Requiem for a Flying Cigare ¹

Cigar logoI am saying goodbye to Le Cigare Volant, at least to the wine that I’ve made in a certain, distinctive style for so many years.[2] It’s just a wine, of course, and presumably for as long as I continue to ply my trade, I will make other cool wines, maybe even a few ultimately far more serious or “important” than Cigare, at least it is my fervent hope that I do.  But Le Cigare is an old friend, arguably the wine that really boosted my career, gave me a certain degree of self-confidence in the righteousness of my path[3]  (maybe even bordering on a measure of arrogance) and, almost certainly was responsible, for good or not, for my ascribed identity as the “Rhône Ranger.”


Crocodile Dundee

Le Cigare Volant is typically referred to as a “Rhône blend,” or a “GSM” as the Aussies so brusquely refer to the category.  I confess to being slightly tormented by the nomenclature, which (perhaps it’s only me) I find both awkward and discomfiting.  “GSM” while seemingly straightforward and objective seems a bit reductive, and a-contextual; can a serious wine be principally represented by a mere laundry list of its components? (Terroirists certainly wouldn’t have it so.)  Referring to the wine, provenant of California’s Central Coast as a  “Rhône blend” or a “California Rhône blend” somehow just makes matters worse.  Make up your mind! Is it from the Rhône or is it from California? When people at large, loud public tastings ask me what Le Cigare Volant is I might carefully tell them something like,  “It’s a California wine made from grape varieties best known for the wines that they produce in the Rhône.”[4]  I’ll say this maybe three or four times and as I begin to get hoarse from shouting over the noise, I will give up and default to the the simplistic “It’s a GSM!” route.[5],[6] 


Wine Spectator Rhone Ranger Cover

The name “Cigare Volant” and the term “Rhône Ranger” are arguably quite brilliant for their vivid memorability, but they may also carry with them a certain tragic flaw or two.  The term “Le Cigare Volant” makes reference to the crazy (but effective) ordinance adopted in 1954 in a village in Châteauneuf, which by decree prohibited the landing of UFOs in their vineyards. (“Flying cigars” being the French term for cylindrically shaped unidentified flying objects.)  To help contextualize what would be an “American Rhône,” the name alludes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a sly, ironic way, which was my intention, after all, but after a certain point (35 years!), might it not be time to let the wine begin to stand on its own?[7]   


And of course, there is the term Rhône Ranger – this was the clever moniker I was given by the Wine Spectator in 1989, when I was on their April 1st cover.  Not long after the article came out, the term was taken up by an ad hoc group of winemakers, all interested in exploring the possibilities of Rhône varieties in California and ultimately later winemakers from other parts of the U.S. joined in.[8]  The association grew, became formalized, and there are now hundreds of winemakers working with Rhône varieties throughout in the U.S.  I wish them all well but I feel personally that “Rhône Ranger” as a term has butted up against a certain wall. We Rangers have defined ourselves in terms of something other than ourselves, something that is arguably far more primary, and thus in some sense more authentic and meaningful.  Perhaps what we’ve been most successful in doing is introducing American customers to the beauty of Rhône wines inclusive of those that actually come from the Rhône! Moi, I don’t know if I am still in my heart a Rhône Ranger any longer; candidly, I would much prefer to be the San Juan Bautista Ranger, or even better, the Pope of Popelouchum, though, in fairness, that is perhaps a tad grandiose.



I am incredibly proud of the thirty-four vintages (1984-2017) of Cigare Volant that we have produced; each one is a bit different from the other, but each, with the very occasional exception,[9]  somehow captures a sense of “Cigareness,” a quality I am at a loss to define with any precision, apart to say that a certain threshold level of succulent savoriness has been achieved; it becomes a sort of  “continuo” element in the wine, a bass hum of umami and fruit, independent of say the tannic structure of the wine.  (I suspect this is due to our rigorous conservation of lees, and our predilection for minimal racking.)


Wine Enthusiast CoverLe Cigare Volant has given me the opportunity to show the world my blending chops, as it were.  A few have taken notice, the long-time fans, but for the most part, the world is just moving too fast for this to have been that big of a deal.  (The world has been rather more observant of some of my splashy marketing initiatives and of the labels/packaging, to be sure.) But, as I’ve said elsewhere, a wine that is merely the product of the winemaker’s imagination and aesthetic sense remains limited in its complexity and its power to captivate, enchant and create emotional resonance in the consumer; I believe that it is only vins de terroir, wines of place, that can express real profundity and can echo, however discreetly, the vast intelligence and organization of Nature itself.  With a true wine of place, the winemaker “does” far less but paradoxically achieves far more.[10]



Don Ameche in Cocoon

So, here’s the deal: The things that we’ve done to date to make the “best” Cigare Volant have not been particularly remunerative; holding the wine for as long as we do before release is a cost accountant’s nightmare.  Sealing the wine in screwcaps, for the record, while enhancing the wine’s overall longevity—a good thing, right?—tends to push a young wine deeper into its protective, reductive cocoon,[11]  requiring a longer hold time before release.[12]  Small scale winemaking at our Ingalls St. facility, ever since the spin-off of the Big House brands, has also proven to be a very expensive way to make wine.  All of these issues would likely work out just fine if we were able to sell most of our wine directly to our customers, or were not obliged to offer special killer deals through the wholesale channel on by-the-glass pricing. [13] 


Richard Gere

But Cigare in its current format seems to have lost a certain relevance to the modern market.  It has become a bit like the brilliant, slightly eccentric uncle whose bad puns, meandering stories and arcane references are amusing at holiday get-togethers, but maybe just once a year now seems to be about the right frequency for a visit. For any number of reasons, it seems we have not been able to successfully deliver the cogency of Cigare’s value proposition to market.  Without the authority of provenance, that all important “origin story,” how do you communicate the value of a wine that merely tastes great? Transmitting the “message in the bottle” has always been the challenge, and now it is more challenging than ever. Cigare Volant, as it is currently configured does not carry with it a pedigree of provenance, either genuine or symbolic/ceremonial, i.e. it’s a blend of grapes from diverse climes and terroirs, neither does it carry the authority of an Estate bottling designation, nor one of organic or biodynamic certification or any of the other potential signifiers of “seriousness.”[14]  It simply presents itself as it is, and without a bright and shiny signifying label (the actual label is just fine), it just doesn’t shout, “Pick me!”


Randall Grahm


I’ve written endless pages on the history of Le Cigare Volant, how it came to bring my young winemaking career into focus, helped me find both my style and mojo as a winemaker.  It was my vehicle in any number of senses—I have a vintage Citroën DS-21, which is “Le Cigare,” and there are any number of sculptural spaceships I’ve commissioned over the years that remain scattered throughout the Doonscape.[15]  It’s been my schtick, to use the term of art, and has served me well; to some extent, it could be argued that it has become in a sense a sort of crutch, or at least a ready-made scaffolding on which to build a long-winded oratory (such as the one you are reading this moment).  Have I become the gas-bag uncle who just doesn’t know when to shut up?


Monty Python Stump

Ronald Grant Archive


It occurs to me that I’m very comfortable to use Cigare as an occasion to talk about clever winemaking innovations we’ve implemented—the use of demijohns and “lees-hotels,” for example, the sublimity of this clone or that clone, the magic of air-dried grapes, the mystery of reductive élevage en bonbonne, all the winemaking tricks that the show-off kid in me wants to share.[16] But, in this candid conversation about Cigare, I have found myself resisting a discussion about how does it actually feel to say goodbye to Cigare, (at least in the form in which we’ve known it) or what does this change really signify.  Maybe, it’s a certain, Monty Python Black Knight-ish reticence about wishing to admit vulnerability or defeat. “No worries, mate. Not being able to sell as much Cigare as we’d like at full price is merely a scratch, nothing but a minor flesh-wound (gushing gouts of red).”  We’ve certainly had our share of inexplicable marketing setbacks in the past.[17]  But, if I’ve been incapable of breathing real dynamic life into Cigare Volant, our flagship wine over the last dozen years since the Big House divestiture, what does this mean about my ultimate viability as a winemaker/winery owner?  Is my fate thoroughly dooned?



I’ve had a long time to think about how the rocket/spaceship somehow failed to achieve its desired trajectory.  For a long time, the story I’ve told myself is that the BDV brand, at least in so far as its ability to sell a luxury cuvée such as Cigare may well have been tainted by association with the large production wine, Big House.  Robert Parker himself commented at some point that while BDV may have presented itself as a small, boutique winery, it was in fact nothing more than a wine factory, and therefore incapable of producing soulful wines of distinction.[18] It’s hard to know whether his pronouncement of more than twenty years ago continues to magically resonate like the imprecation of a wizard from Middle Earth.[19] Since the sale of Big House, my colleagues and I have made what at least we imagined was a heroic effort to re-animate Cigare—certainly, by paying far more attention to the vineyards and the winemaking itself—and of course have made non-trivial attempts in the marketing of same.  Frankly, in trying to tell the Cigare story, it sometimes feels as if I’ve found myself caught in a sort of silent movie; I’m gesturing wildly and shouting at the top of my lungs but no one can hear what I’m saying, because, of course, it is a silent movie.


Thierry BouchonAs human beings, we are always trying to find an explanation for why things go the way they do, especially in times of adversity.  One thing is for certain, the wine business itself has changed rather dramatically; there are now so many more structural challenges to success.  Most wholesalers of any scale at all are generally far less enthusiastic about selling “quirky” wines, i.e. ones that require that quaint old-fangled technique called the “hand-sell,” an old practice lauded by many but that few wish to actually execute in practice.  Whether the wine business was just much smaller and more manageable then, (or maybe I had greater marketing mojo at the time), it seemed that in some way one could through one stratagem or another positively affect one’s fate in the marketplace. Need to differentiate Big House from other wines?  Seal it with screwcap! Customers not so accepting or fearful of screwcaps, you say? Hold a funeral for M. Thierry Bouchon! There always seemed to be some sort of work-around, and one had the sense of the power of one’s own agency.[20]  I still believe that on a small, intimate scale, one can effectively tell one’s story and effect a positive outcome, but at least in the world of the three-tier system, possibly the best a smallish winery might do these days is to carefully discern where certain useful oceanic currents are moving, or, since we are reliant here on more aeronautical metaphors, how and where blow the strongest winds, the most persistent and reliable updrafts—ideally ones that will take one in a positive direction.[21] While it would be a wonderful thing to have the luxury and comfort of a high powered flying machine, for many of us, learning to be an ultra-light wind-surfer may be the more sustainable model. 


Zen Master

I think that perhaps what my Cigare experience has tried to teach me is a certain sort of humility.[22] There are things that I can properly effect and things that I cannot; it is ultimately most useful to focus on that which one can potentially control, as well as, (very importantly) acknowledge the enormous power of that which is beyond one’s control. Cigare has always been a sort of performative exercise, and always strongly bounded by my own significant limitations.  A composed wine is only as clever as the winemaker him/herself, and frankly, that ain’t so clever.[23] I am hoping that the lessons of Cigare will potentially equip me to become a far more successful as a winemaker by perversely teaching me to do less “winemaking.”  I must instead tack in the direction of the vineyard, i.e. learn to make wines with less of my own thumbprint, and more of the imprint of the vineyard from whence they derive.  The best wines one can make are the ones where there is very little “making,” but rather more “enabling.” The truism that wine is made in the vineyard we’ve heard over and over, but it takes some of us more than thirty years for the message to really get through.


The other odd thing that strikes me:  Perhaps the greatest gift that Cigare has given me is that it was not particularly successful in garnering high point scores.  While stellar marks might well have likely helped out significantly in terms of sales and financial performance, I’m rather doubtful that it would have been particularly useful in my growth as a winemaker and perhaps as a person.  In the same way that many students learn how to take tests (so they can do better on tests) rather than actually learn something truly valuable, learning how to make high point scoring wines really only teaches you how to make high point scoring wines.  If you find out that you have acquired a facility for doing this, I believe it would take an enormous amount of self-control not to exercise this gift. It is much more challenging (and perhaps ultimately more satisfying) to learn how to make wines to please oneself rather than the Other, and perhaps the practice of learning to please oneself may ultimately be the surest path to a clearer view of one’s own true talents as well as limitations.  Perhaps with the current version of Cigare I had in fact achieved all that I was truly capable of mastering on my own; it was certainly time for a paradigm shift, and like it or not, it has come.

Cigar Meteorite

ESO / M. Kornmesser


It is now time to say goodbye to an old and loyal friend, and to look forward to the thrill of the discovery and exploration of the new and joyous wines that await.  Le Cigare est mort; vive le Cigare!






[1] After posting this blog, there has been a rather significant outpouring of concern that Cigare is disappearing as a BDV brand.  For the record, that is not the case.  It is the style which is changing—to an earlier to drink, more approachable, and (one trusts) commercially far more viable proposition. Vive le Cigare!

[2] We will continue to produce a wine (precise nomenclature of which still in suspense) based on the principal Cigare/Châteauneuf grape varieties, though with a significantly higher percentage of the super-cool cépage, Cinsault, intended for much earlier consumption and priced significantly lower than the current Cigare. Preliminary blends suggest that it will still be utterly delicious, indeed dangerously quaffable, just no longer a vin de garde. And of course, it’s no longer a GSM, but rather something more like a CGS.

[3] Of course I started making Cigare well before I got fancy notions of the sublime virtue of terroir lodged in my brain, and I suppose the great strength of Cigare (also its weakness) was that it is a composed wine from diverse sites, i.e. without the authoritative provenance of a unifying terroir.  I was clever or at least intuitive enough to realize when I started that I was essentially shooting in the dark, working with unknown grapes and with minimal winemaking experience, I really had no choice but to blend different things together with the hope that somehow I could fashion a coherent, reasonably complex whole.  When you’re cobbling things together without a definitive blueprint sketched out from divine authority (the Ten Commandments, or A.O.C., for example), or by the hierophantic imprimatur of one of His Apostles (St. Robert or St. Marvin), doubts might arise as to the ultimate value of your proposition. Ultimately, it’s the ability to command a certain price in the market that determines the wine’s “objective” value, and it has ever been thus.

[4] It’s even more convoluted to explain that Grenache, the typically dominant grape in Cigare, while being the most important grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in fact originates from Spain where it is called “Garnacha.”

[5] Alternately, I might say, “It’s a California homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” but this is not particularly accurate either.  I can certainly say that Le Cigare historically began as an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but over the years, I found that a) I don’t really like most modern versions of  Châteauneuf, and b) I really wanted Cigare to cut its own unique swath stylistically speaking and ultimately not be so referential, but that makes the language even more awkward.

[6] We are certainly living in an age of great noise, and getting one’s message across is a bit like shouting in a windstorm. There is an interesting trope from Thomas Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49,” where a character is recording a segment for rebroadcast and is intentionally mispronouncing certain words.  When someone asks him about why he is intentionally mispronouncing the words, he says that due to the sound distortion built into the recording and re-broadcasting process, mispronouncing the word actually ends up having it heard correctly by the ultimate auditor. Whether or not this analogy applies to the case of Le Cigare Volant, I do sometimes imagine that it is paucity of our language, or maybe it’s just my language, that impairs my ability accurately capture and represent the real essence of the wine under discussion.  No question that our minds are always actively seeking neat categories in which to place the objects we encounter on an ongoing basis; the most interesting wines of course are sui generis and verbally accounting for them strains our ability to adequately describe them.

[7] There is certainly a very memorable, iconic quality to a “flying cigar” on a wine label, and the ability to riff on this imagine has been a wellspring of inspiration to me over the years.  The recent sighting of the cigar-shaped asteroid, “Oumuamua,” for example, with its potential promise/threat of extraterrestrial surveillance/intervention, has yielded a reasonable crop of associations amongst Cigare Volant aficionados. Cigare Volant has become my sort of go-to trope, if you will. (But what could be more appropriate to the Luftmensch that I am?)

[8] There is in fact a nice sort of resonance in the Western frontier imagery of the “Rhône Rangers.”  Not exactly outlaws within the wine community, but certainly outsiders, the original Rhône Rangers would come together as a group (a posse comitatus), when the need for a sort of righteous vinous intervention within the community arose.

[9] There are two “lost vintages,” the ’97 and ’98, which were foolishly sealed with synthetic closures (pre-screwcap), leading to a premature evolution of the wine.  A real pity, as these were absolutely stellar wines.

[10] It is ironic, of course, that making the simplest wine at all, a 100% Grenache from Popelouchum, in the most rudimentary way possible, without the great, heroic effort of blending a number of varieties together to create complexity, has, at least on a preliminary basis (a very small test batch in 2015), proved to be perhaps the most exciting wine we have ever produced, and its “story”—the Popelouchum story—just reeks of authenticity and romance.

[11] I’ve written about this paradox before; the winemaking techniques that make the wine less prepossessing in its youth seem to be required to enable a wine to achieve a greater degree of ultimate excellence.

[12] Granted, this is a very heavy lift to accomplish by oneself, but one frustration I have had in communicating the “value” of Cigare is that I’ve not been able to successfully communicate the great virtue of vinous qi, or life-force, i.e. the ability to resist oxidation. “Tell me where is fancy bred?  Or in the heart or in the head?” (Or in 90+ point scores?) While ultimately “greatness” in wine reposes in so many elements, originality, complexity, integration, one element must certainly be the quality of persistence, a quality that Cigare exhibits in spades.

[13] It is very difficult to achieve really meaningful volume on a wine through restaurant sales unless one hits a certain attractive price point, which is to say a price lurking somewhere in the sub-$12/glass range.  Simply putting Cigare Volant on a wine list in a restaurant somewhere in East Fruit Bomb-F*** will likely cheer the heart of the (fellow-) traveler/Cigare aficionado, who finds himself or herself far, far away from home, attending a Widget implementation conference, but this increment does little to generate meaningful sales numbers.  Being able to shift significant volume through the retail (off-sale) channel, that is to say in wine shops, may actually be a big part of the answer.  But, because we find ourselves in what perhaps might be termed the Cali Yuga (sic), i.e. the prevalence of overwrought winemaking and overwrought wine-writing, wines of restraint and balance (Cigare Volant is Exhibit A!) seldom garner the approbation of most of the influential critics. (There actually have been some recent exceptions to this datum, viz. recent rave reviews on Cigare and other BDV wines from Josh Raynolds in Vinous, but, alas, I fear these have come rather too late in the game). Larger retail chains have become essentially 100% dependent on point scores to sell their wines and smaller, fine wine shops (an alarmingly diminishing population) have perhaps eschewed stocking Cigare for its perceived (and imagined) ubiquity, possibly imaginarily tainted by former association with the Big House brand.

[14] Our own vineyard, Popelouchum, in San Juan Bautista, will ultimately likely carry this certification, but if this is not a practice that derives from a sincere value system that they’ve internalized, persuading growers to farm biodynamically without the decision coming from the heart seems to be utterly futile.

[15] One doesn’t even want to begin to go into the potential Freudian implications of my rather total identification with the “Flying Cigare.” Sometimes a Cigare is just a bottle of wine or merely a landing craft from an advanced civilization.

[16] One tentative conclusion I’ve reached is that I’m not sure our customers are particularly interested in the very geeky technical issues brought up in the production of Cigare Volant.  I think that perhaps the more evocative, poetic, emotional language of the wine itself (ideally referential to place and to the natural world) makes the far more compelling argument.

[17] Contra, an utterly fabulous wine composed of old-vine Carignane, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre, should have sold brilliantly, but it did not set the world on fire.  (Perhaps the original “couch label” was a bit outré.) The Querry cider and the Proper Claret, likewise, should all have been home-runs—great value, great packaging – but they were not. On the side of the wholesalers and retailers who represent our wines, we have not made their life particularly easy with the initiation of so many new products in our portfolio; they have often wondered at times where to find the unifying thread of our sometimes eclectic product line.

[18] His criticism really stung, if only because there was a certain element of truth to it.  Perhaps Cigare had grown a bit formulaic through the early to mid- ’90s, and to some extent I was perhaps phoning it in for a few years, especially as Big House was growing rapidly. Indeed, we were then perhaps not really on a significant path of learning and improvement (that wouldn’t happen again till the early aughts, but, alas, the damage was already doon.)

[19] Then there is the somewhat more obvious hypothesis that subtle, elegant wines typically fail to gain the attention of press/influencers, (unless they are accompanied by a very strong and coherent story, as we have already discussed at some length).

[20] As a very young, inexperienced winery owner, in 1982 I stupidly ended up producing way more pink wine than I could reasonably sell.  I further compounded the problem—I don’t even remember how or why this happened—by blending two vintages of pink wine together, our Vin Gris, and now I had too much non-vintage pink wine on my hands.  Remember, BDV was still an utterly unknown winery, with distribution limited to California. So, I published something I called the Vin Gris Digestivo, a monthly publication with jokes, stories and factoids about pink wine, along with a tally of number of extant cases of non-vintage Vin Gris remaining in inventory.  This was pre-internet, so it was a printed letter sent to our wholesale and retail customers. It was frankly a sort of David Letterman-ish thing to do, but it came from a sincere desire to creatively engage customers (and shift the damn wine that was languishing in the warehouse). Maybe people had more time on their hands in the day to attend to this sort of foolishness, or I just wore them down, but eventually we were miraculously able to sell all of the wine.  My mother, Ruthie, who sold the wine for a while in Los Angeles, greatly helped this effort.

[21] I am certainly not saying that one should embrace or even follow the macro-trends, most especially if they run utterly counter to one’s deepest beliefs and ethics.  But rather, it seems imperative to try to develop the wit, the sensitivity, to discern the possibilities of certain micro-niches that exist within the larger macro-environment, wherein one might successfully thrive.

[22] I’ve written so many promotional pieces about Cigare—indeed at least one (indeed, usually many more than one) every year for the last thirty four years, and the angle has always been something like what new and unique thing did we learn about grapes or winemaking or minerality or whatever this year. It has never really felt appropriate to talk about what went wrong, if you will.  Le Cigare Volant has been a vin d’effort on every level; I’ve used my words as well as my winemaking talents to try to create a certain outcome.  I welcome the day when fewer words are needed, and the wine can perhaps speak for itself to a much greater extent.

[23] There is an interesting corollary to this, as far as wine sales, and especially apt to a discussion of a wine called “the flying cigar.”  For as long as I’ve been in the business, people would always way, “Selling wine is not rocket science.” I think that while that observation may well have been true for a very, very long time, I’m beginning to believe that selling wine, at least through the wholesale channel, is in fact every bit as complicated as rocket science.


Keynote speech at Wines and Vines Packaging Conference, August 9th, 2018, Yountville, CA

1982 Pinot Noir labelIt is a pleasure to be here today to talk about wine packaging and labeling, a subject I never imagined I’d be qualified to talk about, but something about which, like it or not, as an entrepreneurial winery owner, I’ve been compelled to try to master. I started out in the wine business with the relatively ambitious intention of making The Great American Pinot Noir, which is to say, a wine more or less thoroughly Burgundian in style, as I understood that to be. I felt it important to signal my intense and sincere francophilia in this earliest effort, so I more or less copied the style of the Louis Latour and Hubert de Montille labels. This was for me my very Introductory Course, Wine Labeling 101, if you will.

Original BDV Pinot Noir label, Louis Latour and de Montille labels

The label is so simple and elegant. In fact, in the beginning I just wanted to make simple, elegant wines asnd wine labels, and of course, naively believed I could just let the wine itself do the relevant salesmanship. (Boy, did I have a lot to learn!)

Here are some of the very earliest labels that we did. “Vin Rouge,” which was a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon and “Claret,” which was a bordelais blend – pretty austere design, no? Same basic concept as the Pinot Noir, but without the benefit of varietal designation. Thank goodness in those days selling wine was a lot easier to do than it is now. These bottlings, as you might imagine, did not exactly set the wine world on fire. I believe it is fair to say that unless one is faced with something like an existential threat, one generally does not have the disposition to venture too far out of one’s comfort zone, and probably if the Pinot had been a runaway success (it wasn’t) I may never have had the occasion to think up vivid, memorable and oh-so clever labels. But as they say about the prospect of one’s imminent demise having the tendency to focus the mind, there are certainly comparable dynamics at work in the world of very challenging wine selling and wine packaging.

Kermit Lynch

1982 BDV Vin Rouge, 1983 Claret labelSo, while my original intention in getting into the wine business was to produce The Great American Pinot Noir, I discovered soon that my Pinot project wasn’t working so well and I knew that I needed to pivot in a very significant way and find a different focus for the winery if I wanted to stay in business.

At this time I was beginning to spend some time with a fairly obscure Albanian wine merchant, called Kermit Lynch, who had a little store in Albany, CA. Kermit was and is a great fan of the wines of southern France, and I had a simple idea that maybe the varieties of southern France would be well suited to the Central Coast of California, a hypothesis that has in fact luckily been borne out. So, in the interest of staking out some well-differentiated territory with essentially no competitors, Blue Ocean, as they say, I set out to produce a sort of homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But what to call it? My first thought was that I needed to somehow clue customers in to the fact that was a wine made in the style of a Chateauneuf. But how could I do it in a way that wasn’t totally lame and forced?

Montage of California labels

My own pretentions notwithstanding, I had always thought that domestic wine labels pretending to be quasi-French were more than a little pretentious, if not just doonright silly. Still, I wanted to give customers a context for understanding the wine – remember that no one then knew anything at all about Rhône varieties – as well as to signal that my wine was très French in inspiration, if not in style. Of course, at the same time I didn’t want to be seen as an out and out copycat. What I needed to do was make a sly and witty reference to Châteauneuf and to show the world how cool and witty and non-copycat a New World copycat could be.Old Telegram label

I came up with the name, “Old Telegram” which was of course a reference to one of Kermit’s Châteauneufs, “Vieux Télégraphe. In all of my years in the wine business, people always ask me, “How do I come up with all of these label ideas?”

I usually just tell them, “Drugs,” and they laugh and wink, but honestly, I don’t really know where the ideas come from, but often they just come from some strange place; maybe the same place that gives forth verbal puns also produces visual puns. But remember, it can be a two-edged sword; he who lives by the yucks, can also die by yucks, as I was subsequently to learn at great cost.

In any event, once the wine was named “Old Telegram” I knew in a flash that the label just had to look a real old telegram, with the ticker-tape pasted on the paper and the use of the word “STOP” breaking up sentences. (That’s an old vaudeville schtick, by the way.) We even managed to get some Morse code dots and dashes embossed on the label. (It’s my conceit that someone somewhere out there appreciates this extra level of fanatical detail; maybe just maybe that is why some of our labels have made such an impression over the years.) So, Plan A was to call the wine “Old Telegram” but just as the Grenache grapes were about to arrive at the door, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to do a bit more research on the whole subject of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

I found a copy of the Livingstone-Learmonth book, “The Wines of the Rhône” and came across an interesting passage about how in 1954 the mayor of one of the towns of Chateauneuf-du-Pape was quite concerned about flying saucers and flying cigares landing in the vineyards, and he persuaded the town council to adopt legislation prohibiting such landings. The moment I read this I immediately thought that this would make a better label for a faux-Chateauneuf, because it was funnier and a more all-encompassing joke, i.e. you didn’t need special knowledge to appreciate it. (We did, of course later recycle the Old Telegram concept for our 100% Mourvèdre.)Close-up of Old Telegram label - embossed Morse Code

Again, the idea was to reference the context (in this case, Chateauneuf), take a classic look but do something slightly subversive with it, with the idea of letting the knowledgeable wine-drinking insider in on a private joke. It’s hard for people to always remember names of things but the fact that there was a UFO on the label would certainly make the package memorable. But, the real salient point here is that I was trying to introduce a new, unknown style of wine to the American public and needed to overcome the customer’s inherent reticence about asking about something they didn’t know. When you ask, “Why is the wine called “Le Cigare Volant” this allows a server in the restaurant to overcome his or her own shyness so they can feel free to to tell a story about this crazy law in southern France. You’re thus using humor as a means to lowering the barrier to entry to the sometimes formidable, mysterious world of wine. The “Cigare Volant” meme has actually been quite powerful, even infiltrating popular culture, showing up as the name of a snooty French restaurant for which the character Frasier Crane could never obtain a reservation.

1984 Le Cigare Volant label, Kelsey Grammer as “Frasier,” Cigare box

CBS TV Studios

We’ve riffed endlessly on the whole “Cigare” theme and for a while even packed the bottles in a sort of over-sized Cigare box, replete with faux-governmental warnings (“Will lead to disinhibitory behavior”) and a citation that it was bottled in La Republica Doonimicana.

Chuck House, Frog’s Leap label

Walter Taylor, Bully Hill label

I would be remiss in not mentioning that I have been very privileged to work with Chuck House, the brilliant label designer responsible for the Cigare label and so many others. I began working with him in 1985; he had just designed but one label at that time, the utterly genius “Frog’s Leap” label, which was winning all sorts of design awards. It was a relatively subversive idea at the time to use humor on a wine label; eccentric Walter Taylor in New York was the only one to have tried it and he was generally regarded as a kook. Using humor while trying to represent a wine of some substance creates a very fine line that one must walk, as I’ve learned.

The one thing that Chuck taught me is that a wine label is your opportunity to tell your customer what they can likely expect from what’s inside the bottle, set their expectations as far as style, quality, price, etc. You don’t want to create a situation of cognitive dissonance where the package promises something that the wine can’t deliver. Maybe I’m overstating it a bit but your wine label is something like a real opportunity to potentially bond with your customer, to create a sort of mini-affinity group. The customer identifies with the person who he or she imagines appreciates this sort of wine.

No Wimpy Wines, Ravenswood, Joel Peterson


This isn’t a wine label, but a bumper-sticker for Ravenswood wines. Joel Peterson is an absolutely brilliant marketer. He somehow was able to capture the quintessence of a Ravenswood Zinfandel wine drinker – someone who will simply not abide wimpy wines. The customer himself is not a wimp, nor, by extension, are the wines that he (it’s usually a he in this case) prefers.

Ravenswood tattoo on arm



The brand loyalty generated by the sort of identification of the customer with a brand is absolutely impressive. Joel told me that so many people had the Ravenswood logo actually tattooed on themselves – the design is, truth be told, a form of a very powerfully iconic and hypnotic swastika – that he took the initiative to produce Ravenswood logo applied tattoos. The one thing I do know is that customers sometimes project their fantasies about who you are based on the clues you provide them.



I don’t know which particular label or labels earned me the reputation as a contrarian “rebel” or anti-authoritarian but for whatever reason, for quite some time, at the conCardinal Zin labelclusion of winemaker dinners I would often be approached by fans of our wine who would either proffer me the secret Libertarian handshake, imagining that I had to be one of them, or alternately, lay a joint on me, imagining that I likewise shared a common interest in weed. “So, I understand that you’re crazy,” I would sometimes be told. Here is the utterly iconic “Cardinal Zin” label designed by Ralph Steadman, which is quite brilliant, and there’s no question at all that it was the label that really made this wine successful. The essence of the label is course the visual pun on the dual meanings of the word “Cardinal,” but I believe that somehow Ralph accidentally (or not) hit on a resonant chord with Zinfandel drinkers, at least the ones that I’ve had occasion to meet attending ZAP tastings for many years. Definitely a more disinhibited wine consumer than say your buttoned-down Bordeaux drinker. Definitely like to party, if you will; this label spoke to them. Obviously, Ralph is a genius illustrator, but working with him has had its challenges. Ralph does not take direction well. If you tell him, “Ralph, please do X; the only certain result will be that he will do Not-X.” So, I would just tell him the dimensions of the label and perhaps the name of the wine.

Cardinal Zin label


We produced a number of wine labels that were thought of as being slightly subversive or at least highly irreverent – one of course was Big House, so named because of the proximity of our vineyard to the storied Soledad prison. (For the record, Chuck House modeled the illustration after the Alcatraz prison, which was architecturally a lot more interesting.) Big House was far and away our most significant wine brand, and while it was a great commercial success, there is no question in my mind that it may have slightly tainted the perception of the overall gravitas of the brand.

There is an old joke about what they call you after having carnal relations with just one goat; even now more than 10 years after the sale of the brand, I’m afraid that Big House may have been my “one goat.”

On the subject of critters, we’ve had just a few on our labels in the past – a dog and a cat on the Ca’ del Solo labels, but in general, I’ve tried to make a pretty conscious effort to avoid critter labels whenever possible – they have become rather clichéed, to say the least. It is therefore a bit ironic that one of our most recent packages, La Bulle-Moose de Cigare, features, well, a moose, which seems to be, in fact, a critter. But, the reality is that when we lined it up side by side with a bunch of other potential label designs, the darn pink moose really stood out on the shelf. This would seem to not necessarily be a terrible thing, but we shall see.

La Bulle-Moose can

Frankly, if I had my druthers, the naughty part of me would very much have enjoyed producing a label called “Road Kill Red,” possibly featuring a bunch of flattened kangaroos, bears, penguins, etc. My better angels prevailed and we never produced such a label, but part of me suspects that it would have "Road Kill Red” labelbeen a great hit, as it were. Which brings another point to mind: I had hoped at some point in this speech to be able to deliver some sort of overarching, feel-good message about the key to a successful wine package being something like, “If you just follow your intuition, act with integrity, and connect to the part of yourself that just knows – kind of like “May the label designing Force be with you!” – then you will certainly be successful. I wish I could promise you that. I used to imagine that I understood what were the relevant elements for a successful wine – impeccable value, brilliant package, compelling story, being part of a dynamic market category. At a minimum, you likely need all of these things, but cleverness in the extreme isn’t always enough. If there’s any consolation, to paraphrase the great songwriter and performer, Randy Newman, “Who needs money/ When you’re funny?”

Now I think of myself not as the Rhône Ranger anymore, but rather as Tonto, I, Who Truly Know Nothing about the Wine Business. The number of factors that bear on the success of a particular brand is now nothing short of staggering. I am sorry to say that sometimes the greatest label design in the world won’t help at all if the market, in its infinite perversity, just doesn’t want your magnificent wine.


Lone Ranger and Tonto

So, Chuck House drummed into me the desirability of showing on the outside of the bottle what a customer would find on the inside, and I think, perhaps in retrospect, I took his words perhaps a bit too literally. We went through a fairly long period of producing what you would call see-through labels, where part of the story was told on the front label and part of the story was told on the inside part of the back label. We were at the time launching a wine called “Pacific Rim Riesling” and I wanted to convey the fact that it was indeed a grape of German origin, and of course would complement Asian food. So, literalist that I was, the first design brief I gave Chuck was to illustrate an attractive Asian woman on the front label, who, when we observe her, has been reading a very heavy German philosophical tome, Kant, perhaps, and growing drowsy, has just fallen asleep. One then beheld as if through the looking glass, her dream on the inside part of the back label.

Pacific Rim labels

Sigmund Freud


For the dream tableau, I had asked Chuck to draw a quaint Alsatian or German village, and in the illustration include a bunch of naughty Freudian dream symbols – mysterious flying cigars and a train coming out of a tunnel, that sort of thing. Chuck and I were set to meet at a Mexican restaurant in Rohnert Park that day to finalize the details of the label. But as fate would have it, the Mexican restaurant was temporarily closed owing to some health inspection issues, and we ended up eating at a Japanese sushi restaurant instead. The sushi menu had pictures of the various rolls and sashimi; and somehow I was inspired borrow Chuck’s X-acto knife so I could cut them up to play with. What we found was that if you pasted the sushi fish on the back of the bottle and you looked through the bottle and turned your head a certain way, it would look as if the fish were swimming around, and this seemed awfully cool. Anyhow, while I greatly loved the illustration of the quaint and naughty dream vilMalvasia Bianca labellage, I thought that the sushi would ultimately make for a more memorable label and perhaps speak to how the wine could be used at table. Alas, we never were particularly successful in selling the wine in to sushi restaurants.

When I mentioned that I intuitively moved in the direction of using humor to contextualize my homage to Chateauneuf, I imagined that I would have to use the same strategy of deploying disarming humor to even begin to sell my first case of wine made from (gasp) Italian grape varieties. Chuck House and I came up with the idea of using a kind of cartoonish illustration on a series of wines we made under the Ca’ del Solo label. This is a picture of little Malvasia Bianca on her first day of school, letting go of her mother’s hand, going “solo” (get it?) and of course, stepping on every crack in the sidewalk she comes across. You can see that Chuck and I are not shy about the inspiration we get from other illustrators.


Illustrations from Madeline and Eloise,

We actually briefly got into a bit of trouble with Washington State, which objected to the “depiction of a minor child on a wine label.” I honestly was quite tempted to go with modifying the label to look something like this if Washington state had not backed down.

Paper-bag over little Malvasia’s head

Chuck did a whole series of wine labels for us for our Ca’ del Solo series, which I think captured the sense of fun and adventure that I was trying to not so subliminally suggest to our potential customers.

I rather liked the label we did for a wine called “Il Pescatore,” which was a white blend. Again, you had to look through the bottle to see what the fisherman had caught, which turned out to be a boot in the shape of Italy, a cunning metaphor for the fact that I was myself utterly caught up by the enchanting wines of la bella Italia. Chuck always would stress to me how careful you wanted to be in setting customer’s expectations with the label, and of course the cartoony labels carried with them a bit of baggage, i.e. an upward price limit. But, it is interesting how you can try to play with the form and tweak it, in this case towards representing a more serious and hence expensive wine.


Il Pescatore label

Commedia del Arte Nebbiolo label



Against all odds, we produced a very good Nebbiolo from our Estate vineyard in Soledad. Good luck with selling domestic Nebbiolo, but we did with this sort of illustration inspired by the commedia del arte, manage to achieve a bit of a fine art quality to the label, which might have theoretically helped us in being able to command a higher price point, were this not such a challenging category. The brilliant label was not able to overcome the structural difficulty in selling domestic Nebbiolo.



You can see that Italians themselves are not immune to playfulness on their labels with the very best of them, such as you see in the Vietti series done by Gianni Gallo, being truly fine art illustrations. I cannot stress how important the quality of the illustration is, however playful the subject, if you are serious about conveying a degree of gravitas about the wines.

Gianni Gallo labels (Vietti)
As I mentioned, Walter Taylor of Bully Hill was the first one to really use visual humor on a wine label. He was in the day generally written off as a deranged nutcase, but as you can see, the wine business has subsequently discovered the pop art form.

New World comic labels

While Bonny Doon was once among the very few to produce wine labels in a sort of jocular style, this style has seemingly exponentially proliferated, each trying to outdo the last in terms of the vividness of its visual appeal. I probably should have said this at the beginning of this presentation, but I do sometimes feel that I owe the wine world a formal apology for whatever part I played in helping to unleash this onslaught of total goofiness and questionable taste. Forgive me for I have Cardinal Zinned. Anyhow, to return to this phenomenon: Perhaps with these sorts of labels, wineries are trying to connect with the easily distracted millennial generation, but it seems like a race to see who can capture the putatively nano-second attention span of the millennial drinker. Obviously, there are many messages that are potentially communicated through the label, beginning with the obvious ones.

Don’t worry, customer, this wine will not be astringent or “hard,” in fact it will be sweet and very fruity. There will be no questions on the test about, God forbid, terroir. Go ahead, indulge yourself; it won’t bite.

Cherry Pie and Cupcake labels

You’re not a wine snob. You’re a rebel, Dottie. You don’t mind shocking your friends a bit.

Bitch, If You See Kay… label

Make America Grape Again baseball cap

How did that get in here? What can I say? I’m a rebel, Dottie.


Macho Nacho

Flansburg Design

I have to share with you what was either the very best or very worst Bonny Doon package in history, which we did for our Wine Club. We called this little number, “Macho Nacho” because the wine itself, to my great chagrin, frankly tasted a bit like jalapeño taco chips. Applying these labels to the bottle required several advanced degrees in topology, but say what you will, the package was quite memorable. And, amazingly after 10 years or so in the bottle, the wine actually came around and tasted quite good. Big House, Cardinal Zin with an X through the label

To be totally transparent, I’ve not been entirely successful with all of our packaging efforts. After I sold the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, I was casting around to try to find a wine that I could produce in reasonable volume that could help us in the all important world of le cash-flow. I wanted to make a wine that would stylistically remain in the realm of southern France, if possible, and of course, reaffirm my abiding interest in the contribution of terroir or sense of place to the wine itself. I had had a lot of experience working with the old-vine Carignane, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre vineyards of Contra Costa County for several wines, and so, it seemed that I could potentially re-purpose them for a higher concept (i.e. old vine) blended wine, which we would call “Contra.” What could possibly go wrong?

Contra label

I wanted to somehow capture the the sense of place of Oakley and Antioch, CA, and if you know the area at all, somehow this photograph of an abandoned couch in the vineyard very cogently expresses the je ne sais quoi of these (ahem) charming Delta towns. The wine itself was wonderful, got great reviews, but many of the wholesalers just hated the label and adamantly refused to carry the wine. You’ll note that there’s an interesting typographic detail; the type font selected for the word “Contra” is the so-called “Exocet” font, as I was trying to riff on the “Contra” insurgency group, with a small nod to the political persuasion of the Oakley populace. It was explained to me that NRA enthusiasm for the label notwithstanding, there were in fact some tender-hearted customers who were not crazy about this particular detail. I still sentimentally love this label, but perhContra label revisedaps irony is dead.

Not being one to easily quit, we re-did the label and this is a magnificent effort by the brilliant Steven Solomon, who does the graphics for Terroir Wine Bar in NYC. It’s witty and edgy (like Steven), maybe a bit too reminiscent of some of the Charles Smith labels, but I really liked it. Radically changing package designs on a brand that is still teetering is not a particularly great recipe for success, so with a great sense of disappointment, we stopped making this truly worthy wine.

I think that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to use the medium of label design as a creative outlet, as well as even a form of public confessional. This is a label that we did for a wine called “Roussa"Roussanne” Cyrano and Viognier “Pinocchio” labelnne,” designed by a calligrapher, Wendy Cook, who had never before designed a wine label, but it is just amazing. (That’s Cyrano de Bergerac: Roussanne, Roxanne? Get it?) When it turned out that the “Roussanne” grapes we were using were not in fact Roussanne but Viognier, I just asked Wendy to do another label for us, and, voilà, Cyrano became Pinocchio. (If you look carefully, the word “Roussanne” written in backward script is visible in Pinocchio’s nostril.)Le Sophiste bottle

This reminds me of one of the most interesting packages we put together in the late ‘80s, when my own sense of taste was still careening wildly between the marginally sophisticated and the doonright outré. This was for the first Estate grown “Roussanne”/Marsanne blend, which we called “Le Sophiste.” Kind of a silly name; the Sophists were a school of Greek philosophers rather known for their proclivity for disputation and argument – giving us the terms “sophistry” (or argument by trickery) and “sophistication” (with its own ambiguous meaning). Chuck House loved to make torn paper collages from ephemera – newspapers, train ticket stubs, that sort of thing. The character on the label was meant to be invested with a degree of insouciance, a flâneur, if you will, though frankly, he did come off as looking a bit like Mr. Peanut. In lieu of a capsule, we had a special top-hat created for the package. (The cork itself was imprinted with the words, “Mise en bouteille au chapeau.” Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.) I was thrilled when Larry Stone ordered five cases of Le Sophiste for Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, though he insisted that they be shipped without the top-hats, as he thought that they were too corny for his lah-di-dah clientele.

Muscat Vin de Glacière labels

Occasionally, we would make a wine that was a commercial success, well despite the fact that the label was just not right. On the left you can see the original label design for Muscat, “Vin de Glacière.” This was a three part glue-on label that was put onto a notoriously skinny, wobbly bottle. It was an enormous headache to apply and to quality-control on the bottling line. We then changed to this second, self-adhesive label, which I confess I never really liked. It looked quite a bit like a crime scene. So, we changed it again, to this slightly naughty iteration – the gauzy look of the label originated from the fabric of a woman’s under-garment. I remember personally walking into Carol Doda’s lingerie shop in the City years ago, asking to see something frilly, hurriedly assuring her that it was not for me. “That’s alright, dear, I understand,” she soothingly told me.

Il Circo wine labels (Moscato, Violetta, Ruchè, Erbaluce
I’d like to share with you some of what I think of as the most interesting labels we’ve done, some of which have worked well, others less well. This is a series of labels designed by the very talented, mononomial Bascove. This was for a series of oddball Italian wines we imported in the day, called “Il Circo.” A sort of night at the circus, each one of these labels represented a slightly circus-freaky, or at least largely unknown, Italian grape variety. (Here, I was trying to use the label get out in front of the problem of the non-recognition of these somewhat obscure varieties, to help facilitate the beginning of a conversation.) Attempting to sell wines made from these sort of oddball varieties years ago was in fact a sort of death-defying kind of feat in and of itself.Uva di Troia, “La Violetta”

My favorite is “La Violetta,” the tattooed lady. This was a gesture to try to represent or exteriorize the essence of the wine itself on the label. Uva di Troia, a grape grown in Puglia, has the most particular perfume of violets, sometimes said to be a bit obvious or even tawdry, but that’s Violetta.

Syrah, “Le Pousseur”

Here’s another label, “Syrah, “Le Pousseur,” also drawn by the marvelous Bascove. The design concept here is that I wanted the label to look like a Tarot card; I suppose I was just letting my unconscious mind wander freely, but there’s a long association of the occult with Southern France – the Gnostic association most notably. So, we invested a kind of seriousness through the fine art aspect of the label and by historical association. At the same time the enigmatic quality of the label, allows the customer to invest his or her own set of meanings into the illustration. It’s a sort of ongoing obsession, but we always try if possible to link some relevant attribute of the wine with the label itself; in this case it’s a bit fanciful and perhaps far-fetched, but the unconscious is very well capable of making connections. I wanted this archetypal, Tarot figure to be a slightly disreputable sort – a sort of flim-flam man, mountebank/grifter, but might he perhaps be a genuine Medicine Man? Why did I use this particular conceit? Proper, cool climate Syrah has such a strong perfume – white pepper and bacon fat – rotundone is the relevant molecule, by the way – in my febrile imagination, I thought of it almost as a vaguely illicit substance or at least one, like certain kinds of cough syrup, heavily regulated by governmental authorities.

Proper Claret, Proper Pink, Gravitas labels

Bascove has done another series of labels for us – the so-called “Proper” wines. Here are “A Proper Claret”, “Gravitas” and “A Proper Pink.” The protagonist of this series is my alter-ego, whom I call Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite. He’s a Tory, very, very Old Skool, and also quite given to wearing fishnet stockings at his ease. I love the detail that we’ve managed to include in the labels. On the Claret label, the names of the grape varieties are written on the spines of the books in his library, and on the Gravitas you can see the engraving (SB (HEARTS) Sem) on the tree. We hope that our customers appreciate these fine details. It’s a matter of faith for me that paying attention to these very small details on the label on some level conveys to the customer the fact that we are equally scrupulous in our attention to winemaking details as well.I’m Not Drinking Any @#$%& Merlot

In fairness, not all of our labels have turned out to be majestic works of art. Here’s one we did somewhat cynically, called “I’m Not Drinking Any @#$%&! Merlot,” which of course is made from 100% Merlot. That’s an old Citroën Traction on the label. Perhaps shamelessly incorporating popular culture into the label does not represent our finest moment, but again, I am often incapable of passing on what I imagine at the time to be an amusing visual pun.


Freisa label “Totally Repugnant; Immensely Appetizing”

This is in fact my very favorite Bonny Doon label, done for us by the Canadian illustrator, Gary Taxali, and was created for a wine we made for our wine club from the very obscure grape, Freisa. (We made no less than three different versions of Freisa and were equally challenged in selling any of them.) This was for a dry red-style, and as you can see, we juxtaposed these two striking images side-by-side, definitely creating a bit of dramatic tension. Somewhere we had tracked down quotes from Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, writing about how they really felt about the Freisa grape. “Immensely appetizing!” said Jancis, and “Totally repugnant!” opined Robert. I’m not sure how many converts we made to the Freisa cause with this label, but I have to imagine that somebody out there saw this label and smiled.Daguinaux Silex label vs. Molly Dooker label

I’ll just take a brief moment here to weigh in on the subject of how differently the wine cultures of the Old and New World inform our respective wine labeling practices. To tell their story, great producers in Europe of an older generation will typically, maybe stereotypically, rely on the authority of the appellation itself, or the authority of a representation of the domaine or chateau on the label, such as you might find on a classified growth Bordeaux – based on the implicit French article of faith in the immutable hierarchical order of things. On the other hand, a younger generation winemaker from Alsace, the Loire or the Rhône, who has been blessed with a strong, expressive terroir, might express the unique quality of his or her wine in a different way, perhaps using the label to represent the unique characteristics of the geology that informs the wine. So, you’ll see labels that depict quartz or limestone or schist. For some of us mineral-head wine geeks, this is just catnip, a major turn-on, but to the average North American Joe Caymus, this in fact can represent a major turn-off. “I don’t want rocks in my wine!” he will cry. Instead, we get labels that promise an intense, rich hedonic experience, but don’t worry, you won’t have to worry about picking up nuances from any of those pesky minerals.Bien Nacido Syrah label

Obviously, not all of the wine labels we’ve done over the years have been played for laughs. We do, after all, attempt to make some reasonably serious wines from time to time. For example, we have been fortunate to source Syrah grapes from the superb Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria, which has helped us make some fairly grown-up wines. How do I attempt to convey to my perhaps slightly skeptical audience that this time, I’m serious! I didn’t want to put rocks on my label, but did want to express that I have in some fashion, made an attempt to capture a sense of the sublime order of nature, because that in fact is what terroir truly is, a reflection of Nature’s order. I found a great illustration of a representation of a spiral nebula, which is a form of the Fibonacci series, arguably God’s Greatest Hit or at least among His Top 3, and I hoped that the message got across at least subliminally.

It is my belief that sometimes labels just try too hard – that’s certainly been the case with some of ours – and of course that is the very last thing you want to convey to your customer; you don’t want them to ever see you sweat. For wine bottles are magical vessels assembled by magical elves who toil joyfully without complaint for the benefit of the discriminating, gentle consumer. But it is important to remember that creating a memorable and successful package is a collaborative process between the label designer and the consumer. I believe that a perfect label leads the consumer ¾ of the way, but also allows enough room for the individual to make that last final leap themselves and, at least for a moment or two, invest a little skin in the game through the engagement of their imagination. It has been a sincere pleasure to talk to you today.


Michelangelo painting of God reaching out to Adam

Michelangelo Buonarroti


A Vertical Selection of Cigare Volant

2012 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 39% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 2% Cinsaut
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 33% Del Barba, 18% Bien Nacido, 17%  Alta Loma, 11% Ventana, 7% Rancho Solo, 6% Enea, 5% Alamo Creek, 2% Woock, 1% Spanish Springs
Cellaring: 10-15 years from release (June 2016)
Alcohol by Volume: 13.5%
TA: 5.6 g/L
pH: 3.6
Production: 4,000 cases

Dark saturated color, with a very rich savory mouthfeel and a preternaturally long finish. Despite the fact that this wine is composed of scantly more than a third Mourvedre, the strong herbal/garrigue/beef bouillon cube character of the Provençal variety is rather pronounced. Not just red and black fruit, but there are stems and leaves of the red/black fruit as well. This likely makes no sense to the rational mind, but one is struck equally by both the rusticity and elegance of this wineit is if the refined Burgundian Clement had a rustic cousin, Clem in Provence. I’m not certain why this wine is so appealing, even comforting, but perhaps it is the soft, enveloping tannins and the extraordinarily long finish; a wine to be consumed by a roaring fire. There is no more appropriate wine currently produced on the planet than this one to complement a beef daube.

2013 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 55% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 16% Mourvèdre, 4% Cinsaut
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 38% Rancho Solo, 21% Bien Nacido, 18% Ventana, 17% Del Barba, 4% Bechtold, 2% Alta Loma
Cellaring: 10-15 years from release (May 2018)
Alcohol by Volume: 14.5%
TA: 6.5 g/L
pH: 3.48
Production: 2,400 cases

The 30th Anniversary release of this, our flagship wine. A beautiful winedark and mulberry in color as in nose. One scents cool loamy earth with suggestions of raspberries and Damson plums. I do so love the largely Grenache vintages of Cigare; there’s an unmistakable spiciness to themorange peel, cinnamon and black pepper. Grenache is not just about fragrance however; any synesthete worth his/her Maldon salt will know that the scent of Grenache is in part highly texturalsoft and velveteen. And sure enough, on the palate the wine is also an essence of velours.

2014 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 39% Grenache, 35% Mourvèdre, 17% Syrah, 7% Cinsaut, 2% Viognier
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 38% Rancho Solo, 20% Bien Nacido, 34% Del Barba, 7% Bechtold, 1% Popelouchum
Cellaring: 10-15 years from release (August  2018)
Alcohol by Volume: 14.1%
TA: 5.8 g/L
pH: 3.56
Production: 2,296 cases

Very bright, deep ruby color, lots of black fruit, mulberries and cherries on the nose. There is a pronounced minty, almost alpine pepperiness, which is the unmistakable hallmark of Bien Nacido Syrah. In my mind at least, it is this septentrional (north of 45th parallel) character that so tellingly differentiates Cigare Volant from say, meridional Châteauneuf-du-Pape, giving it an unmistakable lift.  I flatter myself, but apropos of “coolth,” this wine works a bit like Miles’ musicplenty of space between the notes, allowing the wine to expand and grow in the glass.  One last (blue) note: While the phenomenon is undoubtedly multi-factoral, the wine is remarkably resistant to oxidation after it’s been opened, remaining fresh for the better of a week.  This is profoundly good news for the long-term prospects of this wine and for those who still possess a capacious cellar.

2015 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 57% Grenache, 17% Cinsaut, 16% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 36% Alta Loma, 21% Rancho Solo, 17% Bechtold, 16% Del Barba, 10% Coastview
Cellaring: 10-15 years from release (August 2018)
Alcohol by Volume: 13.5%
TA: 5.7 g/L
pH: 3.67
Production: 1,404 cases

The élevage for this wine is rather different from previous vintages, with a substantial portion of the volume deriving from Cigare aged in 5-gallon glass demijohns (bonbonnes), which were ultimately blended into the same wine that had reposed in 10,000 liter wood uprights and puncheons.  Medium, vivid ruby color, with an incredibly lifted, ethereal floral aromaalmond blossoms, violets, sandalwood and wild strawberries, almost, dare I say, Burgundian in aspect.  On the palate, a dreamy weightlessness (this is a good thing!), silky tannins and an enormously persistent finish. The kind of wine that drives wine aficionados to drink, being a wine of great charm, elegance and intelligence.  With decanting (and time), the wine seems to grow in both body and depth. Certainly one of the most charming Cigares of memory.

2016 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 41% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, 14% Cinsaut
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 33% Rancho Solo, 30% Del Barba, 14% Bechtold, 10% Lieff, 10% Shokrian, 3% Wolff
Cellaring: Ideally hold at least 6 months to 1 year from release (August 2018).
Aging potential after that: 10-15 years.
Alcohol by Volume: 14.5%
TA: 6.0 g/L
pH: 3.68
Production: 2,066 cases

This wine was definitely not open for business upon first opening,1 so I’m taking another sniff and taste twenty-four hours later.  What a difference a day makes!2 The wine has darkened in color, immensely deepened in body, and the nose is just climbing out of the glass. Dark woodsy, fairy-tale nose – juniper berry and crushed pink peppercorns, licorice.  It was in this vintage where we began using a substantially higher percentage of un-destemmed grapes3 (primarily Mourvèdre and Grenache) and as a result, as I conceive it, there is more gras or substance to the wine, and presence of a sort of dark, lower register, a basso continuo, if you will.

2017 Le Cigare Volant

Varietal Blend: 35% Grenache, 34% Mourvèdre, 17% Cinsaut, 14% Syrah
Appellation: Central Coast
Vineyards: 35% Ventana, 34% Del Barba, 17% Bechtold, 8% Tolosa, 6% Lieff
Cellaring: Ideally hold 3 years from release (August 2018).
Aging potential after that: 10-15 years.
Alcohol by Volume: 13.4%
TA: 6.4 g/L
pH: 3.52
Production: 2,080 cases

Again, we were up to our old/new tricks in air-drying the Grenache and Mourvedre fruit so that we might use a substantial portion of un-destemmed clusters in the fermenter.4  This particular trick has given this wine the wonderful advantage of a robust skeletal framework, upon which the fruit/flesh is seamlessly embedded. (We conserve the “fruit” or succulence/sucrosity of the wine through minimal, gentle cellar movements, always rigorously anaerobic.)  My colleague, Nicole Walsh and I toil away at the Cigare blend every year, and while the blend will change (sometimes radically) from year to year, we share an idea of the Platonic form of Cigare, and the ’17 certainly embodies that form. It goes something like this: Juiciness, fruit (but not confected or overripe), brightness, exuberance, joy, and not least, a sense of savoriness.  I realize I’m not speaking orthodox wine parlance. We look above all for balance and for liveliness, for vinous qi.  This wine is still incredibly young and just wants to jump out of its shoes.

This is certainly one of the potential (minor) shortcomings of screwcaps, but the minor contretemps of a “closed” wine is more than made up by the screwcap’s enhancement of a wine’s ultimate longevity.
Needless to say, I strongly recommend decanting several hours before service, and can promise you that this will be a Cigare for decades of maturation.
These were grapes that were air-dried for several days with the intention of lignifying the stems, not so much with the idea of dehydrating the fruit. But the (ripe) stems impart a beautiful source of tannin, giving the wine a real spine; they protect it from the cold and unforgiving world it will ultimately have to confront.
The presence of stems in the wine is evinced in part by a sort of “gatheredness” of the wine, a core. While a young wine can exhibit perhaps a slight character of “stemminess,” if the stems are well matured, that aspect manifests more as a form of mintiness.

 To view a 6-pack Vertical offering on these vintages, please click here.

Perfect Thanksgiving Wine Pairings for This Year’s Celebration


It’s already that time of year again! Whether you’re cooking for a horde of loved ones, or are charged with wine duty for your celebration, we have Thanksgiving wine pairings to please everyone at the table.


For the Group of Many Tastes

Have a little bit of everything in your group? These dynamic selections offer a diverse collection of tastes and approaches to suit every niche. Cover all of your bases with this collection.


2016 Vin Gris de Cigare

49% Grenache, 19% Grenache Blanc, 13% Mourvèdre, 12% Carignane, 4% Cinsaut, 3% Roussanne

This dry rosé will pair with everything at your Thanksgiving table… if the bottle makes it through appetizers! With a subtle and haunting perfume, this wine is all about elegance and restraint. Rosehips, cassis, fraises de bois, citrus rind, with a wonderfully austere stony finish. Goes perfectly with oysters (if you’re going for a nontraditional menu), but is equally at home aside a cut of roasted turkey. A truly versatile option to consider as you drum up your Thanksgiving wine pairings.


2014 Le Cigare Blanc

66% Grenache Blanc, 34% Roussanne

Since 2003, we’ve produced this blend of grenache blanc and roussanne derived from a single vineyard source, the Beeswax Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County. The white analog of Le Cigare Volant, it’s a rich, savory wine, intensely flavored for a relatively modest level of alcohol.

Le Cigare Blanc remains a great vin de gastronomie, pairing well with rich, buttery dishes. Savory vegetable gratins and other side dishes are the perfect match to this Rhône white blend.


2012 Le Cigare Volant Réserve

39% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 2% Cinsault

Anaerobically perfected in 20 liter glass demijohns on its lees, this wine represents the peak of elegance in the Bonny Doon Vineyard range. Lovely with game birds, lamb, or venison; think pan seared lamb chops with rosemary & garlic, duck liver pâté, grilled quail, and venison steak. Pairs equally well with simpler fare, like cheese.

2013 Syrah Le Pousseur

100% Syrah 

An incredibly accessible wine, great by the glass, and was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best Thanksgiving bargain syrahs!

Wild plums, blackberries, Griotte cherries and licorice (of course). The tannins are soft and supple, and the wine has so much persistence. Benefits enormously from decantation, and is ideally served in large balloon Burgundy glasses. Pair with lamb chop with a minty chimichurri, or even a bit of briny grilled eggplant.



Fail-Safe Family Friendly Picks

You can’t go wrong with these crowd-pleasing best sellers! These popular selections make for fantastic Thanksgiving wine pairings, and pair seamlessly with a traditional Thanksgiving menu from start to finish.


2014 “Gravitas”

54% Semillon, 43.5% Sauvignon Blanc, 2.5% Orange Muscat

A blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musqué and a homeopathic amount of Orange Muscat, “Gravitas” is an homage to the earthy, floral whites of Bordeaux. It’s a real treat for those who are familiar with Bordeaux-style white blends, but approachable for everyone at the table.

Light, deft, and full of fresh acidity, this wine pairs perfectly with all manner of seafood and lighter entrées. Roasted veggies make a great accompaniment, too!


2015 “Cunning”

76% Carginane, 24% Mourvèdre

Your roasted turkey will be stunning with Cunning. All jokes aside, this Rhône red blend of Carignane & Mourvèdre is a staff favorite when choosing Thanksgiving wine pairings. Griotte cherry lozenge, lush, full texture, tobacco, and the unmistakable umami-rich flavor of beef bouillon serve well with traditional Thanksgiving staples like Turkey and savory stuffing.


2012 Le Cigare Volant

39% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 2% Cinsault

Our flagship red blend since 1984, and a “Great Wine” Winner at Slow Food’s Slow Wine Awards. Tannic and meaty in the lower registers; peppery, fruitful and delicately floral in the top, all the while showing great balance and harmony. Perfect with a standing rib roast.


2013 “Vinferno”

100% Grenache Blanc

Our late harvest Grenache Blanc dessert wine is extremely well balanced with acidity. Coconut, papaya, pineapple, pear and quince paste in the nose, and a suggestion of dried fruit. There is a wonderful toastiness to the nose, and maybe even the caramelized sugar of a of crème brulée. Pairs effortlessly with pumpkin pie, apple tart, or a course of nuts and cheeses.



Undiscovered Favorites

Different from each other as they may be, these unique selections are sure to bring the family together. Introduce your loved ones to unique and delicious finds that can fulfill even the most particular tastes in the room.


2014 “A Proper Claret”

36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Petit Verdot, 22% Tannat, 9% Syrah, 7% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petite Sirah

Our “A Proper Claret” is lean, and neither overly alcoholic (weighing in at 13.2%) nor overly extracted, nor overly oakèd; precisely what one would imagine A Proper Claret to be. A silky note of violets and textural elegance lend evidence of the Petit Verdot (22%), in counterpoint to the lead-in-the-pencil firmness offered by the inclusion of the virile Tannat (22%).

Pairs deliciously with a wild mushroom risotto, roasted turkey roulade, or even smoked duck. A perfect wine to have in your glass on a chilly evening by the fire.


2013 Vin Gris Tuilé

55% Grenache, 23% Mourvèdre, 10% Roussanne, 7% Cinsaut, 3% Carginane, 2% Grenache Blanc

Calling all sherry lovers! The Vin Gris Tuilé has a distinctive production process, aged 9 months al fresco in glass demijohn, turning it a brick orange color from the oxidation. Its unique production process imparts a distinctive nuttiness with definitively sherry-like qualities. It’s light, tangy, and dry with notes of lemon, tangerine, butterscotch, caramel, and candied pecan.

Serve it before dinner as an aperitif, or alongside Mediterranean cuisine. Also pairs well with French onion soup, or even oysters on the half shell.


2015 Moscato Giallo

100% Moscato Giallo

A sweet white wine that can charm even the most delicate of palates. The first impression is lavender, immediately followed by candied citrus peel and musk melon, with the slightest trace of bitterness.

Ideal with a savory course like foie gras or a blue cheese cake appetizer, but also just fine as a dessert wine with a fruit dessert. Staff favorite pairings include spicy Sichuan hot pot, Korean cuisine, such as Bibimbap or Ojingeo Bokkeum (Spicy Squid Stir Fry), or Thai. A bit of spice plays nice when pairing the Moscato Giallo!


Looking for more Thanksgiving wine pairings and ideas? For more wine suggestions, or for more pairing ideas, check out our holiday packs.

Wrapping Up Harvest 2017

Harvest 2017 - Sara, Nicole and Helen sorting Cinsault from Bechtold Vineyard.

Sara, Nicole and Helen sorting Cinsault from Bechtold Vineyard.

Harvest 2017 - Grenache at Ventana Vineyard.

Grenache at Ventana Vineyard.

Harvest 2017 - Cinsault at San Lucas Vineyard.

Cinsault at San Lucas Vineyard.


Harvest is wrapping up here as we take in the last of the Alta Loma Grenache, which seems to be this vintage’s giving tree. Not to worry though, as the unanticipated excess will go into our next vintage of Vin Gris de Cigare, which has been continuously a vintage sell out.

In the broader scheme of things, this year seemed to fall in line with the more historic pre-drought years. Picking times were about 2-3 weeks later than they have been in the last 4 years, and quantity was above average. A couple of heat waves put us on edge for a moment, but just as the Brix (measured sugar content in grapes) often jump up during the heat, they also have the tendency to back down when followed by cooler temperatures, allowing for a little more hang time, balance, and structure. For now, it’s time to put our snips away and start soaking up those empty barrels patiently waiting in the cellar.


Helen Ziegler, Popelouchum Vineyard & Farm Assistant

― Helen Ziegler,
Popelouchum Vineyard & Farm Assistant

Vinquiring Minds Want to Know: Deep Questions for my Pal, Guy Miller, (Mostly) on the Subject of Vinous Congruity

Dr. Guy Miller, M.D., Ph.D

My friend, Guy Miller, who is a physician, biochemist and deep thinker about the role of electrochemistry in biological systems, walked into the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room more than twenty years ago, and somehow in very short order, struck up a conversation about redox chemistry with me.  (“Far more interesting than acid-base chemistry,” he has told me on more than one occasion, “which is what enologists tends to focuses on, because it’s a lot easier to understand.”)[1]  Guy knows something about the subject, and it has been his scientific preoccupation for as long as I’ve known him.   He has very graciously offered to apply his own brain power as well as some super-computing time to try to help me answer some fundamental questions – his research really ties in very closely to an understanding of what might be called the the qi or “life-force” and order of biological systems – as we try to work out an approach to discovering real congruence in our efforts at Popelouchum.  These are the questions I posed to him, with a bit of annotation:

What is “minerality” (and secondarily, what is its formal relationship to “terroir”)?[2] Special bonus question: Why do some wines live and some wines die?   

iron-oxide-bramaterra-lessonaLike obscenity, everyone knows “minerality” when they see/taste it, but no one has any idea precisely what it is. The most significant feature of “mineral” wines is that they are much more resistant to oxidation over time, even those wines that are seemingly absent the usual list of anti-oxidative suspects – anthocyanins, tannins, etc.  Great Burgundies after opening will often remain fresh for as long as a week or even longer.  Nebbiolo from Lessona (grown in very low pH soils that are also very high in iron) will go weeks if not months after opening before the appearance of any acetaldehyde.

“Minerality” is sometimes confounded with “acidity,” salinity and often associated with the presence of sulfur-containing “reductive” products, esp. disulfide and mercaptans.[3] Wines aged under reductive condition, sur lie, for example, where there is the intentional creation of a complex of reduction products, seem to mimic the presentation of “mineral” wines.  There is some speculation that the presence of succinic acid (a fermentation by-product) might itself be linked to “minerality” (or even to generalized wine quality), but begs the question of what conditions in the vineyard might favor its formation, if it is indeed an integral part of the phenomenon.  Here are some of the features, known accomplices, if you will, of wines exhibiting “minerality”:


Patrick Ducournau

a) Derived from grapes grown on mineral-rich soils with extant parent material (small pebbles, gravels in process of decomposition), also soils rich in exchangeable cations, typically possessing a large internal surface area, i.e. volcanic, schistous, porphyric, granitic, etc.  (Pet theory: greater internal surface area = bigger habitat for colonization of mycorrhizae.) Limestone soils (also with miles of internal surface area) represent a strong and recognizable terroir, but it is not really thought of so much as mineral, more as producing wines with greater length and finer perfume.

b) Organic/biodynamic/no-till farming, also use of biochar.  All of these practices have been shown to correlate to greater microbial life (mycorrhizae) in the soil, which is an unequivocally good thing both for the plant as well as for the produce it yields – improved disease resistance, resistance to water stress, better nutritional status and generally enhanced flavor; they can be thought of as a terroir Which brings my question: Apart from affording better nutritional status to the plant, enabling it to withstand diverse stresses – drought and disease pressure, notably – might there be ways that the mycorrhizae themselves (or their metabolites) contribute to “minerality” or terroir directly, perhaps by moving through the vasculature of the plant itself, like an endophyte and ending up in the fruit?  (The identification of transient organisms in wine that are not easily plated, is still very rudimentary.)


Discussion: I think of minerality as a quality that adds dimensionality or length to the taste of wine, somehow drawing out the attack on the palate, or more accurately, its “sustain.”  There appears to be some element in “mineral” wines inhibiting the wine’s ability to become saturated with oxygen.  There have been a number of studies – likely not very well thought out or well conducted – that suggest that “mineral” wines do not seem to possess greater concentrations of minerals relative to more “standard” wines, but these are just surveys of concentration of minerals, not really a consideration of what redox state they may be in.  Might reduced iron (or some other metallic element) be the key?  Obviously, fermentation creates highly reductive conditions, so presumably all elements that can be reduced during fermentation are reduced.  But under cellar ageing conditions when the wine has re-equilibriated, might there be particular redox couples that are favored that would continue to keep relevant metals in the more reduced state?  (My money is on mercaptan/disulfide.)





What does it mean for a grape to be perfectly tuned to a site (which presumably leads to the wine having “perfect pitch”)?[4]

This is definitely a trickier question than it seems, because from a grape’s point of view, perfectly tuned means that the grape will achieve its telos, which is to have a nice sunny tree to grow up into, and an excellent chance of being eaten by a bird and getting pooped out far, far away.  A winemaker, of course, has a somewhat different trajectory in mind.  Perfect pitch in a wine is generally correlated with the creation of certain optimal growing conditions for a given variety – the most ideal set of conditions that will dependably produce a recognizable, distinctive fingerprint, beginning with its typical climatic conditions – absolute number of sunlight hours, likely as well, the arrayal of those hours during the growing season based on latitude, to other considerations of air temperature (minima and maxima), soil temperatures, rainfall, relative humidity, degree of cloud cover, etc. The physical characteristics of the soils are utterly crucial: water-holding capacity, soil texture, clay content, trace mineral content, exchangeable cations and anions, effective soil rooting depth, location of water table, and the physical orientation of the vineyard also crucial – degree and aspect of slope, surrounding geophysical features.  The best sites – the grands crus – are the ones that offer Goldilocks solutions to the plant’s needs,[5] ideally optimizing growing conditions for that particular variety, clone, and biotype for all but thoroughly anomalous vintages.  Most of the classic European vineyards have identified the so-called “great growths” – vineyard sites that reliably produce the most distinctive wines in most years – and it would be of course quite interesting to look at both the differences in the physical conditions of those vineyards and wines themselves from the lesser growths that surround them (produced from the same grapes and by same winemaker).  Of course, one cannot overlook the role of the farmer in optimizing the degree of congruity between the plant and the site.  His decisions as to rootstock selection, row spacing, row orientation, training method, plant density, degree of thinning (both shoot and cluster thinning), harvest date, and other cultural practices are crucial in determining overall grape quality.


So, if you were to look at the aggregate of all of the growing conditions in the vineyard, you would probably end up looking at factors that drive the vine in the direction of some sort of Golden Mean:  In cool, challenging conditions where the grapes struggle to ripen (the Mosel or Côte-Rôtie, for example), the best vineyards are those on southern slopes, with other factors (high incidence of reflected light, etc.) that push them to ripeness.  In warmer, dryer conditions, such as one finds in California, northern and eastern exposures would be absolutely optimal.  I believe that all grapes have some sort of genetically pre-determined set of optimal ripening timing events, such that when the magical day comes, say at around 110 days between flowering and harvest, they are within the perfect range of acidity/Brix and phenolic development.

While there are definitely good outward signs of vitaceous virtue[6] – small clusters, moderate internode length, moderate vigor and moderate natural crop load, healthy appearance of the leaves, evenness of ripening, etc., absence of discernible debilitating disease (such as virus), the deeper, more subtle indications of quality are not particularly visible from gross inspection.  To be truly great, a wine has to have a quality of singularity; it really can’t taste like anything else.[7]  So, my worry is that in trying to quantify quality, one may be making the same error that people have made in characterizing human beauty; when you construct a face, observing the qualities of symmetry, and how well length of nose, chin etc. line up to the Golden Ratio, you end up with a figure that is somehow just generically pretty, but not necessarily truly “beautiful.”  If real “beauty” were entirely describable through a set of mathematical parameters, we would likely miss out on some of the really great, non-traditional beauties; arguably their minor “flaws” are possibly the qualities that make them interesting.  


Marilyn without the mole would just be another pretty face, and not the icon.  So, you can look at all of the obvious manifestations of grape quality; what are the more subtle qualities in wine that elevate it from very good to mind-bendingly great? I think that it is absurdly difficult and wrong-headed if not impossible to try to figure out how to create the conditions necessary to replicate Burgundy.[8]  It may well be difficult enough to figure out what are all the relevant conditions necessary to produce a great Pinot noir.  But, if you can find an extremely interesting and expressive site/terroir(which I believe I have), the more pertinent question is:  Within a population of genetically different plants located on a given site, which amongst them have the qualities that are most likely to produce a wine of real beauty and distinction?[9]  So, this brings me to the next question, which is something like:

What is true beauty in wine, and how can we potentially predict its manifestation simply by observing grapes in situ, and in particular, identify the truly exceptional one or ones in amongst a very large crowd?
This is not an easy question to answer at all.   Leaving aside the vast chasm of aesthetic differences that separate certain gung-ho wine enthusiasts for the currently prevalent New World style from those of us (right-thinkers) who value the more subtle beauty and restraint of Old World examplars, beauty in wine is found in a great diversity of wine styles.  There are great or beautiful wines that are highly concentrated – a Sagrantino from Umbria or Tannat from Madiran, for example, densely dark and tannic, heady in alcohol; these can certainly be extremely interesting and satisfying wines, but not necessarily the ones that I reckon are able to express real elegance; they might just have too much to say.  And then there are the weightless, pale and elegant wines of the Jura, Liguria and elsewhere, evocative of some of the qualities that we esteem so greatly in red Burgundy.  (Their elegance is often under-appreciated because what they do, they do in a much quieter fashion.) I believe that there are likely an infinite number of solutions to how to produce a great wine from a given site; what is most interesting to me personally is to figure out how to produce from a range of possible grapes on a given site a wine a wine that absolutely honors the integrity of the site while remaining congruent with my own aesthetic sense.  Further, can one possibly formulate some rules about what a great and beautiful wine might look like; might there be some signifiers or proxies for “greatness” or “beauty?”

Here are what I imagine are some criteria for greatness and beauty in wine:


1) Ability of the wine to age long enough to develop complexity. Ability of the wine to tolerate oxidative challenge upon opening turns out to be a pretty good indicator of its overall longevity.



2) Complexity, nuance, refinement, but also with a deep essential “core” (which might be linked in some sense to varietal identity and intensity. Obviously, there are likely more than a few molecules linked to varietal identity, but it wouldn’t hurt to try identify the most important ones. For Syrah, I might look at what are the important precursors for the synthesis of rotundone (the peppery,baconfat/smoked meat character); for Pinot Noir, the precursors for geosmin (its quasi-beetroot character).  The fact is that grapes that are not grown in the right location generally fail to even connect with an expression of basic varietal character, so further refinement of the search might be gilding the lily.  But if one could look perhaps for differences in aromatic potential – what are the necessary precursors needed for complex aromas – that might be quite useful.[10]

3) Dynamic tension in the wine between “fruit” and “mineral.” By “fruit” is meant the sum of lactones, ketones, esters, terpenes, aldehydes, presumably anthocyanins as well, that give the wine a sense of freshness, and maybe wholesomeness.  Ephemeral esters, typically associated with freshly fermented wine should not to be considered as they don’t persist in the wine.  Wines that are just “fruity” without the corresponding degree of earthy gravitas/minerality (whatever that is) are just frivolous confections; wines that are stony without an expression of fruit are joyless.  A beautiful wine somehow is able to create a dance between these two elements.[11]

4) A great and beautiful wine seems to move in a sort of orderly (or disorderly) progression of flavors, a succession of partings of the curtain and corresponding “reveals.” Somehow I imagine this is linked to the presence of these “mineral” elements (or redox couples?) that either retard the wine in its saturation of oxygen, or alternately, maybe owing to their pungency (I’m thinking of mercaptans here), block the expression of the more delicate aromas that are not discernible until the more odiferous molecule can be oxidized into a less intrusive form.

dj-premierAgain, I don’t think that one can find the best grape in the abstract to grow on one’s site, but maybe you could find the one (or likely several) that seems to be best suited to the site within a significant population.  But note that we are trying to achieve a couple of different objectives and the methodology would differ a bit for the two ends.  In one case, we are taking a grape variety that we think already performs pretty well already at Popelouchum, and we’re trying to tweak it into greater degree of congruence (the so-called “auto-tuning”)[12] and this seems to be a relatively straightforward process, especially if you are looking at differences between a lot of similar-looking objects; you want just a little more of something special,[13] or more likely, you may settle on choosing a mix of several biotypes to achieve a more complete wine – one for structure, one for fragrance, and another one (the catalyst) that just seems to magically link the several elements together.

But the far more complex problem is that we are also talking about breeding new varieties de novo, i.e. crossing two different varieties from very different lineages, and this really gets to the very core of not just what makes a great biotype, but what makes a great, classic grape variety itself.  I’ve agonized at great length about the criteria one might begin to deploy to make a thoughtful selection of worthy parents,[14] and something akin to throwing the I Ching is probably as good as it gets.  But after you’ve decided on worthy parents for your 10,000 offspring, and you’ve discarded the non-viable grapelets, how do you find amongst 10,000 likely very disparate individuals the real genius grapes? Remember, we’re likely starting with one red parent and one white parent, so the kids are going to be red, white and pink.  My guess is that it will be very unlikely to discover the new vitaceous Mozart or Einstein, i.e. a grape on a par with the unique complexity of a Pinot Noir, Riesling or Syrah, but it may well be quite possible to find a grape that is particularly well suited to the exigencies of the site, and will produce a wine with unique flavor characteristics.  Paradoxically, I believe that while the flavor sensation of this grape might be unique, it will likely provoke a kind of haunting recognition.  I will know this smell and taste; it will be familiar to me when I smell it for the first time.  But, I don’t think you can imagine the flavor you’ve been looking for until you come across it.


mozart+einstein, ://

How do you foster a brilliant biome in your vineyard?[15] How might one detect the presence of other microorganisms, still unidentified in wine that act as bio-protectants, i.e. effectively keep in check the proliferation of noxious organisms: brettanomyces, acetobacter, pediococcus, etc.

A healthy vineyard biome does not itself make a great wine, but is certainly critical to the optimal expression of terroir; it would be enormously useful to understand all of the activities that favor this formation.  It would be interesting to learn how feasible it is to actually change the vineyard biome.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that it may be a bit easier to do than changing the gut biome.



[1] I was also interested in redox chemistry at the time, as I had coincidentally recently gotten to know Patrick Ducournau, a winemaker in Madiran, who was in the process of inventing micro-oxygenation (MOX) at the time. (He invented MOX as a cost-effective solution to taming the very fierce Tannat.) Patrick thought about wines the way that Chinese doctors envision living beings, as dynamic systems, with a sort of unique life arc or trajectory.  Patrick was focused primarily on the wine’s phenolics (mostly skin and seed-based tannins), which were its primary (but not entire, as we discuss later) anti-oxidative system.  As a winemaker, Patrick’s insight helped me to engage on a much deeper, more perceptive level with the wines, really trying to grok where they were on their life’s journey.

[2] I would differentiate these two terms as follows:  “Minerality” is itself another way of saying “life-force” or the ability of a wine to tolerate oxidative challenge, and is associated with a certain set of organoleptic sensations.  Wines of terroir most typically express a degree of minerality but terroir itself pertains to the unique fingerprint of the qualities of the wine attributable to its place of origin.  As such, I think of terroir as more of a pattern or form than a tangible material substance – seemingly more of a wave than a particle.

[3] There seems to be no question in my mind that sulfur-containing compounds are implicated to some extent in the question of minerality, but their presence (or absence) does not fully illuminate the phenomenon.

[4] This doesn’t necessarily speak to the degree of congruity of plant to site, but it is said that the metric that is the most reliable predictor of wine quality is the ratio of overall root mass to fruit volume, i.e. deep-rooted, old vines, carrying little fruit make the best wine; drip-irrigated (with few roots), over-cropped vines, i.e. de rigueur in CA., make the worst.

[5] A great site is one that is capable of affording the plant a degree of flexibility to respond to diverse challenges, i.e. a well-draining soil (slightly sloped) in the event of excessive moisture, but adequate water holding capacity in the event of droughty conditions.  Withal, a set of growing conditions that allow for the greatest likelihood of the plant achieving homeostasis, e.g. sufficient available moisture and requiring that the plant osmotically regulate (i.e. dig deep) to gain access to the moisture, (thus moderating excessive vigor, internode length, leaf and cluster size, etc.), will reliably produce the most balanced wine, though not necessarily the most distinctive.

[6] There was a very strange practice called “sensitive crystallization,” which grew out of the biodynamic movement in the 1920s and which originally attempted to visualize the “organization” and life-force of given organic compounds by extracting them with a reagent, crystallizing the solution in a Petri dish, then photographing the resulting crystal form on a light table.  The practice was particularly effective in the visualization of the freshness of vegetable produce, but also ultimately was used as a reasonably accurate diagnostic for certain sorts of cancer.  As a technique for visualizing the complexity and organization of a given wine, it continues to show a lot of promise, though there are but few experienced “readers” of these particular tea leaves.  It’s a fairly tedious process, but the photographs of sensitive crystalizations could easily lend themselves to machine interpretation.  (Mineral wines are absolutely striking in the density and complexity of the crystals.)

[7] This is perhaps too important a point to place in a footnote, but an absolutely crucial feature of a great grape is its ability (under the right set of conditions) to act as an effective medium for the transmission of soil characteristics (terroir).  In general, it seems that white varieties do a better job in transmitting soil characteristics, presumably because they are comparatively less cluttered with dense flavor elements, such as tannin. Not surprisingly, it is the relatively neutral quality of certain varieties (such as Chardonnay, but also Savignin and Chasselas) that make them ideal translators.  (Varieties like Gewürztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc have such strong, pungent aromatics that they seem to occlude the perception of soil characteristics.)  Higher acidity wines (a necessary but non-sufficient criterion for ageability) with a persistent element of fruit (like Riesling) are perhaps ideal.  Amongst red varieties, varieties with what might be termed a sense of openness on the palate and generally more moderate tannins  – Pinot noir, Nerello Mascalese, Rossese, Poulsard, or even, Grenache, for example – seem to possess the most interesting qualities for the transmission of soil characteristics.  But, understanding what makes a given variety or biotype a better transmitter of terroir than another is an enormously deep question, and related to the central mystery under discussion: What is true beauty or greatness in wine? (Cf. infra.)

[8] Actually, it’s quite simple: just move to Burgundy.

[9] I’m afraid it may well be far more complicated than that.  I would bet that for real complexity, you want at least a certain number of differing biotypes of a given variety.  While there are certainly superior clones or biotypes for a given site, you will likely want differing biotypes that will cover different elements of the wine’s presentation.  It would be an accomplishment just to formulate some rules as to which elements of the wine’s presentation must be addressed in creating a balanced and complex wine.

[10] There are all sorts of very strange bits of lore relating to the presence of putatively perfect balance in a wine, for example, the appearance of the flavor of licorice in wine (after the wine is produced) – a bit like the green flash of a sunset – supposedly an indication that the wine has achieved its absolute aromatic potential, and perfect degree of ripeness. Would be interesting to look for the precursor of this compound.

[11] I haven’t even addressed the enormously complex question of what makes the fragrances of wines made from some grape varieties more haunting and compelperigord-truffleling than others, (with Pinot Noir being the mastodon in the room).  For this, I think that one would have to look to the work being done by parfumiers, and I reckon one would soon be deep into a very abstruse metaphysical conversation.  To take the case of Burgundy:  What is perhaps most haunting about it is the fusion not just of “fruit” and “mineral” but in some sense, the suggestion of elements of death and re-birth, or put another way, the evocation of something that is absolutely wholesome, (cherries, for example, said to represent the most universally beloved fragrance) and one that is more than a little decadent, perhaps even bordering on decay – truffles, dead leaves, wet earth, or even a touch of excrement. (Might the suggestion of decay carry with it a haunting intimation of our own mortality and for that reason create a sense of resonance?)  But there is clearly something in the scent of Pinot that we recognize as resonant with the human organism itself; perhaps it carries molecules similar or identical to human sex pheromones?

[12] If you were to take Rossese grapes, for example, cross them with themselves, you’d have offspring that were mostly Rossese-ish, and some others that were real outliers – to the good and to the bad.  Obviously, the sterile offspring would be discarded, the anomalous funny-looking ones would have to go.  At the risk of contradicting what I had mentioned about seeking a sort of “openness” on the palate, I’d look for the grapes with the most flavor intensity – you can’t really taste that much complexity of flavor when it’s still a grape – at least I can’t, though there are some grapes that definitely have more persistence of flavor than others.  Again, I’m just wondering if there might be a certain compound or several, while not having much discernible flavor in the juice, be a necessary ingredient to the development of more complex flavors as juice is turned into wine.

[13] The Burgundians say that “le pinot se pinot.”  It expresses its own (pinot) essence.  I think that for someone who has worked with a grape for a long time, there may exist something like a Platonic ideal.  I, for one, have some sense of what that looks/tastes like for Syrah, Pinot Noir and Riesling, but for other varieties, I think I would largely be out to sea.  However, maybe after tasting through the fruit of hundreds if not thousands of Timorasso x Timorasso vines, one might well begin to hone in on some of the prevalent if not essential flavor elements.

[14] The potential criteria for this selection are far too complex to include here, but as best as I can tell one would be looking for one extremely hearty parent – drought tolerant, vigorous, largely disease resistant, less fastidious in soil requirements – and one parent that you might call more “artistic,” possibly more fastidious in its requirements, but with more of the organoleptic characteristics of elegance.  I couldn’t make the scientific case of why this should be important, but crossing a red variety with a white would also seem to be useful in producing a more complex offspring.

[15] When bad things happen to good terroirs.

A Conversation on the Aesthetics of Wine with Professor Dwight Furrow

professor-dwight-furrowIn a sense, growing grapes is like growing any other fruit or vegetable. The tasks are to get sufficient nutrients to the crop and to avoid disease. The question I’m trying to probe is whether good farming and vineyard management does more than produce a sufficient quantity of healthy, well-ripened grapes. If the answer is no, then what winemakers or viticulturists do in the vineyard is nothing more than what good fruit and vegetable farmers do. But most fruits and vegetables will not find their way into a beverage like wine that is unique and distinctive, with aesthetic qualities that can produce extraordinary, life-changing experiences.

D.F.: Is growing distinctive, high quality grapes largely about making sure bad stuff doesn’t happen. Or are vineyard practices specifically designed to produce that distinctiveness and aesthetic quality?

R.G.: It’s certainly about both.  You have to make sure that bad stuff doesn’t happen, i.e. your mildew is controlled, vines are not overcropped, each cluster is receiving an optimal amount of sunlight, etc.  And while there are certainly things that are very important in educing the expressivity of a site, hence, complexity in the wine – evenness of ripeness achieved by crop thinning, shoot positioning, etc. – it is also the case that virtually all of the distinctiveness and aesthetic quality of a wine is likely mostly linked to the site itself, and how lucky/thoughtful the vineyardist has been in making his initial site selection; eschatologically speaking, it’s as if you can’t necessarily redeem your viticultural soul simply with good works, but rather, farming a grand cru is something like living in a state of (likely undeserved) grace.  (How you ended up there is always a great mystery.)  Having said that, there are certainly some practices, viz. biodynamic/organic farming, non-tillage, etc., that enrich the health of the soil biome and work to amplify the unique characteristics of the site.

D.F.: I would imagine choice of vineyard site is one of the crucial decisions a producer must make. You recently have begun to develop the Popelouchum site near San Juan Bautista. What do you look for when you are assessing vineyard sites?

R.G.: As mentioned, above, the choice of vyd. site is the most crucial decision a producer must make. I must confess that I am still a bit of a neophyte in assessing true agronomic virtue, but to a first approximation, I’m looking for physical and geo-chemical properties that create conditions for better homeostasis in the plant.  I’m looking for appropriate water-holding capacity and fertility – Goldilocks-like, not too much, not too little – and for the right balance of clay – again, too much is problematic, too little likewise.  Soils that are rich in minerals as well as those that have a lot of internal surface area are also quite interesting – schistous, calcareous, granitic, volcanic, all quite interesting.  Silty, sandy loam not so much.  In much of California I feel that north and east facing slopes are particularly interesting to mitigate the effects of bright afternoon sun and our very dry climate.  Fog, alas somewhat of a vanishing commodity, is also particularly useful in preserving finesse in wines.  In my own case, I happened to dream about Popelouchum before I actually saw it, and once I saw it, it was clear that it was an incredibly special place.  (Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, agronomists to the viticultural stars seemed to confirm this observation for what it’s worth.) But this – having a prophetic dream – is not an entirely reliable method for making a vineyard selection.

D.F.: Do you have a philosophy of winemaking—a style that you’re aiming for? How would you describe that?

R.G.: Elegance and intelligence, to use the parlance of T.S. Eliot, is what I seek.   Again, the main tenet is that if popelouchum-february-2017-by-abbey-chrystalyou are growing grapes that are exceptionally well-suited to the site, you are not compelled to make heroic interventions in the winemaking process – correcting the acidity, potential alcohol, etc.  Having said that, I am gradually inching toward the more radical view that a great site (such as Popelouchum, for example) might enable you to grow a fairly wide variety of grapes successfully (with the likely exception of Pinot noir).  I think that as tasters we do get imprinted on certain styles of wine that we continue to return to.  In my case this is Burgundy.  I find that the wines I am most consistently drawn to are ones that have a sort of weightlessness and power (or persistence) at the same time.  There is also a sense of dimensionality to the wine (whether you call this “minerality” or “life-force” is open to discussion. But I am particularly drawn to wines that are capable of great ageability, as well as show the ability to “move” or dance and evolve from the time they are opened.

D.F.: At what point in the winemaking process do you decide on what you’re aiming at regarding style?

bonny-doon-vineyard-beeswax-vineyardR.G.: You can have a certain preconception of what kind of style you are aiming for with a given wine, but ultimately, it is the conditions of the grapes at harvest that will determine your style.  (Though, if you’ve been paying attention, you have theoretically been gently nudging the grapes in one direction or another throughout the season; crop reduction or restriction, deficit irrigation being techniques for boosting “concentration” and potentially creating more even ripeness.  For the record, most of my career I’ve been squarely making vins d’effort, rather than vins de terroir, the former being those on which the winemaker has imposed his stylistic predilection to a far greater extent (though you can think of this distinction as a bit of a continuum).  Someday (soon), I aspire to make wines that could truly be characterized as vins de terroir, wines more expressive of place, where I will be more focused on revealing the characteristics of both vintage and site, and have a much lighter hand as far as my own stylistic preference.

D.F.: Do you think of wine as expressing something? If so, what?

R.G.: Wine is a bit like music; it’s not necessarily “about” anything. But great wine, like great music, should touch the emotions.  How is that done?  Maybe in its ability to suddenly move into strange and unexpected directions, or expressing some sort of tonality/harmony that resonates deeply inside of us.  Inspiration touches us when it reveals possibilities that we never dreamt of; a great wine does this easily.  I also believe – and forgive the slight New Ageyness of this – there is something like the taking of the holy sacrament when one consumes a vin de terroir.[1]  You are taking part of Mother Earth, a digestible part that is deeply nourishing you on any number of levels; I think this can’t help but provoke an emotional resonance.

[1] Written by a nice Jewish boy.

D.F.: I’ve heard you say that originality is important to you. Could you elaborate on that? What do you mean by originality and why is it important?

R.G.: The genius of a grand cru or a unique terroir is its originality; in other words, wines from that place don’t taste like anything else out there; in crass commercial terms, that is their “value add.”  In aesthetic terms, that is the bliss of the recognition of something truly original. The main problem I have with New World wines is that they are largely derivative; they are often (at best) pallid imitations of more successfully congruent European efforts.  But there’s often nothing about them that makes them irreplaceable or unique.  An original wine inspires us in the same way that the discovery of a new species of flower or discovery of a new planet inspires us; it makes our experiential world richer. The problem with New World wines, at least as I see it, stems in part from how we grow our grapes and how we treat our soils; if we use drip irrigation and crop at high levels in less than appropriate climates (usually too warm), we never achieve true vins de terroir.  The use of herbicides kills beneficial soil microflora that work to extract minerals from the soil.  (Not that North American palates are particularly keen on wines that express soil characteristics or vintage variation.)

D.F.: How does viticulture help bring out the aesthetic properties (e.g. beauty, elegance, finesse, intensity, etc.) in a wine? Do these concepts play a role in your decision-making?bonny-doon-vineyard-popelouchum-grenache-Ted-Hollday

R.G.: As mentioned before, a vibrant soil microbiology seems to amplify soil characteristics, which in turn seems to produce wines of far greater beauty, elegance, finesse, etc.  A vibrant microbiology also seems to inure plants against disease and untoward stress. Growing grapes on the appropriate site largely obviates the need for heroic interventions – acidulation, dilution of alcohol, etc. – which in turn, helps to produce a more seamless and harmonious wine.

D.F.: Does imagination come into play in managing your vineyards?

R.G.: I don’t think that imagination helps all that much (though certainly can’t hurt); being a good vineyardist is more a matter of being a good observer of what is actually happening. Biodynamic practice relies to a great extent on the cultivation of imagination and intuition – what is precisely the right preparation to apply and when should I apply it?   Being a successful biodynamic practitioner is, I believe, a lot like being an acupuncturist or homeopath; you are guided in large part by your intuition, but it is primarily based on your acute powers of observation.  (I’m personally a lot stronger in the intuition department than in the observation department.)

D.F.: How much effort and ingenuity in the vineyard does it take to make a wine that expresses terroir?

R.G.: Again, I believe that most of the effort and ingenuity is done in the set-up of the vineyard – from the varieties chosen to vine spacing to the selection of rootstock to the method of vine conformation (head-training vs. cordon, etc.)  I think that most of the ingenuity is a matter of figuring out how to do the right thing for the grapes in a way that is not insanely cost-prohibitive.  Farming organically (or biodynamically) in a successful manner is often a question of managing your calendar thoughtfully and executing things like weed control (or mildew control) in a timely fashion.  So maybe as much organizational skill is needed as ingenuity.

D.F.: Do you think the use of technology in the vineyard (e.g. mechanical pruning, mechanical harvesting, etc.) is as effective as low-tech methods at maintaining the quality of the grapes?

R.G.: I don’t think it is, but to achieve wines at a certain price-point, the implementation of technology is seemingly a necessity (also, if immigration policy changes, it is a foregone conclusion.) I try to have abonny-doon-vineyard-sorting-table-jane-randalln open mind as far as the deployment of technology in viticulture; there are certain things that machines can do “better” than human beings, i.e. mechanically sorting, but it is my own observation that too much reliance on technology – kind of like using special effects in film-making – may somehow detract from the hand-made quality, the slight imperfections that I think may need to be retained to elevate a product to a higher level of complexity.  I’m not sure if super-strict criteria for mechanical sorting may end up giving you something like a photo-composition of a “beautiful” person, one almost too beautiful and perfect to be real.

D.F.: I’ve heard it said that pruning is an art? Do you agree? What is it about pruning that requires creativity or imagination?

verduzzo-and-pigato-cuttings-Lodi-Helen-ZieglerR.G.: Pruning is most certainly an art, and I wish I were myself more artful in its practice.  I have recently come across an Italian fellow, who is considered more or less the grand-master of pruning.  (He’s actually a pretty interesting character – kind of reminds me a bit of Zoolander in appearance, as he and his team have very impressive uniforms, coiffure, and he seems to be always affecting a striking pose.) He is in some rarified viticultural circles considered a great celebrity.  He views vines not just in their outward sculptural form – one that one is nominally always trying to balance – but is also conscious of the vine as a dynamic entity, considering the movement of fluids, xylem and phloem through the plant, and how they might be optimized to minimize disease spread, and most efficiently balance the vine’s energetic flow, if you will.  But, this technique is based on very, very careful observation (not what one typically finds with many pruners) as much as on creativity or imagination.  So, his technique is really getting closer to an I-Thou relationship – with a vine(!)

D.F.: Because different winemakers who share the goal of expressing terroir will make quite different wines using the same grapes, presumably there must be multiple ways of expressing terroir. Do you have a specific idea of what best expresses the terroir of a vineyard or region? Is there something that you’re looking for such that you can say “that’s it” when you taste it developing in the wine?

R.G.: Well, it is far, far too early for me to be making pronouncements on whether I’ve successfully captured or represented the terroir of any vineyard. (Many winemaking families spend countless centuries in this discovery practice.)  So, I will most certainly never get to “best expression of terroir.”  But, one can certainly observe and apprehend when you’ve achieved something like the expression of “minerality” or “dimensionality” in a wine – in other words, a quality that is demonstrably not just from the grape variety or from the winemaking technique, but somehow arises from the site/soil itself.  It is a bit of a paradox when you think about terroir as the “eternal” part of the vineyard equation, that which transcends the hand of the human being, but also is clearly something that is open to multiple interpretations.  Different growers within the same grand cru like le Chambertin or le Musigny may well favor one interpretation over another, but I do believe that some interpretations are more valid or at least more original than others – ones that are most uniquely themselves, and not so much pandering to say, a more “international style.”  (That I regard as the willful obscuration of terroir.)  A grower may well lose the thread for a while – I think about Comte de Vogüé wines in the 1980s when they hired a charlatan consulting enologist.  And it goes without saying that we are living in a very dynamic world engendered by global climate change, a phenomenon which itself is endangering the expression of terroir.

D.F.: I’ve heard winemakers talk about “reading the vintage” or “reading the vines”. Can you talk about your thought process in reading the vintage or vineyard, and especially discuss the role of intuition vs. science.

R.G.: Alas, I was a semi-permanent liberal arts major in school, so I think that I temperamentally favor the role of intuition vs. scientific reasoning. Arguably the most interesting wines I ever made were in my earliest vintages when I understood essentially nothing, but I was somehow more connected to the Universal Intelligence.  I know that sounds pretty New Agey, but I don’t have any better explanation.  Maybe it has to do with being blessed with the so-called Beginner’s Mind.  In this case, I was able to achieve that because I truly was a Beginner.  Put another way, I don’t think that you can scientifically reason yourself to great wine; having an understanding of scientific principles can certainly help, but some mysterious other thing is needed to ever really approach real greatness in wine.

D.F.: I’m sure when you’re in the vineyard you’re always looking for signs of disease, varmints, and the degree to which vines and fruit are developing as expected. What else are you looking for such as other changes that you could take advantage of?

popelouchum-pinot-planting-v2R.G.: Sometimes you just get a crazy idea that somehow works to your advantage.  Years ago, it was clear that a certain block of Loureiro grapes in our vineyard in Soledad were so behind schedule in ripening that there was absolutely no possible way they could potentially ripen during the growing season.  (This was already now early October and they were really far off from ripening.)  I directed my colleague to drop half of the crop on the ground immediately to accelerate the ripening process of the fruit that remained.  The fruit that stayed on the vine did pick up its ripening pace and we harvested it in late October at maybe 21 Brix barely, just limping over the finish line.  Maybe a week after that – it still hadn’t rained – I observed the fruit that we had dropped on the ground, which had been sitting there for perhaps three weeks or so, was still more or less intact, with no discernible sign of degradation.  (We didn’t disc the field, rather mowed, and had left a relatively intact straw mulch on the ground.)  In fact, these stragglers, which were just showing the faintest traces of dehydration, were sweeter than the fruit we had harvested from the vine and had very intense flavor development.  We ended up picking them up off the ground and using them in the final blend; the resultant wine was absolutely stellar.   Then, there are sometimes the more prosaic last minute adjustments in our program based on the qualities we observe in a particular batch of grapes, where a red grapes might truly do better as a pink than the red we had intended, a particular batch of grapes might be better suited to a sparkling wine than to a still – these sorts of à la minute improvisations happen with some degree of regularity.

D.F.: What part of the winemaking process requires the most creativity?

R.G.: That’s a tough one, but I think that there are opportunities to insert creativity into almost any aspect of the winemaking or even wine selling process.  I’m not sure if this qualifies as creativity, but an incredibly bonny-doon-vineyard-cellar-shadow-Nicole-Walshuseful skill is learning how to not act and not intervene, especially if that is something that you’ve done most of your career.  (There’s probably an analogy to parenting in there somewhere.)  Maybe where creativity it is most needed is discovering/creating the language needed to talk about what it is that you’ve possibly achieved.  Wine language has grown pretty impoverished, I think, becoming more Babel-esque with every passing year.  If you (say, hypothetically) produce a wine that is rather different than anything else out there, how do you begin to communicate a sense of its value?   Robert Parker’s genius was realizing that wines could be compared to school exam scores, thus creating a language that everyone understood, even if it was utterly misguided.

D.F.: Describe some of the things you do in the winery to bring out terroir in your finished product.

R.G.: As far as enhancing the expression of terroir, that’s really work that is primarily done in the vineyard – biodynamic practice, yield reduction, judicious thinning, dry-farming, precision of harvest date, etc.  In the winery, it is mostly a function of things that you don’t do, or it’s a matter of figuring out what is the least amount of intervention that you can possibly do and still maintain a product with essential integrity, i.e. expressive of its terroir and absent of major flaw.  As with cooking, it’s a function of not overly complicating the dish, and not over-saucing it.

D.F.: Do aesthetic concepts such as elegance, harmony, character or finesse play a role in your decision-making process? Are there other aesthetic concepts that you want to mention that are important to you?

R.G.: All of the above feature. Remember that you can’t simply dial up elegance, harmony, etc.  Typically these features spontaneously arise from great terroirs that are farmed thoughtfully.  You can compose a wine by blending (through trial and error and some intuition) with the intention of creating (or better, discovering) some of these aesthetic elements, but a blended or composed wine will very seldom have the same degree of integrity and seamlessness as a wine that is naturally complex without artifice.  Again, this is not something that one can reliably produce through one’s winemaking efforts, but the phenomenon of a wine being able to “dance,” or unfold in a kind of kaleidoscopic fashion, revealing itself the way a precious stone might reveal its facets, is a sort of aesthetic ideal for me.  I call this “dimensionality;” maybe it’s the wine’s ability to work and play well with oxygen…

D.F.: You’ve done a lot of experimenting with various techniques for aging wine. How intentional are these experiments? That is to say to what degree are you able to anticipate the results of the experiment? And how do you define success?

bonny-doon-vineyard-cellar-tanks-Nicole-WalshR.G.: In candor, some of these experiments were more intentional than others, and we haven’t always experienced anything like the results we expected, but in most every case, we’ve learned something useful, and that of course is a definition of success.  We’ve experimented with aging the identical wine in different types of vessels – large format barrels, smaller barrels, wood tanks, vs. glass demijohns, etc. and have observed wildly differing results in the expression of the final wine.  One most interesting results is that we found that the imposition of a strong stylistic element, such as what one achieves by the deployment of glass demijohns – this adds a lovely textural element as well as a strong savory element, complexity, and generally works to better integrate a wine, but counter-intuitively, seems to work best in wines that have relatively less dense flavor profiles, i.e. pinks and whites, rather than full-bodied reds.  It seems that denser wines carry their own strong center of gravity, and just need to be handled a bit more circumspectly.

D.F.: How important is tasting to the winemaking process?

R.G.: It is utterly crucial, but it also must be “bracketed,” i.e. you can’t believe everything that you taste, i.e. as tasters, we are very imperfect instruments and are often fooled.  The amount of subjectivity that exists in evaluating a wine is just staggering and truly humbling, and one must be systematically on guard as far as making decisions based on anything like single impressions.  You need to taste a wine over and over to really get a sense of what it is all about, and where it is going.   Having the experience of making wine from the same vineyard for many years prior is also enormously useful in understanding the wine’s likely evolution and trajectory.  I am still utterly shocked at how much the aspect of one’s own personal mood plays in the evaluation of a wine; I bet it is a rare Bodhisattva wine critic who can separate out his/her own emotional state and not allow it to color the perception of the wine.  If readers to wine journals only knew…

D.F.: Does the sort of tasting you do in the winemaking process require imagination?

bonny-doon-vineyard-vin-gris-de-cigare-in-glassR.G.: Have never quite thought of it that way; it certainly requires enormous concentration, and occasionally I find myself in an almost trance-like state, following a certain kind of internal rhythm, iterating various blends according to some personal algorithm.  It’s a matter of looking for a sort of internal harmony or resonance.  I’m not a musician but I imagine that there is something similar that happens when a group is jamming and a player finds him/herself in a particularly inspired groove; some part of his/her brain has taken over, and it is well beyond the conscious mind.

D.F.: What must a wine be like to be beautiful?

R.G.: I’ve said it now in so many different ways, but I do believe that beauty is linked to originality, to complexity as well, to be sure, and ultimately to an experience that takes us out of ourselves.  As I’ve mentioned, vins d’effort, or ones where the winemakers stylistic efforts are so visibly discernible, come off to me like slightly clumsy stagecraft; one never completely buys into the illusion of entry into an alternate reality, and as pleasant as they are, don’t really move us.  But a great wine, expressive of terroir, creates its own perfect, seamless world, to which the taster must surrender, and allow him/herself to become transported/transformed.  I think that a wine that can engender the desire in the taster to thoroughly let go, as it were, is one of very rare beauty.

Popelouchum: Decisions, Summer 2015

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

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

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


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

Artwork and Visual Media

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

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

C et L Bourguignon spécialistes BRF

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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.)


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

Flock of sheep, New Zealand, Pacific

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

I (Art) & Soul Winemaking

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

More Questions for Andy Walker


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

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

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

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

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

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

How Might the New World Really Matter?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Born to Rhone: (Part 1)

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


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

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


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


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

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.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This is Part 1 of a longer article.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.

(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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:

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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.

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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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

“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
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

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’
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
If his main juice squeeze is a fruit bomb tease – soft and pHat7

So Wine Geeks


Wine Geeks


Has your vino got the funk?
(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!

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
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


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
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!

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!



If you can tolerate a little mercaptan


Then splash it ‘round! Swirl it ‘round!

And a clear tone you will perceive

Even white wines got to breathe11
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,
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
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.
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
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!)
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!

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

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

–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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.)
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.



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.
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


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

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

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.
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.

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
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.
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.
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.”
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”

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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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

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.
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.
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
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.


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


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.

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.)
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.


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.
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.
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.
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

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
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 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
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)
And like sits there and swirls his decanter
And consults his biodynamic calendar

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!
It was like really embarrassing
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)
IT’S LIKE GROSS LEES (Napa Valley girl)
BARBARESCO OUT! (Napa Valley girl)
OH, MY GOTT (Napa Valley girl)

Uh-huh… (Napa Valley girl)
My name?
My name is Margaux Liebowitz (Napa Valley girl)
That’s right, Margaux (Napa Valley girl)
I know
It’s like…(Napa Valley girl)
I’m chard (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 chard.
It’s like those dump bucket things
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
And it’s like, it’s like SOMEBODY ELSE’S WINE, Y’KNOW
Its like really nauseating



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.


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).
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.

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.

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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 ( 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


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


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