spectator

And he’s jonesin’ for Screaming Eagle
But the Baby Gangsta is barely legal

And his point spread is more spread-eagle

(He is assuming the position; for that price he could buy La Mission.)

Y’all doon with that?

Spare me new barriques, I prefer old redwood vat

And them yeasties, I prefer them indigenous

As would B.I.G.G.I.E, he was doonright bigamous

I got nothing ‘gainst Saccharomyces

‘Cept without the funk there ain’t no exotic spices.
That little bitta brett can be seen as a threat

But be open to a little nastiness: Get yourself a new mind-set

So the press say your wine gotta be pHat

And loaded with primary fruit; what’s wrong with dat?

‘Cause you’re not just sippin’, your slidin’ in a meal, yo

And you want it to work with the whole damn deal-io

To the spoofulated higher scorers: you ain’t nowheres

You ain’t got that, Mme. Osmose-inverse13

Give me a vin de terroir for a nice long pour

Cassoulet and foie gras – soulfood for the bourgeois

Some knucklehead tried to dis
These funked-up wines, bump ‘em from his list

He brought in a toothless pinot grigio by the glass

Maybe I bust a (screw)cap in his Ass-mannshausen

So, pour ‘em

(Pour ‘em!)
Ain’t no need to score ‘em

Just take a moment to explore ‘em

And if it got da funk you might adore ‘em

If you’ve heard this tune & gonna crack one soon

And you wanna triple X throw-doon

Dial 1-8-0-0-RHONE-RANGER

And kick them nasty thoughts of the Rhône Estranger

Maybe got racked!

Maybe got racked!

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

  1. Anaerobic élevage is not an obvious subject matter for a rap video, but if you are doing parody, you generally remain a bit constrained by your material. In fact, the lyrics would work a whole lot better if the piece were intended as a paean to big, pHat wines. One might then be able to take the piss out of the poncy, cerebral followers of “natural” or “mineral”-intensive wines (such as myself). Certainly, the video (if it ever gets made) would enjoy a much wider, possibly viral audience and along the way, its self-parodic nature would be obscured. (I think I’ll now go soak my head.) In the piece, I profess a certain admiration for “da funk,” but in fact, this doesn’t accurately reflect my view. I love the earthiness and slight reductive aspect that comes from proper élevage, but I am, in fact, not at all doon with microbial funk. []
  2. A “butt” is an alternate, but proper description of a five hundred liter barrel []
  3. It’s the shi(ra)z (from Stephen Henschke), and also known to possess a non-trivial amount of funk []
  4. Anaerobic élevage (or cellaring) is one of the several differentiating winemaking practices between Old World and New. Anaerobic élevage, which generally signifies the retention of lees and minimal racking, (especially in the winter after vintage), allows the wine to develop some extremely interesting earthy/meaty/animal aspects (sometimes confounded with the presence of brettanomyces), though presence of lees can itself act as a nutrient source for microbial contamination []
  5. Vintages of Ch. Latour, especially during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s have had quite a frequent incidence of Brettanomyces. I am given to understand (not having tasted the wines) that the chateau has cleaned things up a bit. []
  6. Most likely 4-ethyl phenol []
  7. Wines higher in pH (pushing 4) are generally just asking for microbial infection. []
  8. A bit pathetic to footnote a (reasonably clever) joke, but in French, pH is pronounced “pay- asch.” []
  9. There is an old adage that wines will either ripen on the vine or in the bottle, but it is certain that wines made from exceptionally ripe grapes have much foreshortened life-spans. This is likely a result of the tannin-anthocyanin complex continuing to polymerize, with the wine’s “fruit” essentially drying up. []
  10. Jacques Reynaud was the late proprietor of Ch. Rayas, known equally for the utter funkiness of his cellar and the sublimity of his wines. []
  11. Most especially white wines that have not been filtered, eg. Le Cigare Blanc Réserve. []
  12. Sohm, the somm, got (some) game, y’all. []
  13. Miss Reverse Osmosis []


18th Annual Rhone Rangers San Francisco Bay Area Weekend Celebration of American Rhones

March 27 & 28
The Winemakers Dinner on Friday night, March 27 will kick off the weekend at The Golden Gate Club in the Presidio.  Join us for a magical evening hosted by fourteen Rhone Rangers winemakers including Randall Grahm.
Catering by The Girl & The Fig.

Saturday March 28, at the Craneway Pavilion & Conference Center is the Seminar Series and Grand Tasting. Randall Grahm will be on the panel of the first seminar: "Rose made from American Rhone Grape Varieties," showcasing the new releases of rose, perfectly timed for your summer ahead.

tickets and event info

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2009 Le Cigare Volant RéserveElective Affinities

"Brilliant matchings of wine & literature"

CIGARE of the FUTURE | pg 253
with 2009 Le Cigare Volant ~

More info on the Wines of
Bonny Doon Vineyard