Love Among the Vines
Lately, in thinking long and hard about what grape varieties (and anything else) we might plant at the new estate in San Juan Bautista, I am facing yet another variant of the New World Conundrum.1 I’ve publically proclaimed myself to be a “terroirist,” i.e. someone committed to “expressing the unique individuality of the site.” All well and good, and while this sounds quite noble when declaimed from the mountaintop, what exactly does it really mean? What precisely have I signed up for? I’m standing at the altar, and suddenly, momentarily, feeling a bit weak at the knees.
Implicit in the commitment to seek terroir is the notion of honoring the site by growing the grapes most appropriate to the site, those most capable of expressing its unique character. The New World focuses on climatic appropriateness, the Old World on the felicity of the soil/grape variety union. Growing pinot noir in Fresno is an obvious example of what one absolutely mustn’t do; cabernet sauvignon on the extreme Sonoma Coast is also clearly contraindicated. Merlot is said to love clay (but not too much of it); cabernet, gravel; gamay and syrah, granite; riesling, slate; carignane, schist; pinot noir, a limestone/clay mix. In the Old World, your path is generally bright and clearly delineated. In the New World, you know where you should definitely not go, but it is far less evident how you will be delivered into the light of perfect vitrimonial bliss.
If you have found a wonderful site for grapes, with a longish growing season and bright but temperate days, you can well imagine that there are many varieties you might grow in your vineyard that will do well. But what will do best? What will, as they say, sing? Which grape or admixture of grapes will produce a wine of such distinction, that this nectar – still in largely eidetic imaginary form – will mount the world stage as a “classic” of its genre?2,3 Yes, there is likely to be an immense satisfaction in producing a wine that will universally (or nearly so) be regarded as “great,” and sincere wine lovers admire all great wines. At the same time, it seems that if you are going to the trouble to try to make great wine, simply admiring that wine is not quite enough. You want to be crazy, silly, absolutely besmitten, head-over-empurpled-heels-and-toes in love with it.
So how do you know if your match is really right, if it is a love that is truly meant 2B, as rhapsodized about in old-time pop ditties? This is the question that star-crossed pairs have been asking themselves since the age of Courtly Love. In the Old World, the love of a particular grape or wine literally comes with mother’s milk;4 if you are a Burgundian in the CÃ´te de Nuits, you could not possibly fashion loving another grape more than pinot. If you are Jean-Louis Chave, the thought of growing anything other than syrah would strike you as being a non sequitur. But planting a vineyard in the New World de novo is a bit like being an orphan, a dogie. No mother, no mother’s milk. Like an “ugly duckling,” you are just trying to figure out where you fit in in the Grape Order of Being.5
Returning to the question in a slightly different form: In the New World, how do you know that you will love the wine that you plan to make before you make it? Can you learn to love the wine that is the product of your terroir, presumably if you have a deep love of the place, before it has even shown itself as a great terroir? If the wine that you produce is mostly or entirely a projection of your own aesthetic bent, despite the fact that you haven’t irrigated, you’ve massally selected, yield restricted, eschewed over-ripeness, maybe even laboriously found the recherché knife that allows you to cut surface roots,6 in other words, performed all of the outward obeisances that known terroirists are known to perform, are you still not, in the end, producing something more akin to what might be called a vin d’effort?7 How do you ultimately find a harmonious, felicitous blend of your own aesthetics with the deep qualities of the inchoate Stranger?
The question raised is a little bit like the one implicit in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Can you truly be said to love something or someone that is essentially a reflection of yourself? If your wine is so solipsistic as to be simply a refashioning of your own aesthetic, are you truly honoring terroir? It would seem that there is something of a false – or at least incomplete – joy in merely building a wine rather than in discovering a true terroir.8 Without a very gradual unfolding of the mystery of the Other, the exercise of producing a “great” wine would appear to be a rather sterile one. And yet, I am as nervous as a bridegroom on the eve of his wedding night, that I will, even after deep contemplation and in deepest consideration and respect for the terroir of our site, have somehow made a great miscalculation, that we will end up with a wine from our San Juan Estate that is technically proficient, impeccable even, but somehow doesn’t touch my soul.9 I yearn on a daily basis to find my soul/soil-mate in a wine, a product of something utterly beyond and outside myself, and yet something with which I have been terribly intimate and of which I am inordinately proud. Will pinot always be my fantasy-grape, the girl in the T-Bird, who winked at the stop light and motored off into the night?
Claude Bourguignon and his wife Lydia, the famous soil scientists and possibly terroir’s greatest advocates and interpreters, are coming in the next few weeks to our new San Juan Bautista property to consult. I need to understand a lot more about how they work – their work is almost all in France, and not much of their published work shows up here. I understand that Claude has famously pronounced that he has yet to observe a vrai terroir in the New World. Perhaps this is because we do not have a co-evolving wine culture – of human and vine – in the New World, nor anything like a cultural esteem for terroir,10 or simply because we have not yet had enough grape growing history for terroir to truly disclose itself. Claude and Lydia apparently make recommendations to their clients about what kinds of grape varieties and rootstocks they might best plant where on their property, as well as what sort of cultural practices they might deploy to best express their respective terroirs. So I am, of course, tremendously curious to know what they will say, and slightly fearful that they might throw up their hands as to the suitability of the property for terroir’s expression – too much clay or not enough – or perhaps they will recommend a number of grape varieties in which I have no interest whatsoever – some terminally rustic cépagesi.11 What if they suggest, indeed insist upon, pinotage?12 Carnelian? Cynthiana? Madeleine? Angevine? Or – God forbid – Merlot?13
There are some wine styles that we have worked on for quite a number of years, and for which I have some deep sentimental attachment – Le Cigare Volant, for one. This wine has worked for me as a vin d’effort, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes when I’ve been too clever by half, a tad less well, but it has been enormously fun and stimulating to produce. However, in the end, making the wine largely turns out to be somewhat of a purely technical challenge, a bit like those chefs on food reality television shows being given a market basket of ingredients and charged with producing a tasty/showy dish that will wow the etiolated, jaded critics. I end up with wines that I greatly enjoy, because that was my intention in how they were produced.14,15
So I am a bit torn. I would like to respect the historical continuity16 of Cigare, partially out of sentiment, partially out of a recognition of certain commercial realities.17 On the other hand, this new estate is the opportunity to create potentially a different paradigm and to think about the wines we produce in a very different way. Dare I introduce an Italian uvaggio into the RhÃ´ne blend? Does this road not lead to madness? How important is it to color within the lines – to plant a suite of grapes that have some sort of history of relationship with one another?18,19
Here’s the gist of it: It truly doesn’t matter to me (apart from wishing to avoid economically ruinous decisions) what grape varieties we end up growing at San Juan. But like finding an appropriate romantic partner, there are certain minimal criteria that just must obtain. You don’t want to be shacked up with an ax-murderer or someone heavily into Ozzie Osborne – for me, this would be the equivalent of having a site that absolutely demanded its grapes attain 14.5% potential alcohol to be interesting. I know that there are certain flavor characteristics and even certain pH ranges20 that absolutely push my buttons (in a pleasantly driven to distraction kind of way). For whites, it is higher acidity, minerals and citrus.21,22 For reds, there is a certain complex of flavors and a particular kind of way in which they are organized, that at least for me, signify absolute organoleptic bliss.23,24 Then there is the phenomenon of “licorice.” God only knows why this should be the case, but virtually every red wine that really knocks me out has, to some degree or another, a slight (or not so slight) suggestion of licorice.25
Maybe I’m just worrying too much about doing it right. The relationship I have with this land and the grapes and wines it will produce is certain to be an ever-changing one, a dance, a true give and take. I will try to exert my will, my aesthetic, with the land and the vines at times, taking the lead, treading on more than a few toes.26 Of course it is largely up to me and my colleagues to give this great estate real form and definition, but this will require me to personally dig deep and find attributes in myself that are sometimes elusive – patience and the ability to listen and to observe, to trust. In the end, all of this discussion about whether I will direct the vines or the vines will guide me may likely be moot. The male (in this relationship) imagines that he has some control, but this is merely his fantasy. I fancy that it was I who has chosen the site for my grand polycultural dreams, but it really is the site that has chosen me, and it will have its way with me. I will do my best to hang on for the ride.
- Not to be confused with the off-dry blended white wine produced in Napa Valley. I have already faced that particular Conundrum, and managed to emerge bruised, but not broken. [↩]
- This seemingly innocuous question is itself rather fraught. Isn’t the notion of a genre somewhat riddled with a raft of assumptions and presumptions? (I always think of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, with its distinction between “karass” and “granfalloon” – an association of members of a particular order or class of things that are either deeply linked to one another (albeit in an esoteric fashion) or those that on the surface appear to have something in common, but in fact do not. The emergence of a wine sui generis is perhaps the most difficult thing to fashion. Like any new emerging art form, it would likely take at least a generation for a radically different concept of “wine” to be fully comprehended, if not grudgingly accepted. The highly conservative world of wine is as accepting of new vinous styles as Prince Charles is of modern architecture. [↩]
- I’m not even mentioning the need for a vine to acquire a number of years of age before it “settles down” and produces a balanced product – grapevines, like teenagers, are notoriously unhinged in their adolescence – nor the time involved in making the wine and allowing it to mature for an appropriate period of time before release. [↩]
- For Nicolas Joly in the Loire, it was the cool lait de Serrant. [↩]
- Or a hard-scrabble kid, a street urchin, looking for role models by watching old movies. [↩]
- I’ve been looking, unsuccessfully, for years for this knife, throughout Europe, and it appears that they are no longer being manufactured. (The closest thing I was able to find was in Spain and it was a tool for cutting white asparagus.) You will need to find some sort of antiquarian metalsmith in a small traditional village to fabricate this antique tool. Bonne chance! [↩]
- Bent is certainly the operative word. If the vines or wines are bent too much, they break from their own true originality, and become lesser for that. In the example of human relationships, if one partner’s personality is so dominant or controlling, even if brilliant, the other will likely fail to find herself (or himself) truly expressing her (or his) fullest potential. [↩]
- It has always been a bit of poser to me that a vigneron whose family has lived in an area for countless centuries, talks about “discovering his terroir,” a process that seems to need to be renewed in every generation. Would the family have not already found it, passed it down with the china, cutlery and furniture? [↩]
- I recently had the opportunity to taste a few wines made by an old colleague of mine, who left the Central Coast to make pinot noir in the exciting new area of _______. My colleague is among the most serious terroirists I have ever met. He is very methodical, farms Biodynamically, intensively, and doesn’t irrigate; by all reckoning he is doing virtually everything right, or at least everything I could conceive to do under comparable circumstances. The soil on his site is clay and limestone, and it’s climatically cool – way cool. And yet, the wines seem to be a bit messed up. The pH of the finished wine is totally whacked – my friend doesn’t want to add tartaric acid, as he feels that would deform the terroir; there’s little color (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but these wines just seem, well, slightly muddy, lacking in focus and precision – I’m sure that the pH is what is wreaking havoc. I do not know what lessons to draw, or even if there are any lessons. He is pursuing his passion, pinot noir, and has worked as diligently as he possibly could to find an appropriate site for it. I have looked for what I imagined was a great site and am now trying to figure out what to grow there. And yet, we might both, despite best intentions and a certain amount of skill, be just slightly off in our trajectories, with a slightly heart-breaking outcome. [↩]
- In the New World we don’t have a wine culture, we have the wine business. [↩]
- It’s kind of like being party to an arranged marriage, where you end up saddled with a clock-stoppingly ugly partner, said to sew well, be a good housekeeper, or to have a sunny personality. [↩]
- I realize that lately I’ve gotten into the habit of using pinotage as a bit of a straw man (though not vin de paille), indicating what can possibly go terribly wrong in the hybridization of a new grape variety. With the possible exceptions of scheurebe and incrocio manzoni, commercial “modern” grape crosses have generally proved to be somewhat lame, at least as far as the ultra-violaceous end of the spectrum that vibrates with my resonant frequencies. Maybe in the 20th century we have just attained a certain threshold level of hubris that precludes the accurate perception of real value in many things, grapes being a somewhat trivial example. (Grape breeders have mostly been focused on the solution to practical problems like disease resistance, early ripening, more productive yields, and have not particularly zeroed in on originality of flavor/phenolic profile or other aspects of vitaceous genius.) As a footnote to a footnote, scheurebe, long believed to be a silvaner/riesling cross, has recently, through DNA testing, been shown to be an unknown x riesling cross. But what is most bizarre is that it was not the Grape of Unknown Parentage that was the pollinator, but rather it was the riesling that was the dad. This meant that Dr. Scheu’s lab techs were not paying particularly close attention in spreading the magic fairy dust, nor when they came back to harvest the fruit from this dangerous liaison. The lesson here is that Nature will surprise us in ways that we cannot conceive, and She is infinitely cleverer than we are. [↩]
- Yikes. [↩]
- Maybe I’m belaboring the point here, but to continue the cooking metaphor, you can use all sorts of really snazzy ingredients – caviar, truffle oil, or any umami-intensive condiment and you can make the humblest raw foodstuffs pretty tasty. But it is a rather different proposition to make a dish of maybe just one or two ingredients with the simplest of preparations and have it create the most exquisite aesthetic bliss. [↩]
- Note that I have eschewed the more vulgar tricks – designer yeasts, enzymes, spinning cones and the like for more subtle ones – lees infusion, tricky sorts of élevage in demijohns. [↩]
- “Historical?!” any self-respecting European would snort. “You’ve been mixing grapes from all over California for thirty years and you call that ‘historical?’” [↩]
- I have worked more than twenty-five years in establishing the brand, and despite the modern world’s fascination with the latest and shiniest, new brands are not exactly created overnight. [↩]
- Love, at least in its earliest stages, is a well-known form of madness. [↩]
- Maybe what is really needed at this juncture is a cold shower. [↩]
- You know that you’re talking to a real geek here, with this admission. [↩]
- Please disregard everything that I have written up till now. I secretly want to just replicate Clos St. Hune in the New World. Or on the moon, if need be. And the pH (for whites), for those who just absolutely have to know is somewhere in the 3.25–3.3 range [↩]
- This is like a tragic, irreconcilable predilection for redheads. [↩]
- Flavors that are capable of unfolding, that seem to be arrayed around a mineral core, such as one finds in great (old-vine) Burgundies, Baroli, and certain northern RhÃ´nes – especially Cornas – I find particularly compelling. [↩]
- I am also a sucker for a certain amount of umami or savoriness in the wine, all the time knowing that this may represent a still slightly unevolved palate. For reds – not that this is really anyone’s business – I am particularly turned on in the pH range of 3.55-3.65. [↩]
- Michel Bettane has himself postulated (personal communication) that this flavor seems to emerge at certain inflexion points of perfect ripeness, independent of the grape variety. [↩]
- I am certainly trying to have my way these days with the ubiquitous poison oak. [↩]