Speech presented at the Food + Enterprise Conference

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.

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, Pacific

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.

I (Art) & Soul Winemaking

I became a winemaker and winery owner some thirty years before seemingly everyone else on the planet decided that they wanted to become one too.1,2 Apart from not particularly welcoming the rash of competition, it has been fairly easy for me to attribute slightly less noble motivations to the arrivistes than I imagine I harbor within myself, although perhaps they are simply a lot more honest with themselves than I have been with myself about what truly motivates them.3,4


I was a bit too young to experience the mid-‘60s and its quixotic, neuro-expansive aspirations with full force, which was perhaps a fortunate outcome. But there was still enough residual patchouli (and God knows what else) in the atmosphere in the early ‘70s to cense my sensibility with a healthy skepticism about following any of the prescribed career paths,5 as well as to engender a certain kind of naïve optimism that even in the absence of a plan, things would somehow work out. (In our current age, this seems like a belief system from antiquity.) I had studied philosophy and literature (and pre-med among other things) at UC Santa Cruz,6 with essentially no career game plan in mind, and took my very sweet time in ultimately securing a diploma; this just drove my parents absolutely nuts, which was, of course, a secondary gain.


It is hard, at least for me at this remove, to even imagine how I could have simply let myself get carried along on life’s surface, but float I did for several years. I worked for my dad for a year in his wholesale tool and merchandise business. (I helped put together a catalogue of the company’s wares, and did some other odd jobs.) The one certainty I had was that his business – the buying and selling of general merchandise – was absolutely not for me. How could one become at all passionate about selling widgets, or even simply care about the business deal qua deal, which was what seemed to get my dad up in the morning?


Can the winemaking life become a sort of spiritual path or even an avenue for personal development? This was certainly not how I thought of it when I first began. It is hard to precisely reconstruct how I conceived of where it was I was headed when I began, but as a child of the ‘60s-’70s, especially living in Northern California, a sparkly geode’s throw from Esalen Institute in Big Sur, the awareness of the human potential movement (think Abraham Maslow and Fritz Perls) seemed to be deeply inculcated into the minds of those of my cultural and generational milieu. We were all going to have to eventually find jobs, of course, but we also had to find jobs that had Meaning, ideally ones that would nurture us well beyond fulfilling our material needs.


While working on my undergraduate senior thesis on the Heidegerian notion of Dasein (alas, never to be completed), I wandered into a rather swanky wine shop a few blocks from my parents home in Beverly Hills, where I was staying. “Would you like to open a charge account?” I was asked the first time I visited the shop. (I was not yet even of drinking age.) I’m not quite sure how any young person who was trying to find his way to something vaguely connotative of adulthood, if not sophistication, could possibly have declined that invitation.7 I did not come from a family that really drank wine, and maybe that was part of the reason I took the offer. It was almost as if a most intriguing wormhole into a different dimension of experience was being offered.


The charge account led soon to temporary employment at the shop (the thesis was bogging down by then), and then to full-time employment, if not complete vinous immersion, that is to say, some pretty impressive opportunities to taste the greatest wines of the world, essentially on a daily basis. In a relatively short time I found myself grown into a full-fledged, insufferable wine person.8 When I left the wine shop a year later I briefly imagined that I might enter the wine trade in some capacity, perhaps as a wine importer. But I happened to take a home winemaking weekend course at UCLA Extension and not long after that the light went on. What I remember telling myself: “Randall, you have some very diverse interests and talents and can perhaps describe yourself as ‘eclectic.’” (This is another way of saying: “You seem to be reasonably intelligent but have the attention span of a flea.”) I have in general not been so clever at making certain life and/or business choices, but in this instance, a certain daimon was definitely whispering in my ear: “Listen carefully now, R.G. Learning to be a winemaker will help you knit together some of these very disparate elements of yourself and give your life a kind of focus, which, frankly, just between us, seems to be slightly lacking.” At the time I never really thought of myself as potentially some kind of artist or even a craftsman;9,10 I just wanted to find some sort of organizing principle for my life, or even just a vaguely remunerative gig.

I managed to graduate UC Davis and with the help of my family acquired some land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, ostensibly to make the Great American Pinot Noir. I failed spectacularly at making T.G.A.P.N. but was fortunate to discover the wines of southern France.11 I didn’t know it at the time but it was a significant imaginative leap to begin working with Rhône grape varieties when I did in the early ‘80s.12 Hardly anyone knew anything about these grapes. Blending the relevant ones together was an accidental masterstroke from a winemaking as well as marketing perspective;13 it seemed that I was able to intuit a basic winemaking truism that if you are working with grape varieties that are themselves less than perfect in and of themselves, you can perhaps find or create complexity in a skillful blend, thus effectively disguising the shortcomings of the individual combinants.14,15


I have been dancing around the theme that I really wished to explore in this essay: Somehow my lucky choice of métier resulted in a chain of events that allowed me to discover myself as a sort of artist, or at the very least, seemed to unleash a spirit of creativity and intuition within me that had seemed to be utterly latent heretofore. I am not entirely convinced that winemaking in and of itself makes most of its practitioners more creative, but its work – the alchemical transformation of a baser material into something perhaps sublime – carries with it a potent metaphorical message: If you can transform grape juice, perhaps you can indeed transform yourself.16


Winemakers are often in the position of having to do many disparate things for their job, calling on very different sets of skills, if not exactly at the same moment, then certainly in the course of a given hour or day; we must become bricoleurs par excellence;17 I think that this may make us in all better problem solvers and sparks creativity in other realms. (At least it seems it did for me.) The impetus to solve problems creatively also exists when you are a small business owner/entrepreneur, with the attendant level of psychic investment that this position entails. If contemplating the gallows concentrates the mind, as Dr. Johnson suggests, then contemplating the potential demise of one’s company enables one to discover hidden internal resources – in my case, humor, a sense of artistic design, both in the visual and organoleptic realm, and even a kind of literary sensibility I didn’t know existed within me.


As the “Rhône Ranger,” I gained notoriety in the wine business as the champion of Rhône-styled wines, a category that was essentially unknown in the U.S. Having no background at all in marketing and a positive allergy to hard-core sales, I realized that like a Paleolithic hominid it would fall to me to fashion my own unique tools de novo to bring down the wooly mammoth that was the burgeoning wine business. I worked (intuitively) on first principles: I knew I had to create a certain context or point of reference for this inaugural New World Rhône blend, what was ultimately to be called “Le Cigare Volant,” a sort of homage to the French Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Amazingly (and rather fortunately) I discovered a truly bizarre ordinance adopted in 1954 by the town council of C. du P., prohibiting the landing of flying saucers and “flying cigars.” By obliquely referencing this ordinance on the label, I could contextualize the wine for the uninitiated, while not appearing to be a complete Frenchy-French copycat, and offering a slightly ironic commentary on the whole business in the bargain. I had somehow intuitively grasped some of the basic principles of marketing.


So, I accidentally discovered that wine drinkers who also happened to be readers could appreciate a wry and slightly subversive attitude toward the presentation of wine. Because I had such an aversion to “asking for the sale”18 or even to being so crass as to trumpet my wines’ singular virtues, I was compelled to find another way to ingratiate myself with customers, and to present some sort of value proposition. I found to my surprise that I was, with a little practice, able to write literary pastiches – these were stylistic wind sprints – in my quarterly newsletters, proffering a vinous take on the prose of such figures as Garcia Marquez, Kafka, Shakespeare, Poe, Pynchon, Salinger and others. As literary parody it was not exactly weapons-grade satire, but it gave me a sense of swimming in blue water, away from most of the competitors, and emboldened me to take further creative risks.

I didn’t really think of myself as possessing a great innate aesthetic sensibility, but was fortunate to be able to work with Chuck House, the great label designer, who certainly did and does; he gave me a great deal of confidence in my own judgment. Together we created a number of memorable labels, having great fun in the process.19 Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right in his claim that it is largely repetition that enables mastery; in my own instance, it has not become mastery, but marginal competence. I have approximately one half of an aesthetic brain – I can’t draw or paint my way out of a corner, but can sometimes come up with reasonably clever design ideas and can usually tell if a particular design works or not. When I am fortunate enough to collaborate with a real artist, some sort of aesthetic completeness and magic can occasionally occur.


The winemaking path has not made me a true artist (though provided numerous opportunities to cultivate something like an artistic or at least aesthetic sensibility), nor maybe even yet a real craftsman, though I have hope that that may yet come to pass. (It has enabled me to hone my marketing chops, for what it’s worth.) But, analogous to the dissatisfaction I once experienced in being a mere wine consumer, which compelled me to become a winemaker and to engage on a deeper level, likewise I have in recent years grown unhappy with being a simple winemaker who is still largely a technician (with a few marketing skills) but not yet a craftsman in any meaningful sense.

I mentioned that I am a child of the ‘60s, a boomer, true to type, always looking for more meaning, if sometimes a bit confused about precisely where to find it. In the wine world I have achieved a certain amount of professional notoriety, though in candor, what I’ve done to date has really been of the most ephemeral significance in the scheme of things.20 Nevertheless, I have learned to appreciate that with this métier I have been given a very special gift, a tonal range through which I might creatively express myself.21 But, I would suggest that success may not be merely about learning how to express oneself; it may well be tied up in the commitment to express something so much larger than one’s own point of view.


In Santa Cruz, where I live, we never quite completely grow up. For so many years I seem to have been stuck in the Kierkegaardian “ aesthetic” mode. As a winemaker, this has meant the opportunity to create a lot of interesting wine labels, to make some clever blends, to experiment with new and exotic grape varieties and some unusual wine styles; at best one might think of all of this as a form of performance art, at worst, the occupation of a dilettante. Perhaps in recent years I’ve gradually meandered into K’s “ethical” mode; as a company we’ve recently adopted the practice of transparency in wine labeling, i.e. scrupulously indicating all of the ingredients that touch the wine in the production process. Further, I have developed a deep commitment to meaningful sustainability in farming, to farm with minimal inputs and the lofty ambition of farming grapes without irrigation, for example in an area – San Juan Bautista – that is very, very dry.22


Maybe it is because I have personally experienced such an extended term of adolescence that it has been only recently that I have been able to imagine what Kierkegaard’s “religious mode” might look like to a winemaker. Maybe the holiest sacrament of this church is a clod of dirt – one imbued with life, microbial life, at the very least. As a true craftsman in the highest sense, one might be given the rare privilege of becoming a translator of the humblest materiality – dirt and some bunches of grapes – into a great elixir that can move human beings to poetry and other unexpected deeds of great moment.23,24

I’m currently working on a new viticultural project, extending into the unknown and indefinite future, proposing a rather unorthodox methodology, the creation of a vast population of new grape varieties from seeds and planting a genetically diverse vineyard, thus effacing varietal characteristics. The presumption is that soil characteristics might therefore emerge, and perhaps one might seek to express that very elusive creature, the vin de terroir.25 Maybe this febrile dream is truly the fantasy of a Luftmensch, but its intention, at least, is to return myself to the vineyard, where I might somehow learn to “see,” and then at least partially transcend my Luftmensch nature.26 What could possibly go wrong? Perhaps everything. But, it feels to me as if I am at the very beginning of my career, connected (at least I imagine I am) to something much larger than myself.


Wine is largely made in service of the ego – you want people to know just how clever you are. Artists (or craftsmen) are or can often be egomaniacs; their art is the drug that gets them high, but it also allows them a sort of transcendence of their own baser impulses; it is transformative of everyone it touches. I don’t reckon that I will escape the prison of my own ego, but at last I am satisfied that some of the work I am doing will potentially have a usefulness beyond my own solipsistic horizon. And, (if I play my cards right), I’ll at least get outdoors more and breathe some healthy fresh air.


(This article appeared in a slightly different form in Catamaran Magazine.)

  1. Most recently it’s been film and television stars, pop stars, professional athletes, as well as a range of oral and plastic surgeons, software engineers, venture capitalists, investment bankers, plumbing contractors and other high net-worth individuals, all of whom became seemingly tired of early a.m. makeup calls, grueling concert gigs, oral and plastic surgery, backed-up plumbing fixtures, etc. []
  2. And now chefs and sommeliers have jumped into the fray. I can’t really fault the motivation of somms, as it would appear that theirs are not too dissimilar from those that initially impelled me on my own path. I was fortunate enough to have discovered wine while working in a wine shop. I loved the whole aesthetic and culture of fine wine immediately – what a magical world it was into which I had been suddenly thrust – but wanted somehow to be involved in it on a much deeper, more creative, hands-on level than simply drinking it and selling it; that is what compelled me to go back to school, attend UC Davis to learn how to grow grapes and make wine. []
  3. For example, it would be quite surprising for this new crop of winemakers and winery owners to proclaim that they are seeking to produce breathtakingly original wine. If they truly have a ton of money, they might well express the desire to make “great’ wine. (Translation: This usually means that they plan to hire the most expensive winemaking consultants they can find who can guide them in the direction of achieving high point-scoring, and generally pretty formulaic wines.) If they are possessed of slightly more modest means, they have most likely entered the wine business as a way of achieving a certain “life-style,” i.e. eating and drinking well, but most importantly, impressing the shit out of their social peers. But what I am hoping to discuss in this article is the idea of using wine to discover one’s interior life as opposed to a means of achieving a more fashionable “life-style.” []
  4. If we are really laying our soul bare here, my best recollection is that upon entering the business I did not have a conscious expectation that some winemakers would ultimately become thought of as celebrities of a sort, but perhaps could have intuited that this might come to pass. (Remember, this was well before the era of “celebrity chefs.”) But after I was on the cover of the Wine Spectator as the putative “Rhône Ranger” and became, at least in some quarters, some sort of wine celebrity, with the silliness that attends thereto; it would be disingenuous to insist that I haven’t, at times, to my discredit, more than slightly wallowed in the approbation. (The primary benefit of this notoriety has been the ability to more reliably secure restaurant reservations.) But being famous (in this petite Mondo Vino) is more than a little bittersweet; in recent years I would happily trade being far less famous for being slightly more prosperous. I do wrestle with the strongest feeling that anytime someone says something particularly flattering to me it’s a bit like taking a bite out of a very rich dessert. It tastes good at the moment, but you know that it isn’t providing any real benefit to you in the longer term, rather the contrary. My less noble self is unfortunately rather self-absorbed and at least mildly if not utterly narcissistic; my career path has likely nourished this less attractive part of me whilst simultaneously feeding the more virtuous bits. []
  5. To paraphrase Zappa, I knew then that “brown shoes don’t make it” but was not entirely sure what other options were available. []
  6. Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp, as it was known in the day. I was not the only puer aeternis of UCSC who floated like a jellyfish on the surf. []
  7. A juicy morsel of gossip anent the shop’s well-heeled Beverly Hills clientele: Alas, I did not have a chance to personally witness this (it occurred slightly before my tenure), but I’m mostly convinced of its veracity. Among the shop’s show biz clientele was Frank Sinatra. He (or one of his minions) had asked the shop to send along several cases of the shop’s “best/most expensive white wine.” Several months later, the owner of the shop received a distraught ship-to-shore phone call from Sinatra himself, who was out on his boat. Apparently, the entourage was grilling steaks onboard and Ol’ Blue Eyes was very unhappy with the wine. A rather intoxicated Sinatra told the shop owner through the tenuous phone connection that all of the bottles were no %!@# good; he and his colleagues had thrown one bottle after another overboard as each had proved to be “too damn sweet.” (The shop had sent several cases of a rare, older vintage of Chateau d’Yquem.) []
  8. I’ve written on several occasions on some of the telltale signs of extreme wine geekiness, but if you can without hesitation recite all of the Beaujolais crus, remember all of the permitted varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and can eidetically visualize a Bordeaux vintage chart spanning the last 100 years, you are certifiably a wine geek. []
  9. Before even beginning to discuss whether winemaking is an art or a craft, it is important to draw a distinction between “winemakers” as we are called in the New World and “wine-growers,” or vignerons as they are referred to in France. To put it rather baldly, winemakers tout court can be true craftspeople, but all too often we devolve into little more than technicians, learning certain tricks to fix winemaking defects or problems, and perhaps (if we’re clever) learning to impose a certain (presumably pleasant and commercially viable) winemaking style on our wines. But the cultivation of this cleverness is also precisely what can inhibit us from ever developing Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship with the vines and the land on which they grow (cf. footnote infra). We can easily end up developing the hubristic belief that our limited human intelligence is somehow cleverer than that of Mother Nature’s and miss the larger Gestalt, which is the breathtaking organization of the unique qualities of the site itself, its terroir, or sense of place. []
  10. There are a lot of reasons to think of winemaking as far more of a craft than an art in any real rigorous sense. As a craftsman, a winemaker is certainly following a utilitarian end – his or her product is intended to give pleasure to its ultimate consumer, but if the winemaker aspires to be a true winegrower, he must engage with his vineyards on a more intimate level, to understand that he is truly a partner with the land, not its subjugator. The true winegrower is always in process of learning how to truly “see” his land and vines, to systematically study what gives his site its uniqueness, and to discover how he might amplify these characteristics and bring them to the fore without other ostentatious elements distracting. (Alas, you really can’t learn any of this in books; it helps to have family that has farmed the same land for centuries.) Like any serious craftsman, the winegrower’s path is one of discovery. Just as a sculptor looks deeply into the qualities of a piece of marble to discover its deepest secrets, a vigneron is always looking for ways – the most appropriate vine treatment, crop yield, degree of ripeness, and of course, fermentation regimen and élevage or cellar treatment – to most eloquently express the site’s secrets and the unique qualities of the vintage. I am always astonished when I hear a vigneron whose family has been on the same parcel of land for more than five hundred years talk about continuing this path of the discovery of terroir. To this extent, terroir is a kind of mantra or meditative object that offers the vigneron an opportunity to become more observant and present with himself. []
  11. The motivation for making Pinot came from a slightly different and more primal place – more like the desire to achieve something impossibly difficult and elusive, thus capturing fame, glory, immortality, etc. []
  12. Virtually all innovations in every domain are more or less synchronistic, with the timing right for any number of others to have made a simultaneous discovery. []
  13. Jury may still be out on the marketing perspective. American customers are not yet sold on the idea of spending weighty sums on blended wines unless it is a bordelais blend, (still believed to hold good resale value). Monotheism and monocépageism both seem to still have a lot going for them as belief systems. []
  14. I must have known on an unconscious level that it was difficult to make a complex wine from a single variety in a reasonably warm climate and that in fact every Mediterranean grape growing area blends different grape varieties together to make a balanced wine of real flavor interest. But, most significantly, the Central Coast of California was indeed this sort of Mediterranean climat. Making this sort of imaginative leap was the first instance in my career of calling upon a different part of my psyche – the deeply intuitive – to summon up a solution to a winemaking problem. []
  15. What is also really amazing is the fact that I made among the best if not the most inspired wines of my career when I had so little experience and really understood so very little about winemaking. Whether it was the case that I was looking at the process with very fresh eyes or was somehow channeling the intelligence of the supra-rational mind (because my rational mind was certainly not bringing much to the party), who knows? While becoming a successful winemaker absolutely requires a certain degree of technical expertise as well as experience, of course, none of these alone really propel one to true excellence without the added dimension of imagination and intuition. []
  16. There is far too much winemaking that is simply formulaic, sometimes literally so. In recent years, there has been the fashion of reverse-engineering the palates of the significant wine critics in the industry. To be able to do so is certainly a real talent but not really one that puts one in touch with any sort of artistic vision. []
  17. There is no great English translation for this word – putterer, maybe, or Mr. Fix-it, but it conveys the idea of being able to cleverly connect and integrate disparate bits together, using the elements the present themselves to hand. []
  18. I still have this strong aversion. It was possibly due to a childhood trauma whereby my well-intentioned father (who felt that his children needed to have the certain survival skills of salesmanship) set me out at the age of nine or ten with a case of first-aid kits, more or less instructing me not to come back until I had sold them all. I failed utterly. (This was possibly my “wound.”) []
  19. Chuck is a great guy and fabulous designer, but in the day (he’s much better now) not always the most organized person, often showing up to our label conference meetings at coffee houses in Sonoma County, forgetting to bring some of the relevant materials and tools needed to advance the design process. We would often prevail upon the neighboring customers to loan us lipstick (to use for red ink), eyeliner for use as a pencil. Napkins stood in for labels and catsup or other condiment bottles often stood in for wine bottles in these exercises. []
  20. I would strongly argue that the only real things that matter in the world of wine are vins de terroir, or wines of place. These enrich our lives in a very real way, like the discovery of a new species of bird, flower or star. They connect us with the world, with Nature’s intelligence in a special way that a “wine of effort” can never match. []
  21. My slightly autistic self was equipped with less than optimal connectivity to this world; without this career choice God only knows to what far orbit I might have been flung. []
  22. The thought here (without being overly pious) is to really do my best to be exemplary. []
  23. Burgundy wine is believed to promote courage; I believe this with my entire being. When I’ve drunken extraordinary Burgundy, I cannot but help believe in the overwhelmingly benign character of the universe. []
  24. My work in wine has been like a mystery that continues to be revealed. To this point it has perhaps been like a narrative that has been overly expository – a lot of telling with maybe not sufficient showing. []
  25. This will also require a major shift in my own life-style. Currently, I spend a lot of time in wine sales, traveling the world, schlepping wine. I will need to very soon shift the onus of this responsibility to other members of my organization. []
  26. While it would be nice to eventually learn how to read and talk to human beings, my true ambition at this point is to learn how to begin to learn how to read nature. []

Popelouchum: Decisions, Summer 2015

We are getting set to launch a fairly ambitious crowd-funding initiative in a few short days,1 which will allow us to continue to establishment a very unusual vineyard, Popelouchum, as I call it, in San Juan Bautista. I haven’t really made the scope of this project much of a secret, but I’m thinking (and hoping) that the story will get picked up in earnest by the wine media, and that I will be able to generate some real interest in and momentum for the project. And of course, if we get sufficient investment, we can really make this thing come to fruition a lot sooner than later. (It’s a very, very long-term opus.)2 So, it’s with a little trepidation that I open the curtain a bit on my own idiosyncratic methodology, and hope that I will not scare off too many potential investors, who might perchance come across this document.

Of course, I’ve been thinking about this project for a very long time. When I first purchased the property in San Juan Bautista, it was really with the somewhat generalized notion of producing a wine of place, or vin de terroir, as I understood that term to mean. I had written and spoken and declaimed from sundry soapboxes on the unique virtues of wines of place – how they are in a real sense qualitatively different from standard wines that are more reflections of the winemaker’s intended style – and the dissonance of my own thought and deed had become just too much for me to sustain. I had no choice but to go for it.

Allow me to share with you a bit about how I make decisions, or more accurately, how I imagine I make decisions, what I tell myself about how I make decisions.3


I think that quite often I’m prepared to make fairly large, bold leaps after months, if not years or even decades of indecisive vacillation. On some level, this is part and parcel of a short of characterological deficit, the inability to commit, a tragic weakness that has plagued me as a young person and for many years thereafter. But perhaps when one catches a whiff of one’s own mortality, this particular deficit becomes transformed into its very opposite, an all-too-eagerness to commit, to leap before one looks, which is also, to be sure, a fairly significant deficit. But, it does seem to sometimes happen that a notion will present itself with an unusual degree of luminosity, clarity and coherence, and in some very real sense, I just know.4

Artwork and Visual Media

So, I’ve done a fair bit of leaping in the last decade or so, but what is germane to this conversation is that I knew that the one thing in the wine business that I was absolutely committed to was that I was going to make a very sincere effort to achieve/discover a wine of place.5 So, selling off the large brands, Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim, were all tactics to allow me (or so I imagined) the freedom and opportunity to pursue a wine of place.

I found the property in San Juan Bautista, “Popelouchum” after going on a seemingly endless stream of “realtor dates.” I knew it was the right place immediately because I had dreamt about it before actually seeing it.6 In my dream, I was actually making Pinot noir, but no matter. (Things tend to get a bit muddled in dreams.) So, as I mentioned, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to grow at Popelouchum when I bought the property, but I knew that I was on a voyage of discovery. I would work out the finer details later.

C et L Bourguignon spécialistes BRF

As I am doing to this day, and will likely continue to do so for quite some time. But what I wanted to write about here is what I think of as the challenge of “working out the details,” which of course is the question of, “So, precisely what is it that you are going to grow and how are you going to do it, Randall?” And this is another way of saying that if you are on a voyage of discovery, how does one balance the fine line between “magical thinking” and genuine inspired intuition? Put another way, “If you’re absolutely dead-set on doing something that no one has ever done before, how do you go about doing that in a way that will likely optimize your chances of success and/or minimize the risk of complete failure?”7 How much madness are you willing to bring into your living room with the knowledge that eventually you will be entertaining bourgeois friends and neighbors?

Planting a vineyard from scratch in a new viticultural area with a new methodology and a brand-new set of new grape varieties poses a whole set of unique challenges. It’s not exactly like opening a pizza restaurant and experimenting with different types of pizza dough or different toppings before you open your doors. If you make a mistake in the set-up of the vineyard, it may take you at least five or ten years to realize your error, and then another five or ten years to rectify. I know about these issues from very personal experience;8 it is quite fair to say that I can’t really afford any major miscalculations at this juncture.

04a_LittlePool There are a few things that I want to do at Popelouchum that I am quite confident will work out brilliantly – Rhône grapes, for certain, Grenache and Cinsault in particular.9 But, trying to grow these grapes without irrigation is a bit like doing aerobatics without a net; it can certainly be done if you know precisely what you are doing, but very painful if you’ve somehow slightly miscalculated. I had thought – at least up until last week – that I had a pretty good plan in place. We know it’s quite dry in San Juan Bautista – not Mojave Desert dry, but dry and certainly dryer than almost anywhere grapes are grown without irrigation in California. There are two leading commercial rootstocks that seem to have very good drought tolerance, 1103-P (V. berlandieri x V rupestris), and 110R (V. berlandieri x V. rupestris) and candidly, I was having great difficulty making up my mind as far as which one to use. (There’s not really complete unanimity as far as which is the more drought tolerant; 1103-P goes deeper (and for that reason believed to have the edge), but 110-R roots very, very aggressively, wherever there’s a drop of water to be found, though just reviewing the literature today, I’ve found an opinion to the contrary. In any event, Andy Walker of UCD told me that 110R “would be the last grape standing,” and that seemed pretty convincing. What seemed to seal the deal for me is that 110R has a longer vegetative cycle than 1103-P; it’s really nothing more than an intuition but I do believe that this extra ten to fourteen days will likely be magical if not crucial in expressing that last bit of complexity (and proper ripening) from the warmish climate varieties we plan to grow in a coolish site.


But this was all before I encountered Annie Favia, a grape-grower living in Napa, whom I met again just last week, sitting on a wine panel in NYC. What else do we possibly talk about but Grenache? It turns out that she has had very good luck growing Grenache on yet another rootstock called 420A (V. berlandieri x V. riperia), a low vigor stock, with some degree of drought tolerance. She feels it is especially well suited for Grenache, and finds she is able to get by with just one baby irrigation annually; she likes it because of its banzai-ing effect on what is otherwise the Brobdingnagian nature of Grenache, a somewhat zaftig variety, to put it delicately. In fairness, Napa receives almost twice the rainfall that we do at San Juan, but in soils with less water-holding capacity than ours; my head is getting ready to explode as I try to juggle all of the “on the one hands” and “on the other hands,” trying to figure out the planting scheme that will deliver us weapons-grade Grenache.


She’s spacing her vines at 4’ x 6’ or one vine for 24 sq. ft.; I had been thinking about 9’ x 9’ (a classic spacing of old California vineyards), which comes out to one vine taking up 81 sq. ft. I’m now in a minor state of panic that, despite the paucity of water, we might find with this wider planting scheme that our Grenache clusters will take on a slightly bloated, Anna Nicole Smith-like quality. It dawns on me that we are already growing (own-rooted) Grenache in our nursery, with radically close spacing, and very minimal irrigation. I just told Nicole Walsh, our farm manager, “Some of these vines are going to have to take one for the team. Let’s pick a few rows and give them no water at all for the rest of the season and see how they behave.”


The own-rooted vines pretty much approximate the vigor of vines grafted on 110R, and if they can go without water without shutting down, that will be pretty good evidence that we might be able to space them a lot closer than we imagined. Or put another way, if we spaced them more widely, they’d still survive just fine, but we’d end up with much larger (and more diluted) clusters. But the important thing is that I’ve realized (maybe just in time) that in fact we do have at least a few data points sitting right under our noses that will guide us to a better decision.10


I’m slightly unnerved when I realize that I’ve been slightly less than systematic in my thinking, i.e. sometimes making certain decisions on the fly, which, of course, is less than ideal. Somehow, however, the universe seems (at least some of the time) to catch me before I go splat, and provide some just-in-time answers.

So, Rhône grapes: sorted (at least, I think). Which brings me to the next category of grapes I want to grow: oddball and distinctive varieties that will uniquely express themselves at our site.11 The particular and relevant subset of this category consists of the grape varieties that will set my soul free. Put another way, to simply grow grapes that will produce wines that I like passably well is just not going to cut it. I want to make wines that at least have the possibility to thrill me doon to soles of my shoes. What wine makes me deliriously happy? Well, that would be great red Burgundy, of course, but it is of course impossible to make red Burgundy in San Juan Bautista, much less anywhere outside of Burgundy, France.


But the fact remains that Burgundy haunts me (and others, to be sure) in a way unlike any other wine does. My error was in imagining that I might achieve a sort of Burgundian jouissance by growing Pinot noir somewhere in California (but where, oh where?) and slavishly emulating Burgundian practice, beginning with growing Pinot noir. It has taken me almost thirty years to let go of that idea and to come around to the idea that what I might more realistically aspire to create is a wine that somehow does some of the magical things that Burgundy can do, but maybe do other things as well that give it its own unique charm. How might one even begin to express the elusive Burgundian magic, but to mumble something about its (sometime) ability to take you through the other side of the Looking Glass, the crazy thing it does with dimensionality on the palate, as it dramatically changes from the softest spoken, quietest Method-schooled actor, leading into a Pacino or Nicholson-stylized explosion? How this is linked to “minerality” (an elusive quality that comes up in any mention of vins de terroir), I can’t say with any precision, but I suspect that it’s a key to the puzzle;12 there is certainly something like a kaleidoscopic quality to these wines, an unfolding or continuous changing of perspective, as the wine responds to oxygen (the catalyst that unlocks some of the mystery).13 What I can safely say is that we are talking about wines that really challenge language.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the Rossese grape lately and happened to recently espy a bottle of 2012 Rossese di Dolceacqua from Dringenberg on a wine list at Marea in NYC. I was sitting at the bar and my neighbor broke in, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the sommelier about Rossese. I, am likewise, pretty crazy about that grape. I come from that area (Liguria), in fact.”)


So my new friend, Federico, and I shared a bottle of the Dringenberg and over an hour or so, observed that the wine underwent what could only be called a Burgundian unfolding. When I got back to the hotel, I reread a recent article by Andrew Jefford printed in the Decanter. Here’s the nub of it:


“We can, I guess, all agree on this: there will never be enough good red Burgundy to keep the wine drinkers of the world happy. One solution is to plant more Pinot. Done: and the results (from California and Oregon, and from across the Southern Hemisphere) are encouraging. Another solution though, is to find red wines which work in their own climate zones in the same kind of way as Pinot does in Burgundy. Gamay in Beaujolais is one incarnation of this; mountain Grenache in the Rhone outliers, in Spain’s Gredos and in South Australia’s high-country Clare Valley can be another; Nebbiolo in Lombardy’s Valtellina (where it’s called Chiavennasca) perhaps a third. Here’s a fourth…

‘Rossese is a wine made by empty spaces,’ says the thoughtful Filippo Rondelli of Terre Blanche. He isn’t referring to the ghostly production of missing vineyards – but rather to the wine’s architecture in the mouth, which he describes as a cross between the ‘exuberance of the south crossed with the verticality of burgundy’14,15. Another grower, Maurizio Anfosso of Ka Manciné, says Rossese is ‘almost like an anchovy: its two main elements are acidity and saltiness….’”


I don’t think that Sig. Anfosso really meant that Rossese tasted or smelled like anchovies, just that there was a sort of savoriness, or umami quality that the grape can express. Some of the savoriness in wine comes from its tenure in the cellar, to be sure, from the healthy digestion of yeast lees (rich in glutamate) in the ageing process. But, there is a quality inherent in some grapes that imparts a compellingly earthy, sexy scent, not unlike that of truffles, humus or sous-bois.16 With Rossese (or Tibouren), it is called garrigue, the scent of the ambient brush itself. Whatever this quality is, it imparts a certain kind of magic, as if one has been let in on a secret.17

Having reread Andrew’s article, it is now abundantly clear to me that I must make an effort to grow Rossese at Popelouchum; if I can do it in a thoughtful way, perhaps I will solve at least one of my conundra: How does one produce a wine of nuanced complexity and elegance in essentially a Mediterranean (read warm and dry) climate? And the methodology for doing so is presenting itself to me with a sort of searing clarity. I don’t know this for certain but would bet anything that likely all Rossese vines are seriously virused, as no doubt is the case with Tibouren as well.


When I visited Clos Cibonne I observed an enormous disparity of ripening within a given vine – just a crazy degree of variability. (On the other hand, this ripening “issue” may not be a question of virus but possibly Tibouren/Rossese’s seemingly tragic flaw, which would make it an exceptionally high maintenance grape to grow.) There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the “greenness” sometimes found in red Tibouren (or likely in Rossese as well) is certainly a function of this ripening disparity.

So, with a few slightly breathtaking leaps of logic: Maybe growing some, that is to say, many, many Rossese from seed (this inhibits the transmission of virus) might enable us to find individual vines particularly well suited to the San Juan site, and maybe even some with the absence of the very odd, tragic odd ripening pattern.18 Granted, as we know, when you cross vines with themselves, their offspring are susceptible to numerous genetic weakness – infertility, etc., so most of the offspring (98%+) will in some sense be “inferior” to their parents, but a few select few might be brilliant. I can think of no more rewarding pursuit for the next ten years but to seek to identify these stellar individuals.


Back to the bar at Marea restaurant: it turns out that Federico, my dining companion (I hope you haven’t forgotten about him) has family both in Liguria and Friuli, another region of Italy that makes utterly haunting wines. As you know all too well, I’ve been obsessing at length about what varieties we might employ as breeding stock for the 10,000 grape seedling project, and many roads seem to lead to Friuli.19 I have been quite taken by some of its blended white wines, and one in particular seems just about perfect; that is the Cialla Bianco from Ronchi di Cialla; I’ve recently had the opportunity to try some older bottlings and while the wine definitely shows a slightly (intentional) oxidative side, it is still holding up magnificently. I honestly know of no other white wine that is as complete as this.


The wine is a blend of Ribolla gialla, Picolit and a relatively smaller percentage of Verduzzo. We have some Ribolla gialla growing in the nursery at Popelouchum, a few survivors, it seems. (Something fairly catastrophic happened to wipe out most of the population from the grape nursery where we had ordered the plants); it is still early going to really assess its suitability. But, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Ribolla Fest,20 under the auspices of the late George Vare, a wonderful man who had the foresight and persistence to bring the grape to California. He can be credited for setting the groundwork for some of the most exciting white wines currently coming out of Napa (!!), made from Ribolla in a diverse range of styles.


I had tried in the past to actually grow Picolit and Verduzzo at our vineyard in Soledad. I planted the vines too close to the casurina trees we were using as windbreaks, and they seemed to suffer from root intrusion from the trees, as well as from excessive shade, and didn’t really set fruit properly. (The Picolit never set at all, but that wasn’t a great surprise. Picolit is one of the very few “female” vinifera varieties, and requires a pollinating grape (usually Verduzzo) to be grown alongside it to bear any fruit at all.)21 I espied a bottle of Jermann’s “Vino Dolce della Casa,” his Picolit bottling on the wine list, and ordered a bottle to share with my companion.


I haven’t drunk that many Picolits in my time – they’re typically very expensive and almost always made from dried grapes that are turned into a dessert wine. I’ve been just utterly knocked about the sweet version that Dorigo had made, and even once managed to find a rare, dry Picolit produced, again, by Ronchi di Cialla (it was magnificent), but I am hardly a Picolit maven. Picolit is said to possess very good natural acidity, and can have a very persistent complex fragrance – peaches, apricot, coconut and hazelnuts. I’ve lately been thinking about it as a potential breeding grape, a matriarch in a lineage of complex white grapes. Here was an opportunity to gain another data point.

I’m afraid that I wasn’t so terribly impressed with the Jermann Picolit; it was slightly oxidized, not really so vibrant in acidity, and just a little bit tired or lackluster. (Maybe it had been stored badly?) I was told that this had been the first vintage that Jermann had produced and that subsequent bottlings were a lot more vibrant. Disappointing to me, but I haven’t given up hope.


But here is where I have to look very carefully at my own process. I like Picolit for its potential complexity (good), for its acidity (very good),22 but what I also really like about it is that it is a female grape, and therefore very easy to breed (no need to go through the tedium of the grape flower emasculation). I recognize that in this Drang nach Picolit, I’m observing some of the idiosyncrasies of my own character and modus: I love the idea of Picolit, the Unknown Female, shrouded in mystery, somehow potentiated by the enchanted kiss of her Prince Charming. But, to be honest, my attraction to Picolit is more likely due to the fact that I’m pretty lazy and impatient, and just hate the idea of having to remove all of those tiny little flowers.

  1. Ambitious in terms of the monetary raise ($350K), but more ambitious even in the audacity of the proposal – to breed 10,000 new viable, that is to say, fruitful, grape varieties. The grapes will be bred, in part to discover perhaps a few outstanding individuals with unique and favorable qualities for our site (and beyond), but primarily as a potential strategy – the suppression of discreet varietal characteristics – for the better expression of soil characteristics and the revelation of terroir. []
  2. Alas, likely the real interesting stuff will come posthumously. []
  3. There is no question that there are clearly large portions of the decision-making process that are not only subconscious, but by definition, systematically elusive to real elucidation. []
  4. Unfortunately, my epistemological prowess does not extend particularly far beyond the realm of my trade. And for the record, I don’t think I have a particularly keen palate, or am a particularly gifted winemaker, but somehow I just know when a wine blend seems together (from a taste perspective), and often (more so in the past than in the present) would have a pretty good instinct as far as which particular wine brand I was considering making was likely to be successful and which not. In recent years, the commercial success of many thoroughly execrable wine brands has significantly thrown off my predictive compass. []
  5. I have always enormously esteemed wines of place, indeed, believed them to be truly the only wines that mattered, but have for most of my career, never imagined that it would even be remotely possible to achieve such a thing in the course of one lifetime. []
  6. Having Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, geologists to the stars, also come out to see the property and express their enthusiasm about it further validated the hypothesis that this was a site uniquely capable of expressing a vin de terroir. There is an awful lot of very interesting geology (and a lot of other vivid if diverse elements) in just one place. []
  7. If your grape-growing practice was precisely the same as everyone else’s, you would very likely “succeed,” i.e. your wine would taste like everyone else’s, which of course is not success at all. []
  8. Attempting to grow Pinot noir in Bonny Doon when I first began in 1980. []
  9. These are grapes that are typically grown in warmer, dryer climates and are known to have reasonable drought tolerance. I have some serious concerns that it may not be warm enough to ripen Mourvèdre in many vintages, but I think that we’ll try. I think that Syrah would likely succeed on a north or northeast facing slope, but I have some serious concerns about its drought tolerance, and the last thing I want to do is produce prune juice. Syrah, as we know, has poor stomatal regulation, so doesn’t quite know how to keep itself from dehydrating. We will definitely want to use the most drought tolerant rootstock imaginable for it; however, the other side of this is that Syrah is exceptionally vigorous and a drought tolerant, read high vigor rootstock will likely exacerbate the vigor issue. How we arrive at the Goldilocks “just right” solution is really the art (and luck) of the whole matter. []
  10. Even as I write this, it occurs to me that if the “close-spacing hypothesis” works for Grenache, it might actually even work in spades for Cinsault, which has the tendency to produce monster, virtually golf-ball sized clusters. []
  11. The question always remains: Which ones, and of course, might there be some sort of refinement to be found, growing these grapes in our location that would distinguish them from their Old World quasi-Platonic forms? []
  12. “Key” or “qi,” to be sure; there is the apprehension of energy or life-force in these wines, a quiet inner dynamism that signifies deep energetic reserves and foretells long life. []
  13. “Minerality” – whether it is the literal presence of certain minerals in the wine or the fact that the wine is grown in certain mineral-rich soils, seems to be another way of expressing the capacity of certain wines to greatly tolerate oxidative challenge, even with the apparent deficiency (as one encounters in Pinot noir) of known anti-oxidative compounds such as tannins or anthocyanins. []
  14. This thought is utterly consistent with my observation about Rossese maybe twenty years ago, when I was beginning to import wines from Italy. I was fortunate enough to meet with Luigi Veronelli, who held then that Rossese was one of the greatest, perhaps the great unheralded Italian grape variety, or at least held an enormous amount of potential. (Much of this may have been due to the fact that a fair number of Rosseses, at least in the day, were quite austere (what some might call “thin”). I suspect that some of the unevenness of wine quality was due in part to diseased vines. (And some, no doubt, to my own inability to appreciate the grape’s qualities at the time). I tasted one Rossese among many at the time that just knocked me out – the name of the domain is lost to history – and seem to remember that the wine was cropped at exceptionally low yields, and might well have been made from older vines. (My memory is a bit hazy on this point.) In any event, my observation at the time was that Rossese seemed to be a kind of bridge between France and Italy. (As it turns out, that is likely, literally the case, as it is also known as “Tibouren” in Provence, which seems to be its place of origin, though Galet suggested that its origins might well have been in Greece or prior to that, the Middle East.) I imagined it then as a sort of missing link between the warmth of Grenache and the austerity (high acidity) of Barbera, not too dissimilar from the analogy drawn by Sig. Rondelli. B/t/w, Tibouren itself produces fabulously great wines, red and pink and I heartily suggest any of the Clos Cibonne bottlings. I’m fairly certain that the climate in Provence is slightly warmer, the vineyards are certainly flatter, and the red wine at least is still great but a little more rustic. Oddly enough, the pink Tibouren seem capable of extremely long ageing. One thing is for certain is that we really do not yet know what sort of greatness Tibouren/Rossese is truly capable of. []
  15. This is an incredibly poetic trope – the idea that a wine could possess within it a kind of negative space, such as one would speak of in the visual arts, or perhaps even more accurately, as the space between the notes in music. It may well be the case that what makes these wines so compelling, is their need for human participation to fill in these empty spaces. []
  16.  I really wonder how close it is to the human sex pheromone. []
  17. I’ve been lately finding a very similar quality in the magnificent Valtellina wines from ArPePe. []
  18. There are known to be several interesting mutants of Tibouren, one a Tibouren blanc (undoubtedly brilliant), and the other a Tibouren gris, most certainly extraordinary, but also non-hermaphroditic, that is to say a “female” grape (like Picolit). It would therefore be exceptionally shy-yielding, but possibly extremely interesting as a breeding grape, at least in part owing to the relative ease of making the crosses. (No need to tediously emasculate the male flowers.) I’m not speaking from any real understanding of the subject, but I’ve also very casually observed that some of the most brilliant grape varieties of the world (Pinot noir, being the most flagrant example), seem to relatively easily mutate and therefore readily change their coloration, becoming in this instance, Pinot gris or Pinot blanc. (Same holds true for Grenache, Carignane, and several others.) I will talk to someone like Andy Walker who actually has a grasp of grape genetics, to see if this relative mutability correlates to something like the potential for enhanced complexity. []
  19. I’ve been rather taken by the Friulani grape, Pignolo, which seems in some sense to be the complete package. (The only hesitation I have is on its robustness, i.e. drought tolerance, and of course absence of debilitating virus.). On the white side of the ledger, Ribolla gialla might well make a superb parent – very complex flavors to be found in the wine, reasonably good acidity, and really the “star” of the great Friulani blends, viz. the Cialla Bianco. []
  20. I must confess to the perhaps slightly prejudiced perception that many Napa Valley winemakers and grape growers have grown rather self-satisfied with the grapes and wines (big, ripe Cabernet, by and large) they are growing. They are, after all, fetching heroic prices for their grapes and wines; why should they be interesting in significantly changing the paradigm that is working so well for them? But, what was just extraordinary about the Ribolla Fest was the fact that grape growers and winemakers were talking to each other openly – sharing information about what was and wasn’t working for them. (This was particularly strange, because whenever I’ve ever visited a winery in Napa Valley, nothing bad or even particularly challenging ever seemed to happen.) There was an atmosphere of enthusiasm, possibility, and bonhomie. I was reminded of the Napa Valley of forty years ago, one that was less of a zero-sum situation as it is now, where everyone was more or less collegial, and all wanted to work for the common good of continuing to learn and improve their art, on a great journey of discovery. []
  21.  Virtually every vinifera grape is hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female parts in their flowers. The diciness of the pollination of Picolit is one reason why its yields are so very low, and therefore, one factor that allows it to achieve higher potential alcohols than many other grape varieties. []
  22. It seems that at least one significant ancestor (Gouais blanc) of many of the noblest (and less noble) grape varieties is typically very high in acidity. []

More Questions for Andy Walker


  1. I’m very interested in the work you are doing to breed disease resistance into vinifera grapes, and understand that it takes multiple generations of breeding to breed out the off- flavor characteristics. Tell me again how many crosses you typically need to do to breed out the undesirable flavors. (I seem to recall reading that you need to get to something like 95% vinifera.) Presumably you’re continuing to cross the self-same vinifera with the vinifera hybrid. Doesn’t this lead to a greater likelihood of the expression of recessive genes, even the possibility of sterility (especially with a relatively young and slightly less stable variety like Cabernet Sauvignon)?
  2. 02_PeppersAsparagus

  3. If the female parent is the primary carrier of flavor characteristics in the cross, how much do the offspring share of those same flavor characteristics? How much variation do you typically find?
  4. When we say “desirable flavor characteristics” we might mean absence of weird, obnoxious flavors and/or the presence of certain pleasant flavors (fruitiness, proper acidity, good levels of tannin and a certain quality of tannin), but is there any way to quantify or even to better characterize that je ne sais quoi that gives certain wines (under certain conditions) a special textural element or even a certain persistence on that palate that some people call “minerality?” 03_Resveratrol(Some might call these wines “carriers or “transmitters” of terroir.) Since no one can even agree on what the term “minerality” means, is it hopeless to try to find a way to assay it? (Sorry, this is a bit of a rhetorical question.)
  5. For me, one of the definitions of a great variety is its ability to age well (and thus accrue added complexity). Typically, one might look at tannin and anthocyanin concentrations or maybe even their ratios (and perhaps acidity as well) as a predictive algorithm of a wine’s ability to age. But then there’s Pinot noir, which is low in both tannins and anthocyanins. At first blush, who would ever imagine that it would be capable of ageing? So, let me put you on the spot. Biochemically, what’s going on with Pinot that allows it to age? 04_Nebbiolo_Einstein (Non-acylated glycoside linkages?1 Higher levels of resveratrol and quercitin or something else?) If we understood that mechanism, maybe we could identify the presence of a similar process in other putatively “light” new grape varieties.
  6. As a corollary to that earlier question, if we look for the presence of “desirable” or “balanced tannins” in red wines we would most certainly end up excluding some exceptionally cool grapes in the very early selection process, to wit, Nebbiolo, (which would be a real shame). 05_Pinot_Genome Nebbiolo has luckily been retained in the viticultural repertoire presumably because of its demonstrable ability to age and develop complexity. What do you imagine the early observers of Nebbiolo saw in it? (It’s not a charmer in its youth, that’s for sure.)
  7. But this creates another more philosophical question: How might we recognize genius (as in Nebbiolo) when it is so utterly different from everything else we are looking at?
  8. Is there any evidence that “complex” grape varieties (eg. Pinot noir and Nebbiolo) have more complex genomes than more standard varieties? You’ve mentioned to me once that some varieties seem to have transposing or improvisational genes. Might this be some sort of signifier of varietal superiority or potential quality? Is this possibly the “elegance” gene or genes?
  9. 06_Pinotage

  10. I may well be mistaken but I believe that you once told me that when you crossed solid, robust varieties – it might have been Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc crossed with Merlot, the offspring were generally also of very high quality, sometimes even more interesting than their parents. Of course, I’m curious what you mean by the term “quality,” but what does this in fact tell us? Robust x robust will generally create robust? Certainly (delicate + complex) x (delicate + complex) does not always yield an equally gifted offspring, witness Pinotage.
  11. If you haven’t guessed, I’m haunted by the existence of Pinotage.2 I know that it was an accidental wine grape, not selected by a breeder for its superior winemaking characteristics. 07_Monks And yet, you have two just exquisite varieties giving birth to a monster.3) How can I be sure that I will not end up with a monster or many monsters?
  12. As you’ve told me on many an occasion, we don’t really know for sure whether the modern grape varieties we know were the result of an act of God/Nature or an act of man, presumably a monk with a lot of time on his hands. So, it would be impossible to know what a plant breeder of the Middle Ages was thinking when he thought about the need to improve upon Cabernet Franc by crossing it with Sauvignon Blanc, though presumably it could also have been a natural sport. I personally think of the noble Cabernet Franc variety as a far more interesting grape than Cabernet Sauvignon (and not in need of “fixing.”) What do you reckon has been the fascination with Cabernet Sauvignon; how did it ever supplant Cab Franc?
  13. 08_Devolution

  14. What I’m getting at: If you start with a grape that is noble, i.e., in some sense just absolutely fine the way that it is, how might one even think about wanting to make it any better? Wouldn’t it be that almost anything you do to it would somehow making it worse, specifically creating a raft of unintended consequences? I’ve heard about breeding experiments with Nebbiolo to make it “better,” i.e. darker in color or with perhaps a denser, fleshier structure, (maybe with smaller clusters that ripen more uniformly?). 09_Clos_Vougeot The results yielded a darker wine but at the same time the magical perfume and complexity was largely lost.
  15. It would seem that “great” or “noble” grape varieties may fall into two categories, those that are very adaptable to a range of climates and terroirs – like Cabernet Sauvignon and to some extent, Chardonnay, and those who produce utterly distinctive wines only in very specialized sites, i.e. Pinot noir in Burgundy. In light of this, where is one to even begin to look for nobility?
  16. 10_Gouais_Blanc

  17. Let’s talk about Gouais blanc for a second, the ancestor of so many great vinifera grape varieties. What do you think it is about Gouais that made it such a great parent? It certainly has high acidity and that’s probably something useful. Any ideas about what else it might bring? Do we know anything about its drought tolerance?
  18. I’m thinking that one way to proceed in this project is to consider the most virile varieties – upright,4 vigorous (and presumably drought-tolerant) growers as possible male parents – Grenache, Tannat immediately come to mind. Maybe Sagrantino or Fer Servadou? Ciliegio, Troia, Aglianico?
  19. Sangiovese is thought of by some as a great grape. Myself, I don’t quite see it. What am I missing? It grows like a weed; maybe as male parent?
  20. 16. Why has there never been a Riesling cross that has ever been as interesting as Riesling itself?5
  21. 11_Hannibal

  22. I just learned about a grape called “Rubin,” which is a Bulgarian cross of Nebbiolo x Syrah. Obviously, I want to taste it immediately and get a sense of what two genius grape varieties can do together. But even more, I would love to get into the head of the breeder who thought to do this. What do you think he was trying to accomplish?
  23. What I most want to do is learn how to get inside the head of a plant breeder. Obviously, breeding for disease resistance, or cold tolerance is a relatively straightforward proposition, but I am more interested in the idea of breeding for elegance. 12_13 I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here (sorry), but how do you think about elegance in wine. Where do you begin to look?
  24. I know that I must be forgetting something, indeed probably hundreds if not thousands of things. What else should I be thinking about? Thanks for your patience.
  1. Pinot noir is one of the very few vinifera grape varieties that have this unusual characteristic, and it is one reason why the wine is generally much paler in color than wine made from other varieties. It is still quite mysterious why a wine that is generally regarded as being deficient in structure will age so well. []
  2. Not only have I had atrocious Pinotage from South Africa, but the one time I worked with the grape in California, it showed precisely the same tendency to form persistent sulfurous “reductive” by-products during fermentation. []
  3. I know that South African enologists have been racking their brains (as it were), to deal with the reductive issues of Pinotage, but is it possible they have overlooked a potentially obvious solution to the Pinotage problem, to wit, grow it in much cooler areas? Maybe less heat-stressed vines will produce more nutrient-balanced musts? (I had heard that the latest research showed that by restricting fermentation temperatures to a very narrow range one could potentially cut down on creating untoward fermentation products; Pinotage, at the very least, could be thought of as a very high-maintenance variety. []
  4. Don’t know if upright growth necessarily equates with drought tolerance, but certainly will conduce to head-training, which might well be a good training strategy for creating a compact, thrifty vine. []
  5. It’s possible that Rieslaner might be almost as interesting as Riesling under certain conditions, but it’s not quite clear if it’s as adaptable as Riesling to as wide a range of wine styles. []

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


It’s funny what parts of memory seem to come up automatically and what other parts require dredging. I tend to think about the moments leading up to the decision to produce Le Cigare Volant in 1984; the original working title of the wine was “Old Telegram,” but after reading about the strange interdiction against UFOs at Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Livingston-Learmouth book, it was clear that Le Cigare Volant would be a funnier and more memorable name for a wine, and could likely produce a visually more iconic label. However, I sometimes tend to forget that I had actually purchased Grenache grapes two years prior in 1982 from George Besson, Sr., who had a vineyard in the Hecker Pass area of Gilroy.10 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. []



Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!

Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)

Breakout Session:
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)

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Our crowdfunding campaign "Popelouchum Vineyard: 10,000 Grapes for a New Vine" is now over, but you can still buy perks, or donate to the cause.