California Dreamin’ or What Are You Smokin’? (Finding a Path to True Sustainability and Distinction)

“Make it new!”  — Ezra Pound

For as long as I’ve been thinking about making fine wine I’ve always been intrigued by the question of how in the New World, in California specifically, one might find one’s true and lasting place on the global stage.  In the last forty years California wines have been particularly successful with their domestic market, somewhat less so internationally, but as the world gets smaller and the wine business grows infinitely more competitive, the California wine industry, especially the fine wine segment, will have to come to terms with its true value proposition.  What might we have to offer that is truly unique, valuable and in some very real sense, sustainable?

If we look at California’s success to date, I believe that it may likely well have been a matter of felicitous timing and perhaps exquisite luck.  California wine really began to gain acceptance in the early to mid-1970s as the U.S. prospered economically and Americans became more urbane and adventurous.  I believe that there were essentially three main factors that contributed to its success.  Most importantly, at least as late as the ‘70s many European wines still had a taste profile that was not particularly cordial to the American palate; prestigious Bordeaux wines, ones you were told you really should appreciate, were often quite austere, if not green, tart or hard, whereas California wines, produced in the land of abundant sunshine, were typically softer, riper, fruitier and more attractive to the still evolving American palate. 1

The Chardonnays were likewise softer, riper, fruitier; the comforting flavors of vanillin (from oak) and buttery diacetyl from the malolactic fermentation seemed as American as apple pie.  If you add in the pride of place and the fact that Napa and Sonoma were beginning to grow as vacation destinations, thus building the rudiments of brand loyalty,2 it is not surprising that California wines became as well accepted as they have been.  Lastly, there was the element of label simplification where the New World handily won out over the Old World.  You only had to remember the variety of grape that you liked, sometimes not even more than a single syllable – Cab, Chard, Zin etc.(not an unpronounceable foreign word with possibly non-pronounced consonants) – and perhaps just one other directional vector point (eg. Napa or Sonoma) and you were guided in for a safe landing.

I might argue that “fine wine” has existed for a long time in California, but in recent years, significant  technological advances and a greater understanding of the mechanisms for manipulating certain accepted signifiers of wine “quality,” have enabled certain winemakers to more consistently achieve greater commercial success, but, alas,  I fear, at the cost of a certain loss of originality and distinctiveness.  The fact that the wine business – largely in virtue of the enormous cost of entry – has become in many cases first and foremost a business, has imparted an enormous amount of self-consciousness (and cynicism) about the wines that we produce.3 The California wine industry like the American movie industry seems to have a strong financial motivation to play it safe;  I would, however, argue that in an overcrowded and possibly shrinking market,4 following the herd is the least safe thing you can do. The real answer, I believe, is to try to find a unique and viable market niche based on fundamental structural features (like a unique terroir), not ephemeral ones like the endorsement of a rap star or the presence of an unholy amount of residual sugar or goût de charred bourbon barrel in the finished wine. 

Personally, I am not paying much attention – perhaps it would actually serve me better to be a little more tuned in – to what most of my California colleagues have lately been up to.  Frankly, it has been challenging to see past the Pet Nat wines, the orange wines, the “clean” wines, or whatever fashionable  plat du jour is being served up, to discern through the fog of (wine) war, who in fact is doing the truly important work which will be able to propel us into the future.5  I have no illusions that the work that I’m currently planning and doing will tangibly change anything or anyone in California; I’m just trying to find my own niche of sustainability, which, if achieved, would be no mean feat.

I think that I may have hit upon a couple of approaches to produce unique and distinctive wines in California.  I’m honestly not sure if this methodology will work for anyone – myself included –  but there may be some lessons to be learned along the way.  My rationale is an argument based on first principles, primarily trying to grasp what possible natural advantages California might enjoy relative to its competitors.  

Here’s what I think we have going for us in California:  

  1. There is still virgin land available  (in parts).  This might enable one to pursue certain viticultural strategies (at least for a while) of direct plantation, i.e. no rootstock, which could be useful in the discovery and production of certain unique planting stocks. Own-rooted vines (where feasible) are believed by some to impart a unique expression of the variety itself.  (Own-rooted vines are also generally more vigorous and drought tolerant than virtually all rootstock.)
  2. California is blessed with an exceptionally benign climate, with significantly less vine pathogen pressure, allowing for a far more “hands-off” approach to disease control and for the possibility to produce a more “natural” or uninflected wine.67 In many parts of the state one can find a preternaturally long growingseason, allowing for the ripening of certain varieties in climes significantly cooler than where they have historically been grown.
  3. Most significantly, California has a cultural openness to innovation and experimentation and for the most part is blessed to have great regulatory  tolerance for plantation of unique varieties and farming approaches, at least in comparison to our European confrères.  We are only limited by the natural constraints of the site itself (and one might argue, those limits confer the wine’s unique frame).
  4. Access to market. California “wine country” is an exceptionally attractive tourist destination, pandemics and wild-fires notwithstanding.  The ability to visit the actual sites of production can confer a unique intimacy with the customer and potentially create a stronger affinity.8  This is particularly useful if one is attempting to convey a fairly complex storyline, and as always, “showing” is a lot more powerful than telling.

I have argued elsewhere that at least at first blush, we in the New World are at some great disadvantage in our identification of optimal planting material (grape variety and rootstock) in that we’ve not had the benefit of centuries to iterate and carefully observe the vinous results obtained on our individual sites.  How might we possibly find a match of a given grape variety to a particular site as exquisite and congruent as say Pinot Noir and the Côte d’Or, Nebbiolo and Barolo, Syrah/Sérine and Côte-Rotie, as examples?  Certainly, if we were considering a relatively stable climate, the New World would not have as great a chance to achieve the congruency of the Old.  However, the epic disaster that is global climate change would seem to level the playing field in a sense, and should soon if not already cause grape growers throughout the world to rethink the suitability of their practices and varietal choices.  We in the New World may not have soils that are quite as distinctive and interesting for grapes as those of the Old World, but as far as new plantings, we have the advantage of being able to grow varieties in grapes in areas significantly cooler and possibly in climates arguably more appropriate than are currently being exploited in the Old World.910

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, with a few notable exceptions, has now, I’m afraid, become a climat increasingly problematic for varieties it has grown successfully heretofore.  Grenache, the backbone of Châteauneuf, has been virtually impossible to harvest at an alcoholic degree of under 15% in recent years; growing grapes there and elsewhere in classic appellations without supplemental irrigation is also now verging on the impossible. The prospect of continuing climate change is particularly ominous for some of the greatest crus of Europe.  It is a tragedy beyond comprehension to imagine a world where much of the Côte d’Or may no longer be suitable for Pinot Noir.  (This gives no joy to this would-be New World competitor).  But this unfortunate reality might well create some opportunities for emergent wine regions both in California and elsewhere in the New World.  Nevertheless, it is my personal opinion that the real opportunities for California may well lie beyond traditional grape varieties, and might better be found in pursuing unique, “oddball” varieties or perhaps in the creation of altogether new varieties and possibly suites of unique, complex blends of these new cépages.

In a previously “normal” world, one with a more or less stable climate, growers could rely upon Nature to create, either through plant mutation or epigenetic variability, discernible phenotypic differences in vineyards.  The observation and selection of favorable agronomic plant and fruit characteristics for a given site we know as sélection massale.   Alas, I believe that the climate is changing too rapidly and the natural variable processes are too slight and slow for this practice to be of much practical use for vignerons in California.  In my own vineyard, Popelouchum, near the town of San Juan Bautista in California’s Central Coast, I’ve taken up the idea of self-crosses or what I fancifully call “varietal auto-tuning.”11  Normally, mind you, self-crosses are not the obviously best way to create stronger, more appropriate biotypes.  In fact, because grapes are heterozygous, one finds the expression of recessive genes and instances of genetic weakness in the offspring – metabolic or growth disorders, sterility, failure to thrive, parthenocarpy, etc.12  So, while the substantial majority of offspring of self-crosses are less interesting than their parents, this technique can create a substantial amount of variability in a trial and with it, the possibility of discovering biotypes that might be better suited to the unique conditions that present themselves.  Obviously, it is crucial to grow the new self-crossed seedlings side by side with the original parent to observe the phenotypic differences and note whether any significant improvements have been achieved.  We have begun work self-crossing both Sérine and Rossese, (a Ligurian grape variety, aka Tibouren in Provence), and the results so far are enormously encouraging.13

The opportunities afforded by self-crossing may be particularly useful under the following conditions:

1. Presence of debilitating virus.  Happily, grapevine viruses are not transmitted through seeds, and the ability to eliminate virus while at the same creating variability of phenotypic expression represents a great opportunity for California and indeed for the Old World.14  Debilitating grape viruses create a certain cloud over a given variety, often daunting perhaps all but the most quixotic growers.15  Viral issues can express themselves in many ways – delayed or uneven ripening, erratic fruit set, grafting incompatibility, sudden vine decline, all features that drive potential champions of exotic varieties slightly crazy.16  It is ironic, but as mentioned earlier, historically Old World vineyards would often struggle to ripen their grapes in many years, sometimes due to viral issues.  While achieving full ripeness these days in both New and Old World is typically a lot easier in the changèd climate, finding unique biotypes that develop ripe flavors at lower potential alcohols is now perhaps the more relevant objective.  

2. Improved winemaking quality/flavor intensity and complexity.  There has been no historical inevitability for growers the world over to feel compelled to choose particular clones/biotypes for their ultimate winemaking quality potential. Far too many clones have been selected for their thriftiness and general utility, i.e. disease resistance, reliability of production, etc. rather than for their winemaking potential.  But more to the point, varieties have been selected over time for their suitability to their particular place of origin, which is not necessarily relevant when they undergo relocation.  In Côte-Rôtie, Sérine, a genius grape, will reliably produce a significant titer of rotundone, the molecule responsible for the variety’s peppery typicity, but why should the same variety necessarily produce prodigious levels of rotundone under California’s conditions?  The variability found in self-crosses might well lead to the discovery of a high rotundone producer under brighter and dryer California conditions.  Nursery trials that revealed smaller bunches and berries would likely suggest grapes of potentially higher qualitative potential.17 18 Apart from flavor considerations, which of course are primary, relevant phenological differences – budbreak and maturity dates, grape chemistry, etc. would be of great interest.19

3. Complexity.  Self-crossing represents a unique opportunity to create complexity through diversity and thoughtful selection.  While many of the self-crosses will likely be far less interesting than their parents, often just slightly duller variations of their dad/mom, one might look for the “outliers” for distinctive characteristics.  In the case of Syrah/Sérine, (itself the product of a mixed marriage, viz. Dureza and Mondeuse blanche), I’ve already found amongst the seedlings several white grape offspring, which I imagine might offer some interesting aromatic complexity.  Needless to say, I’m looking carefully at the smaller clustered biotypes as well as those that appear to be the pepperiest (by rotundone assay) and of course, anything that looks and tastes particularly odd and distinctive.20  A new plantation assembled from a blend of these unique biotypes could have singular complexity and nuance.  Working out the ideal precise percentages of seedless “Sérine” in the blend and how much “Sérine blanche” might be optimal will be exceptionally satisfying work. At the very least, it seems to represent a potential path to a unique interpretation of Syrah/Sérine under California conditions.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, California’s commercial success lay partially in its simplification of wine’s terminology, making varietal rather than geographical designation primary in the presentation of the wine.  But the American wine business has matured to the point where, I believe, customers are beginning to seek additional dimensionality in how wines are identified and certainly more importantly, in how these wines are actually experienced.  The expression of terroir or the unique qualities associated with place of origin, I believe is the element that we California winemakers must seek in order to elevate our wines to an appropriate level of seriousness on the world stage.  But this will perhaps require a significant amount of unlearning of our common typical modern viticultural practices – ones that rely upon a strong level of stylistic or authorial control, as it were, of the process.21  This is a much longer conversation, but if wine-growers could learn to leverage Nature’s gifts to a greater extent – the potential flavor and textural contribution of the site itself, as a good example, our wines would be infinitely more interesting and compelling.  Notably, certain farming practices conduce to the more articulate expression of terroir22 dry-farming, restricted yields, no-tillage, organic and biodynamic farming, harvesting fruit at appropriate maturity levels, sensitive and gentle extraction of musts; these are all strategies that work towards allowing the inherent, unique qualities of the site to emerge as a prominent element and to speak its truth, in current parlance.23 

The fashion for grape breeding comes and goes and as a practice, is generally deployed to solve a perceived problem – an individual grower or perhaps an aspiring region would prefer something less prone to bunch rot, or something more winter-hardy, a grape that ripens earlier or later, one more consistent in yield, etc.  It’s not obvious that many grape breeders embark on the more open-ended project of searching for pure vinous beauty or originality.  But I believe that grape breeding offers a special opportunity to help in our quest for greater congruity of variety (or more aptly, multiple varieties) for a given site, as well as serving as an opportunity to create unique taste profiles as well as possibly unique complexity to a grape blend.  

The most unorthodox initiative being undertaken at Popelouchum is the ambitious project of attempting to breed 10,000 new cultivars from two different Vitis vinifera varieties.  By creating such a vast multitude of new germplasm, there certainly exists the possibility of discovering a new and exciting variety or two with unique flavor and useful agronomic characteristics. But, looking at the initiative through a very different lens, and considering what might result from a field blend composed of a set of genetically distinctive, individual biotypes, there might be the special opportunity to reflect the unique inherent qualities of the site itself.  By the use of the vast number of genetically distinctive  biotypes – though all derived from common parents, thus each with a familial resonance – one essentially has effaced the expression of varietal characteristics.  As a Gestalt problem, this would allow the more subtle elements of the wine – the expression of soil character or terroir – to emerge. The outstanding question is: Might the use of a very large set of genetically distinctive individuals represent an opportunity to create a wine of unique complexity and nuance that could not be achieved by any other means? 

At Popelouchum, I’ve finally settled on a choice of parents for what I hope will be a long vitaceous lineage.24  Perhaps there will emerge a few individual offspring with noteworthy and compelling characteristics.  But, qualifying these characteristics a priori in an altogether new variety is not an obviously straightforward process, and indeed might only be possible when one encounters the new varieties for the first time with no preconceived expectations.  I wouldn’t necessarily be looking for or expecting “haunting fragrance,” for example, (though would be very pleased to discover that, were it to emerge) or for preternatural levels of fruitiness.  (Indeed, that latter element would be a distraction.)  Rather, I believe I would focus on the qualities in the grape that suggested both complexity of flavor and aroma, as well as exhibiting a persistence of flavor.25   I’m not quite sure how to properly characterize this in physical terms, but I’d also be looking for a sort of “openness” on the palate, such as one finds in grapes like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, sufficient to allow other elements, in particular soil characteristics, to emerge.  

In fact, I believe there has been a sort of category error in how most of us think about wine – principally as a beverage composed of definable grape varieties – noble or common, as Platonically pure monocépage expressions of the noblest (Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc.) or as artfully composed varietal blends (Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône) of the perhaps slightly less noble. But if we somehow began to think of grapes less for their own distinctive flavor contribution but rather instead as potential transmitters or carriers of other important information – the unique qualities of a given (and special) viticultural site, we open the possibility of a new world of original flavors and conversations.  We might now better focus on the qualities that differentiate one vineyard site from another; in California, this may well represent an opportunity for it to begin to find its own unique voice, rather than being an imperfect echo of a possibly static Old World paradigm.

  1.  Global climate change and advances in winemaking technology have greatly obviated this particular issue in recent years, effacing to some extent the obvious stylistic differences between Old World wines and New; again the shrinking world enhances competition for all parties.
  2. A concept very cordial to the Boomer generation, but significantly less interesting to succeeding generations.
  3. Not that many years ago, winery owners had minimal expectations of great fame and fortune in the wine business and still maintained the quaint notion of producing wines to please themselves. “If nobody wants to buy the wine, then @#$% them, I’ll drink it myself,” they would exclaim. Nowadays, nobody says that anymore because indeed the wine is now far too expensive to drink it oneself.
  4. I believe that there is an important distinction to be drawn amongst wine collectors as to the real connoisseurs and the simple amassers of trophy wines. It is my unscientific contention that we are perhaps living or have recently lived in a trophy wine bubble, with too much discretionary income chasing a non-trivial number of “rare” wines that are more or less indistinguishable one from the other. As economic conditions become more strained as they most certainly will, I would bet that there will be more structural pressure for rare and fine wines to truly exemplify special and distinctive qualities.
  5. I don’t wish to come across as dismissive; there are indeed some small producers in California who are bucking the dominant trends and doing very interesting work with alternative varieties and methodologies, even taking a look at radically unfashionable varieties like Mission, Carignane, Palomino, Mondeuse, etc. There are even a few brave souls who are committed to dry-farming in California, who are putting it all (meaning their vineyards) on the line to a far greater extent than am I.
  6. Many clones or biotypes (such as Sérine in Côte-Rôtie or Vaccarèse in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), for example, have been eschewed for their tight clusters and susceptibility to bunch rot, but these issues are non-problematic in much dryer California.
  7. It is a cardinal belief of mine that tricked-up, spoofilated wines will never have long-lasting appeal. Wines of natural beauty, made sans maquillage, are the only ones that have a chance at long term sustainability.
  8. From a regulatory standpoint, planting vineyards in new viticultural areas is orders of magnitude more straightforward in the New World.
  9. This may be a bit of a subjective impression, but it seems that when I started in the wine business forty years ago, I imagined there were opportunities for California to grow novel grape varieties to more complete maturity/balance than was then achievable in the Old World. Forty years later, the opposite opportunity seems to present itself. Ruchè, an extraordinary, fragrant Piemontese variety grown in Castagnole Monferrato appellation is regularly harvested at 15% abv. Tannat from the Madiran appellation in Gascogne has a similar issue with skyrocketing potential alcohols. These unique and compelling grapes grown in California could be introduced with a different and possibly as compelling a presentation as compared to the Old World paradigms.
  10. I would frame the challenge moving forward both for Old World and New: How to find or create vinous elegance and complexity in a world that is for the most part growing ever dryer and warmer?
  11. It’s important to note that a self-cross of a given grape variety is no longer, in fact, technically the same grape variety. A Grenache x Grenache cross, for example, while likely tasting very Grenache-ish, could, strictly speaking, no longer be called “Grenache.” I am afraid that even thinking about this sort of issue will be enough to melt down the responsible American regulatory agency (TTB).
  12. Parthenocarpy or seedlessness may in fact be very useful in creating particularly intense and flavorful, small-berried grapes, albeit of very shy yield. If one, for example, is working with a variety like Nebbiolo which typically produces hard seed tannins, some component of seedless grapes in the blend might well be useful to achieve a stylistic objective. Identifying a biotype that produces fewer seeds than normal will also be useful in producing a smaller clustered, smaller berried variant, particularly useful in varieties that have a tendency to generate a substantially proportioned cluster. While the benefits of shrinking the size of a large clustered variety are patently obvious, there appear to be benefits in identifying smaller clustered variants of small clustered varieties such as Pinot noir as well. This is perhaps an over-simplification, but a more favorable surface area/volume ratio of skin to pulp seems to create a sensory threshold above which the typicity of the variety begins to emerge.
  13. There is perhaps a far more compelling case to be made for self-crossing Rossese/Tibouren in comparison to Sérine. Rossese ripens quite variably; its cluster size can run from reasonable to enormous. Its suitability to produce red wine in California is yet to be determined, but its potential for elegance under California’s quasi-Mediterranean conditions seems quite promising.
  14. The Old World regulatory bodies will have to wrap their head around the technical issue of nomenclature. A self-cross is technically not identical to its parent, but presumably if it is both genotypically and phenotypically “close enough” to the Platonic ideal of the variety (at least as that is imagined), it should pass muster. In Calabria, the self-crossing experiments were successfully done with the grapes Gaglioppo and Magliocco, resulting in significantly “improved” versions from the extant plant material.
  15. It’s interesting to note that Viognier itself was in this category in the 1970s and came close to near disappearance for its viral issues.
  16. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, responsible for phytosanitation, is generally unhappy with the idea of releasing new plant material that tests positive for any known grape virus; alas, its suggested “cure,”heat-treatment or thermo-therapy, can be fairly draconian, often resulting in the unintended consequence of the disappearance of the originality of the phenotype. In some cases, the virus had inhibited the yield, in some cases, it inhibited the sizing of the clusters. Withal, something important is often lost in these more productive “improved” vines.
  17. A particular biotype’s seed productivity would appear to be the dominant factor in determining berry size, and a seedless variant should by all reckoning produce a particularly intensely flavored wine.
  18. This point is perhaps too important to footnote, but perhaps the single most useful application of the self-crossing technique would be to consider its use on what are typically considered to be large clustered grape varieties – Grenache, Cinsault, Rossese, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese as examples, especially those with the tendency to form “wings.” All things being equal, large berried, large clustered and winged grape biotypes are typically less intense than their smaller variants. Vignerons working with extant clones often are compelled to do significant thinning work to achieve the flavor intensity that they seek to produce great wine.
  19. One last note on Syrah/Sérine: The Holy Grail, at least for me, with this variety would be the creation/discovery of a unique biotype with significantly better stomatal regulation, crucial for both drought, wind and heat tolerance. Alas, unless one could iterate tens of thousands of self-crosses, the genetics of the regulation of stomata are almost certainly too complex to find the unique biotype in Syrah/Sérine with this improved functionality. But, it is not unreasonable to perhaps discover superior drought or heat tolerance in other varieties with less complicated genetics, i.e, absence of multiple gene regulation.
  20. I’m told that the appearance of pink variants is exceptionally rare, but they hold particular fascination for me. With so many vinifera varieties the pink or lesser pigmented variant often has the most intense fragrance and expresses unique complexity.
  21. Near complete control of the wine-growing process is a hallmark of New World winemaking – from the insistence on standardized clonal material, to drip irrigation, to the use of stylistic enhancers in the winery cultured yeast and bacteria, enzymes, fining agents, organoleptic tannins, pigments (MegaPurple, etc.)
  22. At Popelouchum, we’ve adopted the use of biochar as a soil amendment. While it might certainly be argued that the use of any soil amendment represents a sort of deformation of terroir, biochar uniquely aids in the plant’s extraction of existing soil minerals, thus acting as a sort of terroir amplifier.
  23. One must begin by planting one’s vines in a distinctive/articulate terroir, i.e. one with discernible soil characteristics that can be expressed by a grape variety or perhaps multiple varieties appropriately congruent to the site.
  24. I’ve chosen the Tuscan grape Ciliegiolo as the “father” and Picolit as the “mother.” Ciliegiolo is a robust, upright growing, and very old, thus genetically quite stable, grape variety – well suited for dry and windy growing conditions such as one finds in San Juan Bautista. Picolit, an extraordinary variety from Friuli, is one of the rare purely “female” grape varieties, i.e. incapable of pollinating itself. When produced (rarely) as a dry, table wine, it is incredibly complex, powerful with great concentration and extract. I confess that there was a certain amount of expediency involved in my choice of PIcolit as the maternal parent; transforming a proper hermaphrodite vinifera grape variety (such as one commonly finds) is an exceptionally laborious process. The phenological and agronomic characteristics of Picolit – it ripens at the same epoch as Ciliegiolo, and also seems to have an upright growth habit – makes it a suitable, if convenient candidate for this exercise.
  25. The ability of the wine to tolerate multiple oxygen saturations without itself becoming oxidized would be a strong indicator of its inherent ageability, and a particularly salutary indicator. There may well be chemical indicators – glutathione or glutathione precursors as well as resveratrol which could be proxy indicators for this quality.

    Leave a Reply

    * Required
    * Required, Private