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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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. ((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?)) 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. ((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.)) 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). ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) Instead of focusing on a particularly dominant aspect of a wine, one tries to approach the wine with the organoleptic equivalent of “soft eyes,” ((The term “soft eyes” comes from the wisdom of baseball’s batting coaches, but could perhaps also be applied to the phenomenological methodology.)) seeing/feeling/tasting the wine from ever-changing perspectives, allowing it to come into focus in wholly different ways. ((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.)) 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, ((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.)) 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). ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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. ((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.)) 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. ((I will resist mentioning Malvasia delle Lipari.)) Maybe it is time to consider taking a different sort of leap—one into the baroque bloom and buzz of Nature’s great depths.


    36 Responses to “On a Mission: The Germ of an Idea”

    1. John Maher says:

      Wonderful words and wine. I remember how everyoneSpanish and non-Spanish alike, chortled patronisingly at my excitement at encountering the wines of the Canary Islands during a year working on Tenerife in 1994-5. The archipelago now has more denominaciones de origen than any other Spanish region. Great to see the word spreading.

      • This wine was truly a revelation to me, as I’m sure I conveyed in the blog post. The take home messages for me: 1) Human imagination essentially limitless. 2) One must always keep a very open mind to possibilities; what one imagines that one “knows,” is ephemeral at best.

    2. John says:

      Randall – VERY interesting idea. Makes me recall a conversation I had with Dr. Olmo back in the late 80s regarding male and female vines he and Warren Winiarski brought back from a hunt along the Silk Road for Vitis parent material. Dr. Olmo impressed on me the difficulty of sorting through seed-propagated vines to find ANY with enological potential.

      If I may make a humble suggestion, perhaps consider using the vines propagated from seed as rootstock, and grafting with validated selection massale material on top.

      • You’ve brought up a pretty classical objection to the use of grape seedlings, but again, it presupposes that one is looking for varietal character in what presumes are suitable “varietal” grapes. If you’re not looking for varietal characteristics, or even enological “superiority,” but rather for something like a vast wave of resonance, maybe seedlings might create some interesting effects. I have in fact thought about using rootstock seedlings as rootstocks and grafting on top of them. This might well solve the issue of phyloxera and perhaps allow one to identify vines with particularly desirable characteristics. I, for one, am somewhat skeptical that a human can in a single lifetime actually discern “desirable characteristics” in a grapevine, especially if it is a very miniscule component of a large blend. Thanks very much for your comment.

      • Sorry for the delay in the response, but in fact we may well use seed material for rootstock. (Planning a trip to TX to find some suitable berlandiari.) Dr. Olmo no longer available for consultation, but am pursuing the conversation w/ Andy Walker at great length.

    3. Sergio says:

      Interesting idea planting vines from seedlings. Not sure about the geotropism if you are obligated to use rootstocks.
      About terroir, i still think water (both when and how much) is vital in defining varietal performance, like if they irrigate those plants in Canaries, you’ll have the same crappy wine the mission gives in other sites.

      • Right; if you use rootstocks from cuttings – no geotropism. And also agreed that if one irrigated mission vines one would likely end up with something dreadful. It is the amazing, unexpected powerful balance of viticultural factors – manmade and natural – achieved in the Canaries that is so breathtaking.

    4. ryan says:

      Thanks for the interesting and entertaining read. I look forward to reading your book. Oliveto rules.

    5. Brent says:

      I do not have a high-level reply, but I greatly enjoy reading about the thought process behind your methods, Mr. Grahm. I truly hope you’re on the path to discovering one of the great terrior/grape variety marriages in the new world!

    6. Mike Rijken says:

      Dear Randhal Graham;

      I had unfortunatly no time to speak to you on the grenache conference you attended in June here; but meaby diving back into such an effort , made you also launch yourself, thinking of the idea that : If we want to see the real result of elements togehther we should start from the basic: The seeds! and therefor it is pure luck that you and I are on this earth anyway, for as we are just lucky seeds.
      I wish to refer to a small phrase out of a booklet Comprendre du Vin
      where I learn about the physiology of the plant .
      And a beautifull saying comes from Mr A. Gide: Each seed, meditates, ripens and ruminisses in secret with the light.
      Phrase taken out : Les nouriturres terestres.

      What I am convinced of is that plant live is older than animal live. Its DNA is filled with about 80% already usefull info. That is why I think plant life, and certainly vines can addept themself , relatively seen, quick into a new situation. A plant is more exact than a computer. it does normally every year on the same day on the same hour its “thing”, but it is the external circumstances that make that ,flowering, photosynthetic do change. Lets face history , for having had meaby 4 or 5 basic grapevarietals ans being moved arround they have addapeted themself on the new situation, having so many species today. First I believe that the most primitive grape is always red, and whites are a spontanious mutation by nature it self. growing from seed would imply , that we might find eachother one day with a red grape having turned into the same species in white, and lets hope they cross polinate we gett the “gris/grey” also.
      our live span is to short to have prove of the fact , if we would create more diversity having grown from seeds. In the long run you create at least more resistance. Our great fear is, and as you mentioned is phyloxera, and the approved methods going against it., is starting from graftings. My question: Is it worthwhile to stepp away from such an approved method to take the winemaking at such a high risk , of not being able to produce anymore? The reasearch is certainly interesting: seed and therfor grapes over hundred years developed only on clay soil, or chalk or bluemarl. But has nature this already not done for us, and that is why we have a diverisity of atleast 7000 species. To be sure of that, and warming of the earth is helping us a little bit. Land that frees itself yet from underneeth the glaciers, we should go and find for some old 12.000 year old last -ice age “pooh” of a bear or karaboo who’s had some grapes, and ask the DNA reasearcher, if there is much differents between that time or todays. I think you will be surprised that there has not been that much of a change. We might get to the conclusion that ” shit” is what we need and that it makes grapes grow, and it nourishes the soil to greater complexity, but that the grapes and therefor the seeds are just there for making the species reproduce and survive and thats mainly it. Don’t make it to complex either.
      What is wine: well mankind found out that we could keep a fruit longer than he had in previeuw. That we realize that it is very controversial, that we can make such a beautifull product out of such a poor soil. It must be a plant giviven by the “gods” , teaching us : Take care of this plant, if ever you will be living in very difficult circumstances , this in one of the few plants of which you are able to survive with. Might be an idea , to keep a few seeds in your pocket when you know your landing in “hell”.

      • Thank you for your very suggestive ideas. Certainly the image of a seed – even as an idea – is nourishing to us. You bring up somewhat tangentially an interesting point – just precisely how interventionist should humans be in the vineyard? How long should we give grapevines the opportunity to adapt to their growing conditions? No question that if you grow grapes in very dry and warm conditions you will likely have some pretty thirsty looking vines for the first few years. Unfortunately the thing that you do to protect them – to irrigate them – may well not serve them well at all. Rather like raising a child – you want to protect him/her from the most catastrophic outcomes, but for virtually everything else, it’s probably not so helpful. And thanks for the suggestion to keep some seeds in one’s backpocket. I certainly will do.

    7. David Rapoport says:

      Interesting Read.
      Some things to complement on, some things to be critical of
      1) I think the idea of try to plant grapes from seed is brilliant. It’s envelope pushing. I just hope I live long enough to taste the wine from the varietal(s) that wind up being best suited.

      2) Whilst I find my self tending to agree with your taste aesthetically, I have to take issue with some of your philosophical points. The whole dialectic of old world terroir over new world terroir strikes me as deeply specious (though I would not say the something about winemaking and viticulture approaches). The fact is, each place will likely have something unique to say (for better or worse) as the place is, well, unique. The idea that any place should try to imitate any other place is absurd. Whilst I think there are aesthetic ideals for wines of given grapes (pinot noir for example), I think the best examples hold to a certain structure and stature, whilst having flavors that reflect their place. Any notion that Cali pinot should imitate Burgundy is, well, ANTI TERROIRiste. I look at Ted Lemon’s (Littorai) wines for example. These have structure, grace, delicacy and focus that I expect from great Pinot. Still, the flavors are not Burgundy. Burgundy does not have salty fog banks for example. Moreover, I would not want them to be Burgundy. I want them to reflect the place(s) that they come from: cool, difficult, variable, coastal northern cali. If I want Cote D’Or I will (and do) buy that. These are unique new world terroirs Terroir, with all the subtleties that the best of the “old world” brings. Other producers, would do very different (often times much worse, yes Marcassin, I’m looking at you!), with similar terroirs. However, that is not the fault of the place. It is the fault of the people caring for the place and its product. It strikes me that the battle needs to be of an ideological and aesthetic sort, rather than “the new world has nothing to contribute”. Look at Spain. Some of the most unabashedly “new world” style wines hail from there. Not to mention Bordeaux, Tuscany…

      That said, I do hope to try the wine mentioned. I’ll have to head over to Oliveto this weekend…

      • Thanks very much for your comments. I hope that I have not suggested that Old World terroirs are in any sense superior to New World terroirs – though they may be superior in the sense of having had a longer period of time to become identified. It is rather amazing to imagine that we in the New World can figure these things out in such a short time. What I do take issue with in the New World is our general tendency to want to control all variables – and specifically through irrigation. (Note that there is not precisely unanimity of opinion on the subject.) By using drip irrigation, we are able to preserve certain stylistic parameters, but I would argue, are compromising the deepest expression of terroir. I am myself a great fan of Ted’s – what he does is absolutely magical. Thanks so much for your comments. Curious to know your opinion on the wine from the Canaries.

    8. Very interesting observation and theory. Definitely worth at least an experimental vineyard “mankind’s leap?”. I liked the reference to the “radio signals” as a wine quality, juxtaposed against the pseudo-satellite dishes for planters on the Canary islands 🙂

    9. Paul Gordon says:

      Really interesting article. Fascinated by the mineral pick up of the Los Bermejos Red that you talk about. I am a vigneron in Faugeres France. 100% schist soils and i am fascinated/fixated at the benefits of these soils on my wine. pH fruit balance is especially interesting. Interested in your thoughts on soil pH in relation to wine pH in schist ( or other ) soil types.

      • Wines made on schistous soils are certainly among the most terroir-marked wines you could ever experience, and certainly not for everyone. (I don’t know that most New World palates are really ready for them.) I am really not a particularly enlightened soil microbiologist, but my understanding is that it is often the particular structure of a soil – particularly the pore size of the interstitial spaces, as well as their water-holding characteristics (influenced certainly by their dipolar characteristics). Soil pH is undoubtedly tremendously important in fostering certain microbial species over others, and some of these species are likely implicated in such a strong mineral aspect to the wines. Wishing you the best of luck in your endeavors; there is a new generation of wine importers/sellers/drinkers in the New World who appreciate vins de terroir. If I can help put you in touch with some of them, it would be my privilege.

    10. David Rapoport says:

      Thank you.
      I was basing my post on the following from your initial post”

      “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?”
      This suggests, to me (and perhaps I’m mis-interpreting ) that you feel the “New World” can have nothing unique to contribute.
      Whilst I agree with your sentiment re: over manipulation, I do think there are terroirs all over the world that can have something amazing to express.
      I tend to agree about drip irrigation. However, I’ll paraphrase Ted Lemon on this: dry farming is great if it can genuinely happen. However, some sites and years just wont allow it. Rather like whole clusters. If the stems are ripe, then it can add a brilliant dimensions. However, conditions are not always right for it.
      I think we are starting to see a move away from over-manipulation and hyper-ripeness here in CA, not as bold as I’d like to see, but one nonetheless.
      There are the old school terroists such as yourself, Paul Draper, Ted Lemon and Doug Nalle. But there seem to be a younger generation who are moving away from the hyper-ripe: Arnot Roberts, Copain. Even Pax Mahle, who made giant wines at Pax, as a new venture, Wind Gap, where he is pulling genuinely cool climate fruit and making wines with fully developed flavors at sub 13% ETOH. Hopefully the trend will continue and the focus will remain on balance; genuine balance. I would hate to see the pendulum swing to far in the other direction with people bragging about how high there acids are!

      • Perhaps I was guilty of some rhetorical excess in expressing the conundrum so baldly, but I think that in general, we in the New World have not been as thoughtful as we might have been in really digging deep into why we make the choices that we do. I certainly don’t wish to discourage anyone from trying anything in the New World (or anywhere else). I was just publicly lamenting the fact – some gnashing of teeth and rending of garment – that it is just so darn difficult to really come up with an original wine in the New World without a real paradigm shift in thinking. An original wine, I believe, can only really derive from a viticultural endeavor that is in great and exquisite harmony/equilibrium. How can we possibly create that sort of situation in a single lifetime? So, therefore, we often end up with a lot of less than perfect fits – we will need to acidulate in some years, or irrigate in some years or somehow manipulate the wine more than we would care to. I am not entirely suggesting that dry-farming is an answer to anything, but maybe just one signifier (among many) that one has achieved something like a reasonably felicitous choice of site. At the end of the day, one has to remember that the aim of the endeavor is to provide pleasure and aesthetic delight to someone. All of the theoretical “correctness” really amounts to nothing if the wine does not provide pleasure. Thanks for your comments.

    11. David Rapoport says:

      An enjoyable (for me at any rate) discussion.
      I suppose there are two questions/points really
      1) I think I know what you mean by “an original wine”. I’m guessing a wine that reflects, uniquely, where it comes from. Still, given that, globally, we work with a common set of grapes, I think revolutionary originality will really be very rare. That said, I do think that we have created some wines of that sort. I’ll point to Monte Bello as an example. Personally, I think some of the greatest cabernet based wines in the world come from this site and the capable hands of Paul Draper and team. Still, this wine is NOT Bordeaux. It is Monte Bello and so long as the raw resources are handled with sort of care that Draper and team brings, it will always be uniquely Monte Bello. I would say the same thing about Lytton and Geyserville and several other Ridge wines. Likewise for Littorai, recent Copain etc.
      The fact is, very few Old World wines are unique. Uniqueness, should by definition, be very rare, regardless of where it comes from

      2) I’m not a fan of manipulation for the most part. And if it is done, I’m a proponent of full disclosure from the winemaker. That said, its certainly not uniquely New World. Chapitalization, as you well know, has been done in France for many years. Now the goal is clearly different from, say watering back or drip irrigation, but it is manipulation nonetheless and some of the great terroirs in the world have taken part. Nature didn’t give the winemakers what they wanted, so they made additions. I’m not going to pass value judgements (that’s a different discussion), but I will say that it strikes me as little different from watering or drip irrigation. RO, a new world invention, is used significantly in the Old World as well. Certainly the hallowed terroirs of Bordeaux have their product put through it.

      I certainly think we should be constantly critical of our product; if we’re not greatness will die or never be achieved. I don’t, however, think that we should force an inferiority complex upon ourselves.

      • 1)I am totally with you on the Montebello; it is a towering achievement. And I also agree with you on the relative rarity/scarcity of truly unique wines. Certainly it can’t be the aspiration of every winemaker to make wines that are truly unique, but it is for this one.
        2) Also with you on the need for full disclosure. We don’t currently mention on our back labels the fact that we buy some grapes that have been drip irrigated, nor do we mention every cellar operation – racking, etc. that has been performed – but we do indicate all of the relevant material that has touched the wine – tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide (amts.), wood chips, etc. Likewise, I am myself not a fan of manipulation of a wine. We no longer use reverse osmosis to lower alcohol content (I’m not a big fan of high alcohol, either.) I think that perhaps if one has the intention of making reasonably good “standard” wine certain technological tricks such as micro-oxygenation can be very useful, but if you are purporting to make a vin de terroir, such practices as must concentration are entirely inappropriate.

        I don’t believe that we should beat ourselves up constantly, but neither do I believe that we should give ourselves a free ride just for showing up. At the end of the day, the words really don’t matter; it is what is in the glass that counts.

    12. Hello Randall,

      Thanks for sitting wth Sean in Chicago. Here is the short video we filmed on the subject of growing grapes from seed. Hope it adds to the conversation.


      Ask a Winemaker

    13. Randall Grahm says:

      Thanks so much for sending along the video. The project is definitely taking on a lot more shape these days @ San Juan. Cheers.

    14. Beth Krecker says:

      Sitting here in Starbucks, my reading of your article was quite the sight: When I got to the part about Listan Negro and its heritage as the Mission grape of early Arizona history, my jaw dropped on the table and stayed there for about 10 minutes. I had the same implosion of world view as you. For the record, before the Mission grape arrived in California, it was imported to New Mexico then Arizona where it favored Arizona’s dry climate and, perhaps also, it’s volcanic soils found intermittently throughout the region. I can’t help but wonder if it could be successful in Arizona again. If you have any updates on the Mission grape, I know that I, for one, would be deeply appreciative.

      • My own personal experience of the Mission grape is that it is utterly lacking in any redeemable virtues, but there seem to lately be a number of people, who are giving it a second look. (I’ve thought that its highest and best use has been fortified Angelica.) Alas, I know nothing about its performance in Arizona. My guess is that it might do reasonably well, but there are undoubtedly a number of other varieties (Aglianico, Nerello mascalese, for example) that would presumably make a more interesting product in the volcanic soils of Arizona.

    Leave a Reply

    * Required
    * Required, Private