Popelouchum: Decisions, Summer 2015
We are getting set to launch a fairly ambitious crowd-funding initiative in a few short days,1 which will allow us to continue to establishment a very unusual vineyard, Popelouchum, as I call it, in San Juan Bautista. I haven’t really made the scope of this project much of a secret, but I’m thinking (and hoping) that the story will get picked up in earnest by the wine media, and that I will be able to generate some real interest in and momentum for the project. And of course, if we get sufficient investment, we can really make this thing come to fruition a lot sooner than later. (It’s a very, very long-term opus.)2 So, it’s with a little trepidation that I open the curtain a bit on my own idiosyncratic methodology, and hope that I will not scare off too many potential investors, who might perchance come across this document.
Of course, I’ve been thinking about this project for a very long time. When I first purchased the property in San Juan Bautista, it was really with the somewhat generalized notion of producing a wine of place, or vin de terroir, as I understood that term to mean. I had written and spoken and declaimed from sundry soapboxes on the unique virtues of wines of place – how they are in a real sense qualitatively different from standard wines that are more reflections of the winemaker’s intended style – and the dissonance of my own thought and deed had become just too much for me to sustain. I had no choice but to go for it.
Allow me to share with you a bit about how I make decisions, or more accurately, how I imagine I make decisions, what I tell myself about how I make decisions.3
I think that quite often I’m prepared to make fairly large, bold leaps after months, if not years or even decades of indecisive vacillation. On some level, this is part and parcel of a short of characterological deficit, the inability to commit, a tragic weakness that has plagued me as a young person and for many years thereafter. But perhaps when one catches a whiff of one’s own mortality, this particular deficit becomes transformed into its very opposite, an all-too-eagerness to commit, to leap before one looks, which is also, to be sure, a fairly significant deficit. But, it does seem to sometimes happen that a notion will present itself with an unusual degree of luminosity, clarity and coherence, and in some very real sense, I just know.4
So, I’ve done a fair bit of leaping in the last decade or so, but what is germane to this conversation is that I knew that the one thing in the wine business that I was absolutely committed to was that I was going to make a very sincere effort to achieve/discover a wine of place.5 So, selling off the large brands, Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim, were all tactics to allow me (or so I imagined) the freedom and opportunity to pursue a wine of place.
I found the property in San Juan Bautista, “Popelouchum” after going on a seemingly endless stream of “realtor dates.” I knew it was the right place immediately because I had dreamt about it before actually seeing it.6 In my dream, I was actually making Pinot noir, but no matter. (Things tend to get a bit muddled in dreams.) So, as I mentioned, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to grow at Popelouchum when I bought the property, but I knew that I was on a voyage of discovery. I would work out the finer details later.
As I am doing to this day, and will likely continue to do so for quite some time. But what I wanted to write about here is what I think of as the challenge of “working out the details,” which of course is the question of, “So, precisely what is it that you are going to grow and how are you going to do it, Randall?” And this is another way of saying that if you are on a voyage of discovery, how does one balance the fine line between “magical thinking” and genuine inspired intuition? Put another way, “If you’re absolutely dead-set on doing something that no one has ever done before, how do you go about doing that in a way that will likely optimize your chances of success and/or minimize the risk of complete failure?”7 How much madness are you willing to bring into your living room with the knowledge that eventually you will be entertaining bourgeois friends and neighbors?
Planting a vineyard from scratch in a new viticultural area with a new methodology and a brand-new set of new grape varieties poses a whole set of unique challenges. It’s not exactly like opening a pizza restaurant and experimenting with different types of pizza dough or different toppings before you open your doors. If you make a mistake in the set-up of the vineyard, it may take you at least five or ten years to realize your error, and then another five or ten years to rectify. I know about these issues from very personal experience;8 it is quite fair to say that I can’t really afford any major miscalculations at this juncture.
There are a few things that I want to do at Popelouchum that I am quite confident will work out brilliantly – Rhône grapes, for certain, Grenache and Cinsault in particular.9 But, trying to grow these grapes without irrigation is a bit like doing aerobatics without a net; it can certainly be done if you know precisely what you are doing, but very painful if you’ve somehow slightly miscalculated. I had thought – at least up until last week – that I had a pretty good plan in place. We know it’s quite dry in San Juan Bautista – not Mojave Desert dry, but dry and certainly dryer than almost anywhere grapes are grown without irrigation in California. There are two leading commercial rootstocks that seem to have very good drought tolerance, 1103-P (V. berlandieri x V rupestris), and 110R (V. berlandieri x V. rupestris) and candidly, I was having great difficulty making up my mind as far as which one to use. (There’s not really complete unanimity as far as which is the more drought tolerant; 1103-P goes deeper (and for that reason believed to have the edge), but 110-R roots very, very aggressively, wherever there’s a drop of water to be found, though just reviewing the literature today, I’ve found an opinion to the contrary. In any event, Andy Walker of UCD told me that 110R “would be the last grape standing,” and that seemed pretty convincing. What seemed to seal the deal for me is that 110R has a longer vegetative cycle than 1103-P; it’s really nothing more than an intuition but I do believe that this extra ten to fourteen days will likely be magical if not crucial in expressing that last bit of complexity (and proper ripening) from the warmish climate varieties we plan to grow in a coolish site.
But this was all before I encountered Annie Favia, a grape-grower living in Napa, whom I met again just last week, sitting on a wine panel in NYC. What else do we possibly talk about but Grenache? It turns out that she has had very good luck growing Grenache on yet another rootstock called 420A (V. berlandieri x V. riperia), a low vigor stock, with some degree of drought tolerance. She feels it is especially well suited for Grenache, and finds she is able to get by with just one baby irrigation annually; she likes it because of its banzai-ing effect on what is otherwise the Brobdingnagian nature of Grenache, a somewhat zaftig variety, to put it delicately. In fairness, Napa receives almost twice the rainfall that we do at San Juan, but in soils with less water-holding capacity than ours; my head is getting ready to explode as I try to juggle all of the “on the one hands” and “on the other hands,” trying to figure out the planting scheme that will deliver us weapons-grade Grenache.
She’s spacing her vines at 4’ x 6’ or one vine for 24 sq. ft.; I had been thinking about 9’ x 9’ (a classic spacing of old California vineyards), which comes out to one vine taking up 81 sq. ft. I’m now in a minor state of panic that, despite the paucity of water, we might find with this wider planting scheme that our Grenache clusters will take on a slightly bloated, Anna Nicole Smith-like quality. It dawns on me that we are already growing (own-rooted) Grenache in our nursery, with radically close spacing, and very minimal irrigation. I just told Nicole Walsh, our farm manager, “Some of these vines are going to have to take one for the team. Let’s pick a few rows and give them no water at all for the rest of the season and see how they behave.”
The own-rooted vines pretty much approximate the vigor of vines grafted on 110R, and if they can go without water without shutting down, that will be pretty good evidence that we might be able to space them a lot closer than we imagined. Or put another way, if we spaced them more widely, they’d still survive just fine, but we’d end up with much larger (and more diluted) clusters. But the important thing is that I’ve realized (maybe just in time) that in fact we do have at least a few data points sitting right under our noses that will guide us to a better decision.10
I’m slightly unnerved when I realize that I’ve been slightly less than systematic in my thinking, i.e. sometimes making certain decisions on the fly, which, of course, is less than ideal. Somehow, however, the universe seems (at least some of the time) to catch me before I go splat, and provide some just-in-time answers.
So, Rhône grapes: sorted (at least, I think). Which brings me to the next category of grapes I want to grow: oddball and distinctive varieties that will uniquely express themselves at our site.11 The particular and relevant subset of this category consists of the grape varieties that will set my soul free. Put another way, to simply grow grapes that will produce wines that I like passably well is just not going to cut it. I want to make wines that at least have the possibility to thrill me doon to soles of my shoes. What wine makes me deliriously happy? Well, that would be great red Burgundy, of course, but it is of course impossible to make red Burgundy in San Juan Bautista, much less anywhere outside of Burgundy, France.
But the fact remains that Burgundy haunts me (and others, to be sure) in a way unlike any other wine does. My error was in imagining that I might achieve a sort of Burgundian jouissance by growing Pinot noir somewhere in California (but where, oh where?) and slavishly emulating Burgundian practice, beginning with growing Pinot noir. It has taken me almost thirty years to let go of that idea and to come around to the idea that what I might more realistically aspire to create is a wine that somehow does some of the magical things that Burgundy can do, but maybe do other things as well that give it its own unique charm. How might one even begin to express the elusive Burgundian magic, but to mumble something about its (sometime) ability to take you through the other side of the Looking Glass, the crazy thing it does with dimensionality on the palate, as it dramatically changes from the softest spoken, quietest Method-schooled actor, leading into a Pacino or Nicholson-stylized explosion? How this is linked to “minerality” (an elusive quality that comes up in any mention of vins de terroir), I can’t say with any precision, but I suspect that it’s a key to the puzzle;12 there is certainly something like a kaleidoscopic quality to these wines, an unfolding or continuous changing of perspective, as the wine responds to oxygen (the catalyst that unlocks some of the mystery).13 What I can safely say is that we are talking about wines that really challenge language.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Rossese grape lately and happened to recently espy a bottle of 2012 Rossese di Dolceacqua from Dringenberg on a wine list at Marea in NYC. I was sitting at the bar and my neighbor broke in, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the sommelier about Rossese. I, am likewise, pretty crazy about that grape. I come from that area (Liguria), in fact.”)
So my new friend, Federico, and I shared a bottle of the Dringenberg and over an hour or so, observed that the wine underwent what could only be called a Burgundian unfolding. When I got back to the hotel, I reread a recent article by Andrew Jefford printed in the Decanter. Here’s the nub of it:
“We can, I guess, all agree on this: there will never be enough good red Burgundy to keep the wine drinkers of the world happy. One solution is to plant more Pinot. Done: and the results (from California and Oregon, and from across the Southern Hemisphere) are encouraging. Another solution though, is to find red wines which work in their own climate zones in the same kind of way as Pinot does in Burgundy. Gamay in Beaujolais is one incarnation of this; mountain Grenache in the Rhone outliers, in Spain’s Gredos and in South Australia’s high-country Clare Valley can be another; Nebbiolo in Lombardy’s Valtellina (where it’s called Chiavennasca) perhaps a third. Here’s a fourth…
‘Rossese is a wine made by empty spaces,’ says the thoughtful Filippo Rondelli of Terre Blanche. He isn’t referring to the ghostly production of missing vineyards – but rather to the wine’s architecture in the mouth, which he describes as a cross between the ‘exuberance of the south crossed with the verticality of burgundy’14,15. Another grower, Maurizio Anfosso of Ka Manciné, says Rossese is ‘almost like an anchovy: its two main elements are acidity and saltiness….’”
I don’t think that Sig. Anfosso really meant that Rossese tasted or smelled like anchovies, just that there was a sort of savoriness, or umami quality that the grape can express. Some of the savoriness in wine comes from its tenure in the cellar, to be sure, from the healthy digestion of yeast lees (rich in glutamate) in the ageing process. But, there is a quality inherent in some grapes that imparts a compellingly earthy, sexy scent, not unlike that of truffles, humus or sous-bois.16 With Rossese (or Tibouren), it is called garrigue, the scent of the ambient brush itself. Whatever this quality is, it imparts a certain kind of magic, as if one has been let in on a secret.17
Having reread Andrew’s article, it is now abundantly clear to me that I must make an effort to grow Rossese at Popelouchum; if I can do it in a thoughtful way, perhaps I will solve at least one of my conundra: How does one produce a wine of nuanced complexity and elegance in essentially a Mediterranean (read warm and dry) climate? And the methodology for doing so is presenting itself to me with a sort of searing clarity. I don’t know this for certain but would bet anything that likely all Rossese vines are seriously virused, as no doubt is the case with Tibouren as well.
When I visited Clos Cibonne I observed an enormous disparity of ripening within a given vine – just a crazy degree of variability. (On the other hand, this ripening “issue” may not be a question of virus but possibly Tibouren/Rossese’s seemingly tragic flaw, which would make it an exceptionally high maintenance grape to grow.) There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the “greenness” sometimes found in red Tibouren (or likely in Rossese as well) is certainly a function of this ripening disparity.
So, with a few slightly breathtaking leaps of logic: Maybe growing some, that is to say, many, many Rossese from seed (this inhibits the transmission of virus) might enable us to find individual vines particularly well suited to the San Juan site, and maybe even some with the absence of the very odd, tragic odd ripening pattern.18 Granted, as we know, when you cross vines with themselves, their offspring are susceptible to numerous genetic weakness – infertility, etc., so most of the offspring (98%+) will in some sense be “inferior” to their parents, but a few select few might be brilliant. I can think of no more rewarding pursuit for the next ten years but to seek to identify these stellar individuals.
Back to the bar at Marea restaurant: it turns out that Federico, my dining companion (I hope you haven’t forgotten about him) has family both in Liguria and Friuli, another region of Italy that makes utterly haunting wines. As you know all too well, I’ve been obsessing at length about what varieties we might employ as breeding stock for the 10,000 grape seedling project, and many roads seem to lead to Friuli.19 I have been quite taken by some of its blended white wines, and one in particular seems just about perfect; that is the Cialla Bianco from Ronchi di Cialla; I’ve recently had the opportunity to try some older bottlings and while the wine definitely shows a slightly (intentional) oxidative side, it is still holding up magnificently. I honestly know of no other white wine that is as complete as this.
The wine is a blend of Ribolla gialla, Picolit and a relatively smaller percentage of Verduzzo. We have some Ribolla gialla growing in the nursery at Popelouchum, a few survivors, it seems. (Something fairly catastrophic happened to wipe out most of the population from the grape nursery where we had ordered the plants); it is still early going to really assess its suitability. But, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Ribolla Fest,20 under the auspices of the late George Vare, a wonderful man who had the foresight and persistence to bring the grape to California. He can be credited for setting the groundwork for some of the most exciting white wines currently coming out of Napa (!!), made from Ribolla in a diverse range of styles.
I had tried in the past to actually grow Picolit and Verduzzo at our vineyard in Soledad. I planted the vines too close to the casurina trees we were using as windbreaks, and they seemed to suffer from root intrusion from the trees, as well as from excessive shade, and didn’t really set fruit properly. (The Picolit never set at all, but that wasn’t a great surprise. Picolit is one of the very few “female” vinifera varieties, and requires a pollinating grape (usually Verduzzo) to be grown alongside it to bear any fruit at all.)21 I espied a bottle of Jermann’s “Vino Dolce della Casa,” his Picolit bottling on the wine list, and ordered a bottle to share with my companion.
I haven’t drunk that many Picolits in my time – they’re typically very expensive and almost always made from dried grapes that are turned into a dessert wine. I’ve been just utterly knocked about the sweet version that Dorigo had made, and even once managed to find a rare, dry Picolit produced, again, by Ronchi di Cialla (it was magnificent), but I am hardly a Picolit maven. Picolit is said to possess very good natural acidity, and can have a very persistent complex fragrance – peaches, apricot, coconut and hazelnuts. I’ve lately been thinking about it as a potential breeding grape, a matriarch in a lineage of complex white grapes. Here was an opportunity to gain another data point.
I’m afraid that I wasn’t so terribly impressed with the Jermann Picolit; it was slightly oxidized, not really so vibrant in acidity, and just a little bit tired or lackluster. (Maybe it had been stored badly?) I was told that this had been the first vintage that Jermann had produced and that subsequent bottlings were a lot more vibrant. Disappointing to me, but I haven’t given up hope.
But here is where I have to look very carefully at my own process. I like Picolit for its potential complexity (good), for its acidity (very good),22 but what I also really like about it is that it is a female grape, and therefore very easy to breed (no need to go through the tedium of the grape flower emasculation). I recognize that in this Drang nach Picolit, I’m observing some of the idiosyncrasies of my own character and modus: I love the idea of Picolit, the Unknown Female, shrouded in mystery, somehow potentiated by the enchanted kiss of her Prince Charming. But, to be honest, my attraction to Picolit is more likely due to the fact that I’m pretty lazy and impatient, and just hate the idea of having to remove all of those tiny little flowers.
- Ambitious in terms of the monetary raise ($350K), but more ambitious even in the audacity of the proposal – to breed 10,000 new viable, that is to say, fruitful, grape varieties. The grapes will be bred, in part to discover perhaps a few outstanding individuals with unique and favorable qualities for our site (and beyond), but primarily as a potential strategy – the suppression of discreet varietal characteristics – for the better expression of soil characteristics and the revelation of terroir. [↩]
- Alas, likely the real interesting stuff will come posthumously. [↩]
- There is no question that there are clearly large portions of the decision-making process that are not only subconscious, but by definition, systematically elusive to real elucidation. [↩]
- Unfortunately, my epistemological prowess does not extend particularly far beyond the realm of my trade. And for the record, I don’t think I have a particularly keen palate, or am a particularly gifted winemaker, but somehow I just know when a wine blend seems together (from a taste perspective), and often (more so in the past than in the present) would have a pretty good instinct as far as which particular wine brand I was considering making was likely to be successful and which not. In recent years, the commercial success of many thoroughly execrable wine brands has significantly thrown off my predictive compass. [↩]
- I have always enormously esteemed wines of place, indeed, believed them to be truly the only wines that mattered, but have for most of my career, never imagined that it would even be remotely possible to achieve such a thing in the course of one lifetime. [↩]
- Having Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, geologists to the stars, also come out to see the property and express their enthusiasm about it further validated the hypothesis that this was a site uniquely capable of expressing a vin de terroir. There is an awful lot of very interesting geology (and a lot of other vivid if diverse elements) in just one place. [↩]
- If your grape-growing practice was precisely the same as everyone else’s, you would very likely “succeed,” i.e. your wine would taste like everyone else’s, which of course is not success at all. [↩]
- Attempting to grow Pinot noir in Bonny Doon when I first began in 1980. [↩]
- These are grapes that are typically grown in warmer, dryer climates and are known to have reasonable drought tolerance. I have some serious concerns that it may not be warm enough to ripen Mourvèdre in many vintages, but I think that we’ll try. I think that Syrah would likely succeed on a north or northeast facing slope, but I have some serious concerns about its drought tolerance, and the last thing I want to do is produce prune juice. Syrah, as we know, has poor stomatal regulation, so doesn’t quite know how to keep itself from dehydrating. We will definitely want to use the most drought tolerant rootstock imaginable for it; however, the other side of this is that Syrah is exceptionally vigorous and a drought tolerant, read high vigor rootstock will likely exacerbate the vigor issue. How we arrive at the Goldilocks “just right” solution is really the art (and luck) of the whole matter. [↩]
- Even as I write this, it occurs to me that if the “close-spacing hypothesis” works for Grenache, it might actually even work in spades for Cinsault, which has the tendency to produce monster, virtually golf-ball sized clusters. [↩]
- The question always remains: Which ones, and of course, might there be some sort of refinement to be found, growing these grapes in our location that would distinguish them from their Old World quasi-Platonic forms? [↩]
- “Key” or “qi,” to be sure; there is the apprehension of energy or life-force in these wines, a quiet inner dynamism that signifies deep energetic reserves and foretells long life. [↩]
- “Minerality” – whether it is the literal presence of certain minerals in the wine or the fact that the wine is grown in certain mineral-rich soils, seems to be another way of expressing the capacity of certain wines to greatly tolerate oxidative challenge, even with the apparent deficiency (as one encounters in Pinot noir) of known anti-oxidative compounds such as tannins or anthocyanins. [↩]
- This thought is utterly consistent with my observation about Rossese maybe twenty years ago, when I was beginning to import wines from Italy. I was fortunate enough to meet with Luigi Veronelli, who held then that Rossese was one of the greatest, perhaps the great unheralded Italian grape variety, or at least held an enormous amount of potential. (Much of this may have been due to the fact that a fair number of Rosseses, at least in the day, were quite austere (what some might call “thin”). I suspect that some of the unevenness of wine quality was due in part to diseased vines. (And some, no doubt, to my own inability to appreciate the grape’s qualities at the time). I tasted one Rossese among many at the time that just knocked me out – the name of the domain is lost to history – and seem to remember that the wine was cropped at exceptionally low yields, and might well have been made from older vines. (My memory is a bit hazy on this point.) In any event, my observation at the time was that Rossese seemed to be a kind of bridge between France and Italy. (As it turns out, that is likely, literally the case, as it is also known as “Tibouren” in Provence, which seems to be its place of origin, though Galet suggested that its origins might well have been in Greece or prior to that, the Middle East.) I imagined it then as a sort of missing link between the warmth of Grenache and the austerity (high acidity) of Barbera, not too dissimilar from the analogy drawn by Sig. Rondelli. B/t/w, Tibouren itself produces fabulously great wines, red and pink and I heartily suggest any of the Clos Cibonne bottlings. I’m fairly certain that the climate in Provence is slightly warmer, the vineyards are certainly flatter, and the red wine at least is still great but a little more rustic. Oddly enough, the pink Tibouren seem capable of extremely long ageing. One thing is for certain is that we really do not yet know what sort of greatness Tibouren/Rossese is truly capable of. [↩]
- This is an incredibly poetic trope – the idea that a wine could possess within it a kind of negative space, such as one would speak of in the visual arts, or perhaps even more accurately, as the space between the notes in music. It may well be the case that what makes these wines so compelling, is their need for human participation to fill in these empty spaces. [↩]
- I really wonder how close it is to the human sex pheromone. [↩]
- I’ve been lately finding a very similar quality in the magnificent Valtellina wines from ArPePe. [↩]
- There are known to be several interesting mutants of Tibouren, one a Tibouren blanc (undoubtedly brilliant), and the other a Tibouren gris, most certainly extraordinary, but also non-hermaphroditic, that is to say a “female” grape (like Picolit). It would therefore be exceptionally shy-yielding, but possibly extremely interesting as a breeding grape, at least in part owing to the relative ease of making the crosses. (No need to tediously emasculate the male flowers.) I’m not speaking from any real understanding of the subject, but I’ve also very casually observed that some of the most brilliant grape varieties of the world (Pinot noir, being the most flagrant example), seem to relatively easily mutate and therefore readily change their coloration, becoming in this instance, Pinot gris or Pinot blanc. (Same holds true for Grenache, Carignane, and several others.) I will talk to someone like Andy Walker who actually has a grasp of grape genetics, to see if this relative mutability correlates to something like the potential for enhanced complexity. [↩]
- I’ve been rather taken by the Friulani grape, Pignolo, which seems in some sense to be the complete package. (The only hesitation I have is on its robustness, i.e. drought tolerance, and of course absence of debilitating virus.). On the white side of the ledger, Ribolla gialla might well make a superb parent – very complex flavors to be found in the wine, reasonably good acidity, and really the “star” of the great Friulani blends, viz. the Cialla Bianco. [↩]
- I must confess to the perhaps slightly prejudiced perception that many Napa Valley winemakers and grape growers have grown rather self-satisfied with the grapes and wines (big, ripe Cabernet, by and large) they are growing. They are, after all, fetching heroic prices for their grapes and wines; why should they be interesting in significantly changing the paradigm that is working so well for them? But, what was just extraordinary about the Ribolla Fest was the fact that grape growers and winemakers were talking to each other openly – sharing information about what was and wasn’t working for them. (This was particularly strange, because whenever I’ve ever visited a winery in Napa Valley, nothing bad or even particularly challenging ever seemed to happen.) There was an atmosphere of enthusiasm, possibility, and bonhomie. I was reminded of the Napa Valley of forty years ago, one that was less of a zero-sum situation as it is now, where everyone was more or less collegial, and all wanted to work for the common good of continuing to learn and improve their art, on a great journey of discovery. [↩]
- Virtually every vinifera grape is hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female parts in their flowers. The diciness of the pollination of Picolit is one reason why its yields are so very low, and therefore, one factor that allows it to achieve higher potential alcohols than many other grape varieties. [↩]
- It seems that at least one significant ancestor (Gouais blanc) of many of the noblest (and less noble) grape varieties is typically very high in acidity. [↩]