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.