Popelouchum: Decisions, Summer 2015

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

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

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

01

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

Artwork and Visual Media

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

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

C et L Bourguignon spécialistes BRF

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

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

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

05a_Rootstock

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

06

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

SmallBigVines

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

08

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

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

09

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

10

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

11

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

12a

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

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

13c

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

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

14

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

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

15_Marea

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

16

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

17b

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

Jermain

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

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

19a

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

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

Speech presented at the Food + Enterprise Conference

I’d like to share with you some of the things I have learned in love, these many years in the wine business. When I entered the business I was just a naïve kid who wanted to make great Pinot noir, because, well, you know…. (If you don’t know, Pinot is incredibly difficult to do well anywhere outside of Burgundy, and being a guy, which is to say a show-offy kind of guy, I just wanted to do it to show the world that it could be Doon.)

01_Samsonite_01

I went to Burgundy, and risking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, brought back some special Samsonite clones of Pinot noir. The presence of limestone in the soil is considered by many to be a sine qua non for great Pinot, so I schlepped in enormous truckloads of limestone into the vineyard I was planting in the eponymous hamlet of Bonny Doon.

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, Pacific

I found some Basque shepherds who hooked me up with sheep manure (go figure, but sheep manure is actually really helpful for the expression of minerality), planted the vines on very close spacing, as is the custom in Burgundy. Despite these heroic efforts – I was really obsessed with Pinot at the time, more or less lived and breathed it – the resulting wine was really nothing to write home about.

03_Lynch_06

Luckily for me, I met an Albanian wine merchant – that would be Kermit Lynch, who had a tiny little store in Albany, CA at the time – and he turned me on to Rhône wines. I postulated that since it was warm and dry in southern France, warm and dry in the Central Coast of California, maybe the varieties of southern France would do well here. Long story short, they did well indeed, or at least the ones that I managed to find and grow, though in retrospect, they just as easily might not have.

04_CigareVolant_02

In 1984, we produced our first vintage of Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and this was a slightly revolutionary wine in several respects. I was working with grape varieties that not so many people had heard of: Few people knew that Grenache could actually make a red wine, Syrah was amazingly pretty much unknown or often confused with Petite Sirah, and Mourvèdre… No one had ever heard of it or if so could not pronounce it.

So, I was trying to produce a premium wine from grapes that no one had ever heard of, and blending them all together such that I was not permitted to varietally name the wine – the received wisdom then was that no one would spend more than five or six dollars for a mere “blend” and even now that category, unless it is a premium Bordeaux blend from Napa, is quite challenged.

05_Generic_02

How could I possibly make this work? I had never studied marketing in school, and in fact, the whole idea of actually trying to sell something made me and continues to make me more than a little queasy. But when you have to rely on your wits to succeed, i.e. you are in a Doon or Die situation, you tend to come up with something.
Originally, I was going to call the wine “Old Telegram,” as a reference to the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Télégraphe.

06_Aliens_01

But as I read up on the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I came across a very strange story about the town council of one of the villages adopting an ordinance prohibiting the landing of flying saucers and flying cigars in their vineyards. I thought to myself – these people are absolutely nuts, but what a great idea for a wine label! I met with the label designer and we created a faux engraving of an old-time wine label, except with the subversive element of a “flying cigar” hovering overhead.

07_Taxali

It turns out that I had accidentally discovered that one could deploy humor in one’s marketing arsenal. Honestly, I didn’t really have too many other armaments at my disposal at the time. But the wine business at least in those days was oh so serious, and most everyone wanted to display a great degree of gravitas on their label. They hadn’t yet cottoned to the fact that many people have a great deal of anxiety about wine – they’re sometimes too shy to try to pronounce it or otherwise display their ignorance of what can be a fairly arcane subject. If you can send the meta-message that wine on whatever level can be fun and an adventure you can connect with customers in a special way.

08_CritterLabels_02

So, I was perhaps lucky in being one of the first to accidentally discover the power of wit on a wine label, but it wasn’t long after that that many producers, especially the larger ones, discovered that it didn’t really matter so much what was in the inside of your bottle, but if you put a cute animal on the outside– these are the so-called “critter labels” – people, mostly women, shopping in supermarkets, I’m told – would load piles of the stuff into their shopping carts. These wine-like beverages are the products of extremely cynical marketers and most of them are utterly execrable. The market remains littered with the droppings of the menagerie of critter labels and other labels that are just unspeakably crass.

09_BitchKay_01

I made one terrible mistake – actually many mistakes – but the one that turned out in the end to be almost fatal was in not properly segmenting or sequestering the various brands that we were producing, which may have ultimately led to something like brand dilution if not brand taint (and a more metaphysical problem as well). Allow me to explain. Le Cigare Volant, our Rhône blend, is a very serious wine – not quite as profound as I believe it could be (more about that in a minute) – but it is a pretty thoughtful, well-made wine and in fact has achieved somewhat iconic status. By the mid-nineties I found that I had grown Cigare to about as large as it could grow to organically but just couldn’t take it any further. I’ll just find another revenue stream, thought I, and we’ll use the proceeds from that to polish and perfect Le Cigare Volant.

10_BigHouseRed_01

We produced a wine called Big House Red, then Big House White and Pink and then Cardinal Zin.

11_explosion2

As it turned out, Big House became a very hungry beast to feed and we never seemed to get around to truly polishing the precious jewel that was Cigare.
All along I suspected that I was becoming more and more of a hypocrite. I was writing articles and giving speeches about terroir – that quality in wine that somehow illuminates its place of origin. I was writing about how utterly precious this idea was and how much it enriched our world.

12_RGMirror_01

But looking at myself in the mirror I asked myself if there was anything at all I was doing to bring myself any closer to the pursuit of a vin de terroir in this lifetime and the production of wines that truly mattered. Answer: Nothing.
A fairly serious medical condition and the birth of my daughter more or less brought my existential crisis to a resolution; I could no longer remain such an arrant hypocrite.

13_HamletYorrick_03

So, it was a little more than eight years ago that I sold off our large brands and radically Doon-sized the company by an order of magnitude. I was now going to pursue terroir. A moment ago I mentioned the dangers of mixing the impure with the, let’s call it, relatively pure. I believe that, in retrospect, our core premium brands were substantially weakened by association with the vin ordinaire, Big House.

14_SmilingGoat_02

It’s like the old joke about fucking just one goat… What do they then call you? Big House, shall we say, was my one goat, and I fear that the overall brand may have been slightly corrupted by the association with it.
To be totally candid, business exigencies sometimes compel one to go Doon-market and produce a product that may not be of comparable quality to one’s best efforts. Even the first-growth Bordeaux wines have a second label and in some cases a third label.

15_BaconX_01

But I can’t stress how important it is to try to keep one’s own internal compass, to know what’s kosher, what is trayf, and make the most sincere effort to be as absolutely congruent as one can be to one’s deepest values, aesthetic, moral and spiritual.
So, I’m going for it now. But it has not been without a significant degree of fear and trembling about the course forward. As I said, I’ve always greatly admired, indeed, have been obsessed with wines of place, but it has always has struck me as being just too difficult to achieve in the New World. I’ve had to overcome my own fear of failure to really move this project forward, and indeed there is always the very real chance that this won’t work. But the methodology of how I intend to produce a wine of place is quite interesting, and even if it fails to yield a true vin de terroir, I am certain it will make a positive contribution to the viticultural world.
I have talked at great length and written incessantly in my blog,

16_BeenDoon2

about why terroir is so valuable, how it affects us the way it does, how it might be discovered and amplified, that sort of thing. I’ve said on more than one occasion that if you want to talk about wines that matter, you really only need consider vins de terroir; everything else is frankly bullshit and a distraction.

17_ButterlfySalamander

Why do wines of place matter? For the same reason that distinct species of butterflies, birds or salamanders or the discovery of new stars and galaxies matter. They add richness and complexity to our lives. A wine of place is more than the blending of some interesting flavors; it affects us in a very different way than a wine that bears the strong stylistic impression of a human being; a vin de terroir links us in a very visceral way to Nature’s vast intelligence and organization. I truly believe this with all my heart.
So, if you’re intending to produce a wine of place where do you begin? Presumably, you begin by selecting a grape variety (and rootstock) that is supremely appropriate or congruent to the site. (Another way of thinking about a great terroir is that it is one that is supremely congruent to the variety or clone, i.e. it solves most of the vine’s issues most of the time.)

17.5_LaTache

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

18_RG_RR_01

I would rather be a California Ranger (or Deranger), specifically a San Benito County Ranger or more precisely a Popelouchum Ranger. (That’s the name of my farm just outside of the funny little town of San Juan Bautista).
Perfect congruence is undoubtedly too difficult to achieve in a single lifetime, and maybe even too abstract a notion to entertain, but perhaps there may be another approach that will lead to originality as well as the expression of place.

19_RockySoil_01

For the record, I’ve made some very nice varietal wines over the years, but generally they have lacked that secondary element – call it “soil characteristics” or finesse or depth or even “life-force” or “minerality,” that characterizes the greatest varietal examples of the Old World. I’ve also made some very elegant and complex blended wines over the years, but these wines have been an assemblage of grapes from sundry terroirs, and lack therefore a sense of the somewhereness that would imbue them with a greater degree of gravitas and coherence. So, having personally reached a bit of a dead-end, I’ve been wondering if there might be an approach that will enable California to create truly unique wines that are unlike those of anywhere else.
As it turns out, I have a radical notion that might represent a route for vineyards in California, seeking to find a unique path towards a wine of place, and thus arguably “necessary.”

20_ClimateChange_01

This idea is based on a number of assumptions, many of them yet untested and unproven, but for me at least representing one possible solution to the question of how one might produce truly distinctive wine in California, as well as how one might grow grapes in a truly more sustainable fashion, especially in light of Global Climate Change.

21_10KCaption-(1)

The idea of what I am calling the “10,000 Grape Vine Project” is the following: To breed new grape varieties, customized to our individual climatic and geophysical circumstances, therefore more congruent, seamless, less needful of heroic levels of intervention. Apart from identifying unique vines optimally suited to a given location, the ancillary benefits of this program might be the discovery of varieties that have a broader utility in the warmer and dryer world that we seem to be creating, perhaps even having enhanced resistance against particularly pernicious disease pressure.

22_AndyWalker_01

Professor Andy Walker is currently working on developing new varieties that are resistant to Pierce’s Disease and other pathogens; perhaps his work could be taken further to focus on issues of grape (or wine) aesthetics, above and beyond the most obviously discernible gross characteristics of drought and heat tolerance, which would likely be very useful in light of climate change and shrinking availability of resources.

23_WinningLotto_01

Then there is the second part of the idea that I’d like to propose to you. While it would be exceptionally cool to find individual plants that have unique characteristics that are particularly brilliant – this is a bit like winning the lottery – there are potentially other very interesting things to be shown by planting a vineyard comprised of a vast range of germplasm; every plant, in fact, is a little bit different from every other one, rather like fraternal twins.

24_IdenticalFraternal_01

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

25_Deiss_01

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

26_LargeFamily_01

Will a diverse range of germplasm – all presumably selected to ripen at approximately the same time (that’s not too hard to achieve) and with some thoughtful selection of favorable characteristics (including fruitfulness!) – create something more like polyphony than cacophony?
In addition to identifying individual plants that might have superior characteristics, the other part of the study is to focus on farming strategies that will enable one to produce wines in a truly more sustainable fashion. One element of this would be the minimization of external inputs and constrained resources, chiefest among them being water.

27_HeadTrainedVyd_01

Dry-farming, i.e. farming without supplemental irrigation, strikes me as utterly crucial to both a true expression of place (otherwise you are growing plants in a flower pot) and a great strategy for real sustainable viticulture. We are looking at Biodynamic farming, key-line plowing, the integration of livestock in the vineyard, even into late springtime (their pee is actually is a non-trivial source of moisture), as well as the use of a biochar/compost mixture, which can enhance the water-holding capacity of soils by as much as thirty-five percent. All of these strategies aim to create a greater degree of homeostasis, or vine balance, as well as to create Edenic living conditions for beneficial soil microflora, thus amplifying the signal of the sense of place. I dream about an old-fangled vineyard – no trellising, no wire, no end-posts, no irrigation, i.e. a state of the art 19th century vineyard. This would be a low-input, and low output vineyard, but the quality should be exceptional.

28_Popelouchum_02

Popelouchum, my farm in San Juan, has, I believe, some pretty remarkable, sexy terroirs – clay limestone, granitic and volcanic soils. My plan is to systematically sequester the grapes from the individual terroirs, each planted to this very diverse field-blend. I’m initiating a crowd-funding initiative as soon as I can get all of the elements lined up; needless to say I need to hit it out of the park on this one, so I want to do it right.

29_Popelouchum_FarmDinner_01

There is potentially a diverse range of potential benefits to the potential investor, including but not limited to the opportunity to have one’s own unique grape variety named after oneself, as well as access to the new germplasm that will be created. While farm-to-table has become somewhat clichéd in parts, it is my intention to create something even more special, essentially a pop-up restaurant rather in the middle of the vineyard, offering visitors and patrons the opportunity to dine amongst the germplasm, as it were. This project is for me the culmination of what has been a rather heterodox career, maybe I’ve dawdled for a couple too many years in experimentation and play, but it has prepared me for this great leap; now, at last, I am buckling doon.

This speech was presented at the Food + Enterprise Conference, in Brooklyn, New York on March 1st, 2015 – a social impact, mission-driven event dedicated to promoting understanding and collaboration amongst multiple stakeholders – farmers, entrepreneurs, consultants, funders and investors – who aim to finance a better local food system.

I (Art) & Soul Winemaking

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

01a

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

02c

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

03b

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

04a

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

05a

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

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

06a

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

07b

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

08b

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

09

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

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

ICON_Studio

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

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

11

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

12b

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

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

13a

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

14a

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

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

More Questions for Andy Walker

01_Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Might the New World Really Matter?

01d_Chevaliers

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

02b_Andre

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

03h_chainofbeing

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

04b_DRC

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

05a_RhoneRanger

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

06c_Limestone

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

07a_CAburgundy

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

08f_SmokeStacks

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

09b_AndyWalker

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

10c_Hermitage

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

11b_Carradine

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

12e_Montrachet

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

13a_Twins

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

14a_JeanMichel

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

15e_LargeFamily

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

16a_DeepRoot

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

17d_caption

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

18e_OldTimeFarmer

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

19b_MegaPurple

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

20a_HeadTrainedVines

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

21_OddballVineyard

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

22c_ChateauRayas

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

Born to Rhone: (Part 1)

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

1_Astronaut

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

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

2_Maynard

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

3_Fungal

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

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

5_AlmadenRose

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

6_KermitWineShop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I vividly remember my first press-load of Riesling. You might call the set-up “semi-manual.” A 6” diameter nalgene hose fed by a must pump, that behaves more or less like a python in extremis, is bungee-corded to the doors of the press and the grape must is peristaltically egested.10 (Visqueen must also be deployed in some fashion, duct-taped, to be sure, to re-direct the flow of precious errant juice, which might otherwise land on the non-food-grade pavement. 6_Visqueen The cellar hand usually stands on the press in some non-OSHA-prescribed fashion, raking the must into one vacant corner of the press or another. But, what was extraordinary about pressing the Riesling was that I just couldn’t believe that, apart from discovering an actual hive, how could there be so many yellow jackets in a single place?11 The unfortunate junior member of this small crew was compelled to put himself squarely in the thick of things, which turned out to be, most relevantly, an apian swarm.12 Again, I’m not quite sure what life-long lesson I derived from this: You have to suffer for your art? Wasps (of the buzzy variety) know the good stuff? Stop complaining; you will always get stung in life, whether by bees, yellow jackets or by the reviews of misguided wine critics, who might erroneously mistake elegance for wispiness.
7_bee-2
I loved my time at Smothers – maybe it was partially due to the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever – and if the dominant sense memory of it remains the sense of being continually cold and wet, my memory of what was to come next was perhaps its inverse. I was incredibly fortunate to have persuaded my parents to purchase some beautiful land in the magical hamlet of Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is where I lived for almost twenty years, and for me was really a kind of paradise.13 I had previously studied Plant Science at Davis, and while I had gained some rudiments of viticultural knowledge (mostly theoretical), I was still largely in the dark about most of the practical issues of operating a vineyard.14 Let’s face it: I was Eddie Albert in “Green Acres.”15 8_EddieAlbertApart from a few slightly misguided efforts in driving the Kubota tractor to disc the vineyard – I should, for the record, never (either then or now) attempt to drive a tractor (it is a miracle I did not kill myself) – my most vivid memories of the vineyard are of the long summer days, and the magic of working at near-dusk, when the passage of time was semi-suspended. There was endless repetition to the work – mostly suckering, shoot-positioning and tying – but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment; I was gently guiding my charges in the right direction and making what I imagined was a positive, if incremental contribution to wine quality.

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

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

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

(This is Part 1 of a longer article.)
11_purplePVCprimer

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

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

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

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

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

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

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

Bonny Doon VineyardIt has been a long time, indeed almost twenty years, since the tragic demise, grace à la maladie de Pierce, of the Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon. In the relatively short life of the vineyard, initially planted in 1980, we went through one episode of replanting – grubbing up and/or grafting over the Pinot noir, Chardonnay and bordelais cépages to what I was convinced were more proper varieties, Marsanne and “Roussanne.”2  (We also planted a half dozen acres or so of Syrah in the southeast corner of the vineyard, and this produced heart-breakingly beautiful fruit and extraordinary wines.)3  In retrospect, I think it was quite miraculously that I managed to accidentally hit on such a felicitous pairing of varieties and site.4Wine Spectator cover, 1989The loss of the vineyard was a deep wound that took me many years to process; it did not immediately make me stronger.  Instead, I remember feeling incredibly hurt and betrayed by the universe.  The cosmos had built me up, or so I imagined in my hubristic fashion, by placing me on the cover of the Wine Spectator5)  (I don’t think my megalomania had yet come to full fruition at the time; maybe this was to come a bit later with the explosive growth of Big House), but I did wonder at the time how it was I was going to lead the benighted Chard and Cab-swilling masses out of the wilderness without an exemplary vineyard.  I was therefore compelled to do my best with grapes that we purchased for Cigare Volant – ironic, indeed that our “flagship” wine was not made from our own grapes, but rather from those over which we had but a most ephemeral modicum of control.6 It really wasn’t until much, much later, that we are able to even begin to stabilize the quality of the grapes with which we were working.7

I had actually started to plant a new vineyard in Soledad at about the same time I just begun to observe the symptoms appear at the Bonny Doon Estate. In honesty, I can’t really remember why I chose to plant a vineyard in funky or at least challenging Soledad, rather than plant one in a location where I might plant most of the relevant grapes for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Ca' del Solo, our former estate vineyard in Soledad, CAMemory is a funny thing, and I think that perhaps the perspective of time has altered the chronology of causality. In my recollection, I planted the vineyard in Soledad because I was fairly certain that the area was not susceptible to Pierce’s Disease, as I could not bear the thought of losing two vineyards in a row. But if I planted the Soledad vineyard before the appearance of Pierce’s in Bonny Doon, maybe it was more a question of really overreaching ambition – the land was quite inexpensive, and I thought that for now I would defer that whole vin de terroir thing; I’d make an interesting, inexpensive, high concept wine that it was as close to a “sure thing,” as one could find.8,9 I would make money with my pan-Piemontese blend, and worry about the great Cigare vineyard another time.10

The loss of the Bonny Doon Estate was a bit like losing a beloved friend or perhaps like being dumped by the Great Love of one’s life.  So utterly unfair!  I was determined not to have my heart broken again, and I would begin by putting all thoughts of trying to plant a “great” vineyard out of my mind.  Distraction is a great strategy for the avoidance of existential issues.  I became distracted with maintaining the very large company that the Big House/Cardinal Zin-supercharged Bonny Doon behemoth had become.  Sales were good, but the debt incurred to finance these impressive numbers had also grown proportionately and was quite vertigo-inducing if you looked closely enough.  Again, I was able to convince myself that it was just not the time to make the additional investment in a great Cigare vineyard.  “Later, grasshopper,” I counseled myself.I ultimately sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, with the intention of at long last shrinking down the company and planting the great Cigare vineyard somewhere.

I ultimately sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, with the intention of at long last shrinking down the company and planting the great Cigare vineyard somewhere. But there was a bit of a problem or at least a hesitation about planting The Great Cigare Vineyard in Bonny Doon itself, which would, of course, be the logical place to do it. In the intervening years, I had been spending a lot of time in France, thinking deeply about terroir, and I had developed perhaps something like an idée fixe that Bonny Doon (the climat), while capable of growing grapes that would yield balanced and intense red wines (we’d doon it once before, remember), but somehow, in light of its very sandy and highly eroded, mineral-depleted soil, was somehow not a place where one would find a great cru.11,12,13

The good news is that ultimately I was able to identify what I believe is a great cru in San Juan Bautista, a beautiful Estate that we call Popelouchum.  It’s not perfect; there are some sections of it that seem to have more interesting soil profiles than others.14  The less than thoroughly brilliant sections I am thinking to plant to varietal grapes15 (maybe Rhônish ones?) and the crazy, interesting soils will be dedicated to the somewhat speculative project of creating a highly heterodox field blend of diverse grapes grown from seed.16,17

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

The project has been stalled the last several years, as (in somewhat of an understatement) we’ve been chronically short of free cash.  But it looks as if our picture is improving quite significantly, and we can at least begin to do more than make mere token efforts. While it would be great to plant a slew of proper vines out in the field, we’re not quite ready for that. There is still quite a bit of infrastructure that needs to go in – mostly related to the storage of water to keep the young vines alive through their first years.18 But, for now, we’ve taken delivery of our little Vitis berlandieri seedlings that we were able, with the help of Dr. Andy Walker, to harvest from wild grapes in the hill country of Texas.19  Vitis Berlandieri seedlingsMany of the vines seem to be rather too small to be out on their lonesome for now,20 so these will be planted in the nursery rows in San Juan Bautista, where they can be carefully nurtured. But most significantly, we are establishing mother blocks of source vines, from which in a few years we will carry out our breeding trials. The intention is to create a vast amount of diverse germplasm, which, considered as a suite, might create wines of great complexity, and possibly, as the discreet varietal characteristics disappear, may allow for the emergence of unique soil characteristics in the wine.21,22 This is the pivotal centerpiece of the Great Terroir Experiment – a proposition so hubristically audacious that I have dared not bring to mind in the last year. It is potentially so vast and wide-ranging a proposition: we (or most likely, my heirs or successors) will select some particular clones of some particular grape varieties and assume the Olympian authority to pronounce them more apt or congruent to the site than others.

So, I’m trying not to focus so much on the very top of the mountain, but rather look at the very discreet path that lies immediately ahead. My last blog post was indeed a bit of a dooner, as it were, lamenting the number of most tortuous detours it seemed I was bound to take before I might move smartly into the Promised Land.  The last several weeks, however, have brought things into a slightly different focus.  I was heartened to meet with a very large corporate account that expressed a great willingness to support the company in truly doing the right thing – making wines (and other fine products) of transparency, authenticity and above all, a sense of place. Just the other day, I met with a grower who expressed the wish to grow grapes for us in a deeply sustainable fashion – dry-farmed, with the intention of achieving the highest degree of vibrant soil health, integrating livestock into the vineyard to the greatest extent possible.  Perhaps it is premature to imagine a great sea-change in the public’s thirst for “real wine,” but there is every reason to believe that some new doors are opening, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Carpe doonum.

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

    []

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

On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season

On Being Incongruent1 or A Very Dry Season

It has been a long, dry season.2 This is likely the driest year in Northern California for as long as anyone has been keeping records, coming off of two previous dry years; that we have experienced now only trace amounts of rain since the harvest season has been enormously disorienting and disquieting to me, (and certainly to everyone else in these parts).3 Is this serious drought a function of global climate change? Maybe, (likely) so, but that’s sort of beside the point.4
sunny
I’m depressed about the dry weather and depressed about the dry weather in my spirit as well, manifested as a desire but seeming inability to verbally express myself. It’s been a while since I’ve weighed in. I feel that much the same way one can neglect relationships with friends and acquaintances, I’ve rather unfortunately let this liaison with you, dear reader, lapse a bit, though arguably, it may well be the relationship I have with myself that has slightly gone off the rails.5 It is a bit complicated.You know that life at the Doon has been very tough for the last several years on many levels, not the least of which has been financially. I have worried at times that the grand plans to create new grape varieties from seeds and produce utterly distinctive wines expressive of place, may in fact have been the vivid illumination that the (at least fiscally) drowning man experiences just before the end.6,7
Erato (the muse of literature)
It has bothered me that these days I seem to have so very little to say; it’s a worry that the creative well has perhaps at last gone dry. Some of this silent treatment, as it were, has been a function of an incredibly busy harvest, and following harvest, a rather ambitious, if not utterly crazy course of sales-related travel.8 ,9,10 I have been busy, it’s true, and yet, I believe that my relative lack of inspiration – we are not particularly a-Mused – may be the fact that I’ve been feeling less and less myself, and that my company, which is another way of saying my art, seems, at least by a certain measure, to have diverged a bit from its stated values and aspirations. This is not really how I would design things to be, but it is rather a matter of trying to keep body and soul together as one aspires to the noblest ends. How much might one diverge whilst still keeping an eye to the prize?

I’ve heard and read in so many places that the secret to success in business (and likely in life in general) is to become as congruent as one possibly can be with oneself; this will make it ultimately a lot easier to express the truth of one’s brand (and more importantly, of oneself). You are pulling in a single coherent direction, at least as feasibly as you can, the one dictated by your heart. Intuitively at least, how could this not be right?
carboys
This is, in fact, what I have sought in recent years to do with the transformation of Bonny Doon. To focus on making better, more “natural,” wholesome wines, eschewing winemaking “tricks,” paying more attention to the infinite details of winemaking, and of course maintaining the aspiration of someday producing “necessary” wines, i.e. vins de terroir, those capable of capturing and expressing a sense of place, as reflected in the wine.11 Our wines are, in fact, better than they’ve ever been, and while there have been some limitations on our ability to achieve an echt enological éclat,12 we have made some real breakthroughs in our practice, to wit, the recent Cigare Volant and Cigare Blanc Réserve wines, wines that utterly knock me out for their coherence and seamlessness (this is no mean thing), but which, to my great disappointment, have been largely ignored by the wine press.13,14 Nor, for that matter, are our wholesalers doing the ecstatic, acrobatic back-flips over these wines that properly they might.15 Not that I’m complaining, mind you,16 but one really does have to wonder what it takes to sell wine these days.17 In retrospect, my “evolutionary” approach toward revamping the Bonny Doon proposition should instead have been far more revolutionary, and I should have worked harder and faster when there were more resources to hand to establish a more singular identity for the company.18 But the ideas and plans for the new Estate at Popelouchum, if it is to be truly revolutionary, must follow the soul’s path, one that meanders randomly and randally and in fact cannot be rushed.19
Biochar
I am surprised and frankly a bit chagrined that making more soulful wines through better practice has not particularly translated into a significantly warmer embrace from the people who buy, sell or write about our wines. I understand all too well (cf. footnote #13, supra) that the coherency of one’s narrative is absolutely crucial to convey a mental picture of what exactly it is that you’re selling; to my dismay, this narrative is becoming more labyrinthian and convoluted by the moment. We’ve lost a couple of biodynamic growers and haven’t been able to replace them – very disappointing – and it is not so easy to explain why fewer of the wines now carry the Demeter® certification. This is personally quite poignant to me. More people seem to have gradually woken up to the virtue of grapes (and everything else) grown in “live” soils and I wish we were in a position to bring brilliant Biodynamic/biochar enriched compost to all of the vineyards we work with.20 I am troubled by the fact that despite assurances to everyone who would listen that my company was “doon-sizing,” the number of wines in our portfolio seems to be growing both in volume and in number. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that cynical critics may wish to question the sincerity of my devotion to artisanal wines, and I might well continue to be tarred by the corporate or “industrial” Big House brush.21

I suspect that I might still be the most Pollyanna-ish person in the wine business. Wine is (or at least should be) sold on the basis of its quality, but the real business end of the proposition is, as I’m so painfully learning, the business end of it. I am not bothered so much that I must choose between how to spend the very finite amount of resource that we as a company possess; this is just Reality 101 and we are (for the most part) grown-ups. But I am appalled – this is the Kali Yuga, so what should I expect? – that spending money for marketing and sales promotions seems to yield a much greater return on investment than buying compost (biodynamic or not) for our growers or spending the money for a supplemental crop-thinning pass. It is truly doubtful that viticultural virtue is really much rewarded these days (or maybe if ever) apart from the cases of the greatest wine growers in the world. And I look longingly at that rarified world as if through the looking glass.
Popelouchum
I seem to understand better every day what must needs be doon at Popelouchum; there is nothing else I would wish to talk about, dream about than this. But as soon I begin I will just as soon grow mute; the voice inside me always reminding me of the increasingly deeper disparity between word and deed. I am approached by people all the time – especially in this recent season of road warriorship – who ask me, “So, Randall, how’s the seedling project going at San Juan?” “How long will it take to get your first harvest from seedlings anyway?”22 “And, when will we see some wine?” I am utterly embarrassed to tell them that while we have some modest Grenache seedlings in our little nursery plot at San Juan,23 the actual, massively ambitious project of the breeding of new varieties is still several years off.24 What do we have on the positive side of the ledger? We have planted a little over a half-acre of Pinot noir – very intensively spaced, I hasten to add – and we’re likely to see some grapes this vintage. And there are some fairly substantial nursery rows of sundry grapes – Grenache of the noir, blanc and gris persuasion; they’re bearing beautiful, intensely flavorful fruit, even at a very tender age, and some other exotics, notably Ruchè and Rossese that look incredibly promising.25 I am half, nay 98%, convinced that truly almost anything grown at Popelouchum will be exceptional. (But, how much San Benito County Ruchè the world is ready to cellar away remains to be seen.)
A Proper Claret
The problem is that the more I say, the more I elaborate, the greater the set of (unmeetable) expectations I begin to create. I feel like the pathological fabulist who begins with a relatively modest fib and every time he tries to explain or clarify, he is compelled to embellish the original small untruth with greater ornament and dissembling.

How far has it gone? Years ago I planted Bordeaux varieties at our estate vineyard in the rustic hamlet of Bonny Doon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec,26 and produced two vintages (1985, 1986) before grafting them over. (I’m not quite sure I even remember know why I planted the Bordelais cépages in the first place, but the world then was a lot simpler.)27 I laconically called this blend “Claret,” as I had not yet really learned to embrace marketing schtick, but understood well (even then) that there was a certain gravitas to an Estate wine.28 I just loved the simplicity and elegance of the term, “Claret,” tout court.29,30 The two vintages of Claret, even coming from very young vines, were actually quite remarkable.31 But when the wines we were making with Rhône varieties began to click, it seemed wise to simplify our product mix and graft the Bordelais cépages over to “Roussanne” and Marsanne to focus on Rhône-styled wines. Even with my limited understanding of marketing principles, I was trying to create something like a coherent product mix and coherent narrative, after all. At that point, I publicly and somewhat theatrically foreswore Bordelais cépages, and rather immaturely essayed to systematically take the piss out of the Napalese and their Medocian monoculture.32 Cab-burn-net, baby, burn.
Fishnets
Now we’re making a Bordeaux-styled blend called “A Proper Claret.”33 I pretend (somewhat half-heartedly) that I have absolutely nothing to do with this vinous adventurism, that it was in fact Some Other Doppelgänger Dude (this is slightly far-fetched) who has masterminded the whole project. But this little antic has allowed me to have some fun (fun always useful in these stressful times), trying my hand at ventriloquism in the pseudonymous voice,34 and of course working with varieties I haven’t seen in more than twenty-five years.35 We enclosed a pair of red fishnet stockings for the distributors to try on (if they so elect to do so) as they taste the wine. Frankly, I had hoped to put aside this sort of theatrical hijinx with the sale of the Big House brand, and induce our customers to focus instead on the intrinsic qualities of the wine. I am dooned, it seems, to a life of playing the clown.

I must confess that playing around with the Bordelais grapes I pretend to despise has actually been intellectually quite stimulating and the guerilla marketing quite amusing (despite all protestation to the contrary). By all reckoning, “A Proper Claret” appears to be well on its way to becoming a great commercial success. We’ve produced more in 2013, even adding a substantial amount of Merlot to the blend. Merlot! How strange is that? And how ironic would it be if it were these putatively despisèd cépages that saved the Doon?36
Perelandra
What I most want to be doing right now is sending you reports of the Great Work-in-Progress. I want to be spending time communing with the Nature spirits of a wildly promiscuous plantation, following the lead of the utterly strange garden book, “Perelandra.”37 I want to be telling you what it feels like to “castrate” a male grape flower.38 Or, to walk a row of vines grown from seedlings, looking for the outward characteristics that might serve as a proxy for grape quality, and to share these febrile impressions with you. It is unfortunate that I am and most certainly will remain a Luftmensch for the rest of my days, but even if I could learn to “see” if not read just a little bit of Nature’s expressive signage in this lifetime, that would represent an extraordinary personal achievement. Most of all, I want to be doing the things in my life that I feel really matter and are potentially exemplary, especially in the realm of sustainability – producing biochar, perfecting the techniques of dry-farming a vineyard. It still seems to be very far away, but objects in the distance may, in fact, be closer than they seem.

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

    Dear Stockist/slash/Restaurateur,

    Harumph! I’m writing on behalf of Randall Grahm – Mister Smarty Rhôney-pants – who (to my great chagrin) seems to not particularly fancy the noble Bordelais cépages and the brilliant wines they are capable of producing. Pity.

    Oh, pardon my manners. I’ve failed to introduce myself. My name is Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite, the loaf behind A Proper Claret Wine Company, temporarily garrisoned at the Bonny Doon Vineyard office in Santa Cruz. I’m currently ensconced at Randall’s desk, while he is still off mucking about with the last of the grapes, as the harvest has well winded doon…

    (The letter goes on and on and closes with the hope for “greater Claret-y.”

    and to our distributors – writing in my own voice):

    …Bonny Doon Vineyard is, as we all know or should know, a strictly Cabernet-free zone, at least it has been for the last twenty-eight years. Personally I have nothing but opprobrium, bordering on vaguely amused disdain for this popular grape variety. I will not bother you with the details of how we came to be entrusted with the distribution of this wine Suffice to say that we grudgingly, harumphingly agreed to do this as a favor to a friend…

    As to the label, what can I say? I am just scandalized. It’s hard to countenance opportunistic wine marketeers who stoop to using lurid imagery merely to sell a bottle of wine. Has it just come to this? It is only because I enjoyed the wine so much that I’m willing to put up with the tasteless monstrosity that is this label. “Proper?” Claret. Indeed. []

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

Terroir and Meaning: An Interim Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Cyrano de Bergerac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine Quality: Talking the Elusive Vin de Terroir Blues

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

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

I would argue that “quality” in wine is something like the articulate expression of real distinctiveness (in a good way, of course). Having said that, one very disturbing trend I’ve observed is the alarming degree of sameness in many California wines, especially in the larger production, price sensitive segments. 2_73cab_continuumIt is as if there had been a secret conference (a kind of Yalta Summit on wood chips) that set out guidelines as to what are the acceptable and unacceptable attributes in wine. I’m not wishing to be disrespectful, but larger wine companies do tend to be a little bit conservative, shall we say, and often, considerations of “quality” can be another way of saying, “How can we offend the least number of consumers?” In fairness, if you are driven mostly by economics, maybe offending the fewest number of customers and using your marketing clout to establish product differentiation is a reasonable strategy for the short-term, but I’m not convinced it really works so well for the long term.
4_wall_of_dis
I would propose that we think about wine quality in a somewhat different way, but I believe we have to begin with throwing out the idea of “giving the consumer what he or she wants.” For one thing, I’m not really sure that the customer really knows what he or she wants, and the other point is that the customer wants a lot of different things under different circumstances. I believe that consumers generally like everything that is made well—big, powerful, tannic bruisers as well as lighter, more elegant reds; fresh and crisp Rieslings and rich, buttery Chards, depending on the mood, the occasion and the season, of course.

I had a most eye-opening experience a few years ago when I sat on a panel with the head of grape research for an exceptionally large unnamed winery in Modesto, CA., and we were ostensibly talking about promising grape varieties for the future. He was a nice enough guy, but how he talked about the grape research at this very large winery was a bit disturbing. 5_gallo_bldg_logoIt turns out that his group had identified certain kinds of flavors, aromas, textures and visual appearances of certain wines that their focus groups had associated with “quality,” and conversely, a number of flavors and aromas that were associated with lack of quality or in other words, “defect.” So, for example, bright fruity flavors like raspberry, cherry and licorice were all to the good. Good color intensity, weight and persistence on the palate, palpable but soft tannins bravo, indeed extra bravo. Grapes that produced wines that were exceptionally high in acid, lighter in color or had anything like bitter, green or herbaceous flavors were immediately disqualified.
6-all_three
So, as you can see, if pinot noir, cabernet franc or nebbiolo were to be considered de novo, they would likely not make it past the first cut. And yet, these are perhaps the genius red grape varieties—I might add “syrah” to that short list, and we all know how well that has worked out of late, especially grown where it has been grown. The point I’m trying to make is that any consideration of “quality” is enormously contextual. Italian grape varieties generally have a different sort of tannic structure than say French varieties, and stylistically, tend to be higher in acid; they work better with Italian food.
7-italian-family-dinner
But I would not want to say that French grapes make better wine than Italian ones. I would also argue that if you are only interested in producing wines that are all sweetness and light, without shadow, if you will, you will end up producing something that is essentially banal. It is ultimately the play between all of the elements of a wine that create real complexity and interest. But perhaps more to the point, the congruity of fit between the grapes and where they are grown, as well as their ability to convey a mysterious additional element—the elusive, quasi-mystical notion of terroir, may well be the most important quality consideration of them all.
8-mystical-photo-of-terroir
This brings me to an exceptionally important point in any consideration of wine quality, and that is the tension between the efforts of the winemaker to make a “successful” or at least consistent wine and his efforts to make a “truthful” wine. Put a slightly different way, what is the appropriate balance between the expression of a defined winemaking style and the elucidation of the qualities that somehow inhere in the grapes or wine itself, or more accurately, in the site from which the grapes derive?
9-rene-descartes
The French, a somewhat dichotomous, Cartesian lot, make an important distinction between two kinds of wine: what they call vins d’effort or “wines of effort” and vins de terroir, or “wines of place.” You can think of this as a sort of dichotomy, but I prefer to think of it more as a continuum.
Wines of effort are ones where the winemaker has exerted a lot of control over the many variables in grape growing and winemaking and has made a very strong stylistic imprint on the wine—from the use of selected clones in the vineyard, to drip irrigation, cultured yeast and inoculated ML bacteria, enzymes, wood chips, micro-oxygenation and organoleptic tannins.
10-oak-chips
All of these interventions are done to create a certain consistency of style and to overcome the putative “deficits” of a particular vintage. These are the sorts of interventions—you can think of them as efforts to improve “quality”—that we in the New World are particularly good at. In a certain sense, this is really what we do best, and for that reason, our wines have great consistency from vintage to vintage and are arguably “friendlier” to the consumer. It’s not just the tannins that are friendlier, but the fact that the consumer has a reasonable expectation of what he or she is going to get every vintage.
11_goethe
But I would argue, that this kind of intervention, this great power to determine a wine’s stylistic fate, is, in a certain sense, a sort of Faustian compact. We have gained the world (and a lot of market share), but have lost our souls, or at the very least, quite often our soils. We’ve created a real glass ceiling as far as potential complexity; our wines are only as interesting and clever as we are, and unfortunately, I would submit, that is maybe not so very.
12_cote_rotie_vineyards
Let’s consider the other category: vins de terroir. These are the wines where the winemaker strives to somehow capture and reflect in the wine the inherent qualities of the site from which it derives, as well as the characteristics of the vintage, and by extension the great complexity and intelligence of Nature itself. They can offer an extraordinary added level of complexity to wine—literally a sort of extra-dimensionality in several respects.
13_mica
The mineral aspect of these wines (let’s pretend for a moment that we understand what this really means) deriving from special, particularly expressive soil types—volcanic, limestone, schist, shale, granite, most markedly—can offer a distinctive aroma—whether the flintiness of limestone, the wet stoniness of basalt, or the “hydrocarbure” of schist—and gives the mid-palate a special kind of length or “sustain,” if you will. (This is a kind of structure given to the wine above and beyond the structure provided by the tannins and the other elements of the wine’s antioxidant profile.)

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

15_martial_arts_master
We, as an industry, have utterly failed in not identifying the essential wine mystery and the key feature of wine quality: Why do some wines live and some wines die? What strategies might we undertake to give our wines greater qi, greater life-force? (Hint: In my humble estimation, this all derives from the vineyard and the practices employed therein to make minerals available to the vine.)
16_signal_noise_ratio
One way I think about terroir is to use the terminology of communication theory—the signal/noise ratio. The winemaker is still working exceptionally hard, but with a different intention—to minimize any sort of jarring element, the noise of too much oak, the pruniness of over-ripe grapes, the vegetative aromas of underripe ones, and also the pleasant but potentially deformative aromas of certain cultured yeasts, and for that matter the deformation from spoilage organisms such as Brett. At the same time he or she is trying to boost the intensity and clarity of the signal, which is or at least should be the distinctiveness of the site, and I’ll talk about that in a moment.
17_scott_labs
The aesthetic of terroir can be somewhat subjective and every winemaker will interpret his terroirs a little differently. We must remember that the tools in the modern winemaker’s toolbox—cultured yeast, enzymes, the sugar used to chaptalize, the tartaric acid used to acidulate, the organoleptic tannins—are all in some sense “natural” products, or at least analogues of what one might find in the grape itself. But what is “polishing” for one person can be a sort of airbrushing or the application of excessive make-up, maquillage, for another. There is something creepy about faces that are too perfect; they don’t quite feel right or real.
18_tammy-faye
While there is certainly a great degree of artifice in winemaking, you don’t want to see the seams. In a great vin de terroir, the winemaker has humbly painted himself discreetly into a corner; somehow it is the unique qualities of the site that take center-stage—the Musignyness of Musigny, for example, and add an aesthetic frisson to the experience.
19_musigny_label
So, what are the positive steps that a winemaker might take to accentuate the unique character of his site, its terroir? This is really the meat of the matter. Let’s begin in the vineyard: Lower yields certainly can be dramatically effective in improving quality (but not too crazy low, as that can create a deformation), closer vine spacing while holding yields static (there was a famous study in Chianti that demonstrated this or more accurately, a more favorable ratio of root mass to fruit volume).
20_chianti
This is probably the single most consistent determinant of grape quality, all things being equal. (A little parenthetical note here: Drip irrigation or worse, fertigation, as is our wont in this part of the world, generally works pretty much against the achievement of this critical ratio.)
21_horn_manure
Then, there is the practice of organic or biodynamic farming, which has been shown to significantly enhance mycorrhizal populations, providing for healthier plants and significantly better mineral uptake. (Ah, minerals…. As I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the subject of another very, very long discussion.)

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

22_goldilocks
Balanced, homeostatic and thrifty growth is what you are looking for: smaller leaves, smaller clusters, shorter internodes—you want to be a kind of viticultural Goldilocks in this regard, and get your vigor “just right.” Old vines (ideally, dry-farmed), if they live long enough, have figured this out by Nature’s innate wisdom. If you can get to a dry-farmed solution sooner than later, I would humbly suggest that allowing Nature to do the heavy lifting will give you a more perfect kind of balance than that which the cleverest agronomist might suggest. Uniformity of ripening, achieved by rigorous thinning, I think, is also a pretty important quality factor.
23_location_sign2
But, in the end, where you’ve chosen to plant a vineyard and what you’ve planted are the most important qualitative decisions you can make. In general, we’ve planted grapes in areas that are far too warm for the optimal expression of varieties, and we’ve farmed them in a way that doesn’t send the right hormonal signals to the vines, gentle suggestions that they might consider getting on with the business of ripening their fruit.
24_old_head_trained_vine
Dry-farmed vineyards carrying modest crops will ripen three to four weeks earlier than conventionally farmed vineyards, and this of course opens up all sorts of possibilities.
The major work to improve wine quality is, as I’ve suggested, done in the vineyard with the aim of avoiding heroic levels of intervention in the winery—acidulation, de-alcoholization, addition of yeast nutrients, the deployment of sundry microbial inocula, and so forth, but there are certainly things that can be done in the winery to improve quality, and the among them might be strategies to greatly reduce the use of sulfur dioxide.
25_cold_cellar
Cold cellars, delayed malolactics can greatly reduce the total amount of sulfur dioxide required. But why stop there? It’s not inconceivable that with the right focus and intention one could eliminate the use of sulfur dioxide altogether in the winery and still produce wines that were not inordinately funky and remained fresh. Why not think about organisms that might perform a tertiary fermentation, depleting the wine of nutrients that would otherwise support microbial spoilage?
26_here_there
So, to close the loop on wines that express a sense of place: We, in California, generally don’t get there from here. For one, our soils are often not particularly interesting or appropriate for a vin de terroir—the old soils, for example are often heavily weathered and depleted of minerals, nor do we farm them in such a manner that might allow for the expression of terroir. Nor, fundamentally, as a young wine-drinking culture do we particularly esteem the earthy/haunting wines of place; these flavors are subtle, and subtle is not yet a quality that is currently greatly appreciated in the din of the wine agora, but this certainly can change.
27_montebello
And I have not even mentioned how utterly challenging it might be to identify the most appropriate sites in California for a terroir-expressive vineyard at least in a single lifetime, and the difficulty in working out the most congruent rootstocks and grapes to grow on those sites. In light of this disappointing news, why would one even choose to get out of bed in the morning?
28_Samuel_Beckett
Samuel Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And it certainly does make sense for us here to go on. There are in fact extraordinary things that we can do in California to lend distinctiveness to our wines and to truly improve wine quality. There is a company that is working to help wine growers isolate and identify unique yeast strains that exist in their vineyards—those that are perhaps the optimal performers for their site. There are several exceptional soil amendments—one notably, biochar, or activated charcoal, that can really help in the uptake of minerals in the soil, conferring a greater expression of site.
29_compost_heap
The use of well made compost, especially with the addition of biodynamic preparations and rock dust I find to be among the single most useful things one can do to improve the health and vitality of a vineyard. Myself, I am particularly keen on the idea of growing grapes from seed (phylloxera-risk permitting) and thus creating a tremendous range of new and unique germplasm; this could provide the complexity of a gamut of unique genotypes in a given vineyard. This project will last longer than a single life-time, but ultimately could generate absolute individuality and uniqueness to a wine, as well as enormously accelerate the process of selection massale, undoubtedly the key to enhanced congruity of variety, clone and perhaps sub-clone to a given site.
30_tailor_fitting_suit
In other words, how cool would it be to have uniquely bespoke varieties for your vineyard? In the end, the greatest advantage we have in the New World is our relative youth and the ability to see the wine world with fresh eyes.

There is also the other small fact that we are incredibly blessed that our industry is largely unimpeded by the vast tangle of rules and regulations that European wine growers must contend with.
32_hans_schmidt
I’d like to mention a fellow I know in the Valais in Switzerland, by the name of Hans-Peter Schmidt, who is doing a lot of work with biochar in vineyards there and in France. (He, by the way, reckons that biochar doesn’t really improve things much in the mineral-rich, glacially deposited soils of the Valais, but could be quite interesting in soils that are more depleted.) Strangely enough, he is producing wines without any SO2, and which also, counter-intuitively, don’t seem to readily oxidize, nor develop any significant levels of volatile acidity.
33_endophyte
I’m not quite sure how he has come to this conclusion, but he believes that he has brought into his cellar a particular species of bacteria, an endophyte, through the roots of the vines, that has persisted through the course of fermentation and cellaring and is somehow keeping other competitive spoilage organisms in check—he’s been attempting some DNA profiling to try to get a handle on what it might be. I don’t know if his theory is utterly crackpot or not, but I’ve tasted his wine and it does seem to confound every received wisdom I’ve entertained about immutable winemaking truths.
34_natures_wonder
So, in conclusion, I would suggest that the best course to improve wine quality in our part of the world is to remain open to the possibility of phenomena we can’t explain, and above all, remain humble to the fact that if we want to be particularly clever, we should attempt to leverage the greater intelligence of the natural world. And in this intensely competitive wine world that we inhabit, truly differentiated products arising from the originality of Nature’s intelligence, will ultimately confer the only real sustainable competitive advantage. Thank you.

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

"Maybe Not Racked” by Syrah Mix-A-Lot

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


I like big butts2 and I cannot lie

You other winemakers can’t deny

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

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


I’m talking about juice that got da funk

Not the spoofulated shizzle that gets you crunk

Talking anaerobic élevage,4 yo
2_3_hill_spoof
With some sick cépages, yo, ain’t no mirage, bro

(The truffe will set you free.)


Oh, what am I gonna serve wit’cha?

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

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

But that 500 liter butt you got – I got to investigate her
4_baby_back_ribs


Ooh, Horse-rumpo blanket, you ridin’ bareback

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

Well excuse me, excuse me,

I aint no point-score groupie


The palate impression is really dancin’
5_6_horse_micrograph
To hell with sip and swirl romancin’

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

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


I’m tired of those wine magazines

Saying that big fruit and Def Jamminess is the thang

Take the average wine geek and ask him that
7_friut_salad
If his main juice squeeze is a fruit bomb tease – soft and pHat7


So Wine Geeks

(Yeah!)

Wine Geeks

(Yeah!)

Has your vino got the funk?
16_decanter_2
(Hell yeah!)

Tell ‘em to aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate it!

(Aerate it!)

Aerate that funky butt!

Maybe get racked!

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Maybe get racked!


9_syrah_RG_dinner
Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.

Frenchy face in a New World bouteille.


I like ‘em dusty and not too big

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

I just can’t help myself, I like the scent of animal
11_flatline_bw
Now, (pay-atches),8 here’s my scandal


I wanna drink you at home

In UH, a double-mag UH UH!

I ain’t talkin’ bout 95 point wines

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

Talking DOA, a perfect flat-line


11_raspberry_milkshake

I don’t want ‘em extra thick and juicy

Like a raspberry milkshake or worse a double

Syrah Mix-A-Lot’s in trouble

When it’s so funked up it begins to bubble


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

No herbicide, baby, kill them weeds with hoes

You can keep them fancy chateaux
12_joly_renaud
I’ll stick with funk-master, Jacques Reynaud10

(He was kicking some Ray-ass)


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

Just can’t drink ya, I gotta spit ya’

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

Sip on that fancy space- juice ‘til the break of Doon!
14_Cigare_Volant_label


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

And forgive the commercial message in this song

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

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

(It ain’t from around here.)

So wine-man!

(Yeah!)
15_LCV_89
Wine-man!

(Yeah!)

If you can tolerate a little mercaptan

(Yeah!)

Then splash it ‘round! Swirl it ‘round!

And a clear tone you will perceive

Even white wines got to breathe11
23_decanter
Maybe get racked!

Maybe get racked!


Yeah baby, when it comes to a final arbitrator

It ain’t gonna be the Wine Speculator

Or even Tanzer or the even fancier

Burghound – Dawg, you gots to throw me a Beaune,
17_burghound_logo
Cause I want my wine waiter to be a wine-lover not a wine-hater.12

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


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

And he’s jonesin’ for Screaming Eagle
Banker_200pxw
But the Baby Gangsta is barely legal

And his point spread is more spread-eagle

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

Y’all doon with that?

Spare me new barriques, I prefer old redwood vat


And them yeasties, I prefer them indigenous

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

I got nothing ‘gainst Saccharomyces

‘Cept without the funk there ain’t no exotic spices.
18_biggie
That little bitta brett can be seen as a threat

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


So the press say your wine gotta be pHat

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

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

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


To the spoofulated higher scorers: you ain’t nowheres

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

Give me a vin de terroir for a nice long pour

Cassoulet and foie gras – soulfood for the bourgeois


Some knucklehead tried to dis
20_21_pinot_assman
These funked-up wines, bump ‘em from his list

He brought in a toothless pinot grigio by the glass

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

So, pour ‘em

(Pour ‘em!)
22_spectator_cover
Ain’t no need to score ‘em

Just take a moment to explore ‘em

And if it got da funk you might adore ‘em


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

And you wanna triple X throw-doon

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

And kick them nasty thoughts of the Rhône Estranger

Maybe got racked!

Maybe got racked!
24_woman_winerack


Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

Funky nose that blows off but she got a good rack

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

Let Me Be Perfectly Frank

1_freak_out_217pxh
Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have a motor?
Or was it
Something
Different?

–F. Zappa, “Inca Roads,” (from One Size Fits All)

It is shameful to admit, but I am no great shakes as a thoughtful appreciator of music. Most certainly I enjoy it—rock, jazz and classical music (mostly pre-19th century) especially, but I seem to lack both the time and bandwidth to really give serious music the deep and sincere listen it deserves, except for when I am driving, of course, something I seem to do a lot, especially during harvest. Unfortunately, I often lack the presence of mind to carry much of an assortment of CDs in the car.1,2 (I usually have perhaps one or two of them in the vehicle at a time, which I end up listening to maybe forty or fifty or a hundred times before I have the wit to replace them with something else.)
2_parents_both_250pxw
And it goes without saying that like virtually every Baby Boomer, I am compelled to share with my offspring, to wit, daughter Amélie, currently aged ten, the music of my youth and young adulthood, which I, like any BBer, regard as vastly superior to anything produced in the last thirty years or so.3 These are the circumstances whereby, as it happened, I found myself with a couple of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention CDs in the car; Zappa has pretty much been what she and I have listened to together for the last couple of years.4 She has become a real fan, and I have become utterly obsessed with Frank.5

I didn’t really know his music all that well back when it was first released, and still I have a way to fully acquaint myself with the greater part of his oeuvre. The early stuff—Freak Out!—I first heard when I was in junior high, but some of the lyrics were a bit too outlandish to consider playing at home at normal volume. It was partially my own inhibition to play the music in my parents’ house6—this was well before the day of the privacy afforded by iPods—as well as my modest musical curiosity that gave me but a shallow acquaintance with one of the real compositional geniuses of the 20th century.7

It was a few years later that I was honored to be compared to Frank Zappa by the late wine writer, Jerry Mead.8,9 I’m still not quite sure precisely what he meant by the comment—the article (predating the internet) is likely lost to oblivion—but I take him to mean that I was creative, experimental, and significantly, more than a little irreverent, if not outré, given to épater les (crus) bourgeois, if not to lobbing (or Laube-ing) the occasional cherry bomb on the relevant snooty salle de degustation.10,11 ,12
3_holiday_inn_217pxw
While I am honored beyond words by the comparison with Zappa, lately I’ve been slightly haunted by the suspicion that there might, in fact, be some darker, if no less apt, aspects in that comparison to Frank.

I’m still not quite sure why I’ve been thinking so much about him these days. Perhaps, it is a gathering sense of my own mortality, and a great trepidation about being able to really get a significant body of important work done before I shuffle off this Merlot coil. When I muse about Frank, I am struck by two thoughts that exist in a sort of ideational Mobius strip: How extraordinary is the sheer volume of his oeuvre, how Olympian his will and fearlessness in pushing himself beyond his own limits.
4_macho_nacho_217inh
The other thought that is omnipresent in my consciousness is the simple but utterly jarring fact that as a corporeal body he is no more.13 As human beings, it is hard for us to accept that someone who was once alive and vital is no more, but somehow, with time, we mostly manage to come to some level of acceptance. It’s been twenty years that Frank’s gone, but I for one, am still in major denial, at least as far as the length of time it’s been. It is just very confusing to me.14 For one thing, while he was alive he managed to set up a living trust, a fiendishly efficient institution that continues to release new CDs posthumously,15 continues to wage fierce copyright wars against all potential usurpers, even recently attempting to protect the iconic image of Frank’s trademark “Imperial” beard/mustache arrangement from intellectual property infringement. The Zappa website is alive and well, and his son, Dweezil, continues to play his father’s music brilliantly, exposing new ears to a lot of music that is being heard for the first time. His music does not appear dated at all; with the passage of time, it has become oddly more progressive, receding not into the past but into the future.
5_zappa_stache_drawing
Frank does not speak to me directly; I don’t reckon he could be much bothered to do so, or indeed, be bothered to take his eyes and ears off of anything that did not totally possess him or take him away for a moment from his vast auditory playground.16 But the weird timelessness of his music and the fact that he’s already been gone so long tells me every day that it would serve me well (and you, too, dear reader) to become a lot more conscious of the preciousness of the short time we are allotted. Not to panic (it’s organic), but the time is nigh to really buckle doon.
6_tipper_gore_250pxw
So, what did we share in common? He and I certainly had a lot of difficulty with authority and equally, with what were called in an earlier and less ambiguous day, “posers,” “phonies” or “plastic” people. His early targets, very oddly, were hormone-addled teenagers, disco dancers and squares (this was shooting fish in a barrel),17 later, hippies, yuppies and ultimately, the voice for wholesome, family values, Tipper Gore. For me, the easy targets were initially Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot drinkers18 and then of course influential American wine writers, who, not surprisingly, took some umbrage at my jabs. Frank didn’t seem to have any personal problem at all in offending people—gays, Jews, Catholics and other groups too numerous to mention; on some level, it seemed as if it were his mission to give offense.19),20 I, in my passive-aggressive way, remain shocked whenever I have managed to offend absolutely anyone. (This was probably one of the important differences between us.) There was a combative spirit that we both shared, but, more relevantly, it is certain that for Frank, it was ultimately only the music that mattered. For me, it is, or at least has become, all about the wine; most everything else is but a mere distraction.
7_monica_lewinsky_2171pxh
It seemed that Frank was often frustrated with fallible human institutions and certainly with fallible human beings—business managers, record companies and record company executives, symphony orchestra musicians (and symphony orchestras), and above all, studio players, who would seldom meet up to his most rigorous standards.21 He burned through a Who’s Who of sidemen over the years, with just a precious few sticking with him for the duration. He was “difficult,” a perfectionist, and did not suffer fools. I’m not sure if I am any less frustrated than Frank was on a daily basis, and there is a rather different assortment of characters that tend to push my buttons, wholesale distributers and grape growers, primarily.22 But, I’ve been able to mostly avoid expensive litigation and ongoing acrimony with the people with whom I interact. Perhaps my vision of the world is slightly fuzzier and more forgiving than Frank’s was and I am slightly less attached to a given outcome than he was.
8_MOI_250pxw
I often talk about the difference between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—the latter being the only kind of wine that holds any real interest for me—but maybe the vinous analogy to music here does not quite obtain. I am not certain precisely what would constitute musique de terroir. (Is there such a thing as “natural” music, or music created without the strong imprint of the composer?) Frank’s music was musique d’effort, experimental, explorational, in so many respects, “against the grain,” finding beauty in the synthetic, perhaps in the unnatural, or at least in the unfamiliar.23 But what is music if not a communiqué from the celestial spheres? Frank’s discovery of the strange music to be found in “noise,” in the abrupt juxtaposition of varying time signatures, in the practice of what he called “xenochrony,” the blending and harmonizing of music from disparate sources,24 revealed his great genius, which is another way of saying that he heard the music all around us that most of us are incapable of discerning.
9_ron_jeremy_217pxh

In some sense, winemaking and certainly wine blending might be compared to writing, arranging or producing music, with the important difference that music, having an added auditory dimension, possesses a rhythmic and melodic structure that unfolds in a measured fashion over time, in fact, almost defines time itself. (The flavors and aromas of wine unwind over time as well, but at a much, much slower rate; the pulse of the their gradual revelation is not the main Gestalt of the experience.)25 Dubbing and mixing tracks you are seeking the most felicitous polyphonic voices, and Frank was certainly a genius in discovering these incredible voices. The unctuous, New Joisey-like lead vocalist of “Florentine Pogen” (She was duh dawtuh of a well-thee Flaw-run-teen Poh-gun…),26,27 the nasal, snarky, Pachuco-sounding voice in “Disco Love.”28 (It’s dee-sco loff too-nite. Be shoor you luke awl rite.)
10_zoot_suit_250pxh
In making a wine blend, one analogously looks for the appropriate balance between the benign, gentle elements—fruit, the warmth of alcohol, soft tannins—and the darker, earthier components, that hard, mineral edge, and (if one could possibly control this) even adding (or allowing) in a discreet touch of the Brett-monster (the snark in “Disco Love”). Frank was a notorious perfectionist in his re-mixes, certainly far more fastidious than I am or ever was. And yet, without self-flattery, I must say there was something like fanaticism in at least some aspects of my work,29 though in candor, this was mostly applied to the detail that went into our packaging and marketing efforts, which at times could take on a strong OCD aspect.30,31
11_randys_doughnuts_220pxh
Frank was a Libertarian, of all things. I am most certainly not, though oddly enough, there are (or at least were) a substantial number of attendees of Bonny Doon Vineyard winemaker dinners who come up to me at the conclusion of these solemn events and proffer the Secret Libertarian Handshake, dead-cert that I am One of Them. The clear difficulty I have with authority being one of the telltale signs. 32,33 Frank and I both love satire and parody, terrible puns (e.g. Sheik Yerbouti), and things that explode, and oddly enough, thought enough alike to come to similar parodic, iconoclastic ploys, at least in once instance, though in fairness, the Sgt. Pepper spoof was a bit of a gimme.
12_vinquirer_250pxw
And we both love sofas or at least find them quite amusing.34 I don’t remember thinking of Zappa when we created the Contra label, but it’s not impossible that his imagery was lurking somewhere in my unconscious. (The image of the sofa in the Antioch vineyard was “found,” not composed art.) Since the days of Dr. Freud, sofas (and couches) are absolutely hilarious; they represent a sort of nebulous area between the familiar and the not so safe. (Clearly, what goes on on sofas, kind of like Frank’s music, is not 100% reputable.)

Frank was a public figure but also very much a solitary individual, preferring his own company to that of others, professing to have not much to say to anyone. (I am afraid that I can utterly relate to that.)
13_SgtPepper_both
Frank and I seem to share something like the self-absorption gene.35 Is it clinical narcissism or perhaps is it that the interior theater is just a lot more compelling than the show going on outside? He and I both share some challenges with emotional literacy,36 but there are (one hopes) some significant differences in our perspectives on some sensitive areas. Frank had no use whatsoever for what he thought of as the fantasy of romantic love, (whereas I remain an utterly delusional romantic naïf on the subject.)37,38 Believing that Frank and I share some personality traits/quirks, the most disturbing thing I read about him was an interview with one of his kids (maybe Dweezil?), who, while clearly admiring, if not adoring his father, stated baldly, “Frank doesn’t do love.” Doesn’t do love? This sent a bit of a chill down my spine. I instantly felt a pang of pity for Zappa (and perhaps one for myself as well). I know that in my own case I can certainly do better. The literature suggests that Frank was at times perhaps a bit exploitive of some of the people with whom he worked,39 but on balance, I believe that he was far more of a giver than taker,40 and was utterly beloved for the gifts he shared with the world.
14_contra_sofa_both
I hope I’ve taken some cautionary lessons from Frank’s weaknesses and peccadilloes. The greatest positive lesson I have learned from him is the need to truly be oneself (who else can one be?), to think for oneself, and above all, seek to please oneself in the work that you do every day.41,42 In the end, there’s nobody else out there offering final letter grades (or even narrative evaluations).

  1. Part of the problem is that I drive Citroëns, and recently I’ve had a really bad run of luck with them as far as their roadworthiness. It seems I’m always swapping vehicles, and of course swapping the CDs from one to another is a bit more than I can manage. []
  2. It took quite some time for me to get it together to finally install a CD player in the DS-21; it’s located in the trunk (where else?) and therefore being out of sight, a bit out of mind. []
  3. This is not an opinion, but an incontrovertible fact. []
  4. Apart from a brief flirtation with Taylor Swift when she was a couple of years younger (8), Amélie’s musical taste is quite sophisticated, favoring classical music and progressive jazz, and unlike myself, she possesses real musical and rhythmic aptitude; she is a very talented young pianist, cellist and dancer. []
  5. She began listening to Hot Rats at a tender age, and while she liked the instrumental selections on the album, she gravitated to the vocal cut, “Willie the Pimp”; who could not be taken with its surging energy and by Zappa’s guitar virtuosity? We’ve not listened to it for a while, and mercifully, she was still at an age when (at least I trust) the audibility of the lyrics was a bit moot. Suffice to say that as she has become worldlier, more inquisitive and a bit more acute in her hearing, I’ve had to become rather more selective in the tunes she is permitted to hear. []
  6. A few years later in college, I became acquainted with The Fugs, a group that became an instant hit with me. Their music did not have nearly the originality or brilliance of Zappa’s, but like Zappa, they merged a sort of sophistication—in their instance it was political activism and East Coast intellectualism—with a raunchy satiric sensibility. I’m not certain why I find this fusion of high art and naughty humor so particularly cordial, but maybe it is a sort of Walter Mitty-like outlet for a combative, if nerdy guy, who would prefer, of course, that all of the actual combat remain squarely in the verbal arena. []
  7. The other part of my inhibition in delving into Zappa’s music was what I imagined to be the great unevenness of his work. Somehow, at least then, I must have felt threatened by emotionally investing in wild risk takers, who would, perforce, occasionally fail, sometimes dramatically. Failure, in my family, was perhaps the greatest taboo of all, and I could hardly imagine risking that sort of contagion. But I see clearly now that the far more dominant side of my own personality is really to be a great risk taker. I am now only really, truly comfortable with people who can risk significantly. []
  8. If memory serves, he called me “the Frank Zappa of winemakers.” Note that this was still quite early in my career and I had yet to really publicly engage in many zany antics. I maintain, however, that while I’ve said a few provocative things in print, I am, at least in public, behaviorally quite moderate, actually preternaturally shy, truth be told. I am not at all the wild or crazy man that people imagine me to be, nor have done (hardly) any of the putatively wild things I am alleged to have doon. (People are perhaps confusing me with some other longhaired winemaker like Jim Clendenen or Gary Pisoni). I suspect that Mead’s article might have, in part, helped to create the perception of this outré persona, this enfant terrible. Coincidentally, Zappa himself was imagined to be orders of magnitude more outlandish than he ever really was. Apart from his addiction to nicotine and coffee, he was largely an abstainer from alcohol and utterly eschewed drugs. There was a popular myth that he would do anything onstage to “gross his audience out,” even once eating his own feces, a rather outlandish legend that he many times had to dispel. (Quoth Frank: “The closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973.”) []
  9. As mentioned, I am, by far, the great beneficiary of this comparison. Zappa was truly a musical genius. He was a genius composer, a brilliant guitarist, and very clever with a musical synthesizer, whereas I am but a very clever synthesizer, tout court []
  10. The irony of the cherry bomb in lieu of the fruit-bomb would be a bit anachronistic. []
  11. The basis of Zappa’s animus toward the Establishment, Authority, and Received Wisdom would presumably have derived from the relevant psycho-dynamics of his youth and family of origin, but I have read that his stance against Authority may have been permanently hardened by his grossly unfair conviction on a trumped up pornography charge and spending ten days in jail. (Like any great artist, he was able to recycle the traumatic experience in service of his art.) My only real brush with the law was when the winery accidentally discharged about 60 gallons of grape juice into the creek up in Bonny Doon and the Department of Fish and Game was called out. (Was this event presaged in the tune, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”?) []
  12. We once released to our DEWN Club a Syrah that we called “Macho Nacho,” for the simple reason that it had a rather distinctive aroma of bell pepper (“Call Any Vegetable!”), which I hoped would over time eventually resolve into a more agreeable minty aroma. (Miraculously, it did.) We couldn’t figure out how to easily apply the topologically complex, virtually Cubist labels to the bottles, so we sent the labels out along with the bottles to our customers and asked them to put them on themselves. The arrant chutzpah of the nomenclature of the wine (what could be cheesier than “Macho Nacho?”) along with the provocation of the customer-applied topologically challenging label, was a gesture (both in form and in content) certainly worthy of Zappa. Frank was no stranger to Dada nor to cheez. []
  13. He died at the absurdly early age of 53 from prostate cancer, which should certainly have been detected well before it reached an advanced and untreatable stage. One simply assumed that Frank would ultimately succumb to lung cancer; the omnipresence of the cigarettes could not but presage this sort of end. But the way he died strikes me as ironic (“Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” was a song he wrote many years before the onset of any symptoms of his illness), and a particularly tough way to go. If one were to imagine there were a celestial pantheon—something that Frank could never do—one might think that Frank was on the receiving end of a thunderbolt, a sign of immense displeasure from the gods for his hubris. []
  14. There is another more obvious aspect to this conundrum, and that is that I’ve come to a lot of the music quite recently—kind of like buying a new used car (a Citroën, even) that while thirty years old, still seems quite new (partially because of its strange futuristic aspect). []
  15. This is in some sense an echo of the inherent creepiness of the Internet itself, where nothing or no one ever totally dies, and the “fact” of someone’s dying is just another bit of information with the same weight as the thousands of other bits of information that will persist perhaps forever (who knows?). []
  16. It is a great illusion—a granfalloon in Vonnegut’s parlance, or perhaps just an intellectual parlor game—to look for correspondences in the respective biographies, especially given the fact that Zappa was truly gifted, and I am on the outside looking in at the illuminated world of true genius. My “experimental” period—the crazy number of DEWN wines we produced, the brandies, eaux-de-vie and picaresque adventures in importing wine from France, Italy and Spain—might well correspond to the highly productive, somewhat manic time in Zappa’s career, where he was doing a massive amount of touring, attempting to mount elaborate performances with various symphony orchestras. I can’t really speak to the grandiosity of Frank’s ideation, but in my own instance, the apogee of this sort of intoxication was achieved when, in 2004, we mounted “Born to Rhône,” a sort of rock opera. (Frank was himself either composing rock operas or making fun of those who did so.) One thing is for certain: While mounting the performance was a wonderfully creative exercise, it was at the same time a massive ego trip, that carried with it some doonside, if you will (not to mention an enormous price tag). Critics at the time of this theatrical production were not so utterly enamored with the Bonny Doon vinous line-up; this would be a way to show them all how clever I really was! This madness (a kind of bipolarity?) could not, of course, sustainably continue and not too long thereafter, I put an end to this febrile adventurism with the sale of Big House and the other large brands. []
  17. It is a curiosity to me that Frank would single out the lamest of the lame for his opprobrium. Maybe I’m reading far too much into it, but it strikes me a bit like bullying. On the other hand, I don’t think Frank really worried much about fighting fair. He was just looking for an appropriate medium that would allow the music to get out. []
  18. If I were musically adept, I might have written a tune called, “It’s As Easy as ABC.” []
  19. I am myself more than a little appalled by the jaw-droppingly offensive lyrics of “Jewish American Princess,” and can’t help but believe that on some level, Frank actively sought out censure and opprobrium, i.e. part of his definition of self was that of an outsider. (There were a number of lawsuits that ensued from this little number; he not only touched but seemed to intentionally caress the third rail, ideally in a lightning storm, his own tragic compulsion toward a Camarillo Brillo ‘do. []
  20. If I were one third as naughty as Frank, I might well have taken some advantage of the satiric possibilities of deploying Monica Lewinsky (or her Doppelgänger) as a possible spokesperson for Le Cigare Volant, but I can’t say I never thought of it. For the candid historical record, when the Clinton scandale royale was hitting, my colleagues and I briefly toyed with the idea of engaging a sort of M. Lewinsky look-alike (ideally we would get the real Monica) to pour Cigare at the Wine Spectator Grand Tasting, an event to which we assuredly would never be invited back, had we been successful in our recruitment. Mercifully, the real Monica was not available and ultimately, better sense prevailed. []
  21. I’ve gone through more than my share of assistant winemakers, sales managers and general managers, it must be said. []
  22. The three-tier wine distribution in this country is a total mess, far too many wineries and wines being pushed through an ever-constricting channel. As far as the other source of my eno-tsuris: Many grape growers, who, over the years, were admittedly victimized by opportunistic, often unethical (mostly very large) wineries, are now taking their sweet (one hopes, short-lived) revenge, raising prices to profiteering levels, as well as cutting back on supply. []
  23. He would certainly have felt totally at home in conversation with J.-K. Huysmans. []
  24. This is essentially precisely what the winemaker does in a “composed” wine such as Le Cigare Volant. []
  25. The unfolding of wine over time is not exactly like watching grass grow, but does require real patience. The real drama is in the tension between the tonal registers of the flavor elements, and how each element releases on the palate. []
  26. I am not certain who actually sang the lead on this tune, but in my mind at least, he looks precisely like Ron Jeremy. []
  27. I had the odd experience of reading Murakami’s 1Q84 at the same time as the “One Size Fits All” CD was stuck in the player of the Citroën wagon; I was struck (as would be any true paranoid) by how resonant the tune, “Florentine Pogen,” was with the dystopian, friendly/sinister, paranoid theme of the novel. But it is the novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose wacky, obscurantist literacy (it’s frankly, more musical literacy in Zappa’s instance) and paranoid world-view the composer most vividly evokes, despite the obvious differences in temperament—Pynchon is an entirely private person and Zappa was (when he was not being utterly private) a far more public person (or at least a projection of our respective fantasies of who he might be. They are more or less from the same vintage (Pynchon was born three years earlier), and were clearly both formed deeply by the music and overall cultural sensibilities (especially Beat/hipster) of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In their young adulthood, both gentlemen lived in Southern California (my appellation d’origine as well), Pynchon more littorally situated and Zappa an iconic denizen of the Inland Empire. One could perhaps argue that spending any significant time in Southern California in the ‘50s would turn anyone into a surrealist (think of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” as well as SoCal’s truly bizarre outré architecture). And the fact that one can’t help but imagine that one is not just living one’s own actual life, but rather that one’s life is in some sense also a movie. This kind of double-consciousness seems to pervade Zappa’s work; there is always a sort of fourth wall with the auditor that is continually being broached. Pynchon’s characters, for his part, are often unselfconsciously breaking into song, usually of the slightly cheesy variety. Pynchon and Zappa share an interest in Zoot Suiters, cars (especially with fins), rockets, dopers, television, and strangely, talking dogs. They both (rightly) share a deep revulsion for the increasingly controlling power of the State. I can imagine Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49, as one of Zappa’s personages. She would, of course, be “deep in the city,” catching a joyride in the Florentine Pogen’s Daughter’s ‘59 Morgan. []
  28. Again, I’m not sure precisely who is the actual person behind this voice, but it is certainly a component of one of Frank’s multiple personae—the mocking, wise-ass, ironic one. []
  29. It goes without saying that these days I aspire to a level of fanaticism in our grape-growing and winemaking efforts that heretofore was evinced primarily in the realm of marketing. []
  30. I wish that I could say that this was entirely a function of my own efforts, but a good deal of this brilliance may be laid squarely at the foot of my former colleague, John Locke. John was a brilliant collaborator—his brain does not really work on any of the known, well-trodden neural pathways—and a creative catalyst. I think that whatever good work I did at the time was largely doon with the intention of pleasing/impressing John. []
  31. One of the tenets of Chuck House’s work—the designer who gave us Le Cigare Volant and a myriad of other labels—was to add value in every aspect of the design (maybe a bit like Steve Jobs in that respect), to embed wonderful, evocative and unexpected nuggets. In his music, Frank would do something similar by artfully inserting a bit of Stravinsky in a doo-wop tune; being a bit of an obscurantist (and show-off) myself, I might drop in an allusion to Kant, Kierkegaard or Heidegger in the back label text, to delight the perhaps .0002% of the customers who would appreciate the reference. []
  32. I’m not sure I would even recognize the lines within which we are instructed to color. []
  33. They also (though not recently) proffer joints to me, certain that I will appreciate this toke(n) of their appreciation. It is certain that many people also (erroneously) imagined Zappa to do his most creative work with the help of some psychotropic enhancement. []
  34. There are two songs devoted to sofas in One Size Fits All, one sung in German. The sofa is one of the great Dada-esque dream-like objects; it can stand for anything one wants it to be. The challenges that we’ve experienced with our “Contra” label perhaps mirror some of the challenges that Frank encountered finding commercial acceptance of his music (or at least his album covers), and suggests perhaps that Dada is not at all well. []
  35. One indication of this pathology we both share is our reliance on a cryptic, private, self-referential language, clear to ourselves and possibly to a small band of confederates, yet largely opaque to everyone else (unless one has been paying very close attention). Just as Zappa had a roster of characters and objects that populated his universe—Suzie Creamcheese, sofas, weenies (burnt), polkas, ponchos and plastics, I have populated my “Dooniverse” with my own recurring iconic objects: flying cigars, old telegrams, labyrinths, Marcel Proust, the town of Gilroy (perhaps my San Ber’dino?). I am known to be a serious user of Twitter as well as a notorious blogger; is this not prima facie evidence of acute self-absorption? []
  36. The songs, “Ain’t Got No Heart,” and “Heartbreak is for Assholes,” present good evidence to support this assertion. []
  37. One hardly imagines Frank being emotionally “available” to his wife, Gail, and yet I want to believe that he treated her and his family well (if slightly unconventionally). He was certainly a lot better with money than I am, jealously guarding the family fortune, making triple sure his family was well cared for after his demise. []
  38. I am thoroughly mortified (might I protest too much?) by the arrant misogyny of some of his lyrics, “Crew Slut” and “Fine Girl,” being just a couple of examples among, frankly, many (pretty cute Tom Swifty, eh?). Zappa clearly had some serious “issues” with women. Women represented sex, sex represented danger, and danger (and women) could only lead to big trouble. While not having any formal training in psychiatry, it is dicey for me to pronounce on this, but women apart, it seems that Frank had some real problems with sexuality itself. Like Swift and other satirists, he seemed to be morbidly fixated on the somewhat mechanical absurdity of the mysterious act (he may have a bit of point there), and tended to see human beings as pathetic prisoners of their own hydraulic mechanisms. It seems he wanted to assume a sort of Olympian detachment from his own body and its ruinous imperatives. I do share some of Frank’s Luftmenschlich tendencies, being a somewhat scuzzy tenant in the Temple of my own body. []
  39. This was in fact alluded to in 200 Motels. []
  40. Can we realistically aspire to anything greater? []
  41. I’m honestly not yet quite sure what to make of Frank’s very late work, which was composed and produced largely on his beloved Synclavier, that is to say, al solo, without the ballast of human interaction provided by his musical cohorts—the sidemen who had previously driven him crazy. I wonder at times if he did not in his later work drift off into musical solipsism, or, alternately, was he, without the ten thousand distractions, finally allowed to hear the ever more rarified celestial voices? (Perhaps it will have to be a more advanced humanoid species that will render the final judgment.) I look at my own case, and note that Bonny Doon’s Great Creative Ferment (which was, from my perspective, largely a marketing exercise) took place with a much larger team, who were true collaborators. My (relatively) recent obsession with producing vins de terroir, and the notions I entertain for a methodology by which this may be achieved, may well be the result of angels singing in my ear, or alternately, the onset of onanistic madness. []
  42. Since this is in some sense a sort of elegy to Frank, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with one last pithy lesson to be extracted from his example; I feel a bit like the Woody Allen character at the conclusion of “Love and Death,” trying (with just a few seconds remaining on the clock) to distill the meaning of life. Frank was not a great fan of proverbial wisdom, precepts, or pious apothegms and above all, he detested corny. I think that if he had but one bit of advice to give me from wherever he is now, it would be, “Shut Up ‘N Make Yer Wine.” []

Doon with the Ship: A Restauration Adventure

It broke my heart to close the restaurant. Actually, my heart was broken many times over in the course of the life of Restaurant Le Cigare Volant, Cellar Door. We had built the most extraordinary tasting room at the winery facility on Ingallsstrasse—did you see the great airship, fashioned after Jules Verne?—after selling the old, original winery facility and tasting room up in Bonny Doon.

Our former tasting room

Our former tasting room

I had really thought that a complete decampment from our mountain aerie there would be a clever move. We hadn’t really used the winery building as a proper production facility in years. The old place, and it’s primarily the tasting room I’m talking about, once a biker bar called The Lost Weekend Saloon, was filled with magical charm, and history—our history. But it had its share of structural issues, to be sure: foundation pretty sketchy, septic even sketchier.1 It had been a real pain in the neck to operate the winery building as a production facility—we needed to schlep the wastewater offsite for disposal, and after the Piercèd Estate Vineyard was sold, that was proving to be somewhat of a logistic nightmare.2

So, I sold the old place not long after I had sold off the large brands, Big House and Cardinal Zin. My thinking was that we could now get our customers closer to the wine—where we actually made the stuff.3 The Westside of Santa Cruz where the winery is located is in a slightly funky part of town—industrial chic, I’ve been told. But there had already been some glimmerings of gentrification. Housing prices had gone way up, and these modest abodes had become populated by long-boarders (aka arriviste Old Guys) who worked in start-up companies in Silicon Valley. We saw the welcome arrival of a first-rate bakery, (Kelly’s), and soon thereafter, a great butcher (El Salchichero), and then the sudden proliferation of other little micro-wineries, distilleries, brew pubs and tasting rooms in the area. Was our funky little neighborhood en route to becoming a true gourmet ghetto?

El Salchichero

El Salchichero

The tasting room was/is astonishingly beautiful. Did I mention that? We located it in what had been the former bottling room when we were once a mega-ginormous winery. Not requiring any longer such a large area for the bottling line, this seemed the perfect space for a tasting room and a more immersive tasting experience.4 We brought in a clever design team from Holland and they worked with a local architect, Mark Primack, and our builders and craftspeople; there was the delicious dreamy, magical feeling of a true, authentic collaboration. Note well, the design for the space began with a dream. I had dreamt that the tasting room would be constructed of a series of monk’s cells, much like a chambered nautilus; this, of course, was the Fibonacci Series, phi, or the Golden Ratio, the salient proportionality that governs so many natural processes, from spiral nebulae to the bracts of a plant stem. I loved the idea of customers being able to sit in private chambers or “pods,” and experience the wine in a more intimate setting, ideally paired with some light comestibles. While it had been lovely to observe a crowd of people bellying up to the bar at the old tasting room, I wanted to tell our new story in a quieter more thoughtful voice, ideally one-on-one.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio

I had recently sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, and now it was crucial that I do what I could to show that there had been a real change chez Doon; I wanted to tell the world how serious I was, or was soon about to be, about terroir. Could there be anything that signified the structured complexity of a vin de terroir or the majesty of Nature herself, better than the Golden Ratio, arguably, God’s Greatest Hit?

We couldn’t put in quite as many pods as I would have liked, but we did try to incorporate the Fibonacci motif into the spiral tasting bars, as well as in the beautiful sculptural flow-form water feature that we had created. Michael Leeds, mad genius metal sculptor, fashioned a Victorian era spaceship for us virtually entirely out of scrap material he had in his studio.

Spaceship

Spaceship

The cost of the construction ran way over budget; floors and countertops were poured and re-poured so they would be just so. We gave the very skilled craftsmen latitude to build the wonderful “pods,” recycled from antique wooden tanks, and they created beautifully interpretive, organic, sculptural forms.5

The food service aspect started modestly. Sean Baker, a local chef,—yet to be propelled into super-stardom, opened for us.6 We offered some small plates, proffering an “upscale” tasting experience to our visitors, such as one might find in Napa Valley. Alas, Santa Cruz ain’t Napa, as we learned well, and it was hard to really attract the prosperous customers who would support this sort of enhanced tasting experience. So, what did we do? We doubled doon.7

I am fortunate to be friends with the very famous, brilliant chef, David Kinch, of Manresa fame. He lives in Santa Cruz, surfs, and is actually a pretty regular guy, given his outsized fame. He was gracious enough to help me reconfigure the restaurant when we expanded the kitchen, and further fitted out the restaurant. Most significantly, he brought me a young and brilliant chef, Charlie Parker, who had previously worked for him. Charlie was an extremely charismatic figure—a bit volatile in the kitchen, it must be said—but there was real star power and there were a lot of people in Santa Cruz who were really excited about what we were doing.

Chef David Kinch

Chef David Kinch

Alas, we didn’t really have much in the way of a management team at that point. The restaurant really was neither big enough nor was really doing the volume (at reasonably profitable margins) to afford a manager. Properly, this might have been the responsibility of the owner, at least at the scale at which we were operating. Needless to say, this was not really my thing, given the fact that I had no experience at all in the restaurant business, nor possessed a single skill that was appropriate for the position.8 (This is also not considering the fact that I already had one full-time job.) The food was truly magnificent—vibrant and inventive, and the food costs were staggeringly out of control. And, there was another very real problem.

Maybe this is the dangerously quixotic aspect of my personality, but there had always been one feature I wanted to see in the restaurant of my dreams, and that was true communal dining. In my imagination guests would sit together and platters of food would be passed and shared. I had seen this once before at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a beloved restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and was just in awe of the extraordinary quality of fellowship and amity it seemed to engender.9 Customers would line up outside the restaurant and were seated more or less in the order in which they showed up.10 You observed all social strata—black and white, rich and pour, sharing food and conversation. It seemed obvious to me then as it does now, that our society is terribly fractured and there is very little occasion for people living in a community to actually converse with one another.11

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

I told David that this was the kind of restaurant I wanted. He thought I was completely crazy, and told me, if memory serves, something like, “That’s fine, but it’s your funeral.” I do remember him telling me, “When I go to a restaurant, the last thing I want to do is talk to strangers. I want to be just left (the heck) alone. People go to restaurants to spend time with the people they want to be with, not with strangers…” And, “Y’know, Randall, we have a fair share of some pretty funky people in Santa Cruz. Do you really want to sit down with some of these characters, or worse, have them touch the food you’re about to eat?” He dilated further, “Aren’t you going to have some people just go hog wild and eat a disproportionate share of the food on the platters?” These were all very good points that David brought up, but I truly believed that if we were to have this kind of community dining experience, it would not, in fact, devolve into the Lord of the Flies scenario he imagined. The gentle guiding hand of peer pressure and societal expectation exerted by adult human beings (there were still a few in Santa Cruz) would insure that the customers would be relatively civilized and temperate in their behavior. This was a tenet of my belief system.

So, the food costs were out of control—we’d get around to fixing that at some point—but the restaurant was pretty busy, and there was definitely some buzz in the town. I got a call from a stringer who was doing a story for the New York Times. This seemed pretty fortuitous. I was unfortunately out of town when she visited the restaurant, but I chatted to her on the phone, and she seemed pleasant enough. Granted, I should have known better, but really had no glimmering whatsoever that her angle for the story would be the supposed feud between Charlie, David and myself. Charlie was pretty chagrined to see a somewhat intemperate quote of his in print.
7_quote
It was not very long thereafter, Charlie left the restaurant to seek real stardom. I knew that it would be unrealistic to imagine him staying indefinitely, but we were now on to the next phase.
(Read the New York Times article)

Jarod, Charlie’s sous, became the next chef, and he certainly had his share of followers. Gone were some of the emotional outbursts in the kitchen under the slightly volatile Chef Parker. I really enjoyed Jarod’s cooking, but the restaurant was still foundering, and if anything, we were continuing to lose traction on the idea of communal dining. At my insistence, we had originally installed a number of large tables, and really encouraged our customers to share a common meal at these tables with other guests. But, how were we to present this idea to people as something positive? Guests who came to the restaurant generally just did not want to eat with strangers. So, we had the rather dysfunctional outcome of big tables with two groups of people sitting on either end, with an imaginary cone of silence separating them. Things were not really moving in the right direction.

Guests generally did not want to eat with strangers.

Guests generally did not want
to eat with strangers


The winery itself was also under a lot of financial strain. We had not done a very good job in recruiting new club members to replace those who were lost through natural attrition. I hired a new general manager for the winery, someone who had a strong restaurant and tasting room background. He and I did not really see eye to eye on a number of philosophical issues, but I figured, hey, he’s the maven, at least in this domain. I was a bit surprised when on one of my sales trips he reported to me that he had hired a new chef.12 “You’re going to love this guy,” he promised. “He’ll bring the quality of the food to a whole new level. We’ll get some very serious customers and we’ll sign them up for the wine club.” This appeared to be a reasonable plan; we already had a reasonably loyal local following, but it seemed that anyone who was amenable to club membership, we had already signed up. What we really needed was some fresh blood.13

We gave the restaurant a new name, Le Cigare Volant, and it appeared that we were off to a new start. The new chef, Ryan, was an extremely nice man, indeed, and came with an impeccable pedigree from a Bay Area two-star Michelin restaurant. But the question was: Was the Westside of Santa Cruz really ready for fine dining? As a chef Ryan was not lacking in ego (this seems to go with the territory), but he was no prima doona, and that was a welcome relief. This might actually work out, I imagined. The general manager was, like Kinch, no great fan of community dining and complained bitterly that the “community table” was just a losing proposition. At his insistence, the big tables were replaced with smaller tables. On another one of my sales trips I returned home to learn that the Wednesday night “Community Table,” the last relic of my quixotic vision, had been summarily discontinued.

The Community Table. Photo by Ted Holladay

The Community Table
Photo by Ted Holladay

We did some very cool things at the restaurant at various times. I loved our very brief fling with bringing in guest chefs and introducing their food to our customers. Ari Weinzweig, nice Jewish boy from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, presented a porcine love-fest that was so popular that it ran two days. I myself had the idea of presenting a special wine list, featuring vins de terroir, organized according to soil type. This attracted quite a bit of national attention, and piqued the attention of our guests, at least for a little while. But in the end, there were just too many obstacles to success: the location of the restaurant—at the back end of the building (very, very feng shui-challenged); the challenge of what was perceived as an exotic (at least for Santa Cruz) menu. Or, maybe it was just the ordeal of navigating Highway One at rush hour that discouraged the prosperous customers from South County from visiting. Whatever the issues ultimately were, it was just a Sisyphean labor to fix them all.

Sisyphus. Photo from wikipedia.org

Sisyphus

I enjoyed Ryan very much and felt he had real talent, as I said, but he and I had a very different vision of what the restaurant should be.14 He had trained as a pastry chef and had a keen interest in molecular gastronomy. Now, I’ve been to Alinea in Chicago and enjoyed it immensely—was greatly entertained by the playfulness and theatricality of the dishes, but it was not a place that I wanted to dine at on a regular basis; it satisfied the intellect very well, but was not something that satisfied the soul, at least as a constant diet. The winery itself was now—as long as I could continue to propel it in a coherent direction—about putting aside winemaking legerdemain—no flash and no flash-détènte15—and pursuing a sort of simplicity or purity in our product. The proposition was, at least aspirationally, about terroir, the eloquence of unadorned nature. I wanted any chef I had at the restaurant to love the ingredients more than the technique, however brilliant it might be. Step away from the nitrogen canisters.

Chef with nitrogen canister. Photo from julianaloh.com

Chef with nitrogen canister


Watching a restaurant die a slow death is a bit like watching a living creature die. You feel as if you are in a dream, watching a story unfold, the outcome of which you are powerless to change. You hope irrationally that things will turn around, that you can, in the case of the restaurant at least, with some brilliant marketing insight, or by the great fortune of a big review unexpectedly bestowed, somehow breathe a vital infusion of spirit into a moribund creature.16 In the last few months of the restaurant’s life, I was spending a lot of time focused on the core wine business (we had some challenges there as well), and in a certain sense, the restaurant was the least of my worries. I can’t really say that the decision to close the restaurant was a relief; it was more like the realization that I had but a finite amount of life-force to spend, and that I would really need to apply it to the parts of the business that were absolutely mission-critical. The village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape had sixty years ago worried about flying saucers and “flying cigars” crash landing in their vineyards. This flying cigar was just looking for a proper home.
Molecular gastronomy. Photo from alinearestaurant.com

Molecular gastronomy

  1. We had famously run afoul of County regs and touchy neighbors when we had once done a series of al fresco acoustic events; that was more than a little traumatic. There was also the instance of an employee failing to properly set a diversion valve that resulted in about 60 gallons of red(!!) grape juice going down the creek; that led to the Dept. of Fish and Game coming out and issuing me a citation. While not wishing to minimize the incident (I am quite warm and fuzzy on the subject of protecting the environment), there was a certain Alice’s Restaurant-like aspect to this whole episode. “Whatcha’ in for, kid?” “Grape juice.” []
  2. Our great Estate Vineyard in Bonny Doon was afflicted with Pierce’s Disease in the early 1990s, infected by a less voracious insect vector (blue-green sharpshooter) than the monster, glassy-winged sharpshooter that had been more recently discovered. It seems that I greatly overreacted in selling off this wonderful estate, but the specter of re-infection with Pierce’s was just far too frightening to me at the time. In retrospect, this was an extremely shortsighted move, to put it mildly. []
  3. Obviously, my first choice would be to locate the winery directly proximal to a magnificent Estate vineyard and show our customers the things we did that really differentiated the wine we would be making. Winemaking is itself relatively banal, at least compared to grape-growing, and where’s the real thrill, après tout, if you can’t descend into a cold, dark and musty cave? Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to taste the wines in barrel, a thrill for many, as well as observe some of the unique aspects of our élevage, most particularly the Great Wall of Bonbonnes. []
  4. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a perfect spot, at least from a feng shui perspective. The area fronted on the rear parking lot and railroad tracks. Apart from the slightly less than inspiring vista, the space was seemingly a bit difficult to find, even for locals. There’s no question that the slightly problematic location did not help matters. []
  5. I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved the pods, and what an enormous feeling of serenity one felt when one was ensconced there. We talked about it but never got around to equipping them with privacy curtains. I’m not a smoker of any sort, but I honestly could almost become persuaded to take up the water-pipe, had we the wherewithal to equip the pods with hookahs (and privacy curtains). []
  6. He is currently chef at the highly acclaimed Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and has received very serious critical éclat. []
  7. It seems likely that I have inherited from my mother a certain sort of stubbornness or single-mindedness when it comes to pushing forward my agenda. (She is nothing if not relentless.) This can be both a strength and of course, tragic flaw, as will soon become clear. []
  8. I am preternaturally shy and awkward when it comes to making conversation with strangers (even often with close friends), have very little capability to direct employees in the appropriate direction, and tend to become dizzy and confused when I look at spread sheets. []
  9. The food at Mrs. Wilkes’ was of course a lot more rustic than what I aspired to present. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, don’t serve any alcohol (it’s the Baptist South, remember). But they are an institution in Savannah and the place is always packed. My conclusion is that the only real way that you can get people to eat with one another voluntarily is not to offer them any real choice in the matter. The value proposition of the restaurant must be so compelling that the customers consent to do something that they would not under ordinary circumstances agree to do (but thank you later). []
  10. One obvious problem we had at Cellar Door was that we didn’t have an enormous population lined up outside our restaurant, awaiting service. []
  11. Apart from the demise of social clubs, church and community service organizations, we are all now terribly wired in to electronic media. The phenomenon of two people sitting at table, not conversing with one another, but instead, texting into the ether, is well documented. []
  12. I really hoped that I could try the food of any new chef that we brought in before we hired him, if only to see if we had palates and aesthetic visions that were more or less in synch with one another. []
  13. There is a most interesting paradox at work in the evolution of our business. Bonny Doon Vineyard wines have incontrovertibly improved greatly over the last six years since the sale of Big House. And yet, unexpectedly, we seem to have lost some of the stickiness of the loyalty of our truest blue Doonies. Yes, our prices have gone up a bit—they’re still ridiculously fair, and this has led to some attrition—but there may well be another dynamic or two at work. Many of our early customers loved the goofy, cartoonish labels, the irreverence, the theater and the schtick. Our wines are in some sense less entertaining than they were. They are now more serious. It’s a bit like one party in a relationship changing in a way that the other party can’t follow. Whether I have been successful in educating our customers or we are now attracting more sophisticated customers, the reality is that truly sophisticated customers understand very well that it’s a great big wine world out there. While they may well love what we do, they are equally, intrigued by, say, a crazy Rotgipfler or exotic Cornalin from the Valais. In short, they are a lot like me—not exactly fickle, but essentially just curious about everything that they great world of wine might offer. []
  14. It is utterly pointless and destructive to ask a chef to change his style, his aesthetic. One is far better served in finding a chef whose aesthetic and vision is more or less congruent with one’s own, (and who also has the administrative capacity to manage food costs). []
  15. Flash-détènte is a special high-tech machine that extracts a deeper color from grapes, and is quite the rage in some parts. For me, it turns the wine into a goopy mess []
  16. I cannot discount the possibility that my insistence on the community table format might well have set the restaurant back in terms of gaining acceptance in the community. There is still a (somewhat irrational) part of me that clings to the notion that perhaps I should have insisted more stridently that the format be exclusively communal or family-style dining. Withal, I still believe that this idea is an extremely powerful one, and one that has enormous potential to be a benign presence for a community. The restauration bug is a little bit like malaria; you never quite get it out of your system. I do hope that someday if circumstances permit, I can revisit this idea again, maybe even at Popelouchum, our garden paradise in San Juan Bautista. []

Contra Contra or How I Lost my Marketing Mojo

This post(mortem) is a bit of meditation on the 2009 Contra, a wine I have utterly adored (we’ve just recently sold out) but has been, in spite of very favorable press, very favorable price, and a strenuous, if not Herculean marketing effort—we really pulled out all the stops on this one—a bit of a commercial disappointment. We’re looking to bottle the ’12 vintage sometime this summer—the wine will be great, b/t/w, a worthy stylistic successor to the ’09—but I’m wondering, through the benefit of hindsight, what precisely went wrong, and what we can do to fix the problem if it’s not the world itself which is in need of repair—a possibility not entirely out of the question—hence this meditation. But, this musing arises from a decision that came just days ago to change the Contra label for the upcoming (summerish) bottling.
1_anguishman
The decision to make the change came rather quickly, rather like a driving maneuver one must hurriedly execute as a result of some hare-brained driver unexpectedly pulling out in front of you in traffic. This was far from an idealized outcome. In a properly staffed, properly capitalized, properly profitable wine company, decisions to alter the look of one’s label, indeed decisions to significantly change any aspect of one’s presentation to the world, are taken deliberately, thoughtfully. One attends meeting after bloody meeting, debating the pros and cons of any substantive change in the basic design features and one’s presentation of wine-self to the world, and then with lots of discussion and anguish, gnashing of teeth, rending of garment, etc., one comes to a decision.

In our instance the proximal cause of the label change—contra-etiquettage, as it were—came about due to the unexpected problem we encountered in trying to obtain glass for the imminent Albariño bottling—the manufacturer was temporarily out of stock of the particular champagne green claret bottle we use for the Albariño as well as for a number of other wines we produce.1 We were told that if we placed a larger order for the same Stelvin-accommodating 750 ml. glass the company might fast-track the bottles in their production schedule, lest we wait months and months for the arrival of the order.2 Of course, when you order bottles from a manufacturer you also need to specify the printed artwork for the box itself in which the glass will ultimately repose. You don’t want to incur the additional expense of having to put bottles in a “content” (unprinted) box, only to then just throw the plain boxes away after you’ve transferred their contents to a nice artistic printed case, one that will inspire customers to stop abruptly in the aisles of retail wine shops and put a bottle or two or six of your wine in their basket, now then, would you?3 Are you still with me? Such is the skein of disparate elements—the wine business itself is just a tangled web of these sorts of seemingly random nexus—that compelled the decision to change the label.
2_chaplinline

Some background: Just a few short years ago I bethought to introduce a less expensive wine into the portfolio, one that would potentially allow us to do some reasonably good volume and add a modicum of black ink to the balance sheet, a color we hadn’t seen on the aforesaid for some time. Thus was the conception of “Contra.” I had accidentally discovered the brilliance of old vine Carignane in the old head-trained, sandy vineyards of Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County many years back when we began working with old-vine Mourvèdre for our Old Telegram and Cigare Volant wines. Indeed many if not most of the vineyards in Antioch and Oakley were interplanted—crazy-quilts of Carignane and Mourvèdre, often with Zinfandel and occasionally Alicanté in the mix.4 The vines were very old, even then—pushing eighty or ninety years of age at the time—not irrigated (who would spend money on irrigation?), non-grafted and pruned in the lovely goblet form.5
3_vine
Quite significantly, the grapes were not too expensive (that’s changed a bit, alas) and to be perfectly candid, of all of the grapes I’ve met in California, these I believe to deliver the most favorable ratio of intensity/complexity per dollar. Old-vine Carignane was (now it can be told) the secret ingredient of Big House Red, the strong tenor capable of carrying the sometime wayward chorus.

So, with some superior Carignane vineyards identified and some advances in winemaking6 —we have learned a few things over the years—and what I hoped was an interesting story: the old vine “field blend” was more or less congruent with the overall focus of the winery, vis-à-vis an emphasis on southern French cépages but more importantly, on wines of life-force.7 Moreover, the wine would be priced at a competitive price-point, and was seemingly the perfect entry-level wine for those preparing to enter the Dooniverse. All seemed in readiness for the launch of “Contra.” As we often say around here, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, we haven’t had a lot of new labels in the Bonny Doon Vineyard line-up since the downsizing of the company. In fact, the overall direction has been the gradual diminution both in number of products and actual case production of our one-time compendious portfolio. At the same time, we’ve also observed a rather radical shift in the nature of the wine business itself, especially in regards to wholesale distribution. Because there have been so many new brands entering and crowding the market, and that, compounded by the consolidation and net shrinkage of the number of distributors, has created immense pressure—both psychic and fiscal—on distributors to resist with every fiber of their being the impulse to take on new products from suppliers (that’s us), even ones with whom they enjoy a warm and fuzzy relationship. I have heard tell that among larger, Brobdingnagian distributors, there is something like an internal bounty system for purchasing agents who are able to successfully trim the number of products within the company’s portfolio.
4_warehouse
There were a couple of false steps in our launch. For one, I forgot to mention on the label the essential value/sales proposition of the wine itself—that it was an “old vine” field-blend.8,9 I also neglected to mention the grape varieties contained within the blend. (Old-vine Carignane, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, along with some younger vine Grenache and Syrah), though it certainly would have been very clunky or at least graphically challenging to indicate all of them on the front of the label. But, certainly, we might have mentioned them on the back. Some of this was a mental lapse, especially in light of our proclaimed commitment to transparency, though we never indicated the grapes that went into the colossally, almost criminally successful Big House blend. In retrospect, I think it was mostly a function of the fact that I had already written so much copy (very clever, I imagined) for the back-label, there was just no room at all for anything more.
5_bottles
The label itself: It’s not really a secret that we had been experiencing a financial crunch at the time we were designing the label (and still, for that matter), but for good or for bad, in the interest of saving a buck, we had gotten in the habit of designing the labels in-house. Philippe Coderey, our viticulturist at the time, had taken a photograph of one of the vineyards in Antioch, and couldn’t get over the fact that a) someone had had the poor form to dump their trash in a vineyard, and b) even more worrisome, one of our growers had not the wit nor wherewithal to pick up the trash from aforesaid vineyard. Philippe was just appalled. For me, the picture perfectly captured the terroir of Antioch, CA, home of meth labs and rusted muscle cars up on blocks, which I sometimes refer to as “Appalachia by the Bay.” We Photoshopped the picture a bit, mostly removing some (additional!) unseemly trash from the photo, and tweaking the color value of the cover-crop a bit to get the most felicitous contrast with the color of the type. As you likely know, I am pretty much a total sucker for visual puns, and I just couldn’t resist the joke to be found in the militaristic typeface, “Exocet” with its sniperscope “O.”
6_closeup
It’s often very difficult if not impossible to be objective about one’s own work, and truly grok its possible artistic deficits. I think the label is a pretty clever juxtaposition—the cool shades of the bucolic vineyard and the anomalous sofa (ever since Freud, sofas are funny, at least in my book) with the subtly militaristic Exocet font and its intimation of a hot, shooting-war/ passing reference to Contra Rebels. While we have in fact gotten a number of positive comments about the label, it’s certainly possible that there are some folks out there who are significantly less keen.10 When we did not experience the home run with the bases loaded success with the wine that I had anticipated, we looked hard for answers and the culprit that was most often mentioned was the label itself. A number of people were luke-warm to it, but were somewhat hard pressed to describe precisely why. “Too obscure…” “Why a couch…?” No one mentioned the Exocet font, but if there’s a tragic flaw in the label, it is perhaps that women (whom I’m convinced, absent scientific study, mind you, are the primary customers of our wines) who are put off by the aggressive, if not militaristic font. Read blog post “Chick Vit”
7_clark

But, if in fact, it wasn’t the label, might it have been something else? The obvious culprit would have to be the wine itself, especially as it presented upon release. Carignane, when bottled early, surtout en Stelvin, has a certain tendency to express a sort of stoniness—maybe this is the reductive tendency of the variety itself, or a manifestation of the phenomenon of “minerality,” especially in virtue of the age of the vines (perhaps these phenomena are one and the same?). In any event, the taste was presumably not for everyone, especially those tasters who favor ripe fruit as the primary signifier of hedonic excellence. 8_tattooIt seemed as if many were slightly put off by the aspect of austerity, though this quality of “stoniness” is what I live for, a signifier of “life-force” or qi in wine. Perhaps I am in the minority in this regard, but I think that it is this stylistic differentiation that is really the wine’s greatest strength, not its weakness. Oddly enough, my thoroughly contrarian friend, Clark Smith, when he tasted the ’09 upon release, felt that it was “too fruity, too pleasurable,” hence not quite European enough.
9_shirt_beret
As I mentioned, we really tried everything possible in the marketing the wines. Because I thought that the iconography of the wine’s presentation was itself a little edgy, I imagined the wine might track to the biochemical radar of the younger imbiber, the Millennials, soi-disant.11 So, we made Contra tattoos in various sizes, which I observed, in fact, to go over rather well at tastings.12

But we didn’t stop there. Oh no. We made Contra berets—again, reinforcing the quasi-militaristic association, and of course we had to make Contra tee-shirts to complement the ensemble. These were done by the brilliant designer, Steven Solomon, who has done all of the graphics for Terroir Wine Bar in New York.13

Back to the subject of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments: After scores, I mean scores of iterations, in collaboration with Mr. Solomon, we also produced an incredibly handsome, limited edition silk-screen poster of Contra. It’s absolutely beautiful, as you can see, and I think we still have some in stock.
And in the interest of creating a more viral presence – the apotheotic outcome envisioned by the gurus of social media—we made and posted a Contra video, which I think was reasonably clever, though I confess that here I was more or less channeling Woody Allen in Bananas.14) 10_postersteven

The reviews. There were very good reviews to outstanding raves about the wine pretty much all around, including one from Robert Parker, who has historically not been overly lavish in warm and fuzzy sentiment vis-à-vis Bonny Doon wines. His review was so positive that I took its appearance as an incontrovertible validation of the likely accuracy of the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. We liberally circulated to our distributors and agents these splendid reviews, and again, how these glowing accolades did not seem to really move the needle much at all, also deepened the mystery.

Undoubtedly, the issue is multi-factoral, and one might require the services of the late Jack Klugman, in a turn as the fictional Dr. Quincy, to really properly diagnose the relevant malignancies. While the dysfunctional label hypothesis is really yet to be fully tested, perhaps we might yet be able to exclude it (alas, too late for the purposes of the new boxes!) if we observe a strong uptick in sales with the new vintage (2010).15 We’ve gotten some nice reviews for the new wine, though perhaps not quite as many as for the ’09. The earlier vintage was perhaps a wine critic’s (or winemaker’s) wine, but the ’10 may be more of a typical wine drinker’s wine, a (God help me) crowd pleaser. It’s a bit early to tell how it will do, but if it does fare well, this might be an argument for the decline of the power of the wine review. Alternatively, it may be that people who buy $15 bottles just don’t have much time for wine reviews. Maybe they buy the first time for the label (or in spite of the label), and the second time by how much they’ve enjoyed the wine.
12_parkerreview
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of Contra. They’re not precisely my preferred style of an extremely restrained, taut red wine. In both vintages we ended up picking the grapes a little bit riper than I might have wished—harvesting in a timely fashion can be a tricky proposition in Antioch, CA, with the intermittent availability of labor crews and other logistical snafus that seem to be endemic to the area. Luckily, in ‘10 we had the wit to take appropriate evasive action on the potential alcohol level by blending in some cool climate, lower alcohol Syrah, which added some much needed coolth to the cuvée.16 Maybe I’m becoming far too neurotic about the whole thing, and worry that the ’10 and ’11 will be wildly successful. Then what?
13_antiochsign
I’ve taken the ’09 out a lot personally on sales calls to all sorts of venues and I’ve observed consumers reactions up close. If they really know and love wine and also happen to work in a store or restaurant that appreciates and can sell real wine, they will virtually always purchase the wine. At least when I’m around. The whole exercise reminds me a bit of what is called in quantum physics the phenomenon of Schrödinger’s Cat. There is almost a sort of quantum effect (which is in fact not supposed to happen on a macro level), i.e. when I attend/observe the wine, the wine presents one way, which leads to a certain discreet outcome (a sale), but when I don’t attend/observe the wine, the wine presumably presents a different way (how would I know?), resulting in a rather different and decidedly less agreeable outcome.
14_schrodingerscat
The proposed new label, based on the poster that Steven Solomon did for us, is quite beautiful, certainly far more interesting from a design standpoint than the present “sofa” label. But I can’t help but think that the decision to go with the new label represents a sort of personal failure, a capitulation to the reality principle, a principle I’ve never much cared for, rather just on principle. The sofa label—one of the few Bonny Doon labels featuring a photographic image—despite looking nothing like any of our other labels, strikes me as if it could only come from Bonny Doon.17 There’s a certain sensibility present (albeit warped). The new label, in some sense could really have come from any of the supremely clever marketers—ones far more clever than we—who’ve emerged in recent years, honing their marketing chops through the Darwinian brutality of the insanely competitive environment in which we work. The new Contra label, for example, could easily have been made by the ultra-modernist/hipster Charles Smith of K Vintners, a very clever marketeer, indeed.18
15_charlessmith
Perhaps I have become too dualistic in my thinking—imagining that one has to choose between a slick label and a somewhat ordinary wine or a more idiosyncratic label with a more original wine. Or, maybe I’m just imagining that an overly slick label—so slick that it might verge on the generic—would slightly undermine the case for the unique and distinctive wine? Perhaps I’m overthinking this. For a $15 bottle of wine, maybe you just suck it up and put on the flashiest label you can conceive of, swallow your pride in that you are not the cleverest marketing person on the block, and move on (whatever that means). The other possible lesson of this inquiry may be that in fact there are few lessons any more, simply occurrences that behave according to rules that are too complicated for us to predict; perhaps we live in a universe of Black Swans, pace Nassim Talebian.19
16_nassim
There has definitely been a real paradigm shift in the wine business, which now more consistently resembles the real world. The wine business was, not so long ago, more like a large pond; it is now a vast ocean and one has to deal with the associated peril.20 Put another way, you can no longer really make waves, but there are still plenty of waves to deal with; you now have to learn how to surf them. It is a new skill for me, but one that appears to be Contra-indicated.

  1. The 2011 Albariño is sold out, has been for some time, and getting the ’12 into bottle and into the arteries of commerce sooner than later is a fairly critical proposition. []
  2. In the Dooniverse screwcap bottles are rather normative, but it must be remembered that they are still a minority in the larger world. []
  3. Like it or not, Contra is very much an “off-sale” product in the lingo of the wine trade—one that is largely sold in retail wine shops rather than in restaurants. Because the agora is now so large, crowded and noisy, flashy artwork on the cardboard case itself will draw attention to the wine should you or your wholesaler be fortunate enough to succeed in getting the account the floor-stack (ideally “end-stack”) your wine. []
  4. The original customers for the grapes from these vineyards were home winemakers, primarily of Italian and Portuguese origin, who insisted on a “mixed” load of grapes, as they felt it would produce a wine of better balance. []
  5. Phylloxera will not propagate in sandy soils, chiefly because the soil does not crack, as it would were there were a significant percentage of clay in the mix. Ungrafted vines (in the absence of phylloxera) often live much longer than grafted vines, as they have not suffered the grafting wound, a sometimes cause of microbial infection and foreshortener of vine life. []
  6. Not all old-vine Carignane vines are created equal. Counter-intuitively, equally old vine Carignane from sites in Mendocino County, a cooler region than say, Antioch, generally fails to provide the same quality as grapes from Antioch vineyards. I’ve imagined that perhaps it was a question of clonal variability, but I now believe that it is likely a function of the fact that most of the Antioch vineyards are ungrafted whereas most of the vines in the Ukiah area are not. Alternately, maybe it’s the higher rainfall and heavier, richer soils of Ukiah that produce higher yielding vines. Whatever the case, the Carignane from the Antioch area is decidedly superior. []
  7. It would be far too much to imagine that our stable of growers in Contra Costa would ever farm these great old vineyards biodynamically, We’ve tried at times to bring them along, but we have to get them to the 20th century before they’re ready for the 21st. It is of course quite challenging to express the idea of “wines of life-force” in words that would make sense to most wine drinkers, but one taste of the wine should get the point across. []
  8. These really were seriously old—100+ years, and this is truly important information. Wines made from old vines most often have a real depth of character that cannot be achieved any other way. While no one really understands the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality,” old-vine wines often have this attribute in spades—a certain density of the mid-palate that makes them compelling. I’m not sure if a “field blend” itself is the world’s most interesting selling point, but it is also quite descriptive and further differentiates this wine from the squillions of others on the shelf. []
  9. We hastily remedied this faux pas with an after-market application of a strip label. []
  10. We polled a number of our wholesale distributors, not all of them fully qualified as art critics, and approximately 40% of them were less than enthused about the label. []
  11. The pursuit of this demographic is one of the several holy grails in the wine business at the present time. But, alas, there is a great ontological abyss the separates the fact of customers applying Contra tattoos to the actual purchase of bottles. []
  12. By going over well, I mean that people applied them liberally to various body parts. I first observed the phenomenon of the popularity of decal tattoos at wine tastings years ago when I was pouring alongside Ravenswood Winery, who have without a doubt the most iconic logo in the business. I was told that they thought to pass out decal tattoos of their label when they observed the substantial number of customers who had the Ravenswood logo actually tattooed permanently on their body. One might only dream of this kind of customer loyalty. []
  13. Steven’s hipster credentials are in order. []
  14. Everyone in the wine business imagines that these videos are incredibly helpful in raising awareness about the brand, especially among the younger social media-savvy young ‘uns. I did it, of course, primarily because it was fun, though it did carry the risk of potentially re-igniting the opprobrium of James Laube, senior editor of the Wine Spectator. (Mercifully, I don’t think he saw it. []
  15. Or we can just chuck all of the fancy, shiny new case boxes we had printed and continue with the old ones. []
  16. In Chinese medicine mint is “cooling.” A minty character in wine (from the Syrah) seems to have a similar effect on the perception of the heat of the alcohol. []
  17. In the old days, a Bonny Doon label was perhaps more discernible, even if there were absolutely no clues whatsoever as to its provenance, as it was virtually the only one out there that embodied visual humor or was perhaps a little edgy. The fact that virtually all labels now look like Bonny Doon labels causes me no end of anxiety and confusion. The subtle shift in our labeling in recent years—to more discreet images and less over-the-top presentation is meant to signify a similar shift in our winemaking style, in the direction of more subtlety and depth, but perhaps this subliminal message is just too subtle for anyone’s good. []
  18. Irony fully intended. You will note that I bristle under the ascription of my (former) talent as a marketer or in Parker’s parlance, marketeer. []
  19. Or alternately, that the lessons are so utterly occult as to be impenetrable. []
  20. It was not so long ago that we were able to slightly modify, or at least influence wine consumer behavior, at least as far as acceptance of screwcaps. []

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.
10_sweetbliss
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.
12b_bondsface
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
17_mycorrhizae
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.

19_radiosignal

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

20_goldilocks

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.
25_listan

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.)
26_natureplants
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.

27_roots

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.
28_inbred2
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.
29_bullseye
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.
30_supercouple
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

2_TraVigne_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
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
5_bucket_173pxw
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
1_wbclogo

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.

2_familydinner

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).
3_vinferno_180pxw
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.
3_club

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.
5_franniezooey

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.
6_cellphone
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
fiddle
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

mirror_300pxw

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

seedcard_300pxw

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.

garden

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)

[revealtemplate type=”filename” admin=”1″]
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 Urpinot, 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. []

Red Wine, White Wine, Blue Ocean

I was given some rather vague marching orders when asked to talk to you.1  Something something something about what was interesting to me about the Napa Valley. (Pregnant silence….)

You should probably know that I’m not really from around here, I’m from Santa Cruz—and there is no shortage of baggage that comes with that appellation. Surf’s up, dude, and just what kind of Cigare are you smoking? But for me, coming to this part of the world is a bit like traveling to another planet. Maybe Planet Wine Hollywood?

What I’d like to talk to you about, in fact, is the state of the wine industry, at least as I see it, and maybe reflect a bit on what the future might hold for us all.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped any of you that the California wine industry is in a rather parlous state these days. There is no longer as much good-natured competition among neighboring colleagues; the discourse is dominated instead by rather grim zero-sum calculations, as we each vie for a diminuendoing slice of the pie. We are competing now with winemakers and wineries from all around the world, large and small—from sheep-loving Kiwis; with militarily-efficient Chilean operations; with the artisanal, vowel-challenged winemakers in Slovenia and other parts of Eastern Europe; and with of course the opportunistic virtual wineries or “negoce” businesses—those creatures-of-a-day brands that are predicated on sourcing wine in bulk, (well below the cost of its production) and selling it on the principle that one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.

Meanwhile, up on the higher end, it does appear that every high net worth individual—be he rock star, aging professional athlete, plastic surgeon or periodontist, dot.com windfall millionaire or billionaire—has simultaneously decided that he (it usually is a he, because the wine business is largely dominated by male hormones) needs to have a second life, a new avatar, as it were, as a winemaker or winery owner. Maybe this phenomenon accrues because we live too much in the cult of celebrity; most of us don’t have the chops to become great actors or great chefs, but winemaking…you buy some grapes, hire the best consultants that money can buy, and suddenly you’re a winemaker—or God forbid, a vigneron.

I submit to you that the tragic downfall of the California wine industry is largely a function of its great success in recent years. In an earlier, simpler day, people gravitated to the industry because they loved the life of a grape-grower or winemaker, and they had no illusions about making either a large or small fortune in the wine business—simply being part of the business was thrill enough. Winemakers would typically say things like, “I make wines to please myself; I really don’t care if people don’t like them. %#@* ’em, I’ll just drink ’em myself.” These days, the wine business has become a real business. There is more capital investment needed than ever before, not least because land prices, especially in these parts, are staggeringly expensive. And so as a result, essentially nobody says, “I’ll drink it myself” anymore. The wine’s just too darn expensive to drink it oneself.

What is really more troubling to me is that at least at the super-premium level, winemakers have become even more dependent on the killer wine score from Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. As a consequence, they have become far more risk-averse, and rather tragically, many wines—especially, dare I say, some from around these parts—are beginning to taste more or less the same, seemingly all following a certain stylistic prescription.

I am acquainted with a man named Leo McCloskey—a nice enough fellow whom I used to know when he lived in Santa Cruz. He operates a company in Sonoma called Enologix, which purports to help its clients make wines that will get higher point scores. Note: not wines that are more distinctive. Not wines that are somehow more expressive of their particular terroir. Rather, using models that are reverse-engineered from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker palates, they guarantee wines that will squarely hit certain stylistic parameters and will therefore be “successful.”

This is not a happy outcome; it’s oenvil, as I’ve characterized it—and is not a sustainable model for the future of the wine business. That this particular opulent, overripe style is also essentially undrinkable—at least more than a glass of it is, for me—is also somewhat troubling.

As far as the staggering amount of competition out there, I’m sure it’s not lost on you that far more effort is needed these days to sell a bottle of wine than ever before. Whether this sort of competition is “healthy” is anyone’s guess, but for now it’s just a fact of life, like the weather, and I don’t imagine this weather is going to change any time soon. I’d venture that there are currently perhaps twice as many wineries or wine labels in the brandscape than can actually carry on a sustainable, profitable existence. The larger end of small, as well as “mid-sized” wineries—I’m not even sure what that term means anymore—are particularly vulnerable to challenges in distribution, and by extension, in sales and profitability. They’re too big to be desirable in virtue of their scarcity, and too small to have the marketing clout to make much of an impression on your lot.

For small producers, the scale that might actually work is the true no-frills, micro-model, with very few employees and, through wit and or particularly good karma, the ability to produce wines that a) are truly distinctive, and b) have the ability to communicate that true uniqueness to the end user. Alas, the combination of these two skill sets is not often found in the same set of chromosomes.

There was a famous Harvard Business Review paper published in 2004 about how one can find success in business in times of extreme competition. The postulate was that success can really only come if you are capable of finding “blue ocean,” i.e. delivering a product or service that is so utterly differentiated and superior to that of your competition, that you essentially have no competitors. In the world of wine production, it is my most tenacious belief that, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, producing a distinctive vin de terroir is the only lasting way that a wine producer will ever be able to find blue ocean—a truly sustainable niche. In other words, chasing scores by changing your winemaking practices to favor a particular à la mode style may offer short-term success, but in the end, is a fool’s game. Winemaking trix are for kids, and we must grow up.

But to the question of the real value of terroir: I’ve written before that vins de terroir are more interesting than composed or confected wines—vins d’effort—because they somehow manage to reflect the deep complexity of nature itself. Maybe we grasp their depth—if, that is, we are paying attention—similarly to how we grasp the depth, intelligence, and sensitivity of an individual we might meet. We look for affect and expression, responsiveness, some evidence that they are switched on, connected. Maybe we look for something analogous in wine—movement or change, the ability to evolve, even as we experience it; these wines have a real presence (at a minimum), and maybe even something like a rudimentary consciousness. At least that’s how it seems to me.

But you’re probably not so interested in these wooly philosophical musings, and so perhaps some concrete examples of what is lately most interesting to me these days, in my own personal quest for a vin de terroir, could be germane. I’ll get to that, but I’m also still determined to give you the larger philosophical context. Please bear with me.

I recently had dinner with my best friend from high school, a psychiatrist, as it turns out. I talked about how challenging the wine business had become, and he somewhat facetiously—though not entirely facetiously—suggested that I consider peddling my wares (presumably virtually) in the virtual world on a site called Farmville. There, participants act as if they are growing various virtual crops, bringing them to virtual market and attempting to operate a virtual profitable enterprise and so forth. (Note: this is actually more or less what I’m trying to do in real life.) The model for monetizing this business is that the site provides the opportunity for participants to “upgrade” to a better virtual tractor by spending non-virtual, i.e. “real” dollars in Farmville. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by explaining that the solution he was proposing was essentially a great part of what I see as our current problems, namely the inability to differentiate between actions with consequences in the real world, and actions that simply make us feel slightly better about what we are doing. This is a conundrum maybe worth considering here in quasi-virtual “wine country.”

The digital world is incredibly rich and powerful, as far as the opportunity it provides us to connect with people. I’ve experienced this myself. But a wholly virtual world also carries with it a certain implicit danger, which is that by participating in it, we may at a certain point lose the ability to differentiate between the really real and the virtually real. It is certainly beyond the scope of these remarks to comment on whether the formation of “virtual relationships” ultimately erodes our ability to form “real” relationships, but I do believe that the world we live in right now is beginning to offer us something like a forking path. On one fork: the opportunity to embrace the truly real (a very scary proposition, I might add). On the other: the opportunity to allow something like pernicious irreality to gradually, imperceptibly seep into our belief systems.

Granted, delusional thinking has always been with us, but it seems more prevalent than it has ever been. In the wine business, this fantasy may be something like:

“My domestic Pinot is every bit as good as Romanée-Conti—blind tasters (or critics) tell me so;” or,

“My ‘Meritage’ just smokes Cheval Blanc;” or,

“If I could just figure out how to get a certain influential wine writer to like my wine, my depletion issues will be solved;” or

“If I could just figure out how to get millennials to purchase my wine, my business will be saved;” or

“If I could just get my distributor to return my phone calls, my business will be saved;” or

“If I could just figure out how to master social media and sell all of my wine on-line, I will be poised for success.”

I’m not sure if this last delusional thought is entirely delusional, but regardless, the list goes on and on.

Which brings me to the meat of my message, and perhaps the larger lesson to be learned:

I honestly don’t believe that there are any silver bullets, any recipes for success, including the evil ones that Mr. McCloskey is peddling, and as I said, that kind of “success” is, I believe, as fleeting as a passing cloud. What I’m suggesting is that real success in the wine business simply may lie in making real wine, and of course having the ability to communicate about this real wine you have somehow achieved. In this era of the illusory, of the virtual, of the half- or three-quarters baked, the real shines as brightly as a diamond.

Now, bear in mind that for most of my career as a winemaker, I’ve lived something like a virtual existence. Yeah, I’ve done my share of cellar work, though not so much lately, and I’m of course always present at the blending bench. I do also still visit the vineyards that supply us grapes—usually to complain about some error of omission or commission, and generally too late to effect any real positive outcome. In truth, Bonny Doon wines have traditionally been created by one sort of winemaking legerdemain or another—we’ll throw some of this stuff in, and maybe some of that. I might toss in some sort of cute trick I learned kicking around southern France, where there is no shortage of cuteness in winemaking. And in truth, it has—or had—worked out reasonably well; customers couldn’t seem to get enough of the flashy, clever labels.

However, this is no longer acceptable to me. I am now possessed of a deep thirst for the real, for wine that comes from a place. And I firmly believe that to be able to express that sense of place, one needs to be thoroughly present. For me personally, this will require some non-trivial psychic and spiritual retooling, but I am up for it; it is the only path forward for me.

At Bonny Doon, we’re presently into some pretty esoteric practices—some on the drawing board, and some being implemented even as we speak. We’re growing some of our grapes from seeds, creating a vineyard of vast genetic diversity and potentially great complexity. (We can talk about why this may be a particularly brilliant idea—or not.) We’re aging some of the wines in glass demijohns, which, while strictly speaking is a form of legerdemain, is still incredibly cool. I’m very keen on experimenting with aging wine in amphorae, especially if we can fashion the vessels from clay collected at our new property in San Juan Bautista.

We’re also learning how to produce a material called bio-char, essentially a form of activated charcoal, and mixing it with compost and incorporating it into the soil. Bio-char dramatically enhances the microbial life of the soil, which is in fact the real repository of terroir. Also, and non-trivially, the use of bio-char is a carbon-negative process, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil, and maybe helping to do a small part to reverse global climate change. Our new vineyard in San Juan Bautista will not look much like a conventional vineyard. I am completely dedicated to the idea of establishing true biological diversity in the vineyard through the plantation of a real polyculture—fruit and nut trees, flowering shrubs and aromatic herbs interplanted among the vines—in order to foster a balanced and truly sustainable ecosystem. I’m hopeful that with these practices we may well be able to farm our new vineyard without irrigation and produce wines filled with life and expressive of the place where they are grown.

Maybe it is a bit paradoxical, but embracing the real, as I have said, does not mean gritting one’s teeth and hoping for the best. Embracing the real requires the realization that one must look deep within oneself to find an imaginative path toward success, maybe one that has never been attempted before. It is the understanding that there is no longer any way at all to “play it safe.” There is only risk. In other words, maybe I am utterly deluding myself to imagine that we might produce something like an authentic vin de terroir by growing grapes from seeds, dry-farmed, in an area where there have never been grapes before. But, we will just have to see now, won’t we?

When I first thought about giving this talk, I wasn’t really sure what kind of good information I might offer to you, a group of wholesalers. So, I will only tell you this: hang on to the suppliers who are doing or attempting to do something real. Add real value to what they have to offer. Make your portfolios as coherent as they can possibly be; let them stand for something. Lastly, try to find the joy that is still present in this very challenging business that we share.

Thank you.

  1. These remarks were delivered at the annual meeting of Ohio wine and beer distributors, held February 18, 2011, in Napa Valley. []

The Bee’s Knees

Winter Solstice 2010

Pacific Rim on the half-shell

Pacific Rim on the half-shell

To HS: ¡Mira!: A Rimshot1. By the time you read this, there will have been a significant development in der kleiner Doonwelt. Pacific Rim—you do remember Pacific Rim, the brand we quixotically produced for so many years under the aegis of Bonny Doon, schlepping grape juice down from Eastern Washington to Monterey County to ferment and ultimately get blended with the crisp and floral Mosel wine from our friend, Johannes Selbach, (sea-schlepped—the wine, that is—through the Panama Canal), then the whole business trucked back up to Santa Cruz to be bottled, back in the day; an enormous investment of time and energy (totally worth it) in service of the noblest white grape of them all?—has just been sold to the Mariani family, owners of Banfi Wine Group. The Asian woman on the front label—in the first iteration she had just placed down a weighty copy of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung before drowsing off and dreaming of the Platonic form of Riesling, depicted on the interior side of the back label—bringing to mind how important it is to have a rich inner life (something that wine, on a very good day or night might well abet). Well, this was all before we relocated the company to the Great Northwest, entrusting it to the very capable Nicolas Quillé and crew, who have all done a magnificent job of growing the brand handsomely and making some lovely wine in the bargain.  So, now it’s been sold—oh, great joy—but what this means on a personal level, apart from the upwelling of memories, is that the sundry parlous Damoclean swords have been sheathed (the last several years had been very tough) and we now have some financial breathing room to take care of business, the first order of which is to proceed amain with the establishment of our vineyard/farm/kibbutz in San Juan Bautista.

Closely spaced pinot noir; ideal rodentine habitat

Closely spaced pinot noir; ideal rodentine habitat

Ratiocination. “So, how is it going in San Juan?” you ask. Well, we’ve had our ups and doons, as I’m somewhat wont to say. We had planted a little more than one-half acre of pinot noir last spring very densely (in every sense of the word), and had what I’d imagined to be an enormously clever idea: the setting out of a very thick layer of straw mulch between the plants to conserve moisture and to suppress weeds. It did work brilliantly in doing that, but also had the unfortunate unintended consequence of creating the most ideal ecological niche for very, very large rats, who lost no time at all in creating a vast thoroughly integrated rat habitat: rat arterials, feeder and frontage roads; rat schools, churches and hospitals; rat industries (manufacturers of rattles and rattail files, radiator repair); service organizations—the American Rat Cross; rat condominia…  You get the picture. We had rats up the yin-yang in our young, tender planting. They chomped down to the ground maybe 40% of the plants, very careful to leave the poison oak companion plants. So we trapped the rodentine fressers,2 removed the straw, and voilà, the problem abated, and mercifully, under the god Pan’s watchful encouragement, maybe 70% of the damaged vines somehow managed to grow back.

Fibonacci: The Geometric Music of the Spheres

Fibonacci: The Geometric Music of the Spheres

Don’t Go Near the Water. In the John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row,” there’s a character continuously at work building a boat, but somehow never managing to finish. As soon as he’s nearing completion, he invariably decides that the aesthetic concept or the building material or something is all terribly wrong. The real problem, as another character explains, is that the boat builder is, very simply, afraid of the water. It has been a comforting fantasy of mine over the years to daydream continually about planting a wonderful, miraculous vineyard, and this of course has excused me on some level from actually going out and planting aforesaid vineyard. This was going to be a very special, magical vineyard, after all, and whether it was to be planted in the form of a helix or on some sort of esoteric hexagonal or heptagonal grid, or grown up an olive or peach tree, or perhaps somehow arrayed as the topological projection of a Fibonacci series—I’m not quite sure how one would manage this (I’m still pondering)—this rosy fantasy is what has kept me going in times of great adversity, when fermentations have inexplicably stuck, when malos have gone when they’re not supposed to, and have not gone when they should, when I’ve failed to pick before the rain, or alternatively, pulled the trigger too soon just before the sun came out with a smile, or when, having gone to a much lower SO2 regime (it seemed like a good idea at the time), I’ve observed the resultant spike in diverse microbial creepy-crawlies crawling out of the woodwork. In these challenging times, I’ve had a certain tendency to become transformed into a grape-growing Walter Mitty, a Walter Vitty, if you will. “Just give me a great terroir and a few (well, actually more than a few) oddball grape varieties, and I’ll show you; I’ll show you all!” But now something has changed. It is no longer the dream that is compelling, but rather the gritty work itself that beckons.

En Plein Air. The joy will come, must come in the thousand small decisions that are to be made: which rootstock, which varieties, for Godsake—or will there even be anything like distinct grape varieties in this new radically envisioned undertaking?3 And how might we make a great imaginative leap into dry-farming a parcel that (at least parts of which) we’re told is un-dry-farmable? Where will the pêches de vigne go, and where the olives and where the black raspberry patch? How can we coax supernal flavors, the second derivative of dry-farmed tomatoes, out of our produce? Time to send away for those exotic Italian seeds, radicchio as sleek and brightly carmine as a turbo-charged Maserati. And most important, will there be goats for goat’s cheese, sheep for fresh ricotta? Burrata, the fresh farm cheese that dare not speak its name? It is rather easy for me to become lost in the reverie of imagining, but the imagining will soon (if cards are played right) turn into digging post-holes and setting fence posts, and there, if things work as I envision, I’ll have ample time to day-dream whilst lost in the Zen of some real work.

Top: Claude Bourguignon in a bit of a hole (<i>trou</i>); bottom: a chunk of limestone showing froth caused by reaction of strong mineral acid with carbonate

Top: Claude Bourguignon in a bit of a hole (trou); bottom: a chunk of limestone; note froth, a reaction of strong mineral acid with carbonate

No Boeuf with the Bourguignons. It really is an enormous “To Do” list I’m compiling, and we are barely up to the “B”s. Foremost among the Bee’s Needs: Bourguignons, Bio-char, and Blood Peaches, aka pêches de vigne. We’ve had the Bourguignons—that is their last names: Claude and Lydia, the eminent French soil scientists—out to the place to visit, to give us their advice on how to optimize the expression of terroir.4 There were a couple of patches that struck them as somewhat pedestrian, but they were awfully excited by most everything they saw. “We’ve never seen such a diverse array of soils on a single property, including some globally very rare ones—limestone and volcanic (along with more common metamorphic and granitic), as well as the ultra-recherché and beautiful allophane soils.5) ,6 I am fairly certain that I was projecting my own heart-thumping sense of excitement at a particularly climactic moment of the visit. We had just hopped into a soil pit and seen the streaks of chalky white material. Could it be? Claude then expertly whipped out his vial of sulfuric acid,7 and, testing the material in situ, pronounced it definitively to be pure calcaire. Again, I may well have been projecting, but I imagined I saw a slight lump in his throat when he made the pronouncement. You should know that the Bourguignons have publicly been rather skeptical about the possibilities of a real expression of terroir in the New World, and maybe (this is truly all my imagination), they felt at that extraordinary moment the need for perhaps a slight—or total—revision of their worldview. The limestone patch is out on a bit of a promontory, very windy, and we’ll need to plant a very substantial windbreak. Is there any reason in the world this windbreak could not be hazelnut trees, inoculated with truffle fungus?  ((Apart from the fact that we would likely be attracting every wild boar in the Tri-County area.))

Sehr Trocken. If you have been following my slightly obsessive ideational thread for the last few years, you’ll know that part of the belief system is that the discovery of terroir is not really possible absent dry-farming. The block at San Juan we had planned to plant this coming spring (with a great selection of grenache from an unnamed source8 in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation) is at the very top of our property, on a relatively windy mesa, with fairly shallow, rocky soils, i.e., ones with not so very great water holding capacity. Our “experts”—and we’ve heard from a few—have not agreed on much apart from the fact that this section is not likely to be farmed without supplemental irrigation.9 Because this issue (the need to express terroir vs. some degree of practicality) appears to be more or less intractable, I do what multiple generations of Grahms have always done,10 namely to ask the considered opinion of every single person they meet capable of making an intelligent comment on the subject.11 At a farm-to-table dinner about a year ago, I saw an old friend, Greg Steltenpohl, someone I know to have a great interest in matters of sustainability, and in catching up with him, I shared my concerns about dry farming in San Juan. Greg told me about something called “biochar,” which a number of people in the sustainable community had begun to talk about in rather glowing tones.12 Now, I have the rather off-putting habit of putting things off to the very last minute, and when a decision about how/when we were going to plant the grenache was imminent, the time to research biochar in earnest could be put off no longer. As it turns out, not only is biochar utterly relevant and congruent to my ideological bent, it is something that we should all be thinking about rather sooner than later. So, what the heck is biochar, and why should it compel our interest?

Amazon soil, before and after biochar

Amazon soil, before and after biochar

(Loup-garou) Garrigue’s Disease. Biochar is the product of pyrolysis, or the thermochemical transformation of organic material in the absence of oxygen; you may know it under the nom de barbecue of “charcoal.” Apart from its stellar utility at 4th of July shindigs, why else should it be so interesting? When biochar is returned to the soil, it does some very magical things. Not only is it useful in enhancing water holding capacity (it holds six times its own weight in water), but as significantly, it seems to dramatically activate the microbial life in the soil, resulting in far greater availability of soil nutrients, and consequently producing healthier plants and more nutritious produce. From a terroirist perspective, the soil microflora are terroir’s pre-amplifier, boosting its signal. The mycorrhizae in the vine root hairs are terroir’s carny hawkers, shameless promoters and costermongers, strong-arming those reluctant Midwestern cations to give it up and live a little, join the show—step-right-up-get-yer-haunting-aroma-here. But most important, the real genius of biochar is that it seems to be the most practical strategy—perhaps truly the only strategy we have at this point—to reverse the effects of global warming. After burning fossil fuels for 200 years, we now have the opportunity to put coal back into the ground and sequester the carbon (net carbon negativity)—for, oh, say, 10,000 years—whilst making our soils more arable and filled with life. Seems like a very cool trade-off.

Swiss Char. There is a great interview from Ken Payton, of Reign of Terroir, with Hans-Peter Schmidt, a Swiss anthropologist turned viticulturist who is doing original research in the use of biochar in vineyards. Beyond thinking about biochar as a magic bullet, Peter is thinking about how one might use the vineyard as a platform to create real biodiversity and something approaching a true polyculture, even on sites that are water-limited. This has always been the great tragic flaw of the California climat—no summer rain to support flowering plants, which in turn support a balanced insect ecology.13 If we can create conditions to allow flowers to bloom longer into the season, the benefits to the ecology and stability of the vineyard eco-system are incalculable. But possibly more to the point, a paradise is a garden of infinite delights, not just a place where a single item is produced, as stellar and soulfully intoxicating as it might be. The nature spirits are as attention-deficit challenged as the rest of us, requiring a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sensory pleasures—sights, scents, and tastes—to keep them in a sunny mood.

Pêches de vigne

Pêches de vigne

Red Alert or Taking Umbrage. There are blood diamonds, there are blood peaches, and then there are pêches de vigne,14 the latter two items being juicy members of the Prunus genus, possessing deeply pigmented red juice and something approaching the quintessence of peach fragrance. I first encountered pêches de vigne or “vineyard peaches” while visiting Michel Escande, a brilliant grower in Minervois, in the Midi, who for many years supplied us with syrah for our Domaine des Blagueurs brand.15 He had just a few scrawny trees, but I tasted the fruit and was utterly knocked out, to the point of obsession, such that I have always been on the Prunus persica qui vive when visiting any part of Europe where grapes are grown.16 Needless to say, whilst traveling in those parts, I am essentially always literally on Red Alert. No one really knows why these peaches have shown up in vineyards, apart from the folk knowledge that they ripen at more or less (usually a little sooner) the same time as grapes, and that they are a most cordial fruit to consume whilst harvesting, or potentially under which to find shade, though these diminutive guys provide relatively little relief in the torrid Midi midi. I’ve had the great fortune to meet two of the most knowledgeable people in the world on matters pertinent to genus Prunus.17 One is grower/plant breeder Andy Mariani of San Martin, who has a vast collection of peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines, as well as every permutation and combination thereof, and is still looking to breed variants even wilder and more flavorful; the other is Todd Kennedy, an attorney and passionate rare fruit maven, who is undoubtedly the Final Word on any discussion anent our sappy, succulent, chin-drizzling, fuzzy, fruictiferous friends. Todd has graciously given me a number of pits of true pêches de vigne from his collection; it is my hope that they will give rise to some viable offspring ’ere long. They’re currently reposing in the refrigerator, undergoing an obligatory chill period. I will plant them out in the next few weeks, hoping for the very best.

Seeds of Change. I don’t know whether you’ve managed to follow any of the published reports of our plans to grow grapes from seeds at San Juan.  I’ve written about this a fair bit in this monthly-ish blog, and I have to say that this project is what truly gets me going every morning. I’ll spare you the goriest details as to why this is interesting to me,18 but the project seems to be incredibly resonant with everyone who learns about it. Maybe it’s just the human need for hope, for regeneration, that the image of the seed evokes. This project will not be the savior of the wine industry (or of anything else), but it may perhaps produce wines that will sing a song that has not heretofore been heard.

Download an eminently printable PDF version (680k) of this Solstice newsletter.

  1. This is a terribly inside joke (and a palindrome as well), and its intent was to surprise and delight Harmon Skurnik, brother of the eponymous Michael Skurnik, our distributor in New York. If memory serves, we put this inscription on the corks (remember those?) of Pacific Rim Riesling.  I think fondly back on the days when it seemed possible to do all sorts of goofy things with our marketing, with minimal fear of repercussions. []
  2. A slightly grisly footnote: I have remarked once or twice before on the enormous sense of energy or vitality the San Juan site possesses. It is a bit hard to quantify, but one thing is for certain: when an animal meets its demise on the property, there is an almost instant recycling of its relevant bits. Within 24 to 36 hours of the fatal snap of the trap, there is little left of the rat but the tail—rat-tat-tué. []
  3. Though if you have read the recent post on the Been Doon So Long blog on the subject of growing grapes from seeds, you will note that I’m now essentially at a point where I’m thinking the whole notion of a grape variety, or particular clone of grape variety, may well be thoroughly moot. []
  4. Only in France can you find “geologists to the stars,” at least in the viticultural firmament. The Bourguignons’ roster of clients is so impressive as to be known by virtually any newbie Shanghainese wine aficionado. []
  5. Allophane soils, at least in the New World, are exceptionally exotic, to the point where many non-French (or at least non-Bourguignon) soil scientists are even unaware of their existence, as they are often (erroneously) confused with simpler clay soils. Allophane, known as an “amorphous” mineral, perhaps the hermaphrodite of minerals, possesses both anion and cation exchange capability, a rich repository of plant nutrition, but with the tragic flaw of being very easily compacted. The Bourguignons made us solemnly promise not to rip these soils, nor to run heavy equipment over them. (We have learned that there are apparently quite a number of super-light narrow-gauge European caterpillar tractors that one might inadvertently drive over the foot of a co-worker without necessitating an immediate visit to the emergency room. []
  6. I am also utterly jazzed about the presence of the volcanic soils, which are perhaps the most mineral-intensive ones of all. Whether we end up planting nerello mascalese—God knows if we can find that—or something else, there’s no question that these sites will produce some extraordinary fruit. []
  7. Claude and Lydia, like many consultants, spend an inordinate amount of time on airplanes. But they, unlike most consultants, also travel around by air carrying a diverse array of highly reactive/volatile chemical reagents. I believe Claude explained to me his stratagem for foiling airport security regulations anent these substances, but can’t just now recall how he does it. []
  8. Ex Château Rayas, via a slightly circuitous route. []
  9. There is no absolutely definitive reason why we have chosen to plant grenache in this section, apart from the fact that we need to plant something, and grenache, especially on its own roots (non-grafted), is among the most drought tolerant varieties there are. []
  10. Actually, it is just my mother and very possibly her mother who employed this stratagem, but for all I know, this behavior may well be behaviorally encoded in the DNA. []
  11. This method also actually seems to work. []
  12. No, the stuff is not radioactive. []
  13. Companion plantings (sometimes also known as weeds) adjacent to vines protect the soil from the bright rays of the sun and support microbial flora that also nourish the vines. []
  14. Blood peaches, or “Indian” peaches, superficially resemble pêches de vigne in that they are both rather small in size, dun or grayish in appearance, and covered with a fuzzy down. Depending on the particular tree and where it is grown, the flesh and juice will either be a shockingly vivid, bright red or largely so. According to Todd Kennedy, the pêches de vigne (of which there are actually several variants) come from a different genetic line than the Indian bloods, but have independently arrived at a similar appearance. The true pêche de vigne is more deeply, reliably pigmented than the blood peach, and is more aromatic, but also exhibits slightly more astringency and bitterness.  Pêches de vigne are seldom seen at market (their shelf-life is not so great), but they are used in Europe to create amazing jams, eaux de vie, and fruit liqueurs (the sweetness of the liqueur or jam a device to mask the astringency). []
  15. Michel himself is an amazing individual, with wines that are little known in the U.S.  (He has had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with his importer, and I’m honestly not sure whether they have presently kissed and made up.) Michel is somewhat of a mystic, and presents a slightly dreamy, distracted, moody countenance to the world; however, he is very tuned-in to the subtle energetic forces in his climat. Michel does not suffer fools; I was given to understand it was somewhat miraculous that as an American I was given the warm welcome I invariably received. But the French are fabulously rigorous about their personal boundaries. I’ve eaten many, many times at the table chez Escande, and in ten or so years of visiting, have been received in his cave de accueil, but never into his proper fermenting area nor barrel cellar. []
  16. They are found throughout Europe from Germany to virtually all of France (Alsace, Burgundy, and the Midi). Curiously, I’ve never seen them in Italy, but I have to believe they are there. Not surprisingly, the cultivation of vineyard peaches provides an interesting glimpse into the character of das Volk, le peuple. German vineyard peaches (Weinbergpfirschen) are procured from nurseries, where they are grafted onto proper rootstock, each tree genetically true to die Mutterpflanze, and planted in organized rectilinear fashion. French pêches de vigne, on the other hand, at least in the historically dirt-poor Midi, were/are typically produced from peach pits after the peach had been sensuously savored and discarded, to randomly appear the following spring as a seedling in the vineyard. The advantage of the German method, of course, is that the desirable characteristics of the mother plant are retained; the advantage of the French method is that it just is what it is. []
  17. I suppose that peaches—maybe it is their highly sensual, if not vaguely sexual Platonic form—are something that can feed a sort of Nabokovian obsession. []
  18. Sorry, but I can’t resist here. The coolest aspects of this project—growing grapes from seedlings—are twofold: 1.) The rooting habit of seedlings is somewhat different from plants made from cuttings; the seedlings exhibit a greater degree of geotropism—i.e., they tend to root straight down—and this may well confer to them a greater degree of drought tolerance (a beautiful thing), as well as the ability to mine a larger soil volume for nutrients (and hence a more articulate expression of terroir); and 2.) When you grow grapes from seeds, you have essentially recombined the genetic information of the mother plant, resulting in subtle or not so subtle differences from the mother plant. (A red grape parent will yield red, pink, and white offspring.) While nearly every offspring may be thought of as “inferior” to the mother plant, i.e., not possessing the full expression of desirable characteristics, it is my hope/belief that in the manifestation of this extreme degree of genetic diversity in the plant material, one will end up with a wine of great nuance and complexity. The expression of varietal characteristics will recede in prominence, and perhaps other aspects (ahem—terroir), will come to the fore. []

Theme and Variants: Élevage (Raising up) and Getting Doon

Dear DEWNstah,1

If someone were to ask me about my “winemaking style,” I believe I should properly answer, “Taoist.” Let me unpack that slightly cryptic formulation: A Taoist is concerned with many issues, but mostly is trying to synchronize his own efforts and intentions with the general flow of energy moving through all things;2, 3 he is focused on preserving his own life-force, or qi, which partakes of that energetic flux.

When I started out making wine, I felt that my job was to make my wines taste as delicious as I possibly could, ideally upon release; I was less concerned about the future arc of the wine’s narrative, as it were. I wanted people to like them so that they would buy them and drink them now. To that end, I used all sorts of winemaking tricks: saigner (the bleeding of free run juice), microoxygenation (tannin management, it was called), designer yeasts, enzymes, reverse osmosis, even gum arabic(!)4 —in truth, none particularly trickier than those deployed by many of my winemaking colleagues.

But I have put aside these childish ploys and toys and now—indeed for quite some time—have grown to embrace the beauty of natural, unmanipulated wines. Along with a growing appreciation for wines produced sans maquillage, one quality that I have greatly come to esteem is the quality of life-force in a wine, the ability to resist oxidation.  Some people may use the term “minerality” to describe this attribute, citing a somewhat austere, stony aspect to the wine, especially in its youth, and especially manifest upon first opening. This is not to be confuted with astringency or the presence of tannin, though tannin is certainly part of the antioxidative system of a wine, that is the sum of the elements that allow the wine to live for a very long time. And a long life, both for the wine and its maker, is what this Taoist winemaker most sincerely wishes to achieve.

2007 Le Cigare Volant "en foudre" and "en demi-muid"
Which brings us to the 2007 Le Cigare Volant “en foudre” and “en demi-muid.” These so-called “variants” featured in November’s DEWN club wine shipment are quite different from Cigares d’antan, and they are somewhat different from the archetypal or at least expected Bonny Doon wine. The two variants reflect differences in the élevage, or the cellaring regime of the wine. One, the demi-muid or puncheon, was aged primarily in 500 and 600 liter5 barrels (this is a little more than twice the size of a conventional barrel); the other, en foudre, was aged in 10,000 liter upright wood tanks.6 But note: both variants are made from precisely the same wine when put down to cask; it is the élevage that has created the rather significant differences between them.

Why should this be interesting to us? When I first started making Le Cigare Volant back in 1984, we aged the wine more or less exclusively in large wood tanks, because that was simply “how it was done,” at least in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Platonic model of Cigare. Then I went through a slightly cute phase of aging the wine in 60 gallon barrels7 —a supremely bad idea. Ultimately, I came to really like the result of aging approximately half of the wine in puncheon and half in large wood tank. Each seemed to reveal a different facet of the wine, and the blend of the two often seemed to create the most harmonious effect, so this has in fact pretty much been our standard wine aging protocol for the last ten or fifteen years.8 But I always wondered what the course of the evolution of the wine might be if we had kept these individual lots unblended.

The role of the caviste—the French wouldn’t call him a “winemaker”—is rather a bit like that of a Chinese physician: he is to trying to grasp a sense of the qualities of the qi of the individual under consideration—is it robust or fragile?—and to plot a course most appropriate to the conservation of that individual’s life-force. If the wine is quite robust, costaud, the French would say, it will want to be exposed to a fair bit of oxygen, especially in its youth. If the wine is more fragile, the wine’s exposure to oxygen will want to be far more discreet. This latter case means generally a larger aging vessel, where there is proportionately less oxygen permeation (a smaller surface area of exposure to O2 to the overall volume of the vessel).

Now barrels, especially new ones, are something else again. On the one hand, there is far greater oxygen exchange, owing to the greater surface area exposed to air and the relative thinness of the wood staves. Oxygen tends to drive certain reactions—the condensation and softening of a wine—quite appropriate for varieties rich in both tannins (from seeds and stems) and anthocyanins (the pigmented material in the grapeskins). The oak itself also contributes wood tannins, and these act, at least in theory, as an antioxidative counterbalance to the oxygen absorbed into the wine. You see, oxygen—the softener, the polisher, the refiner of the wine—is also the hidden assassin of wine, that initiator of the tragic inversion of the hourglass, meting out the finitude of a wine’s days. So, it is all rather a bit of a dance.

About the wines, at last: I wish I could offer you very precise tidy tasting notes, but this is essentially impossible, as the wines are currently in such an enormous state of flux. On a given day they are utterly charming, filled with fruit and other vinous qualities that make us break out in song. On another they are brooding, sullen adolescents.9 In general, I can offer the following observations about some of the generalized distinctions between the two wines: The Cigare en foudre seems to be in some sense the younger or less evolved of the pair; one typically finds there more primary fruit aromas. The en foudre also appears to be the more umami or savory-intensive wine of the two; there is a strong suggestion of loamy earth/forest floor, with the occasional whiff of truffle.10

Now, the en demi-muid is another kettle of grenache. In the cellar, for visitors, it has almost always been the more attractive of the two wines, though in candor I would suggest that this may have more to do with the fact that its perceptual Gestalt is more familiar to most tasters.11, 12 What the (relatively) smaller cooperage seems to do to wine is to polish it to a high gloss. The new oak component does seem offer a bit of sweetness to the nose; the wine is slightly darker in color than the en foudre, as the oak tannin has reacted with the anthocyanins in the wine to help stabilize the color. The wine somehow seems more “classic,” more refined, sleeker and grown up; it is less “rustic” and more “modern.”  If these two wines were hairstyles, maybe the en foudre would be mildly dreadlocked and the en demi-muid would be a razor cut. I worry a bit that with the en demi-muid we are getting dangerously close here to making something in the dreaded “international style”—not precisely the outcome that I am seeking, but as a winemaking exercise, worth doing at least once.

The great sea change at Bonny Doon is that we, like good Taoists, are seeking to learn how to build wines capable of living a long time. Is longevity an absolute good?  For nuanced, complex wines, the answer is incontrovertibly, Yes.

I want to invite you to come along with us on this journey of discovery, to really grasp this other dimension of wine—its ability to change and evolve over time. Yes, I know this is a bit of a departure from what some of you may regard as the paradigmatic Bonny Doon style, and may further seem like a sales ploy to induce you to buy more wine. But the reality is that this is where we are going—hang onto your hats—and the wines really need to be tasted on multiple occasions to follow the arc of their development. They will undoubtedly live for twenty years (or more), and are nowhere near providing optimal tasting enjoyment right now13 (I am myself not so secretly rooting for the en foudre for the long term). But may I humbly suggest that you consider purchasing at least half a case of each, and opening the two variants side by side every few years?14, 15

We are both of us on a rather exciting journey; it has been my great pleasure and privilege to have traveled with you at least this far.

With very best wishes,

Randall Grahm
Winemaker and President-for-life

  1. This letter was originally sent to club members of Bonny Doon’s Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network along with their November shipment of Cigare variants. The wines, as well as the normale blend, are currently only available to wine club members, and can be purchased online at bonnydoonvineyard.com. They will be released to the general public in the fall of 2011. []
  2. The most important application of this practice vis-à-vis wine is the correct identification of a vineyard site, or to put it in the crude parlance of the pragmatic Westerner: “Location, location, location.” Identification of the genius site can be accomplished through geomancy, feng shui, great intuitive insight, sincere prayer and tremendously good luck. []
  3. The Western formulation of this dictum would be, “You can’t fight City Hall.” []
  4. A trick that I learned over there in France. []
  5. The 600 liter, thick-staved puncheons are locally called “bastardos,” because of the absolute physical difficulty of moving them around. []
  6. Cunningly fitted out with “lees hotels,” perforated stainless steel shelves, on which lees can deposit, the better to become easily digested into the wine. But you’ve undoubtedly heard my “Lees check in but they don’t check out” joke once or twice already. []
  7. 225 liters, for the metrically gifted. []
  8. The 2007 Le Cigare Volant “normale,” the wine released through our primary distribution channels, has been composed thusly. []
  9. Please further note that this variability is not in fact a defect in the wines in any sense, but rather, an indication that they are “real” wines, imbued with life, and somewhat sensitive to environmental conditions—temperature, barometric pressure, lunar cycles and God knows what else. []
  10. If you were/are a closet chthonophage (dirt-eater), this wine is definitely for you. []
  11. Robert Parker, for example, seemed to have liked this wine reasonably well (though couldn’t resist the opportunity to put the shiv in and twist it just a little bit for sport on another matter), giving the en demi-muid the slight nod to the en foudre. You have to say the man knows what he likes. []
  12. In general, the ’07 Cigare Volant has been rather well received by many professional wine critics, who have tasted it in its infancy.  I am just the slightest bit cranky on the subject, but I believe that they “get” the ’07 in a way that they did not some of the recent Cigare vintages, in virtue of the imminent power of the ’07. It is a great leap. []
  13. If you absolutely insist on tasting the wine now, you will be well advised to decant it and give it at least two hours of air. Alternatively, you can open it, drink maybe half of it tonight and try the balance over the next couple of evenings. You will note that the wine will hold up exceptionally well. You should also note—and this is likely too important a point to relegate to a footnote—that this is an utterly remarkable, atypical occurrence for most New World wines. []
  14. As the wine was aging in the cellar, we took the opportunity of tasting the two versions side by side over a period of almost two years.  What was absolutely extraordinary was the horserace-like quality of the wines’ respective showing. On a given day, one would be absolutely charming and expressive, a month later, absolutely nada, bupkis. And the following month, it pops out again, wearing a sunny smile, as if nothing had ever been amiss. []
  15. Another thought: You might consider gifting a younger person (offspring, favored nephew or niece) with a DEWN membership. []

On a Mission: The Germ of an Idea

I believe that I may have found something truly original and worthwhile that might be done in the New World.1 It’s worthwhile not just because it is novel—this is the idea of growing grapes from seeds—but because I think that it can create a real paradigm shift in how we experience wine.

Broadly speaking, the qualities that we experience in wine come from three major sources—you can almost conceive of them as radio signals of greater or lesser strength:  1) The inherent qualities of the site itself (its terroir); this is potentially the strongest signal, but it can also be quite obscured by grapegrowing and winemaking practices, drip irrigation most notably; 2) the characteristics imparted by the selection of the plant material—rootstock and scion, from the ripening properties of the vines themselves to the flavor profile of the grape varieties; 3) the overlay of winemaking technique—barrel character, diacetyl or “malolactic” character, lees autolysis, the qualities imparted by designer yeasts and designer enzymes, and so on. In principle, all of these factors can help define the character of a wine, but in the New World, we are generally focused on elements 2) and 3), and these are the obvious characters that most tasters find first in a wine: fruit, texture, flavor intensity, optical opacity—that sort of thing. But my thought is that ultimately, these qualities are really the least interesting aspects of a wine, that there is something deeper in a wine—its implicate order, if you will—which is the expression of terroir.

There are certain grape growing techniques that I think profoundly favor the amplification of terroir without its distortion, and this is what is supremely interesting to me at this point. Perhaps foremost among them is dry-farming, allowing the vines to explore a wide-ranging volume of soil; certainly, having a diverse and vibrant microflora in the soil itself is also incredibly important in the articulation of the mineral signature of the site.2 When you feel terroir in a wine, it is—at least to me—a much deeper experience than the experience of a wine of more superficial charms; it is an experience of the vertiginous depth of nature itself, and i