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
10 I don’t think that I had any real marketing plan for the grapes at the time. But I had made a lackluster Pinot from the Arundel Vineyard in ’81 and the home ranch Pinot was not looking so brilliant either.11 Some part of me clearly understood that it was time to start casting further afield for something like a Plan B, and the Grenache grapes from Besson were pretty inexpensive – I think they may have been going to Almaden for rosé for a few hundred dollars a ton – it seemed as if there was a good likelihood of delivering a lot of wine at a reasonable price.12 It’s a bit difficult for me to reconstruct my thought process from this perspective, as my story (which has always conveniently begun in 1984 with the first vintage of Cigare) has become a bit obscured.
I had been a patron of Kermit Lynch’s tiny little storefront in Albany, even when I was a student at Davis. It was often just Kermit in the store, and he was a lot less busy then than he is now, so we had a great opportunity to chat about the world of wine, specifically as it was grown in southern France. I don’t remember a specific conversation where he suggested that I might try my hand at Rhône grapes, but certainly, I was already buying bottles of Clape Cornas,13 Chave Hermitage, Domaine Tempier Bandol and of course, Vieux Télégraphe.14,15 Remember, Syrah had not yet become a “thing” at this point, quite the contrary. Estrella River Winery, down in Paso Robles, was playing around a bit with it, mostly turning it into an off-dry blush wine, which did OK for them. Joseph Phelps was also producing a Syrah from their Estate vineyard in Rutherford, and those wines were seriously weird – very high in pH, soapy, in fact, with a strange unnatural color. There were also alleged to be some older Syrah vines in Napa Valley, but these were also believed to be heavily virused, so the prospects for Syrah at this point were somewhat less than stellar.
So, while I personally found Syrah to be the more interesting grape, it seemed that I might have better luck beginning with Grenache, especially after I had tasted David Bruce’s efforts of ’70 and ’71, one of which was still quite vibrant and delicious (both were still on the shelf of Hi-Time Liquors in Costa Mesa as late as 1982). The owner of the vineyard, George Besson, reminded me a bit of Walter Brennan; I think that the best term to describe him was “folksy;” he was given to piquant malapropism and had a laugh that easily morphed into a cackle, a most endearing character. The vines were maybe forty-five years old at the time we started working with them, head-trained and not irrigated. They were slightly virused and (unlike modern “clean” selections) heroically struggled to achieve much beyond 23.5° Brix. Maybe it was not the greatest Grenache vineyard in the world, but it did serve us well for many years and was always the backbone of Cigare.16
Josh Jensen was kind enough to lease me some space at the Calera Winery in the Cienega Valley of San Benito County,17 where I crushed the first Grenache in 1982, as well as a smattering of Bordelais varieties from the B.J. Carney Ranch in Boonville18,19 1982 was a cool vintage in California, and that really was a wonderful thing for Hecker Pass Grenache, which almost always seemed to do better in the more temperate vintages. I commuted every day from Bonny Doon to Calera – it took about an hour and a half each way. The outskirts of Hollister hadn’t as yet seen the emergence of noxious ranchettes, and driving Cienega Rd. was a magical adventure.20 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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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.) [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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.) [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Approximately $12/btl., if memory serves, and you had to buy some of the white in order to get the red. [↩]
- The ’78 vintages of same, alas, all drunken up a few years back. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Now it is the Roederer Estate and replanted to varieties that are presumably more appropriate to the region. [↩]
- 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.) [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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!) [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]