Digital Wine Communications Conference Speech, Izmir, Turkey

1_tuscanvillaSources
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to a group of wine bloggers in Portland, OR recently – some of you may have been there – in which I reflected somewhat pensively on the state of the wine business in the U.S., mostly lamenting a certain palpable loss of innocence and idealism. The gist of my remarks was that the recent great success of the wine business has at the same time sowed the seeds of its spiritual demise. Partially, it has been a function of people entering the business with more strictly business motives – every single orthodontist, plastic surgeon, former athlete, television star, musician or reasonably successful plumber with some disposable income has simultaneously decided that the wine business is the most appropriate vehicle for the expression of their “artistic side.”2_slide_blog3_vinferno

Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we are now observing some of the well-known dynamics of an extremely overcrowded ecosystem; this does not bring out the most meritorious behavior in individuals, whether in rats, cellar rats or winery owners.

Because of the tremendous level of competition, you can see a sort of tragic level of self-consciousness on every level; one begins to consider the economic consequences of every winemaking decision that one makes. Do you dare to produce an “elegant” wine that speaks in a quiet voice? How will it be heard over the deafening din of the agora? If you are a winery owner blessed with significant means, you are sorely tempted to hire the best consultants that money can buy, ones who have the capability to reverse engineer the Robert Parker/Wine Spectator palate and instruct you on how you might make a wine guaranteed to get a high point score rating. 4_rollandmichel

Not express originality, mind you, but rather land squarely in the stylistic range of what passes among some tastemakers at least as real “quality.” It is not surprising that some successful winemakers, at least in the New World, are experiencing something like a sense of malaise; they’re bored and perhaps even vaguely ashamed of the decadent state of affairs. Or perhaps they’re not. The mere public mention of the word malaise, by the way, in a speech thirty some odd years ago, led to the undoing of the hapless American President, Jimmy Carter. 5_Jimmy_Carter

It is good for all of you to understand that there is a ubiquitous American allergy – nowhere better expressed than in the American wine business – to acknowledging that all might not be exquisite sweetness and light within our perfect world. This neurosis carries through to our wine criticism, and our most influential critics seem to embrace wines that have no dark side at all and cast not a shadow. Not a sustainable proposition, which we ignore at our own peril.6_stepford

I don’t wish today to speak entirely of the Gloom and Doon scenario that besets the New World. But, before I dare to imagine with you an alternate reality for the improved trajectory of New World wines, allow me to express a sincere moment of heartfelt longing from the far side of the existential abyss – that gap that separates what might be called “vins de terroir,” original wines that truly matter, from vins d’effort, or wines of effort, that voodoo that we do in the New World so well. I won’t belabor the point but wines of terroir, wines that express a sense of place, deeply satisfy both our more refined aesthetic sensibilities and offer something like a visceral, emotional connection to the earth, to Nature’s Order, and by extension to ourselves. 7_sacred-geometryYou just feel differently when you taste a wine that comes from a place rather than one that comes from the laboratory of Dr. Faustus.

In the Old World, at least in many sectors (with some conspicuous exceptions that will remain nameless),1 terroir is taken more seriously than ever, especially by many younger vintners. This is very good news indeed. These winemakers are looking backwards to older techniques and varieties, to gentler practices, more respectful of their terroirs, excavating their patrimony for depth and meaning. The notion of terroir is no longer mere marketing legerdemain fueled by Gallic cynicism, but seems at least to me to be mostly the real deal. 8_drfaustus

Allow me a parenthetical meta-message here, which may come off as a little New Agey. First, you should know that I am not in fact a New Agey kind of guy – more of an Old Agey kind of guy, if anything, truth be told. But, my sense is that we are living in a strange and magical time, where a style of wine or a grape variety that has languished for years can suddenly become popular due to a mention in a hip-hop tune or by being featured in a popular film.

Obvious causal relationships like the one between high quality, fair price and respectable sales volume no longer seem to obtain. Nevertheless, there seems to be something like an alchemical transformation taking place, a winnowing, if you will, in virtue of strong but highly erratic evolutionary pressures; we are living in our own vinous Ice Age with the craziest kind of extreme weather. 9_Drake-MoscatoVery disparate sorts of species appear to be prospering, both the very pure and the very impure exemplars, you might say; maybe we tend to embrace the former as we recoil in horror to the latter? It’s enough to turn one to the extreme Manichean world-view. I can’t explain why cynical, spoofulated wines are ascendant, nor can I explain the presence of evil (or oenvil) in the world.
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I don’t wish to prognosticate on the future of the fake and banal, I can only offer my own thoughts on how we in the New World, absent pedigree, provenance, warrant or credential, might proceed to find our way to sit at the same table with the grownups – that is, with wines expressive of a sense of place. Let’s meditate a bit on how one might begin to approach what would appear to be an impossibly quixotic project, one that would seem to take literally multiple lifetimes – and we all know how mindful we Americans have been about taking pains to insure a sustainable future. 11_humveefleet

So, I will only talk about the wines that we might call “real,” in the sense of possessing unique characteristics that differentiate them from everything else. This class of wines will not resemble the current crop of “great” monster wines of the New World, few possessing real distinctiveness and many of which are already essentially caricatures of themselves – impressive in their own way, but at the same time, grotesqueries.
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In broad terms, I envision that in the future the model for great wines in the New World will embody a major paradigm shift from wines of effort to wines of terroir. To that end, the methodology of their production will have to significantly change. What we have done so well in the New World is to control things – from the clonal selection of our vineyards to the way the vines are irrigated, to the designer yeasts and enzymes, to the cosmetic “enhancements” that impart “improved” texture, color, etc. But, while the wines are “impressive” (at least to some), they do tend to all look and taste alike. Perhaps this is a little unfair but many of the “great” New World wines possess as much natural beauty as, say, a Las Vegas showgirl. 13_showgirl_megapurple

Real wines of the future will derive their beauty and complexity from the genius (if it exists) of the site where the grapes are grown, and to achieve this I believe there has to be a fundamental shift in approach, which, as luck would have it, aligns with the new reality of limited resources, as these resources begin to approach their real costs. Maybe it will not be the right solution for every vineyard, but for me, I envision the return of dry-farmed, head-trained vines – no wire, trellis or drip system, an elegant low-tech solution.14_vinesYou won’t get the preternatural yields of an irrigated vineyard, but the wines will likely have far more depth and personality. Which brings me seamlessly to another topic that I believe will have enormous relevance in the future, indeed if there is to be anything like a future for us.15_hans

This subject is the material called biochar; the most extraordinary research on its application to vineyards is being done by a fellow called Hans-Peter Schmidt, studying its effects in the vineyards of the Valais in Switzerland as well as in southern France.

Biochar is essentially activated charcoal, which when mixed with high quality compost takes on some extremely interesting agronomic properties. First, at high rates of application, i.e. 20 tons/ha, it can greatly enhance the water holding capacity of soils – by as much as 30-35%.16_biochar In dry areas, this can really make the difference between being able to farm without supplemental irrigation or not. It also greatly enhances the fertility of the soil, building more organic matter, further enhancing the water holding capacity. The other aspect of biochar is that it seems to greatly stimulate beneficial microbial activity in the soil, specifically the mycorrhizae, or symbiotic fungi that actively transport minerals into the root hairs of the plant.2
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While the subject of minerality is certainly fraught, there is no question in my mind that wines made from grapes grown in mineral rich soils, as well as those possessing a healthy soil ecology, whether farmed organically or biodynamically, will exhibit what might be called a greater life-force, or ability to tolerate oxidative challenge.18_decanter

Put another way, I would suggest that it is impossible to think about greatness in wines absent the ability of those wines to age and gain in complexity. So, if the presence of biochar and higher levels of organic matter in vineyards support mycorrhizae and the uptake of minerals in the soil, we can perhaps think of them as terroir amplifiers.

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Another way of thinking about terroir, specifically the criteria for a great terroir, is to understand that this site is one that has managed to educe a greater degree of finesse and articulation from its grapes in comparison to its neighbors, and so much of this finesse is a function of buffering against extreme conditions – drought or excessive moisture.3

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Biochar has the capacity to in some sense make soils “smarter,” i.e. not only to enhance nutritional availability and disease resistance, but also to create a greater sense of homeostasis for the plant, i.e. more moderate growth, and a buffering against stress; this is especially valuable in light of global climate change, and the dry conditions that we already experience during the growing season in California. 21_master

Now, here is a very interesting point that we might all meditate on. As I was learning more about biochar, I asked Peter Schmidt, “So, Peter, by the addition of biochar, aren’t you in fact deforming the expression of terroir?” Of course you are,” he said, “but actually no more than if you were, say, plowing a field, which is itself a deformation.4

While in some sense terroir may be thought of as a collection of the inhering qualities of a site transcending the stylistic imprint of the winemaker, at the same time it is inextricably linked to the human beings who are there to discover and express it. 22_plow

So, we can’t help but meddle a bit; if we are clever and elegant, our meddling and muddling seem to fade seamlessly to the edges in the vins de terroir that we might produce. But, again, in the New World, absent hundreds of years of iteration and observation, how might one shine the light on the uniqueness of a given site, to allow its voice to be heard and not get drowned out by other voices? I think that it is ultimately a question of the signal to noise ratio, i.e. how much information is transmitted against the background of irrelevency. What are the practices that amplify the signal of terroir, but do not create excessive noise?523_SNR

I have a theory, which may or may not be right and that is: If you can identify a place to grow grapes where there is a strong and articulate terroir – one with appropriate water holding and fertility characteristics, and an expressive mineral profile – perhaps it is not absolutely necessary that you be supremely clever or preternaturally lucky enough to identify the “perfect,” most ideally matched grape variety to that site; maybe it is really just the gross phenology you need to get right – ripening time, Brix/acid balance, etc.24_jeanmichel

To go even further, perhaps the presence of strong varietal characteristics may actually work against the expression of soil characteristics. I would cite the wines of Jean-Michel Deiss, whose mixed field blends of varieties that ripen at approximately the same time with an appropriate balance, support the idea that a great terroir trumps the precision of the articulation of a single variety.
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Further, witness the wines of Los Bermejos in the Canary Islands, grown on pure basalt rock, made from the somewhat ignominious Listan negro variety; the wines are brilliant and complex, certainly not because of the inherent genius of their constituent grapes. Further, it is a basic tenet that multicépage wines are just the way to go in warmer, Mediterranean climates. A single varietal wine cannot create the complexity and balance of a well-conceived blend in warmer, dryer sites, (and I will argue in a moment that we human beings cannot conceive of blends quite as complex as Mother Nature can potentially create for us.)
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So, if you take the idea to its logical conclusion of reordering the Gestalt of the experience of a wine such that its varietal aspect is in the background and its soil characteristics are in the foreground, you will want to maximize the practices that reinforce that soil expression. My very radical (in the original sense of the word) idea is that perhaps by growing grapes from seed, you might end up with a much greater expression of soil characteristics than if you were to grow the grapes from conventionally grown rootings or grafts. This has not been studied in grapevines, as no one apart from breeders grow from seeds, but in fact, seedlings of virtually every woody plant exhibit different rooting behavior compared to plants grown from cuttings, i.e. they exhibit a greater degree of geotropism, or the ability to root straight down to China.

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But, I think that greatest advantage of growing grapes from seeds is in the creation of both minute and gross diversity in the resultant seedlings, thus leveraging the raw combinative power of Nature to iterate enormously over a relatively short period of time. As an aside, you don’t really want to collect seeds created from self-pollinating vines, as the seedlings will express deleterious recessive alleles, resulting in inferior progeny.
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One will likely do much better to cross varieties with one another, which will lead to healthier plants, and, when viewed as a population, potentially allow the emergence of certain individual plants with unique characteristics, or simply ones that clearly are a lot happier growing where they are than their confrères.

So, you try to be as thoughtful as possible about the qualities you are looking for and the suitability of certain varieties for your site. How you do this is perhaps a little tricky.6 How you do this is perhaps a little tricky. I think that you need to start with something like a baseline value, beginning with “standard varieties” – it could even be something as recherché as say, Ruchè – on your site and seeing how they perform, imagining how they might perhaps be nudged one way or another to become more felicitously matched to your unique conditions.
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It is the female part of the cross that largely transmits the varietal characteristics to the progeny, so you want to make sure that this is a variety that seems to express well on your site. The male part of the cross is the one that carries the growth characteristics, the form of the vine to the progeny. In my own case, growing grapes in a slightly warm, fairly dry climate, I’m looking for an extremely vigorous male parent, one that has good drought tolerance.
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The bet, in a nutshell, is really this: If you begin with a variety that performs particularly well on your site, by creating minute variations between the diverse genotypes that are the offspring of that parent, might you have the wit to discern a particular individual or group of individuals that seem to be better suited to the site than the others – ripening a little earlier, or later, or being more drought tolerant or disease resistant, through whatever criteria seem to be important in growing grapes on your site?

The other part of the bet is that even if you do not live long enough or have the wit to discern real genius ensconced in your midst, will the sheer number of variations on a theme as it were, (after you’ve culled out the too early or too late ripening or too sickly individuals that are clearly not with the program), 31_oldmancreate something like complex polyphony or something more like cacophony? Put another way, in a genetically diverse vineyard is there something like the collective wisdom of a crowd?7

I honestly don’t know if my idea for growing grapes from seeds is the world’s best idea or the world’s worst idea, but if it were to work, i.e. the soil characteristics coming through in the wine itself, it would seem, at the very least, that this would be a wine that came from the closest thing to a bespoke vineyard, and would not taste like anything else around. It seems, especially in light of global climate change, and the incidence of new disease pressures on vines, that creating a rich, diverse planting stock for one’s unique vineyard would be both a reasonable strategy for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future. Thank you very much.

Keynote Address delivered to European Wine Bloggers Conference, Nov. 9, 2012

  1. Bordeaux []
  2. I should add that the incorporation of biochar into the soil, has also the salutary effect of sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide for approximately 5-10,000 years, depending on the various estimates that you read, essentially being the only probable realistic solution to the problem of global climate change. []
  3. The other more obvious aspect of a great terroir is its ability to express the unique characteristics of its soil type; some soils (calcareous, granitic, volcanic, and schistous for example) seem to be uniquely gifted in transmitting this secondary dimension of a wine. []
  4. Cultivation by discing disrupts the topmost soil layer, killing off the beneficial microflora. []
  5. The use of new oak, drip irrigation or use of over-ripe grapes would be good examples of extraneous noise. []
  6. This, I believe, lands squarely in the realm of art (or perhaps mysticism) and not science. Certainly some sort of deep intuition or inspiration is here required; my experience has been that when you know, you just seem to know. []
  7. You can argue that new, “modern” varieties bred within the last one hundred years (with the possible exception of Scheurebe, which has recently been shown to have an “unknown” maternal parent – itself exceptionally strange), are generally far less interesting than their parents. This may be due to the fact that in general, modern grape breeding has selected for very utilitarian criteria – in many instances, enhanced yield – rather than for excellence of wine quality. The success of my project may well be contingent on what is still just a belief – as yet a far from confirmed fact – that the multiplicity of voices will yield great complexity and nuance and not just noise, or worse, flavors that are unpleasant. My greatest nightmare is that after all of this heroic effort, I may well end up with essentially the equivalent of Pinotage (which undoubtedly seemed like a great idea at the time, at least to someone). []

Napa Valley Girl

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Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley Girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
In a tasting room
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a…

LIKE, OH, MY GOTT (Napa Valley girl)
LIKE – TOTALLY (Napa Valley girl)
St. Helena is like SO BOUCHAINE
There’s Tra Vigne…
And like all these like really cool restaurants and balloon rides and stuff
I like to buy the most expensive cabs
It’s like so BOUCHAINE ‘cause like everybody’s like
Super-super rich…
It’s like so BOUCHAINE
1a_napaballoon_250pxw
In St. Helena, there she goes
She just found some Bouchaine Merlot
Now she’s on the prowl for some cougar juice
The kind of stuff that makes her feel real loose.

Anyway, he goes are you into hard tannins?
I go, oh RIGHT
Could you like just like picture me drinking a wine that was
Not fruit forward, I mean like ASTRINGENT?
Yeah right, HURT ME, HURT ME
I’m chard! NO WAY!
HE WAS LIKE FREAKING ME OUT…
He told me my wine smelled like a sweaty saddle
That’s ‘cause like he was totally blitzed
He goes like I’m gonna pour you something from a bag-in-the-box
I’M SO CHARD!
cougar2_275pxw
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine…
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
With a scoring card
Okay, fine…
For chard, for chard
She’s a …

It’s really sad (Napa Valley girl)
Like my English sommelier…
He’s like … (Napa Valley girl)
He’s like Mr. Minerality (Napa Valley girl)
We’re talking LORD KING BIODYNAMIC MINERALITY (Napa Valley girl)
8a_bag-in-box_200pxw
I AM SO CHARD!
HE LIKES GROSS LEES!
And like sits there and swirls his decanter
And consults his biodynamic calendar
It’s like TOTALLY DISGUSTING
I’M LIKE SO CHARD!
It’s like BARBARESCO ME OUT!
GAG ME WITH A TASTEVIN

Last idea to cross her mind
Had something to do with where to find
A case of cab from Silver Oak
And making din-din rezzies at La Toque

So like I go into this like wine bar place, y’know
So, I wanted like to get a really cool Helen Turley or Caymus wine
3_Wine_boxes_Caymus_275pxwAnd the lady like goes, OH MY GOTT, YOU PICKED OUT A SYRAH!
THAT’S LIKE SO COTE-ROTIE!
It was like really embarrassing
She’s like OH, MY GOTT, LIKE BAG-IN-THE-BOX THAT WINE!
I’m like chard.
She goes, uh, I don’t know if it’s got a handle on this, y’know
I was like really embarrassed

Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Napa Valley girl
She’s a Napa Valley girl
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl7a_cat_box_275pxw
And she finds her pairings hard
Okay, fine
For chard, for chard
She’s a Napa Valley girl
With a scoring card

Like my mother drinks MOUTON CADET (Napa Valley girl)
That’s made from SAUVIGNON BLANC (Napa Valley girl)
IT TASTES LIKE A CAT BOX! (Napa Valley girl)
I AM CHARD!
IT’S LIKE GROSS LEES (Napa Valley girl)
BARBARESCO OUT! (Napa Valley girl)
OH, MY GOTT (Napa Valley girl)

HI!
Uh-huh… (Napa Valley girl)
My name?
My name is Margaux Liebowitz (Napa Valley girl)
Uh-huh
That’s right, Margaux (Napa Valley girl)
Uh-huh…
I know
It’s like…(Napa Valley girl)
I DO NOT DRINK OVERPRICED WINE
I’m chard (Napa Valley girl)
WHAT’SA MATTER WITH THE WINE I DRINK? (Napa Valley girl)
I am a Napa val, I know (Napa Valley girl)
But I like can get reservations at the French Laundry so it’s okay
(Napa Valley girl)
Uh-huh…(Napa Valley girl)6_michel-rolland_275pxw
So like, I don’t know (Napa Valley girl)
I’m like freaking out totally (Napa Valley girl)
OH, MY GOTT! (Napa Valley girl)

Hi- I have to go see my consulting enologist (Napa Valley girl)
I’m getting a customized blend made, y’know (Napa Valley girl)
But Michel has insisted on such a big retainer
That’s going to be really like a total bummer
I’M FREAKING OUT
I’m chard.
It’s like those dump bucket things
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THEY’RE LIKE GROSS LEES
YOU LIKE GET LIKE OTHER PEOPLE’S SALIVA ALL OVER THEM!
But like, I don’t know, it’s going to be cool, y’know
Riding in the limo to the wine train
And I’m on one of those cool mailing lists, y’know
Where y’know somebody’s gotta die
For you to get in
The wine is just so awesome
It’s got no aftertaste; it’s like tubular, y’know
Well, it’s not like really tannic or anything
It’s just like
I don’t know
You know me, I’m like into like the clean stuff
Like Colgin and Harlan Estate, y’know4_napa_valley_train_275pxw
Like my husband like makes me drink SUB-90 POINT Syrah
IT’S LIKE GROSS LEES
LIKE ALL THE AROMAS OF DIRT AND TERROIR AND STUFF
And it’s like, it’s like SOMEBODY ELSE’S WINE, Y’KNOW
IT’S LIKE COTE ROTIE!
COTE ROTIE TO THE MAX
I AM CHARD!
Its like really nauseating
LIKE BARBARESCO OUT!
GAG ME WITH A TASTEVIN!
GROSS LEES!
I AM CHARD!
TOTALLY….

DOMAINE DES BLOGGEURS

DOMAINE DES BLOGGEURS1
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I find it more or less ironic to be standing in front of you, talking about anything pertaining to the business side of the wine business, because, in spite of my notoriety as a clever marketer (or marketeer as my detractors would have it),2 I feel that these days I hardly understand anything at all about the biz; I am a stranger in a strange land, in the words of my former neighbor in Bonny Doon, Robert Heinlein. I am acutely aware of the great, possibly infinite disparity between what you might call the “wine speech act” and what might be called the “wine sales act,” i.e. a flesh-and-blood customer actually purchasing wine from you as a result (efficient or proximal cause, or whatever the Scholastics would have called it) of something that you have either recently written or said. For I am, for all purposes, a wine blogger manqué, at least one who has not been able to successfully monetize his wine blog qua blog in the service of his business. I’m not a particularly successful poster boy for the mission of communicating the unique value proposition of the product I am flogging. But presumably, that is not necessarily all, or even primarily, what a blog is for.

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For the record, I don’t think that a blog is really for anything. It is just something that we do, and there are as many motivations for writing a wine blog as there are bloggers. Very, very few of us have figured out how to monetize our efforts; there are clearly much easier ways to make a buck, like flipping burgers or even selling “orange” wines. We blog because in some sense we must, like the salmon around here, returning to spawn. Maybe the desire to blog stems from coming from a slightly dysfunctional family of origin, where we were never properly heard as children (at least, that’s my motivation).
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So, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about my own history as a wine blogger, about wine bloggery in general, perhaps also proffer some gratuitous remarks about the bizarre state of the wine industry, then share some thoughts about where I imagine wine journalism might go, and lastly, offer a sincere cri de Coeur to encourage you all to support originality and strangeness, two features that the wine business, especially in the New World, desperately needs.

I got into the wine blogging business, as it were, as an outgrowth of the printed winery newsletters I used to write and mail out. At some point, someone in my organization pointed out the shocking dollar amount we were spending on postage and, as a cost-cutting measure, we abruptly stopped sending the newsletters out by post. As wasteful as the newsletters were of natural resources, as carbon footprint positive as they were, and as expensive as they were to send, I’m virtually certain that we have never quite connected with our customers as completely as we did back in the day. Our Doon subscribers got sixteen or twenty four pages of faux Dante in faux terza rima, or sincere renditions of faux Kafka or Joyce or Pynchon, along with obligatory purple wine prose, gobs of ripe fruity metaphors, with hints of hilarity, subtle suggestions of sarcasm, tinged with verdant notes of envy.
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Please don’t think of me as a spy in the house of digital wine love, a turn-Côtes-du-Rhône, a Benedict Arnot-Roberts, if I say that it was the palpable presence of the newsletters in people’s mailboxes that was the important meta-statement, the improbable extravagance of something like a precious gift. (I run into customers all the time who have told me that they held on to the newsletters forever.) I’m not sure precisely what lesson is here to be learned. Maybe it is (or was) that, despite the fact that my wines then were largely vins d’effort, confections, if you will, perhaps the extravagance of the prose, coupled with the extravagance of the weighty tome in the customers’ mailbox communicated the message that I was, on the page at least, giving my all and then some.
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I should also mention that at the time we produced a minimum of twelve new and distinctive wines and labels every year for our wine club members – utterly crazy and impractical – which communicated the message that we were trying harder than anyone out there. This cannot count for nothing. I think of Salinger’s character, Seymour Glass, who admonishes his younger brother, Zooey, to “shine his shoes for the Fat Lady.” To show up with all of one’s running lights on.

So, if there is perhaps an incidental take-away in my somewhat frothy remarks, it may be this: We are living in a time of shattered attention spans, trivial to non-existent bandwidths, and communication with one another generally limited to a sound-bite or a brief text message (often sent just before the stoplight turns green). Customer loyalty, as such, indeed any kind of loyalty these days, can best be charitably described as Commitment Lite. But, the person who, somehow through all of this, can express an allegiance to his customers or, in your instance, to your readers, with a certain generosity of spirit, must gain our attention and, maybe, even respect and fidelity.
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In truth, it’s been a tough one for me and for my company. We conditioned our customers to expect the world from us, and now, when we’re only delivering really good wine at a fair price, along with a modest dose of piety, it’s not quite enough. Lessons learned? Rebranding, as they say, is a bitch. Be careful how you present yourself, especially if you are a joker, as you may, eventually, not be laughing quite as hard. The initial constellation of memes that surrounds your brand and public persona, especially in the day of digital immortality, will persist to the end of your days, which, of course, brings up the old joke about the peril of having carnal relations “with just one goat.”
7_goat
Myself, I’m hoping to someday become less of a cartoon, but perhaps this may be to my own detriment. I sometimes wonder if cartoons are the only things that are noticed anymore. But I don’t want to go back to being a cartoon, nor am I particularly in favor of decimating forests so people can read my deathless prose. The lesson? I scratch my head every day, trying to work out just what it might be. Maybe in the branded universe, you can’t change things up too much. People liked the wacky labels and the putative madcap winemaker image. I was a Rorschach inkblot; people saw in me the person they wanted to see.

As a parenthetical aside, I will tell you something very odd that used to happen to me on a fairly regular basis. I do my share of winemaker dinners, and at the end of these dinners, customers would often approach me – usually to tell me about their personal history with the wine – but often on a slightly different mission. Either they would lay a joint on me, dead certain that the gesture would be appreciated – after all, I’m a long-haired person from Rasta Cruz, sorry, that’s Santa Cruz – or alternatively, they would give me the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead certain that I, breaker of rules, non-accepter of authority, dedicated colorer outside the lines, was undisputedly One of Them. In some sense, I was the Peter Sellers character, Chance, in the excellent film and novel, “Being There.” Maybe this is one depressing secret for success – allow your audience to imagine you or your product to represent what they most want it to be. My customers, many of my older ones at least, however, are just not yet ready for the latest incarnation of thoughtful and measured. Thoughtful and measured doesn’t go Boom Boom!, like some wines and winemakers do.3

boomboomlabelSo, what are the lessons that I’ve learned? Well, this is not exactly a lesson, but more of an observation, and maybe not even an observation so much as a generalized kvetch. I don’t like the wine business as much as I used to. It’s not just the crazy amount of competition we now have and the exclusionary and lowest common denomination practices of large distributors. The wine business was, at least for me and for my colleagues when we started, about possibility and discovery. We were all learning, and wine drinkers and wine writers were learning along with us. You could make mistakes and be forgiven; there was, like the World Series, always next year. There was an enormous diversity of wine styles, at least domestically, none obviously “superior” to another. The wine business and wine culture thirty five to forty years ago was a sort of Garden of Eden, relatively unspoiled.4
8_chianti
Wine critics existed, of course, and their praise was useful, but no one really understood then how to game the system for high point scores. It was an age of innocence (relatively speaking), where a winemaker made wine to please him or herself. Winemakers, and not merely the Walter Brennan-like old coots, would say things like: “I make wine to please myself. If people don’t like my wine, &#@!% ‘em, I’ll drink ‘em myself.” These days, nobody says that because nobody can afford to drink his own wine all by himself; it’s too damn expensive. Modern winemakers live in an era of tragic self-consciousness about the economic consequences of their winemaking decisions, utterly aware of the peril of somehow falling outside of the stylistic parameters of accepted wine styles. The principle consequence of the great “success” of our industry is that it now seems to be just about business; it’s all business.
9_walter_brennan_hat
Great wine was not so expensive then, and anyone who entered the business – as a retailer, wine writer or wine maker – did not harbor the illusion that the wine business was going to make him or her rich. We did it because it was something that we loved. But some “visionary” individuals and companies perceived the possibility of unlimited sustained growth and began to build wine brands and wine empires.5 This, coupled with the consolidation and tumescent growth of a few wine wholesale companies and mega-retailers, has led to a sort of seamless virtual vertical integration of the wine business, with relatively few players controlling essentially the lion’s share of the game – a pretty good mirror of what has happened in the rest of the world economy.

Parenthetically, it is alternately amusing and horrifying to observe how large wine companies attempt to engage with social media; they understand well its power to influence large populations and, at the same time, understand that their message cannot be entirely controlled, which just freaks them out. The inherently random, slightly anarchic aspect of social media, which somehow recapitulates the anarchic quality of nature itself, I find incredibly appealing (and sometimes horrifying); the germ of an idea, a good one or bad one, can take root and like kudzu, take over. The key is to keep planting useful seeds and hope that some of the more interesting and viable ones will take root.

But to return to the thought: these days it seems to be all about the money. When resources become scarce or threaten to imminently become scarce, we all tend to follow the money. The few wine bloggers who are making a profitable go of it are the ones who are, with a few exceptions, in some sense following the money, i.e. acting as trusted advisors to the wealthy individuals who don’t wish to be caught not Napa-ing and can’t decide between this vintage’s Screaming Harlan, Screaming Colgin or Screaming Eagle. Forgive me, but I almost see wine bloggers (myself included, to be sure) as Gene Hackman figures in The French Connection, with our noses pressed up against the restaurant window in the rain, looking in at the shady characters inside, who are eating and drinking and having the times of their lives.
10_frenchconnection
But I didn’t come here merely to kvetch. We’ve established that none of us is going to get rich doing what we do. No use crying over spilled Merlot; what’s doon is doon. If we can’t find monetary gain in this work, then certainly what we must do is find more meaning for ourselves, and possibly even try to make something like a contribution to the larger world.6 So, what can I possibly say to any of you about wine or wine writing that has not already been said a thousand times over?

First of all, since we’ve established that, at least for us, it’s not about money, let’s then talk about beauty. What voice might we lend to illuminate wine’s strange beauty? Allow me to very gently suggest, my friends, that the compilation of sensory descriptors, the shopping list of scents and schlugs, the catalogue raisiné (sic) of sundry roots and berries, enumerated by the urban hunter-gatherer/wine writer, while amusing to read, at the end of the day, is not particularly edifying. It just presents us with the outer garment of the wine, and doesn’t speaking to its essence, that which is cloaked beneath. Whether the nose is more loganberries than boysenberries, it just doesn’t really matter. In fact, I would suggest that it’s not even a question of the critic finding le descriptive mot juste for the wine; it’s really about something else.
11_master
I’m thinking now of J.D. Salinger again, who in his, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” retold the Zen story of a simple hawker of fuel and vegetables, held by those truly in the know about these things to be the very greatest judge of horses in the land. One bit of evidence of this Master’s great gift for the appraisal of horseflesh was that the he often seemed to be a bit confused about things. In fact, he was utterly indifferent as to the more obvious outer trappings of the horse’s appearance and qualities, paying scarce notice to whether the equine was a sorrel mare or a bay filly. He was, instead, looking deeply at the horse at the level of its essence. Somehow, I would suggest, dear friends, that it is the quality of deep attention paid to the wine, looking beyond the fleeting epiphenomena, that truly matters. It is believed (falsely) that wine is but an inert object. How empathic of this very strange, alchemical liquid can we become?

The real dirty secret of wine criticism is that we are incredibly fallible tasters, fooled just about all of the time, and that our own subjective states, a function of more factors than we can imagine – time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, our physiological and emotional states, degree of turbidity of the wine, and degree of turbidity of our own consciousnesses – play an enormous role in how a given wine presents itself to us. Instead of ignoring this inconvenient truth, I’d like to see us look at it squarely in the face and then meditate deeply on what are the implications of that knowledge.
12_winetasting
I would love to see wine criticism really turn into something more like wine phenomenology, as we look more at ourselves and what we bring to the experience, not only to the analytic skills we bring to understanding a given wine, but rather to the changes the wine is able to elicit in us. We, as writers, imagine that we are writing about the wines, but we are, in fact, always writing about ourselves; even the descriptors that we choose tell the reader far more about us, the taster, than they do about what has been tasted.
What I’m suggesting is that the real opportunity for us is to think about wine as an occasion for meta-discussion. What can the experience of a wine teach us about being human? What does it teach us about beauty? How does it help us connect to the natural world? Just as it is said that philosophy begins from the sense of awe and wonder, I would like to suggest that wine writing might also take its cue from the same source. Let me put it another way: it behooves us to show up for the wine. If the wine is indeed magical, let it work its magic on us, give us supernatural powers of descriptive speech, inspire us with synesthesia, with extravagant poetic tropes.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “wine is bottled poetry,” and we should absolutely take him at his word. Right now, we tend to imagine that the greatest wine is the most powerful one. But I would like to see a wine that is incredibly powerful – not so much in tannin, alcohol, depth of hue and dry extract, but powerful in its ability to move human beings to poetic language, or just to move us to wordless wonder.

On the subject of wonder, let me share with you a rather odd experience I had not too long ago. I was in Hong Kong, invited to speak at a wine conference and sit on a panel with the dueling Michels: Bettane and Rolland (that was quite bizarre). Pancho Campo had organized the conference and it was taking place just as Pancho-gate was beginning to unfold, so that added another level of complexity to the proceedings. Mr. Parker was, of course, the real draw, the reason that everyone was there. He was to lead a tutored tasting of twenty of his top selections, “magical” Bordeaux from the great 2009 vintage. You can only imagine how utterly over the moon the assembled guests were.
13_robertparker
So, I was imagining that hearing Robert talk about his favorite Bordeaux in Hong Kong to an adulating audience was going to be a little weird – but guess what?7 He was absolutely incredible. He spoke out for “elegance.” And he presented a number of wines that were absolutely, undeniably elegant just before the very end of the tasting, when the Big Guns like the 15% Cos d’Estournel came out. But what was most remarkable was that Parker himself, despite his jet lag, and possibly still recovering from his surgeries, was incredibly passionate and animated in his presentation. He spoke from a position of humble reverence, sincerely grateful to have been given an opportunity to taste these remarkable wines. In some sense, you could say that he was the least jaded palate in the room. He was really something; he allowed the wines to deeply nourish and inspire him. This is a lesson that we can all take away.
14_cosdestournellabel
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. We have to recover our curiosity and recharge our passion (or find it in the first place) for the wines that rock our world and, most importantly, we have to discover or create a language that will translate beyond our own private, solipsistic sensorium and connect to the life experience of our readership, ideally a readership still in the process of discovery. (We, who are utterly wine-immersed, thoroughly macerated, you might say, tend to live in something like a fairly self-referential universe.) A thorny problem: how to allow the ripples to spread to a wider readership without diluting the message and rendering it banal? Here’s a crazy idea: pay more attention to the language. It’s language, after all, that we’re trading in. We can’t, as much as we might want to, taste the wine with another’s palate; we can, however, lovingly offer up our words for their delectation.

We need to speak up on behalf – this is maybe a little self-serving here, forgive me – of those who are innovating new styles, or preserving something precious: an old style, an old variety, respecting the authority of a great terroir. The reality is that with the consolidation of wholesale and gradual disappearance of fine wine retailers every day, great and maybe just very good producers are losing access to markets. We have to speak up for those wines that don’t have goofy, eye-catching labels, flavor profiles that are not squarely down the Middle of the Road, and will never be floor-stacked in Safeways.8
15_sisyph
Most importantly, we must realize that despite the essential, almost Sisyphean absurdity of what we do, the format of the wine blog is perhaps the perfect form for wine writing. The act of opening a bottle of wine is typically something that is done with a certain degree of spontaneity. All you need is a corkscrew, or sometimes, if the winemaker has had the wit to seal his bottle with a screwcap, you don’t even need that. But you open this thing up in the privacy of your own home and, suddenly, you find yourself in the midst of a great, wild adventure , or maybe it’s just a pleasant walk in the park. But, wine, when it is great, is all about the long form, as a wine blog can be as well. It – the wine I’m talking about now – wanders, like a meandering river. It doesn’t have to make a point (or points(!), for that matter). It is just there to transport us to a slightly different reality, as I hope we can do with our words. Thank you very much.

(Presented as a keynote speech for the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, Portland, OR., August 17, 2012)

  1. Perhaps it’s little too precious to footnote a title, but in case you have forgotten, Bonny Doon Vineyard once imported a Syrah wine from the Languedoc called, Domaine des Blagueurs. I have gone from being a blagueur (joker) to bloggeur.. []
  2. I have publicly acknowledged that I am going to Wine Hell for my zins. []
  3. I’ve observed a striking phenomenon, especially among certain highly successful winemakers of the Central Coast (who shall remain nameless). The formula for success seems to be to make reasonably good wines (in whatever style), and to publicly be a “character,” i.e. outlandish, provocative, profane, and excessive in one’s remarks (facilitated, of course, by the generous consumption of one’s own product). Maybe these winemakers are channeling Bacchus, the God of Excess, or maybe they are just representing the thoroughly uninhibited person many of us aspire to be. In any event, I am somewhat in awe, and truthfully, a bit envious, when I observe these characters in action. []
  4. There were still beaucoup bad wines – think Mateus, Blue Nun and Wente Blanc de Blanc, and even dreadful Chianti that came in a fiasco, the chief virtue of which was that you could put a candle in it after the execrable contents were emptied. The known universe of wine seemed bounded then and this was comforting; it was largely knowable and navigable. European wines were what they were – great (except for the ones that weren’t) – and New World wines seemed to be getting better and better every year. []
  5. Interestingly, before the Robert Mondavi Winery set out on a campaign of voracious acquisition and growth, the company was fueled primarily by the sincere passion of Robert Mondavi and his great love of wine and the wine business. []
  6. It is worth remembering, by the way, that there does exist a greater world beyond the metes and bounds of our blogosphere. []
  7. The reader is undoubtedly aware of some of the ups and doons I’ve had in my relationship with Mr. Parker. []
  8. I recently participated in a symposium on upcoming grape varieties here in Portland, sponsored by the University of California, and presented along with the Director of Grape Research and Development for a very large, unnamed winery in Modesto, CA. He talked about what criteria his company looks at in considering the suitability of a new variety. Apart from the obvious criteria of viticultural ease and productivity, the company was looking, presumably through the agency of the execrable focus group, for certain desirable sensory profiles that customers correlated with wine “quality”: deep color, full body, bright and fruity flavors, specifically cherry and raspberry. What was considered utterly unacceptable were highly astringent varieties, anything pale in color, and, of course, anything, God forbid, that hinted of an herbal or vegetative aspect. They wanted sweetness and light varieties without any “dark” side, Stepford Wife cépages, if you will. If we don’t speak up for these oddball varieties, who will? []

“Vitischkeit” or The Doonish Problem

hornsThere is a problem, and it is somewhat unexpected, even counter-intuitive, if you will. When I blurt out to people that my company is not making any money, many tend to be incredulous. “The brand is so famous, you are so famous,” I will hear, and “the wines are better than ever.” “You’ve shrunk the company, cashed out (handsomely, they are thinking but not saying) and you are now focused on your dream. How great is that?” In the fantasy world of compulsory happy endings, following one’s dream, (especially preceded by a presumably generous payday or two), should lead to guaranteed success/happiness… And yet, it is all very mysterious…

Mystery #1, why the company is not making money, may be a bit surprising, but is not inexplicable. The company – certainly I must bear the responsibility for this – just did not make a lot of good business decisions (my own damn stubbornness and myopia) for the last five or more years. We didn’t make hay while the sun shined,1 as it were, failed to rebrand skillfully,2 didn’t raise our prices and lower our costs – all of the things that a company needs to do to achieve functionality and profitability in a highly competitive environment. Mystery #2, why the mainstream press has not been particularly supportive of our recent efforts (indeed, seeming to relegate Bonny Doon and moi-même to a kind of airbrushed Stalin Era-style of invisibility vis-à-vis the late 20th century Rhône movement in the New World) is also not particularly surprising: I have mocked them, I’m afraid, sometimes mercilessly.3

stalingroupI’ve stopped that now (pretty much), but remain an outspoken critic of wine pointillism, of the pervasive overblown, overripe style, of the cult of the wine lifestyle/fetishism,4 and other aspects of the modern wine business that I find particularly egregious. In truth, the mainstream wine media and I are no longer members of the same tribe, if we ever were.

Mystery #3 is a difficult and painful one (and partially related to Mystery #4 as will become clear, or not, in a moment): some (mercifully, not all) of our distributors seem to have lost interest in our wines, or at least suggest, when pressed, that, while they personally like the wines a lot, indeed, virtually all find them to be truly better than ever, they also, for inexplicable reasons, find them somewhat challenging to sell.5 It is difficult for me to understand how our brand is truly perceived in the “market,” or seemingly, multiplicity of markets (if not universes), and it all seems rather Rashomon-like to me; I can hardly believe that people have such radically different perceptions of the same brand, the same wines.6

rashomonIn any event, these distributors (they know who they are) are generally terribly sorry and wring their hands, frustrated that they can’t do a better job for us.7

And in a (perhaps) related phenomenon (Mystery #4), why are many of the cleverest, most switched-on of the wine writers, some of whom I’m happy to count as friends (more or less),8 more than a little guarded or reticent to give a real ringing endorsement of the current or recent lineup of our wines? They seem happy to hang out with me, happy to write lengthy pieces about the fascinating plans I have for the future, but are still, incredibly (at least to me), largely incapable of breaking down and writing the magic words: “The wines are better than ever! Randall is doing important work that should be supported!9 Go out and buy this juice now!” (Exclamation points optional, of course.)

I’ve thought long and hard about this problem, and of the issue of what might one legitimately expect as far as support (putting aside the question of in precisely what form that might be) from one’s friends; obviously, this has something (rather a lot) to do with the degree of closeness, length of association, and a thousand other factors derived from the fabric of human experience.10 We want to help our friends, of course, but generally only to the extent that we are not putting ourselves too much in harm’s way, and if there is some sort of potential psychic pay-off to ourselves at the end of the day. So, why is it so hard for my friends to speak up on my behalf?11

Perhaps they truly are not so impressed with the wines – bear in mind that relatively subtle wines such as ours, not obvious blockbusters, are very difficult for a critic to give that resounding thumbs up.12 This is the fairly obvious hypothesis, and it may be true, but it begs the larger question. If we are producing wines in a style that “enlightened” critics embrace, just why has it been so difficult for them to put themselves out on a medium-sized limb and speak up?RG_CardinalZin

Clearly, I have, in part, been my very own worst enemy. Being the notorious advocate for Bonny Doon Vineyard wines – some good, some maybe less than particularly stellar – for so many years, it is not surprising that there remains some residual skepticism of the sincerity of my declarations.13 Certainly, I was a bit over-the-top with some of my shenanigans – dressing up as Cardinal Zin at public events, accompanied by a coterie of sassy, ruler-brandishing nuns.

Perhaps these behaviors were compelled by a deep-seated, visceral, almost genetic fear of failure, (coupled with a perhaps less-than-perfectly-genteel upbringing). In the absence of any real training in (or even for that matter, real comprehension of) the business of business, I had nothing to rely upon but my wits to stave off catastrophic failure. I was, perhaps still am, in short, the stereotypical rude Ostländer: one who has not properly learned his manners. ordealbookcover

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Cuddihy wrote about the psychic conflict of shtetl Jews suddenly thrust into modernity and the deep ambivalence of the already assimilated Jewish intelligentsia – Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss – whose cultural critique of the dominant Gentile culture, Cuddihy argued, mirrored their own psychic conflict.14 I have myself been fighting my own psychic battle – mostly a question of whether I truly dare to aim for greatness (and risk colossal failure) or rely on the safer course, producing wines that are good enough and, in some sense, commercial. Well, my friends, that ship has already sailed, and there is no turning back.15

While the reluctance of my friends to speak up for the wines may be due to their slight embarrassment at my earlier behavior, or perhaps, more realistically, they are just afraid of backing the wrong horse, of appearing foolish, or worse, having their hearts broken if I fail to follow through on my putative commitment to real excellence and originality.16 They certainly grasp the audacity and worthiness of my proposed enterprise, but want to make sure that I remain on the straight and narrow; by praising the current line-up, perhaps they are fearful that I might regress to earlier behavior patterns, modify the trajectory of my arc, and somehow, tragically, settle for less.17
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While it would be great to receive greater encouragement from the friendly wine critics I truly care about – it may in fact be the difference between surviving and not – at the same time, in the end it may also prove to be a distraction. I used to worry so much about what Parker and the Wine Spectator would say about the wines; they were always the unseen Superego I was trying to please. Learning that there is no way that I am ever going to please them has proven to be utterly liberating. For now, there is nothing to do but focus on the work18 to be doon.

  1. Which is not to suggest that the sun was shining consistently throughout this period, especially in 2008 and 2009. []
  2. Note, this is not the easiest thing to do, even for people who are really good at it, and we were, or at least I was, totally out of my league in this department. []
  3. Possibly a function of my own narcissism and inability to take either legitimate or illegitimate criticism in stride, with a certain propensity toward total ballisticity when met with the latter. []
  4. This last item is perhaps a bit disingenuous, as I would likely hesitate for no more than a Beaujolais Nouveau second to trade my brand’s perhaps slightly umbral status for extreme cultdom. []
  5. This is an incredibly complex problem. In a few instances, the problems may have stemmed from the sale of the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands six years ago, resulting in continuing brand confusion in the marketplace. (Most people are finding it hard to take in new information these days.) But as far as the wholesalers, these mega-brands were a rather important revenue source for them, and, in their sale, we hurt some of our wholesalers (with no malice, of course) in the pocketbook. In some cases, especially in the instance of larger distributors, we have become just no longer economically significant to them – nothing more than a rounding error in some cases; for some of the smaller distributors, perhaps it is now harder for them to sell the more esoteric and expensive brands without Big House as the icebreaker. But certainly the bulk of the issue is related to the deep structural problems inhering in the current state of wine distribution. There has been considerable consolidation in many markets – mid-sized distributors gobbled up or squeezed out by large companies – leaving large suppliers with large marketing budgets to have their way with restaurant chains, hotel groups and mega-retailers. Volume, more than quality of placement, really seems to be the byword. (The notion of “brand building” seems to be something like a quaint anachronism.) Small independent retailers and restaurants (and wholesalers) are still, for the most part, continuing to fight the good fight, but they are heading into a strong headwind. It is my conceit that wholesalers, like wineries and essentially everyone these days, is struggling to find a sense of their own relevance. We have to be making a product or offering a service that is truly necessary. (How many of us can claim to truly do that?) []
  6. The problem seems to occur mostly in “red states.” []
  7. Most everyone is scared about the future (and about the present in most cases, too), whether one admits it to anyone, even to oneself. When you are operating essentially on a survival basis, it is hard to remain focused on the potentially sublime, transcendental and inspiring elements of the wine business. In a practical sense, time is money, and you’d prefer not to spend any of those precious commodities, explaining the great virtues of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc grown on gravelly soil with an eastern exposition, and how the resultant wine is so utterly brilliant for gastronomy, viz. paired with a lobster and fennel risotto. []
  8. Important note: I would not characterize most of them as “close” friends, but certainly as “friendly” – respectful and always a pleasure to spend time with. []
  9. It is horrifying for me to spell this out so baldly. I seem to be saying that they are just “not getting it.” (I think that, in fact, they are not getting it.) But in their defense, I would suggest that the reasons may well be due in part to the deep problem of evaluating the real value of New World wines, and, in part, to the psychological issues I will very foolishly attempt to elucidate (see footnotes infra). There is also the very remote possibility that the wines are, in fact, not as great as I think they are. On a certain level, the friendly critics may believe they are currently supporting me by being somewhat parsimonious in their praise of the wines. Perhaps they imagine that the rigorous standards to which they hold me – no easy “A”s or grading on the curve – will inspire me to work harder and perhaps “live up to my potential.” []
  10. It is a source of shame to me that I am generally so self-absorbed as to not take a more active interest in the affairs of my friends and loved ones. []
  11. If there ever was any doubt about the degree of my narcissism, this should settle matters once and for all: while there is absolutely no doubt that my friends wish me (at least with their conscious minds) the greatest success in all of my ventures, it is not inconceivable that their good wishes may be tinged with the teensiest bit of ambivalence. I’m not exactly saying that they are on a subconscious level jealous of my (putative) success, but rather, that I may have triggered an innate competitive response by inadvertently drifting into their No Fly Zone, upsetting the Natural Order of Things. As a published author (who enjoyed some critical success), how could they not want to be a little tougher on me than on anyone else? I am the Winemaker after all, not the Wine Writer, and where is it geschriven that I might have the last word? And then, there is this other thing I do that just utterly pisses guys off. I seem to change my direction rather too often (it’s all utterly consistent from my own point of view), thus coming off as, if perhaps not a weasel, at least as someone whom one has to watch closely and warily. Men, in general (in comparison to women), are far less tolerant of other men whom they perceive to be mercurial shape-shifters. At least I am. It is a cardinal rule among men that we not allow ourselves to be duped or even to look remotely foolish. []
  12. This itself is an important question that I’ve wrestled with elsewhere. I believe that to evaluate the qualities of a wine is an incredibly difficult, often largely subjective, virtually always non-replicable exercise, utterly fraught with many variables (time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, physiological and emotional state of the taster, degree of turbidity of the wine, degree of turbidity of the consciousness of the taster, etc.) Because of all of these variables, it is not surprising that most wine critics have chosen to look for certain polestars to which they might orient themselves. For Parker and the Wine Spectator, it has been concentration, “ripeness,” power, low acidity, soft but detectable tannins and the presence of a certain amount of the very best oak that money can buy. These are qualities that can be detected with some degree of consistency, and this is incredibly helpful to the critic who wishes to maintain consistency of his own personal brand. For “counter-critics,” it may well be the absence of the aforementioned qualities that make wines interesting, though the positive presence or sensation of “minerality,” acidity, appearance of optical turbidity and other signifiers (volatile acidity, 4 ethyl-phenol) of non-interference in the winemaking process may also be relevant. []
  13. I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion the opprobrium permanently affixed to one’s name after having enjoyed but one capriotic liaison d’amour. []
  14. I remember Cuddihy writing something to the effect of, “Scratch the surface of an “id” (or “it”) and what you find beneath is a “Yid.” In my case, of course, it would be a “Vit.” []
  15. It just remains for me to perhaps be a lot more convincing, as I am the Boy Who Cried Terroir, and virtually everything else. []
  16. The real commitment is to making the sincere effort to produce a vin de terroir, and to following that resultant path wherever it leads. []
  17. (There is, by the way, no chance of that.) []
  18. “Work!” quoth Maynard G. Krebs. []

Waiting for Godello: Bringing an Alternative Variety to Market

I’ve been a partisan of “alternative varieties” for a long time, partially because I am a non-conformist by nature, but also for two significant reasons: 1) I am convinced that so much of what has been planted in the New World is a result of an historical accident1 and/or a function of commercial expediency, not necessarily because it was the ideal grape to be grown on a given site. The idealist/dreamer in me imagines that somehow, with enough intuition/insight, one might be able to work out the specific varieties that might be better matched to a site (though precisely how this would be worked out is perhaps a little more problematic). 2) The pragmatic side of me also discovered that the less fashionable pre-existing varieties were (at least historically speaking) grossly undervalued, relative to the “popular” ones; at Bonny Doon, we have toiled in the obscure fields of Grenache (back in the day when it was obscure), Cinsault, Riesling, Muscat (years ago), Malvasia Bianca and, more recently, old-vine Carignane (still largely undervalued).2 (We’ve also made raspberry wine, “wines of the icebox,” and have worked diligently to seek out any real, interesting, undervalued vinous proposition.) At the time, it was my thought that it would be far easier to establish a small niche in an under-populated ecosystem rather than go head-to-head with every other winery that produced the more popular varieties. We used marketing black magic on these Ugly Duckling grape varieties and wines to add value, much like restaurateurs do to rebrand less popular (and less expensive) cuts of meat.

We’ve certainly had our innings planting “new” grapes for California and the New World – rather more than I can even remember. Trying to establish “new” or unconventional varieties de novo carries unique risks and uncertain rewards. Some of our efforts were viticulturally successful but commercially disastrous (Freisa, for example), some viticulturally and commercially disastrous (Dolcetto in the Salinas Valley is one that comes to mind), some, like Roussanne, accidentally successful on both counts (but only after some long years in the wilderness). Some varieties appear to have great potential on a variety of sites – Albariño and amazingly, Loureiro (but there is no way to divine this fact a priori) – which is exhilarating and alarming at the same time. But the point here is that, if it was risky to try these unusual varieties ten or twenty years ago, it is perhaps even more perilous to do so now.

Everything has changed. The wine business has entered hyper-competitive mode in recent years. The great bargains, at least as far as grapes are concerned, have largely been scooped up; prices this year and next are certainly strengthening. Historically “unpopular” varieties, such as Grenache and Muscat, have suddenly become fashionable – in the case of the latter one, due to supernatural causes. And, very significantly, there has been a severe constriction of distribution channels: distributors are generally not looking for new suppliers or new SKUs from existing suppliers (especially ones requiring significant explanation and exposition that need to be hand-sold). Proposing a New World Refosco, Teroldego, Schioppettino, or even Nebbiolo to one’s distributor would most likely be met with extreme incredulity.3

The problem in introducing new varieties is especially complicated by the fact that the cost of establishing vineyards in coastal areas is much higher than it’s ever been; one is competing with European vineyards that have presumably been paid for long ago.4 And European wines are far more available in the States than ever before. If you’re selling your domestic Sangiovese, not only does it need to be less expensive than great Chianti, it also must be significantly better.5 Then, you are still going to be greeted by retailers and restaurateurs who will not believe their own taste-buds and opt for the lesser, more expensive Chianti, if only from the belief (which is, in fact, reality-based) that it’s going to be a lot easier to sell than your supernal Sangiovese. Trust me, I’ve been doon this road.

It has never been a more difficult time to introduce an alternative variety into a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted marketplace, and we are faced with the equally difficult (if not more so) task of getting it absolutely right. Just how are we going to do that? (We don’t have the time – multiple generations are needed, really – to iterate and observe what precisely does best where and how.) How much Syrah was planted in the wrong location, on inappropriate soils? How much Sangiovese was planted with the wrong clone? Why would you or I imagine that we’re going to get it right? The fact is that you or I likely won’t.

The point is that simply identifying a cool new variety (and there are plenty of them – they usually end in vowels, by the way – Sagrantino, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Uva di Troia) is not enough, not nearly enough of a recipe for success in these times. The potential market for these wines is largely dominated by the most über-wine geeks of the planet. Yes, there may well be a certain locavorian predilection in, say, Berkeley or Portland, but that salutary trait tends to be trumped by a more dominant Italophilia; these customers are generally skeptical (with good reason) about New World renditions of the Platonic ideals. The main thing we have going for us in the New World is our ability to get things ripe most of the time. To a certain extent, we can exploit that fact, but it only gets us so far. What we don’t do so well, with our often monoclonal, drip-irrigated vineyards, is produce wines with real dimensionality, distinctive soil-ful and soulful characteristics, and (dare I say) terroir.

I’m sorry to have to introduce the T-word here. I was hoping I didn’t have to, but this is my point in a nutshell so please pay attention. We must think beyond, far beyond, varietal wines. If you are trying to sell wine in the premium segment of the market, a good or excellent rendition of an emerging or offbeat variety does not offer enough. Without another dimension of complexity – the sense of place, of somewhereness – the wine will just not be compelling enough to compete. If we are concerned about true sustainability, and we all are, we must think about grapes that go beyond the fashionable flavor of the week and have a real reason for being. It is great that we are thinking about unusual varieties – this is perhaps my favorite form of reverie – but instead, or in addition, we should really be thinking about strategies to create a real sense of distinctiveness about the wines we make.

Honestly, we could do worse than to take a page from the Europeans and really focus on the sites where the grapes are grown. Can we identify the soils that impart distinctive characteristics to the wine? Can these soils, if skillfully farmed, support grapes without supplemental irrigation? Are there farming techniques that amplify soil characteristics? (Hint: yes there are.) In this crazy wine market we inhabit, we must learn how to develop a very wide vision of what is needed to create real complexity and distinction in the wines we produce. We can’t, for example, think only about the “best” varieties or “best” clones, but rather about what can be done to create more complexity and depth in our wines: a mélange of clones, most likely, possibly even a mélange of different plants grown together (a polyculture, if you will). We should be thinking very seriously about the farming techniques that create life in our soils and by extension, life, qi, in our wines.

I would like to propose an extremely radical idea, in the original sense of the word. Why not dispense with the idea of varietal wines altogether? Not just an extreme field blend of different varieties, though that could also be interesting, but something even more outlandish. We are trying something in our own vineyard in San Juan Bautista that may be quite mad, and is, on its face, utterly impractical, but may be revelatory if one is thinking along a very long temporal horizon.6 My thought is to hybridize vinifera grapes, making crosses based partially on observation and reason, partially on intuition, using Mother Nature to create a fair bit of diversity within certain parameters. Varieties deemed to be interesting and/or appropriate to a given site are crossed with one another; the paternal plant selected for its growth characteristics and the maternal plant for its flavor profile. Seeds are collected and then planted out, and infertile or non-viable plants are discarded.7 The gist of the idea is two-fold: might the extreme diversity of a population of unique genotypes, all in more or less the same family, allow the possibility of qualities above and beyond varietal character to emerge in a wine?8 And, just as significantly, using the power of Nature to create subtle and not so subtle variation within a population, might one be able to identify unique individuals that are perhaps more ideally suited to a given location? (Better drought resistance, earlier or later ripening, better acid balance, greater flavor intensity, that sort of thing.)

I’ll end with this thought: I’m not convinced that (with a couple of exceptions to be sure) there are such things as good, better or best grape varieties. What is of greater salience is the degree of congruity of a given grape (or set of grapes) to the challenges posed by a particular site. As human beings using only our wits, we are probably not clever enough to work out, in a single lifetime, what it has taken generations of Europeans to do. But perhaps by allowing Mother Nature to do the heavy lifting in the creation of genetic variation, we can accelerate the process of identifying the excellence of fit of a given variety or varieties to a particular site. There may well be some flaws in this reasoning, and the practicality of the project is a bit sketchy. But I think one needs to be a bit ambitious in one’s thinking in order to rise above the rather deafening din of the agora.

On June 19th, Randall will be speaking on this topic at the Alternative Varieties Symposium for the American Society for Enology and Viticulture National Conference (ASEV.org) in Portland, Oregon.

  1. The Old World plantations may well be accidental as well, but they’ve had enough time to iterate and observe which selections were most suitable to their sites, to confer the retrospective illusion of historical inevitability, or telos. []
  2. No need to go into the Carignane paradox. It is a vine that produces essentially miserable fruit for the first thirty to forty years of its existence, but when the vines are old, the grapes are brilliant. Of course, there cannot be such a thing as old-vine Carignane, unless there had been at some point some young-vine Carignane. This sort of long-term thinking is itself pretty much extinct at this point. []
  3. Some winemakers in the New World imagine that oddball winemaking techniques might be enough to establish a sense of distinctiveness in their wines. Ageing wine in amphorae, bottling with no SO2 are techniques that definitely make one’s wine a bit different, but (in and of themselves) are stylistic fetishes. []
  4. Establishing a relatively high production vineyard in the warm Central Valley with certain economies of scale might still be economically interesting, but is fraught with its own unique set of problems (i.e. is the casual drinker who buys his ½ gallon jugs or bag-in-the-box really ready for Uva di Troia di Fresno?) []
  5. Or perceived to be “better,” which is a discussion that is particularly fraught. Don’t get me started. []
  6. Questions of monetization will have to be bracketed. []
  7. It is obvious that this sort of practice can only be attempted in areas that are free from phylloxera; maybe as a version 1.0 they will have a finite life. But the interesting varieties that are identified could be grafted onto resistant rootstock in the 2.0 version. []
  8. This may well be a question related to the phenomenon of the perception of taste; will the diminution of the distinctiveness of varietal characteristics result in the sensation of a greater distinctiveness of soil characteristics? It could also be said that, while there is absolutely no way to predict the flavor characteristics of the projected wine at all, it would seem that the sheer complexity of the blend would likely produce a wine with a unique flavor profile. []

Doon to Earth (Redux)

My company, Bonny Doon Vineyard, is in some danger, perhaps some real danger if we are not careful, and by extension, so are my great and vivid dreams. Yes, the company has had its ups and doons over the years—a fire or two here, a plague of lethal bacterial-laden insects there, some less than favorable write-ups (or alternatively and more problematically, the Cone of Silence) from influential wine critics, but never has there been anything like a genuine existential threat. Through it all, I’ve always imagined that I have always been able to put on my Doonce cap, work out a solution, and have always found a way to land on my feet.

The world is different now, maybe not so forgiving, certainly more complicated. It’s not as if no one is sympathetic, that everyone has become hard-hearted, but truth be told, everyone has their own troubles. To remain visible, audible, and above all relevant, within the highly distracted, attention-diminished, deafening agora that is the modern wine business, is truly a daunting work.

The reality is that nothing terrible will happen this month or next month, or on the mid-term temporal horizon, though our bank tells us that we really do have shape up rather sooner than later. In the effort to “right-size” ourselves, the company has sustained some losses since the divestiture of the large volume brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. I’ve sold off assets—the winery building, a vineyard, and most recently the Pacific Rim brand. Despite the jettisoning of all of this ballast, we are still, in candor, continuing to drift, using some (though clearly not all) of our wits, to catch something like an updraft.

Our costs are still too high, the price of our wine still too low. This is apparently the gist of the problem; it costs more to make less (likely an artifact of our Doon-sizing). Without getting into the nitty-gritty, we need to improve our margins and cut our costs. Moving to a more efficient facility—(¡San Juan; si, si!) might be one way—but the easiest way to improve profitability would be to greatly improve our direct-to-consumer (DTC) business—e-commerce, wine club, tasting room and restaurant sales. It is said that DTC is the Holy Grail for small wineries these days, which is another way of saying that it is something everyone wants to do but few really have the know-how to pull it off.

So, we must become very agile, very adept, at boosting our business with our end user, to wit, the archetypical Doonstah. We have just hired a new General Manager, Jim Connell, who has had great experience managing restaurants and tasting rooms and is the closest thing to a true DTC maven as one will find in California. His consummate wish (if I may put words in his mouth) would be to enhance the experience of visitors to our tasting room and restaurant, imprinting them definitively and irreversibly on the Dooniverse. This is something that we have been able to do unselfconsciously for so many years, especially when we were up on the hill in Bonny Doon. Perhaps it has been a kind an enchantment that we gradually lost a sense of what we effortlessly did so well for so long.1

Jim talks about the need to engage our customers on a very personal basis—to greet them, make them feel welcome with good eye contact, and make the experience about them. This may be Enlightened Hospitality or may be Salesmanship 101, but it is a course that I have never personally attended. It has always been my style to enter a room, declaim wildly, weaving what I trust is a compelling story2 and having said my piece, discreetly slink away.3 Clearly, this is not a sustainable style for the New Era.

My fear is that some of the (tragic) elements of my own personality have become inculcated within the company culture. I write passionately, if not floridly, as you all well know, and have always imagined that I could make the written case for Bonny Doon Vineyard wine—no need for the messy business of actually talking to people in real time or space.4

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How this relates to the Land of DEWN: It was a couple of years ago that we came to the stark, chilling realization that we had lost a number of members of our club, some of whom were just not coming back, and most unfortunately, had not been adequately replenished by the addition of new members. (The fact that there was a global economic downturn of profound magnitude may well have been a contributing factor to this phenomenon.) We sent a few e-mails to the customers, inviting them back, half-heartedly attempted to call a few, but not nearly enough, nor with the real spirit and determination to bring them back into the fold.

I have persisted in the notion that, were our errant customers to really grasp the extraordinary things we were planning for the future, how could they fail to reënlist? It came to me in an eidetic moment. The seed! We would be growing grapes from seed in our new place in San Juan Bautista. No matter that no one has done this before, and that it is fraught with great risk—at the same time, it is a potentially extraordinary way to grow grapes and may well hold the key to producing a true vin de terroir.5 But, for our purposes, the seed is an incredibly powerful image—, the unfolding of the future, the fulfillment of latent potential. This is at least the one agricultural image that for me makes me misty-eyed. We would send our prodigal DEWNies a post card with a grape seed affixed thereto, and some stirring language, inviting them to rejoin the fold. Apart from the challenging technical issues of getting the seed to stick to the paper, surviving its postal journey and so forth, there was non-trivial expense in putting the package together, the daunting cost of the mailing itself, and the results in the end were less than wildly successful.6

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The message, which has taken some years to penetrate my dense cranium, is that in sales, one lives or dies in the immediacy and intimacy of the human connection with the consumer. It doesn’t work so well to mail, to email, to attempt to initiate a behavioral change in one’s customer at a distance.

I lost my father a little over a year ago, and have, of course, been thinking a lot about him. I remember very vividly that when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, approximately the age of my daughter now, my father decided that I needed to learn certain compulsory life-skills, and for him at least, the key one was that of salesmanship. At the time, he had a store in Hollywood, selling tools and general merchandise to a somewhat disreputable collection of customers, hustlers you might call them, who would resell the goods, out of their car or door to door. This was not anything I wanted any part of; some aspect of this commerce seemed less than above-board. One day, my dad brought home a case of first-aid kits—these were not American Red Cross issue, to be sure—but they contained band-aids, Mercurochrome, the typical gear to patch up scrapes and bruises. My dad “sold” them to my younger brother and myself, with the instruction that we were to mark them up three or four dollars and sell them door-to-door. “Don’t come back until you’ve sold them all,” we were told. Now, I had some difficulty with the whole concept of mark-up—this seemed to me to be something like profiteering to my young mind, but the real problem I had was ringing the doorbells of strangers, and trying to persuade them to buy my slightly suspect first-aid kits.

I was a total failure—I sold maybe two or three kits, but my brother was an absolute natural and sold all of his. My brother went on to join my father in his business, which became slightly more reputable as the years went by. But, I think that my father always harbored a deep sense of disappointment in me due to me absolutely non-mercantile sensibility. I think that he always feared that I could never take care of myself were the chips truly down. I am fairly certain that the trauma of the experience has led to my singular inability to “close,” or ask for a sale, a skill that every salesperson must have in his repertoire.

So, now the chips are, if not down, at least downish, and I am thinking about the lesson that my father tried to teach me fifty years ago. I have a notion that is perhaps slightly mad. It is my thought to personally call all of the ex-DEWNies and invite them back into the fold. In other words, take out the first-aid kits that my father had given me years ago, and not come back until they are all sold.

I don’t know if I can actually do this; it seems as if it will take an incredible amount of time, and perhaps I will be just as bad at this job as I was with the first-aid kits. But, it is an opportunity to come doon to earth, talk to people (gasp), and maybe set a personal example within the company of the need to really take our business and our wines, seriously.

Maybe this is the message of the new century: We are all vulnerable in some way, and in the end, can rely upon no one but ourselves. Maybe this is depressing news, but it also seems to be a deep existential truth and one that we have to take to heart. But, at the same time, it is also clear that we are ever more connected to others, that our fate is theirs. It has never been more important to not take our friends for granted, nor to neglect telling the ones that we love that we ardently do so.7 Whatever the case, my dialing finger is very itchy.


1 In the past, it seems that we were fortunate to have effortlessly attracted a certain kind of person to our fold, one who was greatly attracted to the downright fun aspect of our value proposition. Now, of course, things are more serious (but not pious, I hope), and there is definitely a more measured tack to be taken.
2 Who was that masked man? Why, the Rhône Ranger.
3 Put this down to unrectified narcissism, preternatural shyness, what have you.
4 There have at times been feints at so-called groundedness or presence, evidenced by the very clever “Doon to Earth” cartoon we produced after the divestiture of Big House and Cardinal Zin. I understood then that I needed to become a lot more grounded and focused. But one’s deepest life challenges are of course a kind of labyrinth and one keeps returning again and again to them until they are resolved or alternately, do one in.
5 If you are a wine geek, the prospect of this wine of the future is unbelievably compelling, rather like Citroën announcing that they are about to unveil a car with a radically new design.
6 As I have mentioned many times, I am a Luftmensch, one whose head is generally in the clouds, abstracted, not exactly connecting with the world in particularly concrete terms. The promotional piece might have worked far better if its audience were themselves all Luftmenschen, i.e. readers of the New York Review of Books.
7 While one might imagine that the content of this communiqué might be a bit of an, ahem, dooner, the reality is that I have never felt more alive, exhilarated about this business that I love than I do at the present moment. The old ways of doing things and the old ways of being—empyrean and aloof—just don’t work so well any more. But, this is just an invitation to really think about everything in a new and vital way, literally from the ground up. One thing I know with certainty: Making wines that are merely very good, even excellent is no longer a possibility for me, if they are not coming from a place of real originality and distinction. Making wines with soul, which also nourish our souls, is what I must always bear in mind.

Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 2)

I’m planting a vineyard in San Juan Bautista; this much we know. It won’t look very much like a vineyard—rather more like an untamed, feral garden of one’s dreams that happens to grow some grapes.1 While it would be nice if this new vineyard/garden were at least nominally remunerative, the primary motive for this project is not monetary, but rather very personal. I’m hoping to bring something of real beauty into existence, as well as express a new range of genetic possibilities while leaving the aforesaid vineyard as some sort of bequeathal to the world. I’m also wondering whether this agricultural endeavor might somehow reconnect me to Nature writ large, and also perhaps to my own nature—that person, whomever he might be, who simply is, when not publically presenting or posturing.

Indeed, the new vineyard/garden/Eden I hope to (co)-create in San Juan Bautista may be my best—and possibly only—chance to learn how to become a lot more present—which is what ultimately I most profoundly seek. This opportunity creates a real sense of anxiety, because the decisions have not been pressure-tested, grounded, and because they require real shifts within myself. I’ll no longer be able to indulge myself in simple edicts like, “Black raspberries! There must be black raspberries!”2 I must now think deeply about all of the implications of any of these choices. There are a finite number of arrows in the quiver, and I must aim as truly as I can.

labyrinth3Still, some open issues have largely been settled since my most recent communiqué here. It’s now very clear to me that the earlier notion of collecting seeds from self-pollinating vines is probably not the greatest idea,3 but hybridizing vinifera with itself might in fact be very interesting. Plant hybridization is usually done with a very precise telos, a specific problem that needs to be solved. It’s imagined, for example, that there’s a potential market for a particular flavor or appearance in a seedless grape variety, but that grape, unfortunately, has seeds, not something that spitting-averse North Americans are really down with. Cross it with a seedless variety multiple times until you end up with something that has the flavor and appearance of the imagined grape but no seeds. Or, the grape has a marvelous aroma and a delicious flavor, but is a stingy yielder. Cross muscat of Alexandria (a relatively shy bearer) with the prolific grenache gris and Bob’s your uncle!4

“Greatness” in grapes is largely contextual—pinot noir is hardly great in Fresno. Moreover, there’s tremendous disparity in the presentation of so-called “great” grapes. For example, the size of the cluster and individual berry of most great grapes is generally modest—this insures proper and even ripening, resistance to such issues as bunch rot, and good flavor intensity in virtue of the skin to juice ratio. And yet, nebbiolo and grenache are both brilliant grapes, but both present a fairly large cluster (cutting off parts of aforesaid is usually most advantageous). And apart from centuries of experience with riesling, say, how would one obviously intuit that it was vastly superior to sylvaner, which is not so dissimilar in appearance? Certainly to start, you would need to see them growing side by side and likely in several different contexts. In conversation with Professor Andy Walker, geneticist and endowed chair in viticulture at UC Davis, I asked pointedly if he reckoned there were any visible characteristics that bespoke greatness in particular grape varieties. Andy posited that in his experience, a number of great grapes—both red and white—seem to share the odd property of exhibiting red striations in their canes. This artifact might well be a function of a red-clustered antecedent in the woodshed, but more relevantly, it might also be an indication of genomic complexity with a super-abundance of biochemical elaboration. Dolcetto and charbono, however, both exhibit red striations in their canes but IMHO produce wines of relative simplicity.5 Maybe the art of grape vine observation is a bit like phrenology, the divination of occult qualities by the observation of the more visible ones.

grapesWine grapes are typically bred for such traits as cold-hardiness, disease resistance, greater yield, earlier or later ripening, etc., but seldom in recent history are they bred essentially for the sheer hell of it—as an indulgence of the breeder’s aesthetic whim or a dedication to an abstract (and perhaps ephemeral) notion of wine quality. So the question remains just how feasible it might be to discover and create something new and compelling,6 or even find the grape that perhaps makes a wine one would most like to drink.7 Ultimately, if the purpose of the exercise is to find a grape or set of grapes intended to optimally express the inherent unique qualities of the site, its terroir, the question really becomes how might one identify those grapes that are optimally suited to it—that in some sense belong. As an example, it was observed long ago that pinot noir was a particularly brilliant grape and generally well suited to the Côtes de Nuits, and with centuries of iteration and observation, an individual grower could find the individual vines on his site that were slightly better suited—they were a little sweeter, a little less prone to disease, or just happened to catch the vigneron’s eye. Through sélection massale, an individual cru could progressively grow more individuated, and better adapted to a particular site. Hand, meet glove.

In the case of San Juan, by allowing such expression of so much genetic diversity through hybridization, there may well emerge a set of individual plants that appear to be utterly at home there—indeed, look as if they’ve been there for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, it may well turn out that the blooming, buzzing confusion of thousands of genetically distinct individual vines, each with its own story to tell, may itself yield an utterly unique wine, a complex tapestry with special qualities that are the result of the accretion of minute differences.

Whichever path I pursue—perhaps it will be logical to pursue them both, the microcosm and macrocosm—it’s clear that the skill I must most assiduously cultivate is that of careful observation, admixed with intuition. My job will be to thoughtfully design arrays of potential interest and then look deeply at them for the appearance of startling new patterns.

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Complexity, harmony, synchrony. How to begin? It could certainly be argued that the qualities I’m seeking in this vineyard plantation are not too dissimilar from the ones I’m seeking to discover within myself. As a winemaker, I’ve worked for most of my career with the notion that it was I who was directing or at least attempting to guide the “winemaking” process. But there have been other signifiers. Just a few years ago we mounted a couple of vertical Cigare Volant tastings, sampling wines from every extant vintage (albeit in large format, so the maturation process was greatly slowed). What was most surprising was that the two most interesting wines of the tasting were the ’84 and ’85 Cigares. It could be argued that they were great simply because they were old and bottled in large format, but I’m wondering if there isn’t perhaps a deeper lesson here. When I began producing Cigare, I (along with everyone else in North America) knew very little about Rhône grapes. In retrospect, it is nothing short of miraculous that the first vintages of Cigare came out well at all. I’m not arguing that I was divinely guided to work with Rhône grapes the way that Republican presidential candidates are guided to run for office, but rather that I had at the time something closer to a “beginner’s mind;” I was far more open to the suggestions of my own intuition. I was somehow more connected to something.8

It’s now very clear to me that despite whatever skill I might possess as a winemaker, my wit is in fact remarkably limited, and I’ve lately wondered if there might well be other ways of enhancing my own intuition without careering off in the direction of wholesale self-delusion. I’ve always been intrigued by accounts of those who have managed to somehow communicate with—what shall we call it?—a wider, broader world beyond our ken. At the same time, being a bit of a skeptic by nature, I’ve always imagined that participation in this psychic realm was something that would be forever beyond my grasp. But in holding this attitude, I have come to understand, I may well have created a major artificial barrier to my own personal development as a winemaker and as a human being, and I’m now reasonably certain that to make a wine of great complexity, I must find a way to let go of my own need to direct matters entirely, and somehow call on Nature’s infinite intelligence to assist me.

The name we’ve just bestowed on our property in San Juan Bautista is “Popelouchum,” the Mutsun word for the village settlement around the town. (Its secondary meaning is “paradise,” which can in no way be disputed.) I recently met some Native Americans and explained to them my desired aims for the property, and the Chief suggested I consider something like a vision quest there. At first he suggested that I spend four days fasting, with no food or water, and I’m not sure anyone can actually live four days in the outdoors without any water, but obviously: no computer, no iPhone, no Twitter, Facebook, no interaction with other people—conversing only with oneself, the nature spirits, and the wildlife of San Juan. The Chief finally agreed, to my great relief, that a twenty-four hour period, with access to drinking water, might be a more appropriate way to begin. But certainly an education in the solitary must be central to the practice: the exercise of seeking the True Thing only works if it gives one true joy in the absence of the refractory lens of the Other.

car-rg-melie2Also recently, my friend Jeff gave me a most unusual book called Perelandra Garden Workbook, by Machaelle Small Wright. The basic premise is that one can cultivate one’s intuition concerning appropriate actions to take in the garden (on whatever scale or by whatever metaphoric extension one considers the term). The notion relies on the existence of nature spirits called devas who are only too happy to help guide one toward the most suitable actions that will provide balance, harmony, and order. One might ask the devas about which particular seeds to sow, for example, when and where precisely to plant them, the most appropriate planting density, desired soil amendments, etc. The method is deceptively simple. You allow yourself to enter into a slightly meditative state, thus making the membrane of your own consciousness more permeable to that of Nature’s, and then use a method called “muscle-testing,” in which you ask the devas for guidance with carefully worded yes-or-no questions. Using the reactions of your own body as response—a greater or lesser degree of muscle strength or weakness—you more clearly discern Nature’s intentions; thus you have inserted your own body into a sort of feedback circuit with Nature’s will. The main idea, if I may be utterly simplistic, is that there’s a greater consciousness within and beyond our own, and that we can allow our decisions to be guided by our own intelligence, aided by a supra-rational force within our reach.

I’ve really only just begun the work. I’m still developing my technique to establish clear signs of “strength” or “weakness” in my muscle reactions; this is very challenging to me, as I tend to overthink things and second-guess myself. I’m horribly self-conscious of what I’m doing, certain that I must appear to be utterly foolish to any outward observer,9 and vaguely worried that I’m on a path of self-delusion.10 And of course one can certainly get a bit caught up with positing of the mere existence of “nature spirits” in the first place, each with its own particular personality, specialty, and even sub-specialty.

But one need not visually or auditorially observe these spirits nor even initially believe in their literal existence for this methodology to be effective. What one begins by taking on faith may gradually take on a greater degree of substantive reality, and the existence of these spirits (a reality in virtually every culture apart from that of us Westerners), represents a powerful metaphor for Nature’s intelligence. One can empirically observe the results of gradually following the advice of the nature spirits, as well as the changes in oneself, as one becomes more sensitive, observant, and intuitive.

This methodology is perfectly suited to the work that must be done at San Juan.11 As I’ve mentioned, there will be very different rules for this place—it won’t look like a vineyard, but rather like a garden. And yet, of all of the possible plants that can be planted, one must still choose. If you are going to hybridize vinifera vines, there are truly no extant guidelines; you only have your intuition as to what might make the most useful cross in your unique location. The whole notion of a mixed or promiscuous plantation is to find the most appropriate biotic balance for ongoing sustainability, and this is not something that a mortal human being, or at least this particular one, is likely to just accidentally hit upon.

Whatever we end up planting at Popelouchum, it will be an opportunity for me to become more present, more deliberate, and to push myself into strange and unfamiliar areas. Will I end up hearing voices only audible to myself? In some sense, I truly hope so. The greatest impediment to my growth as a winemaker has been the internalization of the voices of those I’ve wished to please. It’s time to listen to another set of voices.

  1. This is sometimes piquantly referred to as “promiscuous culture.” []
  2. Or olives, pêche de vigne, quince, mirabelle plums, pomegranate and exotic varieties of figs and diverse citrus of every stripe and hue. If I’m not careful, the laundry list of desired produce will read a bit like the Song of Solomon or perhaps Noah’s Ark. We did in fact plant a slew of black raspberries, a plant known to be very difficult to grow and susceptible to all manner of disease—only because I know them to be the most delicious raspberry of all. We obtained the plants from a nursery in New York (maybe too late in the season) and disappointingly, had a rather poor stand. The plants that did survive, however, are looking very good (touch brambly wood). []
  3. If you collect the seeds of a self-pollinating vinifera grape, there will be a significant number of genetic anomalies in the offspring, depending on the variety and how genetically stable, i.e., how old a variety it is). This holds true for any species—collies or Hapsburgs—which has become too inbred, and leads to all sorts of genetic defects—hip dysplasia, idiocy, hemophilia, etc. []
  4. You end up with “Symphony,” a very nice grape that expresses discreet Muscat character and yields like crazy; it has not, alas, set the wine world on fire. []
  5. We know in fact that the pinot genome is longer than the human one—intuitively, at least, this is a partial explanation of its greatness. I have no idea how complicated it would be to measure the relative length of the grape genome, or even if this ultimately correlates to anything, but it would be an interesting avenue to pursue. []
  6. And indeed, by a certain logic, why would one want to or need to create new grape varieties, as there are already a dizzying profusion of grapes, many (most) of which have not been adopted commercially? It could be argued that the only real logical reason for continuing to breed vinifera grapes is to look for new strains that solve particular problems—and the biggest problem is that disease organisms themselves evolve, growing progressively more virulent over time, whereas the genetics of domesticated grapes have largely been unchanged over the last thousand years. The New York Times published a piece recently suggesting that the potential problem with domesticated (vinifera) grapes has been that they have not enjoyed a particularly active sex life over the last millennium. I am afraid that the scope of this particular exercise will probably not permit me to introduce non-vinifera species into this particular pool. Finding grapes that are most sublime when turned into wine and are also more resistant to powdery mildew, phylloxera, Pierce’s Disease, and nematodes might well be just too wide-ranging a brief to address this lifetime. []
  7. A writer is faced with a similar conundrum. There are certainly plenty of books—some of them great, some less so—out there to read. But only the writer knows what is the book that he most wants to read. If he can’t find such a book, he has no choice but to write it himself. []
  8. But how does one know if one’s connected to a higher intelligence or simply to one’s own propensity for grandiose thinking? []
  9. And of course worried about failure in the material realm. What if the wine that I make from the new hybrids tastes just utterly dreadful? []
  10. This blog post itself has been incredibly difficult for me to finish, undoubtedly due to the fact that I have my own fears of appearing to be utterly foolish. But meeting these fears is no doubt essential to one’s spiritual growth. []
  11. I’ve also been privileged to spend some time with several indigenous people in the area. For them, our world is utterly alive with spirits that walk along side us. []

Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 1)

I’m a little bit nervous about characterizing my quest to produce a vin de terroir—a wine expressive of a specific place—as a “spiritual journey.”1 Not that popular literature isn’t utterly littered with accounts of unorthodox methodologies pressed into service for this or that spirit-quest, but in some sense it’s my own disposition toward Logorrhea that has perhaps been the greatest impediment to the journey itself. I’ve been very comfortable—perhaps rather too comfortable—talking and writing about the steps leading up to the journey: the planning, the maps and the guidebooks, the conversations with sage mentors, the extraordinary lessons that the universe is patiently trying to teach me through one serendipitous encounter or another. I worry that even just now in the writing about it I’m somehow deferring to a later moment the journey itself, allowing it to infinitely recede into the future distance like the castle of Kafka’s Surveyor. Any journey must be grounded in genuine action, even cerebral action, as this writing itself might in fact be so. But a real and genuine projection of oneself into the unknown, pushing oneself well out of one’s comfort zone, is another matter altogether. The burbling, sinuous stream of sentences I observe on the scintillated screen of my MacBook are my rod and my staff; they comfort me. (This cannot be entirely good.) But the actual journey, the real boots-on-the-ground work, is of a different order altogether. The work seems to require a rather different level of attention, and perhaps something like a total personal transformation, which of course affrights me to the very core.

rg-blending3

I am a Luftmensch—someone who has his head in the clouds. I idly dream of idealized worlds,2 and my tendency to dream has historically often been a surrogate for action. Not that I haven’t been capable of taking bold action from time to time, but these actions have tended to be more of the grand gesture sort: Let’s freeze some grapes! Macerate some raspberries! Why not try our hand at those Rhône/Italian/Portugese grapes while we’re at it? I’ve been particularly good at formulating catchy slogans: A bas le bouchon! and Vive le screwcap! No, there is no real malaise due to lack of initiative. The problem is really something more basic, and has more to do with my inability to be totally present, especially with all of the fine details that truly matter.

For most of my life as a winemaker, as is the case for many “executive winemakers” in the New World,3 “winemaking” is, or at least can be, a largely weightless, almost magical exercise.4 The grapes (somehow) show up at your winery at an appointed day.5 You move (as if in a dream), through a ritualized protocol—cold soak for x number of days, punching down again and again (the cap always popping up again like the return of the repressed). At last, the anthocyanins have been extracted, wrestled into submission like Jacob’s angel. The wine has reposed in its vessel of conception for a Biblical forty days and forty nights, and you then direct your cellar crew to gently remove it to barrel. Time moves on; the pages fall off the calendar like abscised syrah leaves after the first substantive winter rain. You rack the wine a few times on propitious days;6 this sort of rote exercise begins to infiltrate your dreams.7 You sit at the tasting bench—here you are the master of your domain—enter into a semi-trance, and somehow a few short hours later you find you have composed a felicitous blend.8 Eventually you get around to bottling the distillation of these efforts at what you hope is le moment juste, but more likely is the moment your production manager reminds you that there’s no more room at the inn.

blend-composite3

But is there not more to great winemaking than this? It’s not as if you’ve been a total stranger to the vineyard. You try to get the pruning right, the crop level right. You’re strident with your growers on the subject of irrigation.9 Perhaps you’ve made some biodynamic compost for your growers, or even caused some biodynamic preps to be sprayed on their grapes. You’ve done your best to be a squeaky wheel.

But can you really look yourself in the eye and claim to be a truly dedicated vigneron, a campagnard de terroir? For as long as I can recall, I feel as if I’ve just been going through the motions. I am not one with my vineyard;10 my own rather marginal competency as a viticulturist aside, I’m just not there nearly enough, nor do I yet truly have eyes to see.11 (You can put it down in part to the essential absurdity of the Urban Jew in a rustic setting—the Woody Allen oeuvre would certainly bear this out.12 )

And yet, I have asked both publicly and privately for the universe to give me a sign that it’s willing to cooperate in my new ambitious venture in San Juan Bautista—my effort to discover a true terroir in the New World, to bring the unseen into view. This isn’t something that will simply magically occur; it will require me to push myself to grow in a new way—that is to say, to sink my own roots into a new place and stand and survey what it is that I see. If I’m not willing to see what this place, my land, has to show me, and to learn from it, then I am nothing but a fool.

farm-composite2

Allow me to restate the problem of the plantation of a vineyard in a virgin area ab ovum, as I have done in one form or another in a succession of these communiqués. I aspire to make a great wine—that is given. One must therefore begin with unusually great and distinctive grapes; you must grow them yourself if they are to arrive at the fanatical level of quality that you seek—also a given. So, as a prospective grower of brilliant and original grapes, you really have essentially two options, one more or less straightforward, the other far more arcane: you either find a grape that you love and figure out where to grow it, or find a unique place that you love and figure out what it is (Grapes? Peaches? Olives?) that might truly flourish there.

Certainly, the more straightforward option is to decide that you are hopelessly enamored with a particular grape variety—pinot noir, let’s say—and therefore your ambition/lust/compulsion is to make a great Pinot noir—or perhaps, The Great Pinot noir.13 You spend a number of years combing the planet, trying to find a site you imagine will be ideally suited—climate, geology, aspect, purchasability14 —to the cultivation of pinot noir. Now, you may prefer the wines of Chambertin or the wines of Musigny, or even the Pinot noirs of the Russian River. But whether or not you dare to imagine that your Pinot will ever taste even vaguely (or de Vogüély) Musignian, you likely already have a built-in model in your brain for strategies for success: “special” DRC clones, yield restriction, close-spacing, brilliant trellising, very particular winemaking techniques.15 If you are a reasonably clever person, your wine may well taste a bit like your Platonic Pinot, maybe even (drum roll, here) “Burgundian.”16 And if you present an interesting story and the wine tastes as good or better than similar wines made by similarly tortured and obsessed individuals, you may enjoy some success.

But have you really created something of original beauty? Is your Pinot, however powerful or concentrated it might be, as balanced, refined, or haunting as the humblest Burgundy from a modest appellation?17 I ask you, candidly, what have you actually accomplished, apart from gratifying your own wish to compete on the world stage and to see how you stack up against the Greats?18

I know I’m sounding a little pious and judgmental here. Everything we do is in service to our egos—and really, who am I to judge? Maybe I have it totally backward, but it seems to me that the more appropriate approach to making a wine that the world actually needs is to follow the latter course: to make the sincere effort to identify sites with a (perceived) potential to express a distinctive terroir;19 to determine what variety (or varieties) of grapes would be particularly well adapted to that site; and to do what you might to really accentuate the site’s distinguishing characteristics. Of course, whatever your approach, you’re primarily trying to show the world how clever you are. But at the same time, you may also be bringing true beauty into the world, and fostering diversity; this is to the good.

pinot-sjb3

I have been giving a lot of thought, as you well know, to precisely what I should grow in San Juan—or more to the point, how I might best honor the site and at the same time do something that’s really useful. What I’m looking for, it seems, is a methodology that lets me even approach the question of what is most mete and proper. We’ve had Claude and Lydia Bourguignons, the famous French soil scientists, out to the farm.20 They seemed to feel that the place had real potential and were sincerely excited by the uniqueness of most of the soil types they observed chez nous. They gave us some valuable insights as to the nature of our soils, as well as advice on what steps might be taken to optimally preserve and express their distinctiveness. And yet when I asked point-blank about what varieties might be the most suitable, they seemed to fall back on certain idées reçues, or at least upon historical precedents—cabernet in gravel, merlot in clay, that sort of thing.

“So, ruchè on this windy, gravely slope, Claude? What do you think?”

“I’m sorry, Randall, I just don’t know very much about ruchè.”

We have a wonderful northeast facing limestone hill—I mean a serious limestone hill. “Nebbiolo?” I tentatively ventured.

“Maybe,” said Claude, “but nebbiolo behaves a lot like pinot, and doesn’t want to get too stressed. And it is rather windy around here. What do you think about palomino?”

“Chopfallen” is an expression S.J. Perelman was very fond of.21 Yes, we know that palomino does well in chalk (in Jerez), but does the world really need more palomino on chalk? Or even more palomino on anything?

The way forward must be to look for a method that would build upon the world’s received knowledge, and to allow that knowledge to expand and evolve; one must do the most familiar work differently—smartly, but differently. One must find a method that would allow one to pose a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, iterate, and observe. But how to do this in what remains of one very, very short lifetime?

  1. A Twitter follower (don’t ask) recently asked about the “helical” vineyard I’d once proposed planting in Pleasanton, CA., as a sort of recursive, Borgesian encyclopedic exercise beginning at a certain point (maybe even with grapes that began with “A” (Abrostine, Albariño, etc.) and never subtracting, but always adding, refining. It occurs to me that these essays themselves are largely recursive, maybe even helical, and that every spiritual quest is as well. []
  2. Specifically worlds populated by wine (and cider) bottles filled with liquids so unspeakably delicious and complex they move the imbibers to something the psychologist Maslow might characterize as a “peak-experience.” []
  3. Maybe there is an analogy for executive chefs. []
  4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being Doon. []
  5. In fairness, I do actually visit the vineyards any number of times before the grapes “show up,” but the farther away those vineyards are, the fewer times I visit. I confess that often these vineyard visits are primarily fly-bys; I don’t feel I really know them well from the inside out, and this is largely the problem. []
  6. Ideally, with a waning moon and rising barometric pressure. []
  7. Doing cellar work—something I haven’t done in years (topping barrels in particular)—was terribly vivid for me in the nocturnal hours: removing the bungs—did you remember to put them back? Cleaning up the wine that you had spilled around the bunghole (childhood memories of spilled juice). Wrestling with the physicality of the barrel, like a memory of scuffling with a childhood friend or sibling. You have slept fitfully of course, waking numerous times from your slumber, to taste, perchance to blend, to tweak, to rack no more—all the time imagining that your dream of this wine is mostly a sweet one. []
  8. You always want to check this a few times to make sure the blend remains felicitous, as wines (and tasters as well) certainly have their own ups and doons. []
  9. This recalls the famous Far Side cartoon about what we say to dogs, and what they hear. []
  10. Since most of the vineyards we work with are generally not “great”—all somewhat less than ideal in one way or another—I’m often anguishing over how much effort/expense is worth expending to extract incremental improvements in quality; e.g., how much biochar do we buy for our growers’ vineyards? Do we do this for all the vineyards? Some of the vineyards? The best ones? The worst ones? Vineyards with three-year contracts? Five-year contracts? (It is so incredibly tedious to have to think about these things: I would far rather be applying the very attenuated bandwidth I still possess to actually observing the results of field-trials, rather than squinting at trial balances on reams of spreadsheets.) These long-term investments are likely not justifiable from a strictly financial standpoint, but the effort to do one’s best within one’s financial means is truly the only viable spiritual course. []
  11. I’m spread pretty thin with all sorts of responsibilities these days—to my great chagrin, I’m still spending a lot of time in sales and marketing, PR, and simply playing a gracious host. But I certainly was pretty asleep at the switch with respect to our Soledad vineyard. For years I blithely imagined how virtuous we were with our biodynamic practice, perceiving not at all that our soils had become utterly compacted—most likely a function of the slightly saline irrigation water and the relatively heavy tractors we were using. Sustainable? Not by a long chalk. []
  12. The Ashkenazi population’s predisposition to Asperger’s Syndrome (at least according to David Mamet) is another explanatory mechanism and perhaps a particularly apt one in my own instance. Social and physical ineptness, obsessional flights of ideation, extravagance of language—check, check, check. []
  13. You know you love it because you have tasted it (or something like it) maybe once or twice. But how different it is to imagine that you will love something that you have never seen, heard, tasted, or touched before. Maybe it’s the great romantic in me speaking, but the love of the what-might-be seems to be the greatest love of all (at least potentially). []
  14. The land presumably must be for sale and not located under a shopping mall in, say, downtown Palo Alto, and of course you must have a non-trivial amount of scratch on hand to purchase said land and develop it. []
  15. I’m certain there’s occasionally some map/territory confusion here, whereby winemakers believe that the technique itself (or the fact that you are doing x) adds value to the wine, rather than the persuasiveness of the flavors of said wine. []
  16. If you can even put your finger on those elusive qualities that make Pinot noir “Burgundian,” you may have arrived at a deep understanding of the essence of Pinot. []
  17. Answer: I’m afraid it won’t be. It may well be impressive and delicious, but that will be a function of the scrupulous detail you have paid and the enormous capital you have expended, rather than to the absolutely perfect congruence of the site, variety, rootstock, and cultural practice. And, by the way, your wine will likely cost way more to produce than a grand cru Burgundy. []
  18. And of course the opportunity to have your heart broken into a million pieces. []
  19. This of course sounds far easier than it actually is. Apart from the need to determine whether the site has interesting geology and meteorology—sufficient water-holding capacity, adequate cation exchange capacity (important for growing red grapes), and adequate rainfall—there’s really a deeper question of whether the property really speaks to you and you alone. Is your destiny linked to that of the property? How do you know this? []
  20. They work with the fanciest domains in the world, advising on the most felicitous match of cépage and rootstock to soil type, as well as on agronomic strategies for amplifying the individuality of the site. []
  21. I knew that I was succumbing to the same fallacy of the poor and tortured pinot-obsessed; if I love the variety enough, my love will allow me to do something that no one else in these parts has been able to achieve. []

Everybody into the Pool! (The Romance of the Vine)

I spent a recent morning at the Cornflower Nursery in Elk Grove, California, with Professor Andy Walker of UC Davis, who has been very graciously advising me on the rather ambitious (no kidding) program of growing grape vines from seeds.1 We were there to inspect the progress of the grenache seedlings that had germinated a few weeks earlier, which now, with many having just formed their first true leaves, were ready to transplant into 3-inch pots. Andy was there to offer his judgment on the best criteria for discarding or retaining the little seedlings for further study and ultimate plantation.2

This particular set of seedlings had come from seeds we had harvested from several different grenache selections last year, but the vines themselves were all “self-crosses;” i.e., the plants were self-pollinating, and therefore could be said to be genetically less interesting than their parents—more prone to disease, weaker growth, and hidden defects. And yet it seemed (and still seems) to be an interesting experiment to see what the effect of extreme genetic diversity of a given grape variety in a vineyard might do.3

Grenache-Seedlings

Andy has been gently urging me to hybridize vines from multiple varieties rather than simply collect the seeds from individual ones. I was originally quite keen to do this, but when I learned about the enormous hassle factor in the hybridization process—collecting pollen, emasculating the male flowers with surgical scissors (!), but most of all, the need for very intensive and precise record keeping4—I wimped out and went the route of simple seed collection. I have since seen the error of my ways; one undoubtedly gets healthier and potentially more interesting vines from hybridization,5 and I’m keen to begin the breeding, possibly in the near coming weeks if I can decide on which varieties are to be crossed.

This really gets to the very nub of what precisely am I trying to accomplish in this new project. I have had some nagging doubts about the potential brilliance of vinifera hybrids. My deepest fear is that even with the very best of intentions, and breeding two interesting, even noble varieties, I would end up with a new variety, or more accurately a range of offspring, that had few of the redeeming qualities of either parent.6, 7 I had read reports that both T.V. Munson, the legendary Texas grape breeder, whose efforts with American grape species had literally saved the European wine industry from the great phylloxera epidemic, as well as the late Professor Harold Olmo of UC Davis, had both mentioned how difficult it was to find a real stand-out in grape vine progeny, saying essentially that one had to kiss a lot of frogs to find a real prince.

I shared with Andy my concerns and asked him pointedly, “So, what can we say about the wine quality of vinifera hybrids? Are they really that much stupider than their parents?”

He then said the most extraordinary thing, so startling that I didn’t really grasp its significance until after we had gone our separate ways that morning.8 “In fact,” he said, “if the selection of parents is well done, the wine quality potential will generally be superior in the hybrid to that of its parents.”9

Now, I should have been listening very, very carefully at that point, and maybe even should have had a tape recorder, because (pace Andy) this did not seem to jibe with what I had heard or read before. Indeed, the case for improved vine quality or vine health for grape hybrids is totally consistent with everything that is known about “hybrid vigor,”10 the invigoration of the stock through the introduction of new genetic material to the pool.11, 12 But I’m quite certain that we were indeed talking about “wine quality” and not vine quality.13

I asked him specifically about what criteria one might look for in the grapes themselves as indicators of wine quality—perhaps smaller berries, smaller, looser clusters, greater or lesser degree of seededness (ergo more tannin), greater anthocyanin concentration, phenological appropriateness of the variety to the site (enough days of sunlight and adequate heat to ripen the grapes and bring them to a reasonable balance of potential alcohol, acidity, etc.).

“I think that Munson and Olmo were likely talking about the progeny of self crosses, and not true hybrids,” I recall him saying.

The question is stilling nagging at me: what could Andy have really meant by “wine quality?” More importantly, what should I be thinking about as desirable characteristics in these new, as yet unnamed varieties? It is now everything I can do to resist calling him up at this precise moment to grill him further. But instead, I’ll just let myself live with a certain ambiguity for a moment, and use this as an occasion to meditate on what might really be meant by “wine quality;” a vinous Gedankenexperiment, if you will. What follows are fragments of an imaginary conversation with Professor Walker:

Okay, Andy, I don’t wish to be obtuse, but why do you imagine wine quality of well-bred vinifera hybrids to be superior to the already pre-existing varieties?14 For one thing, why haven’t we seen the emergence of a slew of great new grape varieties in modern times? There may be a couple, I’ll grant you—scheurebe for one, and perhaps albarossa, a putative cross of nebbiolo x barbera.15, 16 I’ve only tried incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 once (a cross of riesling and pinot blanc), but it was eminently forgettable, apart from its too cool for school, minimalist nomenclature.17

OlmoThe indefatigable Dr. Olmo had a very long career traveling the world looking for exotic plant material (he was once characterized as the “Indiana Jones of grapes”).  But (with all due respect to the late plant breeder) how much has the world of wine benefited from say, symphony, ruby cabernet, or carmine?18 In Dr. Olmo’s defense, you could say his work was undoubtedly directed toward solving particular problems: the creation of an aromatic variety for a warm climate, the breeding of a table grape with characteristics that made it more commercially attractive, overcoming specific disease issues, etc. Perhaps in the era in which he worked, grape growers and winemakers in California didn’t really have deeply elaborated ideas about wine quality, and were undoubtedly primarily focused more on productivity than on the suitability of this or that variety as a vehicle for the expression of minute nuances of difference in differing sites—that is to say, the glorious articulation of terroir.

It seems intuitively obvious that certain genotypes of grapevine have greater or lesser potential for wine quality, but how to characterize these elusive criteria? Might it not perhaps be more a question of the degree of congruence of a particular variety or set of varieties to a particular site, with all of its unique challenges? Could you use hybridization to tweak what you imagined was a reasonably good fit to your site to make it even more congruent? And while we might pretend to be “empirically objective” or even “scientific” in our assessment of what might be the most appropriate grape variety to a given site, at the end of the day, there will be some wine produced by an actual vigneron. And while aforesaid vigneron—that would be moi—wants nothing more than to greatly delight his customers with the most extraordinary nectar, he also wants to personally be nothing less than out-of-his-mind crazy in love with the wine that he is producing. We all hold within us certain images of idealized Platonic forms; in some sense, this vigneron might consider those elements of a wine most compelling to him, and meditate on how he might conjoin them in a seamless way.

Can you really say that there is anything “wrong” with a specific variety that needs to be fixed/improved through the process of hybridization?19, 20 Is pinot problematic because it is not dark enough in color? How can it be said that pinot could be better than it is if it is already (arguably) perfect, or at the very least capable of expressing something like perfection?21 Pinot and nebbiolo are what they are and we love them because they are somehow just so utterly different from everything else, and in the instance of nebbiolo, just so perversely strange. Changing them would no doubt create something far less interesting, so they are clearly “superior” varieties, but in what sense?

There are so many aspects of this problem that tend to make my head hurt, and so many apparent logical paradoxes, that it seems impossible to reconcile them all. We have to slow down the discussion and really think hard about what constitutes “greatness” in wine. Cabernet, merlot, and the other bordelais cépages can produce wines capable of “greatness” because they have a lot of structure, i.e., they’re rich in tannins and anthocyanins, with good acidity, and are thus capable of long aging and the development of complexity. Further, they are not overly susceptible to vine disease. On their own, they can be relatively simple and monotonic; generally speaking, blending (in the cellar) will enhance their complexity.22

But what if it is not the grape varieties themselves that are the repositories of greatness, but rather that they’re merely the vehicles of transmission of the greatness (or put another way, eloquence) of a given site? Intuitively this seems obvious. Cabernet sauvignon is unquestionably a “great” grape but makes a fairly miserable wine grown in overly fertile sites, and grown on its own can be overly expressive in its flavor profile, drowning out other nuances. Clearly there are other elements at work that enable a great variety to express its greatness.

Maybe the better question to ask is how one would go about looking for varieties or combinations of varieties that would potentially be the best transmitter of one’s given terroir. To answer this question, I’d like to think about what makes pinot noir and nebbiolo (and of course, riesling) so great (on the right site) and in some sense unimprovable upon. It’s not that they have more tannin and anthocyanins than anyone else, nor that these elements are particularly well balanced. (Nebbiolo has lots of tannin but is relatively low in anthocyanins; pinot noir is low in both; and of course for riesling, being a white grape, the question is moot.) It’s not that they are (riesling excepted) particularly versatile as far as site selection. For me, pinot noir and nebbiolo are unquestionably the greatest grapes because they produce wines of utterly haunting complexity. The scent of a great pinot expresses elements of wild fruit that enchant us (maybe a function of its great genetic complexity),23 and capture elements of earth and mineral that perhaps give us a sense (maybe literally) of groundedness. Wines made from these grapes on the right sites are also exceptionally ageworthy, enabling them to develop ever more complexity. And lastly, these wines have a unique, almost feral, savory element (truffles, humus)—a quality that pinot shares with nebbiolo—in which we perhaps see, or more accurately smell, ourselves.24, 25

It is beyond the purview of this little article to elucidate the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality” in wine.26 We don’t know exactly how it comes about or even precisely what it is, but some wines seem to exhibit a strong anti-oxidative potential even (in the case of pinot noir) with the relative paucity of the usual anti-oxidative suspects.27, 28 I am convinced that complexity in wine—its ability to change, evolve, kaleidoscopically unfold, chameleon-like—is directly linked to the presence of minerals in the soil from which the grapes derived (and of course the presence of a salutary soil microflora able to extract aforesaid minerals). I have suggested elsewhere that even grapes that are far less genetically advantaged than, say, pinot, are capable of demonstrating great complexity if they are derived from exceptionally mineral-rich soils.

So, pinot and nebbiolo and riesling are all grapes that wear their minerals well.29 Maybe (or maybe not) they are particularly well adapted to mining minerals from the soil30 and particularly well suited to expressing this mineral note in the elaborated wine.31 I’m not an especially astute observer/student of grapevine morphology or physiology, but it strikes me (maybe more as an intuition) that grape varieties that are either particularly pulpy or possessing very small berries, i.e., with relatively little juice in comparison to rest of their mass, are the ones more likely to present this “mineral” aspect. Further, grapes grown on a limited water regimen (dry-farmed, deep-rooted) in low fertility (low nitrogen) soils will also experience this concentration effect and be far more expressive of terroir.

One further thought on the subject of the grapes that I love. As I’ve said, they all fuse several disparate elements—fruit, earth, and savoryness, as well as something like a distinctively human element.32 But also, these varieties are truly self-sufficient, i.e., they generally do not benefit from the addition of extraneous grapes—that just seems to muddy the waters. While they all possess varietal character that is easily recognizable, this character is relatively mild—transparent, you might say—to the degree that it allows for the clear expression of a strong mineral aspect in the wine. But it is the utter brilliance of these grapes when they are paired with the noblest of vineyard sites (Musigny, Bussia, Scharzhofberger, etc.) that really throws a pall on any desire I might have to produce a varietal Pinot noir, Nebbiolo, or Riesling wine. Without question, in the absence of hundreds of years of iteration and observation, one will never come close to achieving anything like the felicity of the marriage between grape variety and site that has historically been achieved. And that Platonic image of what the Grape is able to achieve (and what one’s own does not) will haunt one’s days.

So, maybe certain grapes concentrate minerals better than others, maybe it is a function of their vigorous growth (rooting) habit and relatively small berry sizes, maybe also their relative giftedness for biosynthesis.  (Maybe that’s linked with the complexity of their genome.) The real question is whether hybridization might be a strategy to enhance these attributes, or whether it’s essentially an interesting intellectual exercise with a rather unforeseeable outcome.

But if one is looking for true originality in a New World wine, it would seem that hybridization may well be the most rational way to proceed.  I’m not sure if “rational” is really the precise word to describe what it is I propose to do, but rather it seems that hybridization, even with its radical uncertainty, creates the most likely opportunity for real uniqueness in a New World vineyard, and that its pursuit is quite rational. There are still a few elements I am taking on something like faith, viz., the belief that the site in San Juan, or at least parts of it, is capable of expressing a strong sense of place if farmed appropriately. Further, I do believe that a diverse population of a coherent family of grapes will likely create a kind of complexity that could not otherwise be achieved. Lastly—and this is maybe the greatest leap into pure faith: the lack of varietal distinctiveness in this imagined vineyard will in some way allow other attributes of the wine, namely the qualities associated with the site itself, to express themselves in greater relief.

If I were to go out on a limb and imagine what Andy was thinking about wine quality, it is not unreasonable to imagine that hybrids created from varieties with the attributes of the gross signifiers of “quality”—small berries, non-juiciness, some discreet aromatic potential, seededness and a strong life-force (the primal impulse to Go Deep), could in some sense be more interesting than their forbears, especially if you were to consider them as a population. The “greatness” of these hybrid grapes might be analogous to the greatness or greater harmony that comes from blended wines, where any single varietal is just too simple and likely unbalanced. Maybe the “problem” of brilliant grapes like pinot noir is just that they are too brilliant, i.e., so particularly and well adapted to a given site that they suffer greatly when they are moved away from their home.

It is clear that hybridizing vines needs to be done with an aim to solve a particular problem or adapt to a particular set of circumstances, or perhaps even to satisfy the aesthetic whims of the hybridizer. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not looking for the next great grape, nor even for the perfect variety or varieties for San Juan, although that would be good information for my successors. I am looking to make a wine of complexity, balance, and originality, expressive of the site on which it is grown, and a wine that will delight me—when it is not driving me insane. I am optimistic that I am on a path to achieve a plurality of these ends.

  1. It is perhaps over-reaching a bit, but I feel the need to explain the joke embedded, as it were, in the title of my piece. This phrase is said to be the exhortation of last resort for overwrought Social Directors at Catskills resorts of a certain era. (My father himself served in this capacity approximately 70 years ago.) []
  2. Chlorotic or misshapen leaves, three cotyledons or other anomalous appearance, damping off—all to go to the slag heap of viticultural history. []
  3. Strictly speaking, the offspring of grenache crossed with itself is no longer grenache, but is mostly very grenache-like. []
  4. Historically not a great organizational strength chez nous. []
  5. Perhaps the lack of varietal identity can be in some sense a positive attribute for the stated aim of this vineyard, as will be discussed infra. []
  6. I could not seem to get the idea of pinotage (pinot noir x cinsault) out of my mind. Two exceptional and noble grape varieties gave rise to a very strange and somewhat unprepossessing offspring. []
  7. Andy reports that the primary “varietal” characteristics of the hybrid derive from the mother, and the growth habit and overall appearance of the vine from the father. Further, he suggested that what one achieves is sort of bell-shaped population—most of the population pretty much resembles the rest, with a few outliers possessing brilliant, desirable characteristics (but what might those be, and would one have the wit to discern them?), and a few with undesirable characteristics (sterility being the trait most likely to get one kicked out of the forward march of viticultural history). []
  8. Andy did seem to endorse the overall philosophical premise of this project (the economics of it another question altogether): minimally, wine quality will be good (or, all things being equal, as good as it would be from a given varietal selection, which itself is fraught). Above and beyond, there would remain the possibility of enhanced wine complexity, owing to the genetic diversity of the plant material, as well as potentially a greater degree of drought tolerance due to the (conceivably) greater degree of geotropism exhibited by seedlings relative to vines grown from cuttings. It is really a subtle shift of thinking that enables one to think of diversity of planting material, whether in the rootstock or the fruiting variety, as either a positive or negative attribute of the whole proposition. []
  9. The qualification is big enough to drive a Humvee through it, and really is at the nub of this meditation, which is really: What is meant to be accomplished through hybridization? []
  10. My own daughter, Amélie (as she now prefers to be called), is a perfectly demonstrable example of this phenomenon. []
  11. On a rudimentary level, wine quality might well correlate to vine health, as far as it is correlated to more consistent fruit set, looser clusters (yielding less bunch rot), lack of debilitating virus, etc.  Certainly one very interesting prospect of hybridizing grapes is that grapevine viruses do not appear to be transmitted to seedling progeny. Marvelous oddball varieties such as pignolo or ribolla gialla, which tend to be riddled with virus, might make a great contribution to a succeeding generation of hybrids, or perhaps could even be improved through self-crosses. []
  12. Undoubtedly, potentially a great boon to the wine industry at some future date (long after I’m gone), in virtue of the accidental expression of particularly cool and useful genes (drought tolerance, disease resistance, etc.). []
  13. This is a potential source of confusion if one is talking to a native German speaker about his “winyards.” []
  14. One might easily descend into an Escher-like or perhaps Heraclitean paradox with this question. The extant vinifera varieties, noble and less so, are themselves hybrids of pre-existing vinifera varieties, so at least at some point in history, some forward progress was made. The old “new” vinifera grapes, both “noble” and base, were likely the result of intentional breeding experiments done by monks, likely looking at criteria for retention rather different from those of the modern breeder, i.e., they were looking for grapes most likely to celebrate God’s exceptional goodness. But how might one explain the existence, at least teleologically, of the burger variety, or, say, mammolo? []
  15. This itself is a bit controversial, and perhaps there is a lesson somewhere. Neither the scheurebe nor albarossa likely derives from the parentage to which it was originally attributed. Recent DNA analysis confirmed that scheu is a cross between riesling and an unknown mother. Albarossa seems to be derived from barbera and nebbiolo di dronero, (a lesser variety), not nebbiolo, as originally believed. Maybe Nature is always determined to have the last word, showing Herself to be cleverer in what She can conceive than in what we can. []
  16. There are many growers in the Langhe who are pretty excited about albarossa. I’ve only had it on a couple of occasions and found the ones I tasted to be a tad rustic – rich in color, hence high in anythocyanins, thus quite unlike nebbiolo and lacking (or so it seemed) in the aromatic complexity of Its Nebs. Maybe it is a mental trick, but wines made from deeply pigmented grapes often strike me in some sense as “overachievers,” promising more on the palate than they can deliver on the nose, and sometimes just a bit coarse. []
  17. Deriving from the vineyard, row, and vine number where the particular selection was located; if a grape vine could wear designer shades it would be incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13. []
  18. Grenache gris x muscat of Alexandria, carignane x cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet x merlot, respectively. []
  19. Maybe barbera, with its virtual crushing acidity grown on almost any site, could be slightly ameliorated were it hybridized with a lower acid grape. []
  20. In fact, one might claim that it would make some sense to self-cross pinot noir for your new, untested site in the New World, not so much to find a “better” pinot noir, but something pinot noir-ish better suited to one’s particular site, i.e., with more favorable ripening characteristics, better acidity, etc. But you have to remember that if it is pinot qua pinot that you’re after, these offspring will virtually all be less interesting than the Ur-pinot, and further, riddled with all sorts of genetic defects, some overt, some latent. If one needs to somehow “fix” the pinot, it really begs the question as to whether another grape variety (a standard one or even a hybrid) might be a better match for the site. []
  21. The same can certainly be said for riesling, perhaps in spades. To my knowledge, no riesling hybrid (and there have been scores) has ever been shown to be superior to riesling itself. []
  22. Château Cheval Blanc, a wine that in some years I would consider to be more or less perfect, is a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, and malbec. (Look, Ma, no cab sauv!) But imagine what it might be like if it were composed of a population of vines made as crosses from these components. You would lose, at least for a generation or two, the received wisdom of where each “variety” might optimally flourish—merlot on clay, cabernet franc on limestone, malbec on gravel—but might this re-ordering yield a new fractal pattern of even greater complexity? My wild-ass intuition is that you could potentially build an extraordinary wine somewhere by selecting merlot as the pollinator “male” contributor for clay soils, and maybe cab sauv or malbec for gravelly soils with the conjugate bordelais cépage as the pollinee. Alternatively, if you were going to compose a “Rhône” blend, something on the order of say, Le Cigare Volant, you might choose grenache as your male parent (good drought tolerance) and syrah as your female parent (poor drought tolerance owing to minimal stomatal regulation, but brilliant flavor and aroma).  (N.B. Syrah is one of the few vinifera grapes that are identified by the feminine definite article.) Important note to self: this is something you should definitely try. []
  23. The pinot noir genome is said to be as long as the human genome, i.e., prodigious. []
  24. I am not particularly adept in biochemistry, but would lay any amount of money that there are molecules in both pinot noir and nebbiolo that are identical to those found in human sex pheromones. []
  25. All produce wines that one is capable of vertiginously losing oneself within; they are in a real sense soulful, due to their being such a powerful reflective lens. []
  26. This is perhaps wine’s central mystery. There have been some attempts to account for this phenomenon, which is generally acknowledged to exist, but the explanation for its mechanism is not at all straightforward, and for now is largely theoretical. []
  27. Additional note to self: go see Dr. Vernon Singleton at UC Davis absolutely ASAP.  Dr. Singleton, who studied wine phenolics for years (he is undoubtedly Dr. Phenolic), most likely has an opinion on the subject, but likely no one has asked him for it. []
  28. It is incontrovertible that minerals are themselves synergists to the anti-oxidative system of both plants and animals. []
  29. Higher acid wines are also often characterized as “mineral” wines, though it is not clear precisely what this relationship might be. Higher acid wines (like Riesling) are often capable of longer aging; possibly this has something to do with maintaining a fair bit of molecular SO2 as with old school German Spätlesen and Auslesen, but equally likely it is a function of their mineral aspect. (Note that Txakoli, a very high acid wine, is not a particularly great ager.) []
  30. They all interestingly share a very vigorous growth habit, perhaps suggesting that they are at the same time very deep rooters (“As above, so below.” —Parmenides), but this is a bit conjectural. Come to think of it, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay also have a very vigorous growth habit. []
  31. One would definitely have to characterize chardonnay and chenin blanc in a similar way. Neither grape is particularly interesting in the absence of a strong mineral element, but grown on chalk, they absolutely sing. []
  32. Not riesling. Riesling is utterly otherworldly, an immortal grape. It looks down upon us mortals (with a steely gaze) from Apollonian heights. []

Why Terroir Matters: Can Its Pursuit Also Help Us Save the Planet?

I have spent an unseemly amount of time in the last several years obsessing about terroir.1 The notion that a wine can also in some sense be an embodiment of a place strikes me as the most unique quality of this magical beverage, the most valuable thing that wine can teach us. For me, terroir’s self-evident truth carries with it a deep, almost elemental, psychic force and resonance, one that comforts and informs us. A wine absolutely can also be a place—in the same way a forest nymph, like Daphne, can also be a laurel tree. Just ask Ovid. One might conceive of terroir in any number of ways; I imagine it as a beautifully ordered wave-form, arising from a harmonically attuned vineyard—one wherein every element is in perfect balance.

Terroir is all about “difference”—the French, who seme to have semiology deeply embedded in their genes, are notoriously preoccupied with “difference,” and while it can certainly be said, somewhat tautologically, that all sites possess terroir in some form of another, strong or weak, the notion of a great terroir is about one that somehow manages to rise above the others in the distinctiveness of its signal. It is the difference that seems to make a difference.

A great terroir stands out; it is remarkable. In Europe, where elegance and complexity have historically been in great esteem, grapes are generally grown at the coolest, most extreme location of their possibility. A great terroir will ripen its grapes more completely more years out of ten then its neighbors; its wines will tend to be more balanced more of the time than its less fortunate contiguous confrères. But most of all, it will have a calling card, a quality of expressiveness, of distinctiveness, that will provoke a sense of recognition in the consumer, whether or not the consumer has ever tasted the wine before. Without becoming overly anthropomorphic, I would suggest that a great terroir site has something akin to intelligence, which is the ability to successfully adapt to a variety of climatic challenges.

moselThe soil of a great terroir will have the physical characteristics that allow the vine to extract more or less the correct amount of moisture from the soil appropriate to its needs, and trigger certain physiological signals in the plant at appropriate times—again, more consistently than its neighbors. It will have a chemical make-up that provides for all of the macro-elements in more or less balanced ratios, and very critically, will possess a definitive, eclectic assortment of oligo-elements. But, it should also be noted that great terroirs are not merely an inventory of various minerals in appropriate ratios. There are also the geophysical characteristics of a particular terroir that critically mediate water availability to the plant; this is a function of both soil texture and the movement of the water-table during the growing season.2 Thus, a great terroir will lead to a Goldilocks and the Three Bears-like solution for the vine, neither too much available water, creating excessive vegetative growth and flavor dilution, nor an acute water deficit, leading to jammy, vaguely Antipodean flavors at best, raisinettes at worst.

I fancy great terroirs to be a bit like wise parents of teenage children, dispensing water to their plants parsimoniously like a weekly allowance, making sure that that which is given out on Monday will last all the way to the weekend. Lastly, very significantly, it is literally the very finest detail of the soil’s structure in a great terroir, its degree of microporosity, that allows for the proliferation of beneficial soil microbes, specifically mycorrhizae, bringing minerals into the plant roots; they are thus terroir’s pre-amplifiers, if you will.

beauty-maskThe French make a salient distinction between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—wines that are notably marked by the imprint of human efforts, as opposed to wines whose character primarily reflects their place of origin. Ultimately, vins d’effort are wines easy to like—presumably they are constructed with precisely that in mind—but difficult to love, at least truly and deeply. Vins d’effort, especially those of the New World, attempt to hit the stylistic parameters of “great” wine—concentration, check; new wood, check; soft tannins, check. And yet the net result is like a picture of a composite, computer-generated “beautiful” person; it is never as compelling as the picture of an aesthetically “flawed” but unambiguously real person. I believe that some part of us—very likely a part that doesn’t function on a conscious level—responds to the deeper order of a vin de terroir, to a level of complexity that derives only from the ordering of Nature itself, not from the order imposed by a human being.

But what of the possibilities of a vin de terroir in the New World? The sheer unlikelihood of its discovery in a short lifetime has been, for me, a kind of ongoing, ultimate buzz killer. While certainly many modern New World winemakers have protested—methinks rather too loudly—the sincerity of their intentions to achieve a vin de terroir, the reality is that so much of modern grape-growing practice, at least in the New World, is very much at odds with the systematic discovery of terroir. The problems are generally everywhere, beginning with the location of vineyards in climatically (as well as geologically) the wrong sites, thus requiring the need for gross manipulation of the must post-harvest. And of course—and this is the real root of the problem, as it were—because we New Worlders like to control most everything we can, we therefore do. We subject our vines to drip irrigation; on the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but it has the effect of growing the plants hydroponically—looks good on the outside, but not much happening on the inside. We tend to use a limited number of the “finest” clonal selections—nothing but the best for our wines—but this tends to give us wines of greater sameness, not real distinctiveness.

Historically, at least, vines were spaced widely apart and were asked to carry rather heavy yields, at least on a per vine basis. (As an aside, there is probably no better predictability of wine quality, all things being equal, than looking at the ratio of the total weight of vine roots to the volume of fruit they are producing. This, along with the vibrancy of the microbial life in the soil, is perhaps the most important factors in how one turns up the volume up on terroir.)

vine

Obviously, old vines with deep roots, and dry-farmed vines that have to search far and wide for water, will be ones that will capture a greater sense of the distinctive qualities of the site itself.

And then in the winery, we have used designer yeasts, designer enzymes, organoleptic tannins, wood chips and or 100% new oak, on wine made from grapes harvested at preternatural levels of ripeness in climates too warm to allow for proper acid balance—but don’t worry, we can fix that with a good dose of tartaric or maybe take the wine for a spin in the spinning cone. We thus tend to systematically obliterate any possible expression of terroir, should the faintest glimmer of it accidentally emerge.

Think of it this way: the qualities of a wine emerge from essentially three factors: 1) its terroir, 2) its genetic patrimony—the rootstock and grape variety or mix of varieties that have been selected, and 3) the myriad of stylistic and technical decisions made in the fermentation process and élevage of the wine. In the New World, we tend to be very good at the deployment of factors 2) and 3), but not quite so clever in expressing factor 1). There are certain soil types that are particularly marked in their unique expression of terroir; limestone soils, granitic or schisteous soils, and volcanic soils often have such a strong character that the variety itself may not even be discernible in the wine. I recently tasted an amazing Listan negro from the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands—these are vineyards that look as if they are grown on the moon, if the moon had palm trees.

The growing conditions there are quite extreme—warm, dry, and very windy; this is likely one of the most extreme places in the world where grapes are grown. And yet, the wine is totally brilliant. But what is also amazing is that Listan negro is a synonym for another grape—the Mission grape, believed to be the first grape brought to the New World by the Franciscan monks in the 16th century. What is fascinating is that the Mission grape, at least in California, is arguably one of the very the worst vinifera grapes in creation—no redeeming qualities to speak of—no flavor, no color, no acid. And yet, under these special conditions in Lanzarote, it is but a carrier of terroir, and performs beautifully.3

What I would like to suggest is that the apprehension and appreciation of terroir may ultimately be a question of gestalt, i.e., instead of a focus on the more obvious charms of the wine, the fruitiness or oakiness or varietal distinctiveness, one instead brings into view those deeper elements seemingly lurking in the background. This is the mineral character that I sometimes conceive of as a sort of capacitance of the wine, its persistence or dimensionality, giving the primary flavor a sense of depth or relief; I can almost visualize this as kind of duotone, that slight shadow or sense of dimension that you can see in a printed image.

I know that grokking the notion of “minerality,” and specifically its great virtue, can be quite frustrating to many people. Personally, it took me many years to “get” Cornas. I didn’t like it because it didn’t taste like Côte-Rôtie: flowery, sexy and voluptuous. Cornas was about stones. Then one day, something shifted, and I realized that it was the austere stoniness of Cornas that in fact gave it its real interest, its soulful depth.

The most radical conclusion that may be drawn is that in the instance of a hyper-expressive terroir, perhaps the choice of variety and clone may matter very little, providing that you are more or less in the ballpark of selecting a variety that ripens at the right time with an appropriate acid balance. So, in the event that I can find a way to grow grapes with a strong mineral character, I am not going to sweat so much whether I get the grape variety and the clone or clones precisely right; it just may not matter so much.

seed-cardSo, returning to the idea of the discovery of terroir in the New World: I have an idea that may be utterly mad, but equally may be inspired, perhaps revolutionary, if not the most impractical viticultural practice ever contemplated. Why not grow grapes from seedlings?

The best way to do this—that is if one is not to so concerned about the insane amount of highly trained, specialized labor involved in doing it, as well as the tedium of the process itself—is to hybridize several different grape varieties with a single genetically stable vine (such as grenache or carignane)—this “stability” attribute seems to have something to do with how long the variety has historically been cultivated. One would select the varieties for the characteristics one imagines will be aptly suited for one’s site. (It’s far more convenient, though still a chore, to simply collect seeds from a single variety of grapes, and this perhaps can also be interesting, but too much interbreeding, whether in grapes or in Hapsburgs, does seem to weaken the bloodline.)

The process of hybridizing grapevines is amazingly painstaking—you have to remove the male parts of the flowers with a teensy tweezers, whilst peering through a jeweler’s loupe. (This is called “emasculating” or “castrating” the flowers—ouch). Then, shortly thereafter, you sprinkle pollen from the lucky sperimenti club on the receptive flowers, cover up the cluster with a paper bag to prevent random intruder pollen, and hope for the best.

The aim is not necessarily to identify the “best” individual selections—probably as challenging as identifying the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama in a crowded Tibetan delivery room—but rather to consider what might potentially be expressed by the totality of the vines in a given terroir. It won’t be “varietal” characteristics, that’s for certain, but if not that, then what might it be?

This is a very ambitious project, and it rests on a couple of core beliefs, the validity of which is essentially unknowable until the deed is doon. The first is the belief that the wine produced from grapes grown from a large number of genetically distinctive vines, none or few of them possessing “superior” characteristics, will in fact be more interesting and complex than a vineyard planted to relatively few genotypes, all possessing highly favorable characteristics; perhaps from this diversity of voices, a rather different set of signals will emerge; that which was formerly in “deep background” is now front and center. The second belief is that the rooting characteristics of vines grown from seeds might allow one to render a much more amplified and perhaps distinctive expression of terroir.

Vines grown from seeds exhibit a much higher degree of geotropism, or the tendency to form a vertical taproot, growing straight down to China.

You can observe this in volunteer plants that pop in the garden, which have germinated from a seed. A vine with a more downward rooting habit will root more deeply and possibly exploit a wider range of minerals; my surmise is that it will make a hardier, more drought-tolerant plant. All of this assumes of course that one is planting in an area sufficiently isolated and without a history of planting, so a vinifera vine might peaceably grow without fear of imminent phylloxera infestation.

What I find compelling about this project is the opportunity for a grower to take advantage of the stunning richness, diversity and adaptability of nature, expressed in the seed’s potential, as well as of the experience of a collection of grapevines responding to a particular set of environmental challenges.4 But what is also interesting is the opportunity for a human being to employ his or her intelligence to make discriminating, empirical judgments concerning the kind of vines that seem most harmonious and congruent for a particular site. I like the tremendous open-endedness of the project. In fact, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. Maybe this is the only way to invite some degree of magic into our world.

bee-hotelOn the subject of magic, I recently met a fellow named Hans-Peter Schmidt in the Valais region of Switzerland. Peter is involved in a number of very interesting projects in Switzerland and southern France, but most notably those that think about vineyards and farms as truly sustainable, biological systems. His vineyards do not look anything like conventional ones: there are fruit and nut trees; flowering, insectary bushes; hedges and herbs embedded amongst the vines. His aim is to create optimal diversity within the system, as well as to extend the length of the season in which a greater range of biota might be able to grow and flower.

By dint of the additional organic material incorporated into the soil, as well as by the increased number of diverse species, from leaf-borne fungi and bacteria to honeybees, cohabiting the site, there is an enhancement of natural homeostasis, both hydrologically and biologically. He is also working with an extremely interesting material called bio-char, something you will all be hearing about within the next few years, if you don’t know about it already. This material will, in my humble opinion, be very tied up with the future of our plane for many, many reasons.5

Bio-char is essentially activated charcoal, the product of pyrolysis, or the combustion of organic matter in the relative absence of oxygen. The material that you derive looks pretty much like charcoal—crumbly, light, particulate. If you mix bio-char with some good compost and incorporate it into the soil, some wonderful things happen: at high rates of application,6 the soil now has up to 30% greater water holding capacity.

terra-pretaSecondly, partially because of the physical shape of the bio-char, and partially because of the number of interesting, reactive organic chemical groupings sticking out from its matrix, there is profound stimulation to the beneficial microflora, the aforementioned mycorrhizae that live in the soil.

So, you end up with produce that is naturally more disease resistant, and with much greater nutritional value. (Note, minerals found in a natural biological form are far more available to us than minerals that come out of a supplement bottle.) Lastly, and not at all trivially, the incorporation of bio-char into the soil sequesters atmospheric carbon for approximately 10,000 years; the production of it is non-polluting and it is profoundly carbon negative. (You can think of it as reverse coal-mining.)

So I put the question to Peter: “Obviously, the use of bio-char in vineyards is quite interesting, especially for those of us in California where there is no summer rain, and of course for those of us unregenerate seekers after terroir, lovers of wines with a strong mineral character or what you might call qi or ‘life-force.’ And, Peter, while I’d like to think of bio-char as a kind of amplifier of terroir—that suits my own personal agenda—could it not also be argued that bio-char is in some way a deformation of terroir?

“Yes, you could say that,” said Peter, “but it is less of a deformation than say, plowing your vineyard with a disc.” At that comment, I fell into a slight swoon.

hans-vydIt seems that we sometimes draw the line a bit arbitrarily at what is a “natural” wine and what is not, what is a vin de terroir and what is a vin d’effort. But we terroiristes are a very earnest bunch. Certainly there is something like a continuum; some of us favor wines that are absolutely “natural,” made with no additives, no maquillage at all, including SO2; others generally favor wines made with its very discreet use, to perhaps retain a little more digital clarity, if you will. But, it is my belief that with experience, most wine consumers gradually do migrate to a deeper appreciation of those wines reflective of nature’s vast intelligence and complexity, and at the same time become more in touch with their own bodies’ imperatives, naturally seeking wines easier to digest and to assimilate.

Terroir, you could say, represents a deep paradox. In a certain sense, it is that which is eternal, beyond the stylistic aims of one generation of vigneron or another. And yet in a very real sense, terroir cannot exist without human beings to discover it, express it, and in the end, to appreciate it. We can think of terroir as a region between the human and the natural world, a zone we can cohabit with the natural world in a gentle, minimally perturbative way. Perhaps Peter’s use of bio-char and the massing of so many species in his vineyards is a kind of manipulation of the “natural” terroir, but with his efforts, he reports the appearance of 60 different species of butterfly, multiple species of honey-bees and with every passing year, a deeper entrenchment of biological diversity and a greater independence from vineyard treatments, even in very humid Switzerland. This has to be some sort of criterion for success, and for perhaps the supposition that the land has returned to a more pristine state.

butterfliesAnd, oh yes, the wine. He makes his wines without any sulfur dioxide whatsoever. I tasted his Pinot noir; it tasted more “Swiss,” if that makes any sense, than Burgundian, and maybe more Swiss than Pinot noirish. It is not a simple wine; it changes dramatically with time in the glass and time in the bottle. But what is interesting is that the wine does not oxidize, even without SO2. You can leave it open for weeks. This mystery—why do some wines live and some wines die young?—should haunt every serious winemaker in the New World; I sincerely believe that if you are not obsessing about that issue, you are not really taking your job seriously.

I believe that the notion of terroir began in France at a particular moment in time, when there was enough cognitive bandwidth or at least more of a connection to the natural world—people were not distracted by the internet or by 400 television channels, and a certain culture, the monastic one, was able to focus on the identification of viticultural sites that could produce wines of a certain consistent quality and organoleptic signature year after year. I believe that as a wine-consuming culture, we have perhaps lost the ability to make the finest discriminations between subtly different terroirs. Nevertheless, there remains a deep thirst for the real, for the authentic, and for the wholesome. A great vin de terroir can provide an occasion to experience all of those things, and therefore nourishes us so deeply and on so many levels.

  1. This  speech was originally delivered at the Wineries Unlimited Conference in Richmond, Virginia, on March 30, 2011. []
  2. In San Juan Bautista, we are not so preoccupied with the water table, as it is at a depth (600+ feet) that is most likely unattainable by the vines in their lifetime. But the world, at least the world of wine, is quite mysterious, so one never knows. []
  3. To some extent, this little detail appended in a footnote may well slightly invalidate the premise of the radical notion of diversity at all costs being the greatest good, at least viticulturally. The Mission grape was most likely brought over from Spain to the New World—Peru, initially, if I’m not mistaken, and then up through Mexico into California—as a seed of Listan negro, genetically very close but not exactly identical to the Mission grape. (Seeds are undoubtedly far more sea travel-worthy than grape cuttings or actual potted vines.) And seedlings of course don’t necessarily share all of the favorable characteristics of the plant. So, perhaps against my stated aversion to make selections for perhaps indeterminate quality factors in a field of seedlings, it may well be necessary. []
  4. In planting a vineyard de novo, even if one is not taking the radical step of planting grapes from seed, one does wonder how much complexity of varietal mix is appropriate. []
  5. Human beings are particularly unskilled in imagining the future, especially futures that are radically different from their presents; hence, as a group, we tend to wait until the very last minute, when the prospect of change/disaster is nothing short of imminent. For obvious reasons, this makes it particularly difficult to address the very real question of global climate change, which still to many (amazingly) seems a bit tenuous. The widespread adoption of bio-char will likely only happen when there is something like a political commitment to take real concrete action, i.e. there will be a strong economic incentive to produce the material. It is also possible that someday people will wake up to realize that the food that they are consuming, even that which is called “organic,” may largely be devoid of real nutritive value; food that actually nourishes us might become demanded. []
  6. To really enhance water-holding capacity, rates of approximately 20 tons/ha are required, but to effect enhancement of the microbial life of the soil, substantially less might be used. []
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