On a Mission: The Germ of an Idea
I believe that I may have found something truly original and worthwhile that might be done in the New World.1 It’s worthwhile not just because it is novel—this is the idea of growing grapes from seeds—but because I think that it can create a real paradigm shift in how we experience wine.
Broadly speaking, the qualities that we experience in wine come from three major sources—you can almost conceive of them as radio signals of greater or lesser strength: 1) The inherent qualities of the site itself (its terroir); this is potentially the strongest signal, but it can also be quite obscured by grapegrowing and winemaking practices, drip irrigation most notably; 2) the characteristics imparted by the selection of the plant material—rootstock and scion, from the ripening properties of the vines themselves to the flavor profile of the grape varieties; 3) the overlay of winemaking technique—barrel character, diacetyl or “malolactic” character, lees autolysis, the qualities imparted by designer yeasts and designer enzymes, and so on. In principle, all of these factors can help define the character of a wine, but in the New World, we are generally focused on elements 2) and 3), and these are the obvious characters that most tasters find first in a wine: fruit, texture, flavor intensity, optical opacity—that sort of thing. But my thought is that ultimately, these qualities are really the least interesting aspects of a wine, that there is something deeper in a wine—its implicate order, if you will—which is the expression of terroir.
There are certain grape growing techniques that I think profoundly favor the amplification of terroir without its distortion, and this is what is supremely interesting to me at this point. Perhaps foremost among them is dry-farming, allowing the vines to explore a wide-ranging volume of soil; certainly, having a diverse and vibrant microflora in the soil itself is also incredibly important in the articulation of the mineral signature of the site.2 When you feel terroir in a wine, it is—at least to me—a much deeper experience than the experience of a wine of more superficial charms; it is an experience of the vertiginous depth of nature itself, and it can be emotionally affecting.
Growing grapes from seeds will give you a radically high degree of genetic diversity, with each member of the population proffering a slightly different facet, a variant of the dominant thema.3 And while the characteristics of virtually all of the offspring of the mother vine will in some sense be individually less desirable than those of the parent, there is potentially something enormously valuable in the accretion of differences between the vines: every vine is genetically distinctive from every other one, but still a member of the same tribe. This would, it appears, give you a breath-taking level of complexity and polyphony (but not cacophony) that you might not otherwise experience.4 Further, grapes grown from seeds exhibit a very high degree of geotropism—they root straight down to China—and this is essentially what one is looking for in a vin de terroir: deep extraction of the mineral qualities of the soil, concentrated and expressed in a relatively small volume of fruit (seedling vines tend to be very small, event bonsai-ed, as it were).5 Perhaps the muting or blurring of the “varietal” character of a wine by the genetic randomization of grape seedlings might actually allow very different aspects of the wine’s character and beauty to emerge.
The qualities that one esteems in wine come down to a question of aesthetics, the deepest appreciation of which may ultimately involve the relative degree to which a taster truly engages with a wine, allowing himself or herself to become open to the wine’s changes and its evolution. A curious taster is more apt to allow himself to freely move through a range of perceptual lenses, or shifts in Gestalt.6 Instead of focusing on a particularly dominant aspect of a wine, one tries to approach the wine with the organoleptic equivalent of “soft eyes,”7 seeing/feeling/tasting the wine from ever-changing perspectives, allowing it to come into focus in wholly different ways.8 It may be the captivating scent that is one’s initial focus, then its textural element; at some point, the mineral aspect of the wine is discovered, and this is the wine’s deepest element, it’s core. The fruit—that which our New World palates so greatly esteem, and the wine’s friendliest face and signifier it will do us no harm—is, while intense and pleasant enough, suddenly apprehended no longer to be the organizing principle of the wine.
So here’s one thing that happened not long ago to somewhat radicalize my perspective and to crystallize my current thinking on the possibilities of discovering terroir in the New World. I recently had dinner at Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, a place that is very serious about presenting wines of real personality and originality. I asked my friend Bob Klein, who owns the restaurant, to pour me something wacky and wonderful. He brought out a wine that I instantly adored. It was elegant: perhaps 12.5% alcohol, fragrant, possessing great length, and presenting a clear, strong mineral aspect. I had absolutely no idea what the wine was. I ventured to Bob that it might be a Nerello Mascalese from Mt. Etna,9 a wine stylistically somewhere between a Burgundy and a Barolo, but with an especially strong “gatheredness” in the mid-palate and a very persistent finish—this is how I tend to experience wines of minerality. “Good guess, but nope,” he said. “This may be a little tough.”
“So, what is it?” Bob excused himself for a moment, trotted back to his office and brought me out a printed page from the winery’s website. The wine is the 2008 Los Bermejos Red Listan Negro Tinto “Maceracion Carbonica,” grown on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands of Spain. The picture of the vineyard was absolutely startling; it was a moonscape with palm trees. The vines were planted inside of what looked like craters and around each crater was built a tiny wall made of basalt stones. The island is quite windy and also receives relatively little rainfall. The vines’ situation inside the concave craters protects them from the drying winds; the basalt rocks, which are quite porous, trap the morning dew and refresh the humidity around the vine.
These are grapes grown under the most extreme conditions: blessed with very high mineral content in the soils, but with minimal available water, the roots are looking everywhere to catch a sustaining sip. In the parlance of Spinal Tap, the amps that magnify the signal of terroir are set at “11.” But here is where it gets truly bizarre.
I recounted to a local wine writer, Jon Bonné, my experience of the wine, how utterly knocked out I was. Jon asked, “Do you have any idea what listan negro is? Do you know that it is also known by another name?” I confess that I am a bit of a self-styled cépage maven, or perhaps an insufferable show-off when it comes to acquaintance with esoteric grape varieties; I fancy that I have heard of most of the interesting ones, but now here was one that I didn’t know, nor did I have the faintest idea what might be its synonym. “Listan negro is also known as the mission grape,” he declared. This revelation triggered a small implosion of my world-view.
The mission grape was likely the first grape imported to California by the Spanish padres in the 16th century, and for several centuries a mainstay of California vineyards. I’ve tasted mission grapes at UC Davis, and observed the famous Winkler vine before its untimely demise due to tractor blight (and possible over-irrigation).10 I’m here to tell you that as far as grapes go, mission is quite possibly the very worst extant vinifera variety. It has an absolutely giant cluster, with no color, no flavor, no acid, no nothing.11 And yet…under these bizarre growing conditions in the Canary Islands, it produces a wine of absolute genius.
The take-home message? The world of wine exists in non-Euclidean space, and certainly partakes of the quantum universe; there are great discontinuities in what we know or imagine we know. The greatest wines are often the most anomalous ones, the ones with the atypical encépagement or grown on a very different exposure or in a very different soil from their neighbors. Or they just simply stand out for reasons that no human being can fathom; the universe has just conspired to make it so. I would suggest that greatness in wine may well come from a human being’s accidentally discovering a uniquely special site and having the wit to try not to guide things overmuch, and to be strong enough to allow Nature to do Her thing. Perhaps the point may be that if terroir’s signal is strong enough, the particular grape variety or varieties grown in a vineyard—assuming they are mas o menos within range of suitability—just might not matter so much, or even at all.
I have been stressing out about which grapes to plant where in the new vineyard in San Juan Bautista. Maybe I’ve been fixating on the wrong problem, and if I can really focus on amplifying the qualities of terroir, the varietal question may turn out to be a non-question.12 Perhaps growing grapes from seeds, with all of the unique qualities that seedlings confer, may be enough to create a sensory paradigm shift in the taste/taster of the resultant wine.
Thinking about it teleologically, I do wonder deeply why one might want to grow anything in the New World, as it seems that what we often do is such a pale imitation of the Old World paradigm; what do we in the New World really have to contribute uniquely? But what we do have going for us in the New World are fairly benign growing conditions (apart from this year’s vintage), some virgin soils, and the relative freedom viticulturally to do more or less as we please.13 Perhaps we are here somehow to advance our collective experience of what is vinously possible. There is already a Stag’s Leap, a Frog’s Leap, and (in Australia) a Roo’s Leap.14 Maybe it is time to consider taking a different sort of leap—one into the baroque bloom and buzz of Nature’s great depths.
- The New World Paradox, if I may call it that, is something like this: With enough effort and an unholy deployment of financial resource, a winegrower in the New World can drive his product toward “higher quality” (though that term itself is quite fraught), and create something approaching a facsimile of a paradigmatic Old World wine. Beginning with a well-favored site and with plant material well suited for that site will give the grower a runner on base, as it were, but what is really dramatic is the effect of raw shredded Franklins, the incineration of a large fortune to engender a smaller one. The most efficient way to accomplish this sort of redistribution of wealth is achieved by insisting on a densely spaced plantation—a great expense to establish and a great expense in the upkeep—as well as rigorously maintaining economically ruinous, minimal yields (one ton-ish per acre) at harvest. But these steps will generally only enhance “quality” by improving the wine’s concentration, that one-size-fits-all kluge/proxy for excellence in the New World. And while it turns the volume up, it doesn’t necessarily render the signal any clearer or the song more melodious. At the end of the day, the New World exemplar (or homage) ends up costing far more than the paradigm upon which it is based. [↩]
- The soil mycorrhizae are responsible for the active transport of minerals into the grape roots. Biodynamic farming also appears to be an very useful practice for the cultivation of a rich microbial environment in the soil. [↩]
- Though the brilliant success of this experiment is still far from ensured, there are still some things that are known: Taking seedlings from “older” cépages, i.e., varieties such as grenache that have been in existence for many centuries, will yield offspring genetically more homogeneous in taste profile (and more biologically viable), than those from comparatively more recent provenance, e.g. cabernet sauvignon. How much relative homogeneity is desirable no one knows, but completely random heterogeneity will likely not yield a harmonious result. A fair bit of sauvignon blanc (recent ancestor of cabernet sauvignon) in one’s red bordelais field blend is probably not a felicitous outcome, but who is to say? [↩]
- This may well fall into the realm of mysticism, but it seems certain to me that plants communicate with one another in myriad ways we can barely conceive. Just as there is something like a group intelligence—information not held by a single individual, but held within the group—it seems quite plausible that one particularly bright segment of a population might “teach” the others how to solve a particular problem, whether it is the extraction of potassium from the soil, or how to cope with extreme drought or fight the presence of a pathogen, such as powdery mildew. [↩]
- What is also absolutely crucial to the program of cultivating a vin de terroir in California is to successfully confer a degree of drought tolerance to the vines. Moderate stress in vines is very good, extreme stress not so much, as it leads to dehydration, sunburn, and the consequent deformation of terroir. A small plant with a compact trunk (relatively few stored carbohydrates), not having to work against so much hydrostatic pressure and with a comparatively small-gauge vasculature, will tend to be far less prone to drought stress. [↩]
- I would also propose a rather more radical hypothesis, which I can in no way ever publically advertise on a wine label or in other promotional material. (Burn this after reading.) Vins de terroir—being much more mineral-rich than the more ubiquitous, confected vins d’effort—are, I am certain, nutritionally a much sounder bet. There is a relatively small (but growing) population of wine drinkers who actually listen to their bodies and try to find those bottles that actually give them a greater feeling of well-being upon consumption, or at least don’t wreck them quite as badly. [↩]
- The term “soft eyes” comes from the wisdom of baseball’s batting coaches, but could perhaps also be applied to the phenomenological methodology. [↩]
- I know that I sound a bit like a broken record here, but my critique of much of the “important” American wine criticism is that wines are often evaluated through very restrictive, if not utterly predictable lenses. There is a reason for this, of course: a serious wine critic is not just a human being, but also a kind of brand, and he wishes, if he is clever, to remain consistently “on message.” The irony is that while a human being can try to remain consistent at least in public discourse, wines, at least the interesting ones, are by their very nature polymorphically perverse. [↩]
- I confess to being somewhat smug with my own cleverness in this guess. The soils of Mt. Etna are, of course, volcanic, as are the soils of the Canary Islands. Volcanic soils, at least according to Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, are said to be the most mineral-rich of all, and presumably as such, are capable of emitting terroir’s most distinctive clarion call. So, not an unreasonable guess, but maybe a bit easier than it looked. [↩]
- The Winkler vine, named in honor of Dr. Albert Winkler, Chairman of the Department of Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis from 1935 to 1957, was an absolutely ginormous single mission vine, taking up approximately one-twelfth of an acre, and trained in the form of a pergola. [↩]
- Mission grapes have been used successfully to make Angelica, a fairly stylized fortified wine that sits so long in barrel that ultimately it becomes interesting by dint of its age. [↩]
- Jean-Michel Deiss, terroirist d’Alsace, has more or less come to the same conclusion with respect to his grands crus vineyards. He no longer bottles vins de cépage, but combines the classic grapes of the region into a single vineyard blend, underscoring the precedence of terroir. [↩]
- The biggest bugaboo in the scheme to plant vines from seed or even from ungrafted rootings is the threat of phyloxera, but the San Juan property, despite being located on Mission Vineyard Road—is this a sign from the gods or what?—appears never to have been planted with grapes, nor are their any proximal vineyards. [↩]
- I will resist mentioning Malvasia delle Lipari. [↩]