On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1

On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard ((Phew.))

Bonny Doon VineyardIt has been a long time, indeed almost twenty years, since the tragic demise, grace à la maladie de Pierce, of the Estate vineyard in Bonny Doon. In the relatively short life of the vineyard, initially planted in 1980, we went through one episode of replanting – grubbing up and/or grafting over the Pinot noir, Chardonnay and bordelais cépages to what I was convinced were more proper varieties, Marsanne and “Roussanne.” ((I have come to believe that there are many solution sets to a successful marriage of grape variety and site.  Marsanne, Roussanne and Syrah were coherent as a suite from a marketing perspective, but I am certain that other varieties might well have worked every bit as well.))  (We also planted a half dozen acres or so of Syrah in the southeast corner of the vineyard, and this produced heart-breakingly beautiful fruit and extraordinary wines.) ((I was fortunate enough to have planted the “Estrella River” clone of Syrah that had been imported by Gary Eberle.  While this particular clone does not perform particularly well in warm sites, it is utterly brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant clone (even still) of Syrah if one grows it in a cool site.  I had no way whatsoever of knowing this at the time, just had the good fortune of having an Angel guide me, though said Angel did balance the scales of Fortuna quite soon thereafter.))  In retrospect, I think it was quite miraculously that I managed to accidentally hit on such a felicitous pairing of varieties and site. ((Despite the fact that it turned out I was mistaken in my identification of “Roussanne” (it was actually Viognier, the wine that we produced from these grapes, Le Sophiste, was truly amazing and original. It must be added that both the Chardonnay and Bordeaux grapes were exceptional as well; it was only the Pinot noir, the one thing that I most deeply cared out, that was singularly prosaic and banal.  (I was buying Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley that was orders of magnitude more flavorful and balanced.)))  Wine Spectator cover, 1989The loss of the vineyard was a deep wound that took me many years to process; it did not immediately make me stronger.  Instead, I remember feeling incredibly hurt and betrayed by the universe.  The cosmos had built me up, or so I imagined in my hubristic fashion, by placing me on the cover of the Wine Spectator ((Despite having essentially minimal experience or track record as a winemaker, the phone just rang off the hook from distributors who were looking to carry our wines and participate in the “next thing,” as California Rhône wines were then believed to be. (Granted, they often had no idea what to do with the wines after they had brought in several pallets.)  In my youthful hubris, I convinced myself – maybe a bit the way that Clayton Moore convinced himself that he was in fact, the Lone Ranger – that I was in fact the  Rhône Ranger.  (I adopted the slightly obnoxious habit of turning up to various large public events, clad if not entirely en costume, than at least taking up the mask, which I sometimes insufferably left on throughout the tasting or winemaker dinner.)))  (I don’t think my megalomania had yet come to full fruition at the time; maybe this was to come a bit later with the explosive growth of Big House), but I did wonder at the time how it was I was going to lead the benighted Chard and Cab-swilling masses out of the wilderness without an exemplary vineyard.  I was therefore compelled to do my best with grapes that we purchased for Cigare Volant – ironic, indeed that our “flagship” wine was not made from our own grapes, but rather from those over which we had but a most ephemeral modicum of control. ((I made things worse by attempting to expand the production of Cigare, purchasing grapes, primarily Grenache, from other vineyards, which turned out to be not as interesting as the grapes of the original Cigare.  Part of the problem was that I was now “stretching” Cigare with what turned out to be less interesting fruit; the original vineyards and vineyardists from which we had sourced were gradually either diverging/mutating for the worse or were somehow no longer available. There was a lot of fancy footwork just to try to stay in the same place, at least as far as quality.  We were not particularly successful in persuading growers to plant exotic, “special” clones of Grenache on our behalf.  They wanted certified virus-free material, which, as it ironically turns out, generally does not produce particularly interesting fruit for the highest quality wines. It wasn’t really that we had planted Grenache at what was formerly my vineyard in Soledad, Ca’ del Solo, were we able to guarantee ourselves a source of weapons-grade Grenache for Cigare, the real backbone of Le Cigare Volant.)) It really wasn’t until much, much later, that we are able to even begin to stabilize the quality of the grapes with which we were working. ((One of the lessons that I have learned that I must always keep in mind is the fact that it truly is not always possible to predict with great certainty the ultimate quality of a vineyard until you’ve had a chance to work with it over many years.  I have purchased grapes from vineyards that at least “on paper” looked utterly perfect.  Soils, check; climate, check; clonal material, check; viticulturist, check. And yet, at the end of the day, the fruit was absolutely nothing to write home about. Then there are grapes planted to other vineyards – the Grenache at the aforementioned Ca’ del Solo vineyard – the vines and fruit have looked at times just utterly beat to shit – but have produced the most extraordinarily elegant wines. Go figure!))

I had actually started to plant a new vineyard in Soledad at about the same time I just begun to observe the symptoms appear at the Bonny Doon Estate. In honesty, I can’t really remember why I chose to plant a vineyard in funky or at least challenging Soledad, rather than plant one in a location where I might plant most of the relevant grapes for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Ca' del Solo, our former estate vineyard in Soledad, CAMemory is a funny thing, and I think that perhaps the perspective of time has altered the chronology of causality. In my recollection, I planted the vineyard in Soledad because I was fairly certain that the area was not susceptible to Pierce’s Disease, as I could not bear the thought of losing two vineyards in a row. But if I planted the Soledad vineyard before the appearance of Pierce’s in Bonny Doon, maybe it was more a question of really overreaching ambition – the land was quite inexpensive, and I thought that for now I would defer that whole vin de terroir thing; I’d make an interesting, inexpensive, high concept wine that it was as close to a “sure thing,” as one could find. ((Boy, I sure got that wrong! I had the quixotic if slightly misguided notion of wanting to plant Piemontese grapes in the Salinas Valley – Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Freisa. I was planning to call this wine, “Big House Red.” It was a high concept wine – how cool would it be to introduce the world to the wonderful berry fruit of these varieties – that at least on paper seemed interesting, if not compelling. But, unfortunately, this imaginative blend only really worked in my mind; on the ground, it was a bit of a mess. The only grapes that really worked consistently were the Nebbiolo (which we were compelled to crop at ruinously sub-economic yields) and the Freisa, which while utterly brilliant, proved to be a very difficult if not impossible wine to sell. I even resorted to blending Freisa (“strawberry” in Piemontese dialect) with fraises, or actual strawberries for one of our wine club shipments. I somehow conveniently forgot that strawberries have an unholy amount of pectin in them, and even blended with a red wine with a lot of tannin, the precipitated an unholy goopy proteinaceous mess. This was Black (or more accurately, Deep Purple) Monday for DEWN, as many less than completely intrepid souls, just bailed on their membership when they beheld what had arrived in their shipment. The virus-free Dolcetto – there was but one clone available in California at the time – was a Brobdingnagian grotesque, producing the world’s largest bunch, which we were compelled to trim doon to a manageable size. But by the time we got through cutting off the wings of the cluster and the wasps and yellow jackets had had their way with the densely packed, bursting at the seams fruit, it was all a bit of an unholy mess. And yet, as a winemaking/marketing idea, how could Dolcetto possibly fail? The fact is that if you are trying something new that has never been done before, there is always the possibility of great success as well as dramatic failure. I do painfully keep this in mind as we move forward into the great Popelouchum adventure.)), ((I had even conceived a high-concept label for this bomba di frutta, which featured a sort of Arcimbaldo-esque illustration of multiple red fruits.)) I would make money with my pan-Piemontese blend, and worry about the great Cigare vineyard another time. ((Of course this “other time” continued to get pushed out further and further into the horizon. But, the reason for this was certainly the trauma of the loss of the Bonny Doon Estate, which for me was a kind of dream-like Eden. After losing one great vineyard, I did not wish to dare to reach for yet another one. (Would this be tempting the gods, who were already apparently quite cross with me?) ))

The loss of the Bonny Doon Estate was a bit like losing a beloved friend or perhaps like being dumped by the Great Love of one’s life.  So utterly unfair!  I was determined not to have my heart broken again, and I would begin by putting all thoughts of trying to plant a “great” vineyard out of my mind.  Distraction is a great strategy for the avoidance of existential issues.  I became distracted with maintaining the very large company that the Big House/Cardinal Zin-supercharged Bonny Doon behemoth had become.  Sales were good, but the debt incurred to finance these impressive numbers had also grown proportionately and was quite vertigo-inducing if you looked closely enough.  Again, I was able to convince myself that it was just not the time to make the additional investment in a great Cigare vineyard.  “Later, grasshopper,” I counseled myself.I ultimately sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, with the intention of at long last shrinking down the company and planting the great Cigare vineyard somewhere.

I ultimately sold off the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, with the intention of at long last shrinking down the company and planting the great Cigare vineyard somewhere. But there was a bit of a problem or at least a hesitation about planting The Great Cigare Vineyard in Bonny Doon itself, which would, of course, be the logical place to do it. In the intervening years, I had been spending a lot of time in France, thinking deeply about terroir, and I had developed perhaps something like an idée fixe that Bonny Doon (the climat), while capable of growing grapes that would yield balanced and intense red wines (we’d doon it once before, remember), but somehow, in light of its very sandy and highly eroded, mineral-depleted soil, was somehow not a place where one would find a great cru. ((Sandy soils, often associated with highly eroded soils, are typically quite low in organic matter as well as in exchangeable cations, thought to be important in producing wines of longevity. Most plausible hypothesis for the need for a certain range of clay in a “smart” soil is that this magical percentage conduces to a greater degree of homeostasis in the plant, thus enabling “physiological maturity,” i.e. flavor development to proceed in parallel with sugar development, rather than allow the latter to arrive at the finish line well before the former (which seems to be a common problem in the New World.) )), ((I may well have been (and continue to be) utterly wrong about this. Despite all of my ideation on the subject of what constitutes a “great” terroir vs. let’s say, a terroir ordinaire, the fact remains that the wines we produced from grapes grown in this putatively non-expressive terroir in Bonny Doon, were absolutely great – highly complex, distinctive and capable of long ageing, all excellent criteria for a great terroir. This would suggest that there are still many natural phenomena the utterly inexplicable nature of which we must respect, despite our inability to posit anything resembling an explanatory mechanism.)), ((The extremely low-pH soils of Bonny Doon (just hovering above 4.0), may in fact have a lot in common with the terroirs of Lessona, the fairly obscure Piemontese appellation that is situated roughly equidistant between Torino and Milano. The iron-rich soils of Lessona, while nearly toxic to grapevines, yield wines exceptionally rich in iron and manganese, (and one hopes not too much aluminum), and have an almost preternatural resistance to oxidation. The wines that we produced from the old Bonny Doon Estate seem to share this odd property of great longevity, and I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the low pH soils that enable this.))

The good news is that ultimately I was able to identify what I believe is a great cru in San Juan Bautista, a beautiful Estate that we call Popelouchum.  It’s not perfect; there are some sections of it that seem to have more interesting soil profiles than others. ((The scariest deficit that it carries is the fact that the climate (even not under drought conditions) is rather dry, and that dry-farming may well be quite problematic.  But if we can pull it off – dry-farming in a fairly arid area – it will be a very useful model to an increasingly warmer and dryer California. ))  The less than thoroughly brilliant sections I am thinking to plant to varietal grapes ((It is an insight into the somewhat upside-Doon nature of my world-view that holds that “varietal” wines, (at least in the New World) are essentially the most banal thing we can produce.  I maintain that it is most unlikely that we will find a more congruent match in our New World sites between variety and <em>climat</em> than already obtains in Old World examplars; in planting varietal grapes in the New World, one is essentially throwing macaroni at the wall. (“Macaroni wine” is an Italian locution for the most basic plonk.)

)) (maybe Rhônish ones?) and the crazy, interesting soils will be dedicated to the somewhat speculative project of creating a highly heterodox field blend of diverse grapes grown from seed. ((How is one to define “interesting?” For soils, it would be those that are rich in particular minerals, have good water holding capacity, and possess a vast internal surface area, capable of supporting a robust microbial population.)), ((The notion (possibly misguided) is that this strategy might well allow for more vivid articulation of soil characteristics. ))

Popelouchum in San Juan Bautista, our beautiful Estate vineyard and farm.

The project has been stalled the last several years, as (in somewhat of an understatement) we’ve been chronically short of free cash.  But it looks as if our picture is improving quite significantly, and we can at least begin to do more than make mere token efforts. While it would be great to plant a slew of proper vines out in the field, we’re not quite ready for that. There is still quite a bit of infrastructure that needs to go in – mostly related to the storage of water to keep the young vines alive through their first years. ((I am looking forward to the construction of several reservoirs, not only for their ability to store the water that we hope to pump from our somewhat anaemic, feckless wells, but also, as a feature that will draw avian life to the property.  Normally, birds are not natural friends of grape vines – indeed they are rather too friendly by half – but their presence augurs well – at least according to the Taoists – for the continuing vitality of the property.)) But, for now, we’ve taken delivery of our little Vitis berlandieri seedlings that we were able, with the help of Dr. Andy Walker, to harvest from wild grapes in the hill country of Texas. ((Vitis berlandieri is among the most drought tolerant native species of grapes found in the United States.  Drought tolerance is incredibly important for the success of the plantation at Popelouchum; while it is slightly worrisome that no one, to my knowledge, has ever established rootstock from seedlings, an examination of basic scientific principles would suggest that this approach might work well indeed.  But, as Euripides continually reminds us, the gods decree many surprises.))  Vitis Berlandieri seedlingsMany of the vines seem to be rather too small to be out on their lonesome for now, ((In a perfect world, we’d sow them directly out in the field this year, where they would presumably have a greater chance of retaining an undamaged taproot (very useful for enhancing a greater degree of geotropism, or vertical rooting). But, needless to say, we will be very careful to preserve the taproot before replanting them next spring under field conditions.)) so these will be planted in the nursery rows in San Juan Bautista, where they can be carefully nurtured. But most significantly, we are establishing mother blocks of source vines, from which in a few years we will carry out our breeding trials. The intention is to create a vast amount of diverse germplasm, which, considered as a suite, might create wines of great complexity, and possibly, as the discreet varietal characteristics disappear, may allow for the emergence of unique soil characteristics in the wine. ((This is a great leap of faith, as the creation of a suite of new germplasm may well yield a muddled mess – producing wines with “challenging” or insipid organoleptic characteristics, the so-called Pinotage phenomenon.)), ((In principle, we might have considered jumping ahead (as would certainly be my wont) and simply started random breeding trials from grapes imagined to fare well in San Juan, and just hope for the best. It would, however, seem to be more useful to observe actual vines perform in situ, and from that try to imaginatively extrapolate what their offspring might possibly yield. )) This is the pivotal centerpiece of the Great Terroir Experiment – a proposition so hubristically audacious that I have dared not bring to mind in the last year. It is potentially so vast and wide-ranging a proposition: we (or most likely, my heirs or successors) will select some particular clones of some particular grape varieties and assume the Olympian authority to pronounce them more apt or congruent to the site than others.

So, I’m trying not to focus so much on the very top of the mountain, but rather look at the very discreet path that lies immediately ahead. My last blog post was indeed a bit of a dooner, as it were, lamenting the number of most tortuous detours it seemed I was bound to take before I might move smartly into the Promised Land.  The last several weeks, however, have brought things into a slightly different focus.  I was heartened to meet with a very large corporate account that expressed a great willingness to support the company in truly doing the right thing – making wines (and other fine products) of transparency, authenticity and above all, a sense of place. Just the other day, I met with a grower who expressed the wish to grow grapes for us in a deeply sustainable fashion – dry-farmed, with the intention of achieving the highest degree of vibrant soil health, integrating livestock into the vineyard to the greatest extent possible.  Perhaps it is premature to imagine a great sea-change in the public’s thirst for “real wine,” but there is every reason to believe that some new doors are opening, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Carpe doonum.

    9 Responses to “On (At Long Last) Planting a Proper Vineyard1”

    1. The transparency of your prose and integrity of your efforts are nothing short of
      Wonderful to hear about the positive direction of Popelouchum.

    2. randall…always nice to read your erudite prose. miss hearing from you. mort

    3. isabelle says:

      your “experiment” seems fascinating, Randall. So, will you graft this vitis berlandieri ? how are you going to choose the scions ? are you also growing them from seed ?

      • This vitis berlandieri will most likely be used as rootstock for conventional varieties (like Ruchè, Rosesse or Sagrantino), which will make perhaps 1/2 (maybe a bit more) of the vineyard. The real interesting part of the vineyard project will be to figure out what sort of crosses to make, and the resultant seedlings will be planted on their own roots. Now how to figure out who the parents are to be? This is really a tough one, and one that really calls for great imagination, creativity, inspiration and most of all, great luck. The problem – no, it’s just one of an infinite number of problems – is that you can’t simply say I want to make a wine that tastes like a blend of the grapes that are conventionally blended together, i.e. let’s cross merlot with cabernet franc, or let’s cross petit verdot with malbec. The grapes that are conventionally blended together generally come from common ancestors so they are genetically too close to breed really healthy offspring. It seems that (truly, what do I know?) what you want to do is take grapes from very different lineages – and somehow imagine what their progeny might be like and then more or less just go for it. It’s either that or throwing the I Ching (which it may come down to , after all.)

    4. Wow, what a lot of work! No wonder our paltry two rows of grape vines are hardly producing enough juice for one bottle! It’s more of a decorative vineyard than a producing one, being in our side yard here in the non-heart of wine country (Wake Forest, NC), but we live grapes and wine and it’s fun to dabble. By the way, my wife Lana is the Allman Brothers Band Queen of Peach, and she bought Big House wine years ago because that was the name of where the band lived back in ’69-70 in Macon, GA, back where it all began… and we liked the wine too!

    Leave a Reply

    * Required
    * Required, Private