I’d like to share with you some of the things I have learned in lo, these many years in the wine business. When I entered the business I was just a naïve kid who wanted to make great Pinot noir, because, well, you know…. (If you don’t know, Pinot is incredibly difficult to do well anywhere outside of Burgundy, and being a guy, which is to say a show-offy kind of guy, I just wanted to do it to show the world that it could be Doon.)
I went to Burgundy, and risking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, brought back some special Samsonite clones of Pinot noir. The presence of limestone in the soil is considered by many to be a sine qua non for great Pinot, so I schlepped in enormous truckloads of limestone into the vineyard I was planting in the eponymous hamlet of Bonny Doon.
I found some Basque shepherds who hooked me up with sheep manure (go figure, but sheep manure is actually really helpful for the expression of minerality), planted the vines on very close spacing, as is the custom in Burgundy. Despite these heroic efforts – I was really obsessed with Pinot at the time, more or less lived and breathed it – the resulting wine was really nothing to write home about.
Luckily for me, I met an Albanian wine merchant – that would be Kermit Lynch, who had a tiny little store in Albany, CA at the time – and he turned me on to Rhône wines. I postulated that since it was warm and dry in southern France, warm and dry in the Central Coast of California, maybe the varieties of southern France would do well here. Long story short, they did well indeed, or at least the ones that I managed to find and grow, though in retrospect, they just as easily might not have.
In 1984, we produced our first vintage of Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and this was a slightly revolutionary wine in several respects. I was working with grape varieties that not so many people had heard of: Few people knew that Grenache could actually make a red wine, Syrah was amazingly pretty much unknown or often confused with Petite Sirah, and Mourvèdre… No one had ever heard of it or if so could not pronounce it.
So, I was trying to produce a premium wine from grapes that no one had ever heard of, and blending them all together such that I was not permitted to varietally name the wine – the received wisdom then was that no one would spend more than five or six dollars for a mere “blend” and even now that category, unless it is a premium Bordeaux blend from Napa, is quite challenged.
How could I possibly make this work? I had never studied marketing in school, and in fact, the whole idea of actually trying to sell something made me and continues to make me more than a little queasy. But when you have to rely on your wits to succeed, i.e. you are in a Doon or Die situation, you tend to come up with something.
Originally, I was going to call the wine “Old Telegram,” as a reference to the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Télégraphe.
But as I read up on the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I came across a very strange story about the town council of one of the villages adopting an ordinance prohibiting the landing of flying saucers and flying cigars in their vineyards. I thought to myself – these people are absolutely nuts, but what a great idea for a wine label! I met with the label designer and we created a faux engraving of an old-time wine label, except with the subversive element of a “flying cigar” hovering overhead.
It turns out that I had accidentally discovered that one could deploy humor in one’s marketing arsenal. Honestly, I didn’t really have too many other armaments at my disposal at the time. But the wine business at least in those days was oh so serious, and most everyone wanted to display a great degree of gravitas on their label. They hadn’t yet cottoned to the fact that many people have a great deal of anxiety about wine – they’re sometimes too shy to try to pronounce it or otherwise display their ignorance of what can be a fairly arcane subject. If you can send the meta-message that wine on whatever level can be fun and an adventure you can connect with customers in a special way.
So, I was perhaps lucky in being one of the first to accidentally discover the power of wit on a wine label, but it wasn’t long after that that many producers, especially the larger ones, discovered that it didn’t really matter so much what was in the inside of your bottle, but if you put a cute animal on the outside– these are the so-called “critter labels” – people, mostly women, shopping in supermarkets, I’m told – would load piles of the stuff into their shopping carts. These wine-like beverages are the products of extremely cynical marketers and most of them are utterly execrable. The market remains littered with the droppings of the menagerie of critter labels and other labels that are just unspeakably crass.
I made one terrible mistake – actually many mistakes – but the one that turned out in the end to be almost fatal was in not properly segmenting or sequestering the various brands that we were producing, which may have ultimately led to something like brand dilution if not brand taint (and a more metaphysical problem as well). Allow me to explain. Le Cigare Volant, our Rhône blend, is a very serious wine – not quite as profound as I believe it could be (more about that in a minute) – but it is a pretty thoughtful, well-made wine and in fact has achieved somewhat iconic status. By the mid-nineties I found that I had grown Cigare to about as large as it could grow to organically but just couldn’t take it any further. I’ll just find another revenue stream, thought I, and we’ll use the proceeds from that to polish and perfect Le Cigare Volant.
We produced a wine called Big House Red, then Big House White and Pink and then Cardinal Zin.
As it turned out, Big House became a very hungry beast to feed and we never seemed to get around to truly polishing the precious jewel that was Cigare.
All along I suspected that I was becoming more and more of a hypocrite. I was writing articles and giving speeches about terroir – that quality in wine that somehow illuminates its place of origin. I was writing about how utterly precious this idea was and how much it enriched our world.
But looking at myself in the mirror I asked myself if there was anything at all I was doing to bring myself any closer to the pursuit of a vin de terroir in this lifetime and the production of wines that truly mattered. Answer: Nothing.
A fairly serious medical condition and the birth of my daughter more or less brought my existential crisis to a resolution; I could no longer remain such an arrant hypocrite.
So, it was a little more than eight years ago that I sold off our large brands and radically Doon-sized the company by an order of magnitude. I was now going to pursue terroir. A moment ago I mentioned the dangers of mixing the impure with the, let’s call it, relatively pure. I believe that, in retrospect, our core premium brands were substantially weakened by association with the vin ordinaire, Big House.
It’s like the old joke about fucking just one goat… What do they then call you? Big House, shall we say, was my one goat, and I fear that the overall brand may have been slightly corrupted by the association with it.
To be totally candid, business exigencies sometimes compel one to go Doon-market and produce a product that may not be of comparable quality to one’s best efforts. Even the first-growth Bordeaux wines have a second label and in some cases a third label.
But I can’t stress how important it is to try to keep one’s own internal compass, to know what’s kosher, what is trayf, and make the most sincere effort to be as absolutely congruent as one can be to one’s deepest values, aesthetic, moral and spiritual.
So, I’m going for it now. But it has not been without a significant degree of fear and trembling about the course forward. As I said, I’ve always greatly admired, indeed, have been obsessed with wines of place, but it has always has struck me as being just too difficult to achieve in the New World. I’ve had to overcome my own fear of failure to really move this project forward, and indeed there is always the very real chance that this won’t work. But the methodology of how I intend to produce a wine of place is quite interesting, and even if it fails to yield a true vin de terroir, I am certain it will make a positive contribution to the viticultural world.
I have talked at great length and written incessantly in my blog,
about why terroir is so valuable, how it affects us the way it does, how it might be discovered and amplified, that sort of thing. I’ve said on more than one occasion that if you want to talk about wines that matter, you really only need consider vins de terroir; everything else is frankly bullshit and a distraction.
Why do wines of place matter? For the same reason that distinct species of butterflies, birds or salamanders or the discovery of new stars and galaxies matter. They add richness and complexity to our lives. A wine of place is more than the blending of some interesting flavors; it affects us in a very different way than a wine that bears the strong stylistic impression of a human being; a vin de terroir links us in a very visceral way to Nature’s vast intelligence and organization. I truly believe this with all my heart.
So, if you’re intending to produce a wine of place where do you begin? Presumably, you begin by selecting a grape variety (and rootstock) that is supremely appropriate or congruent to the site. (Another way of thinking about a great terroir is that it is one that is supremely congruent to the variety or clone, i.e. it solves most of the vine’s issues most of the time.)
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 and perfected 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, or 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 Ranger or more precisely a Popelouchum Ranger. (That’s the name of my farm just outside of the funny little town of San Juan Bautista).
Perfect congruence is undoubtedly too difficult to achieve in a single lifetime, and maybe even too abstract a notion to entertain, but perhaps there may be another approach that will lead to originality as well as the expression of place.
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, but these wines have been an assemblage of grapes from sundry terroirs, and lack therefore a sense of the somewhereness that would imbue them with a greater degree of gravitas and coherence. 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.
As it turns out, I have a radical notion that might represent a route for vineyards in California, seeking to find a unique path towards a wine of place, and thus arguably “necessary.”
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 truly more sustainable fashion, especially in light of Global Climate Change.
The idea of what I am calling the “10,000 Grape Vine Project” 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 optimally suited to a given location, 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 of drought and heat tolerance, which would likely be very useful in light of climate change and shrinking availability of resources.
Then there is the second part of the idea that I’d like to propose to you. While it would be exceptionally cool to find individual plants that have unique characteristics that are particularly brilliant – this is a bit like winning the lottery – there are potentially other very interesting things to be shown by planting a vineyard comprised of a vast range of germplasm; every plant, in fact, is a little bit different from every other one, rather like fraternal twins.
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?
In addition to identifying individual plants that might have superior characteristics, the other part of the study is to focus on farming strategies that will enable one to produce wines in a truly more sustainable fashion. One element of this would be the minimization of external inputs and constrained resources, chiefest among them being water.
Dry-farming, i.e. farming without supplemental irrigation, strikes me as utterly crucial to both a true expression of place (otherwise you are growing plants in a flower pot) and a great strategy for real sustainable viticulture. We are looking at Biodynamic farming, key-line plowing, the integration of livestock in the vineyard, even into late springtime (their pee is actually is a non-trivial source of moisture), as well as the use of a biochar/compost mixture, which can enhance the water-holding capacity of soils by as much as thirty-five percent. All of these strategies aim to create a greater degree of homeostasis, or vine balance, as well as to create Edenic living conditions for beneficial soil microflora, thus amplifying the signal of the sense of place. I dream about an old-fangled vineyard – no trellising, no wire, no end-posts, no irrigation, i.e. a state of the art 19th century vineyard. This would be a low-input, and low output vineyard, but the quality should be exceptional.
Popelouchum, my farm in San Juan, has, I believe, some pretty remarkable, sexy terroirs – clay limestone, granitic and volcanic soils. My plan is to systematically sequester the grapes from the individual terroirs, each planted to this very diverse field-blend. I’m initiating a crowd-funding initiative as soon as I can get all of the elements lined up; needless to say I need to hit it out of the park on this one, so I want to do it right.
There is potentially a diverse range of potential benefits to the potential investor, including but not limited to the opportunity to have one’s own unique grape variety named after oneself, as well as access to the new germplasm that will be created. While farm-to-table has become somewhat clichéd in parts, it is my intention to create something even more special, essentially a pop-up restaurant rather in the middle of the vineyard, offering visitors and patrons the opportunity to dine amongst the germplasm, as it were. This project is for me the culmination of what has been a rather heterodox career, maybe I’ve dawdled for a couple too many years in experimentation and play, but it has prepared me for this great leap; now, at last, I am buckling doon.
This speech was presented at the Food + Enterprise Conference, in Brooklyn, New York on March 1st, 2015 – a social impact, mission-driven event dedicated to promoting understanding and collaboration amongst multiple stakeholders – farmers, entrepreneurs, consultants, funders and investors – who aim to finance a better local food system.