Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 2)

I’m planting a vineyard in San Juan Bautista; this much we know. It won’t look very much like a vineyard—rather more like an untamed, feral garden of one’s dreams that happens to grow some grapes. ((This is sometimes piquantly referred to as “promiscuous culture.”)) While it would be nice if this new vineyard/garden were at least nominally remunerative, the primary motive for this project is not monetary, but rather very personal. I’m hoping to bring something of real beauty into existence, as well as express a new range of genetic possibilities while leaving the aforesaid vineyard as some sort of bequeathal to the world. I’m also wondering whether this agricultural endeavor might somehow reconnect me to Nature writ large, and also perhaps to my own nature—that person, whomever he might be, who simply is, when not publically presenting or posturing.

Indeed, the new vineyard/garden/Eden I hope to (co)-create in San Juan Bautista may be my best—and possibly only—chance to learn how to become a lot more present—which is what ultimately I most profoundly seek. This opportunity creates a real sense of anxiety, because the decisions have not been pressure-tested, grounded, and because they require real shifts within myself. I’ll no longer be able to indulge myself in simple edicts like, “Black raspberries! There must be black raspberries!” ((Or olives, pêche de vigne, quince, mirabelle plums, pomegranate and exotic varieties of figs and diverse citrus of every stripe and hue. If I’m not careful, the laundry list of desired produce will read a bit like the Song of Solomon or perhaps Noah’s Ark. We did in fact plant a slew of black raspberries, a plant known to be very difficult to grow and susceptible to all manner of disease—only because I know them to be the most delicious raspberry of all. We obtained the plants from a nursery in New York (maybe too late in the season) and disappointingly, had a rather poor stand. The plants that did survive, however, are looking very good (touch brambly wood).)) I must now think deeply about all of the implications of any of these choices. There are a finite number of arrows in the quiver, and I must aim as truly as I can.

labyrinth3Still, some open issues have largely been settled since my most recent communiqué here. It’s now very clear to me that the earlier notion of collecting seeds from self-pollinating vines is probably not the greatest idea, ((If you collect the seeds of a self-pollinating vinifera grape, there will be a significant number of genetic anomalies in the offspring, depending on the variety and how genetically stable, i.e., how old a variety it is). This holds true for any species—collies or Hapsburgs—which has become too inbred, and leads to all sorts of genetic defects—hip dysplasia, idiocy, hemophilia, etc.)) but hybridizing vinifera with itself might in fact be very interesting. Plant hybridization is usually done with a very precise telos, a specific problem that needs to be solved. It’s imagined, for example, that there’s a potential market for a particular flavor or appearance in a seedless grape variety, but that grape, unfortunately, has seeds, not something that spitting-averse North Americans are really down with. Cross it with a seedless variety multiple times until you end up with something that has the flavor and appearance of the imagined grape but no seeds. Or, the grape has a marvelous aroma and a delicious flavor, but is a stingy yielder. Cross muscat of Alexandria (a relatively shy bearer) with the prolific grenache gris and Bob’s your uncle! ((You end up with “Symphony,” a very nice grape that expresses discreet Muscat character and yields like crazy; it has not, alas, set the wine world on fire.))

“Greatness” in grapes is largely contextual—pinot noir is hardly great in Fresno. Moreover, there’s tremendous disparity in the presentation of so-called “great” grapes. For example, the size of the cluster and individual berry of most great grapes is generally modest—this insures proper and even ripening, resistance to such issues as bunch rot, and good flavor intensity in virtue of the skin to juice ratio. And yet, nebbiolo and grenache are both brilliant grapes, but both present a fairly large cluster (cutting off parts of aforesaid is usually most advantageous). And apart from centuries of experience with riesling, say, how would one obviously intuit that it was vastly superior to sylvaner, which is not so dissimilar in appearance? Certainly to start, you would need to see them growing side by side and likely in several different contexts. In conversation with Professor Andy Walker, geneticist and endowed chair in viticulture at UC Davis, I asked pointedly if he reckoned there were any visible characteristics that bespoke greatness in particular grape varieties. Andy posited that in his experience, a number of great grapes—both red and white—seem to share the odd property of exhibiting red striations in their canes. This artifact might well be a function of a red-clustered antecedent in the woodshed, but more relevantly, it might also be an indication of genomic complexity with a super-abundance of biochemical elaboration. Dolcetto and charbono, however, both exhibit red striations in their canes but IMHO produce wines of relative simplicity. ((We know in fact that the pinot genome is longer than the human one—intuitively, at least, this is a partial explanation of its greatness. I have no idea how complicated it would be to measure the relative length of the grape genome, or even if this ultimately correlates to anything, but it would be an interesting avenue to pursue.)) Maybe the art of grape vine observation is a bit like phrenology, the divination of occult qualities by the observation of the more visible ones.

grapesWine grapes are typically bred for such traits as cold-hardiness, disease resistance, greater yield, earlier or later ripening, etc., but seldom in recent history are they bred essentially for the sheer hell of it—as an indulgence of the breeder’s aesthetic whim or a dedication to an abstract (and perhaps ephemeral) notion of wine quality. So the question remains just how feasible it might be to discover and create something new and compelling, ((And indeed, by a certain logic, why would one want to or need to create new grape varieties, as there are already a dizzying profusion of grapes, many (most) of which have not been adopted commercially? It could be argued that the only real logical reason for continuing to breed vinifera grapes is to look for new strains that solve particular problems—and the biggest problem is that disease organisms themselves evolve, growing progressively more virulent over time, whereas the genetics of domesticated grapes have largely been unchanged over the last thousand years. The New York Times published a piece recently suggesting that the potential problem with domesticated (vinifera) grapes has been that they have not enjoyed a particularly active sex life over the last millennium. I am afraid that the scope of this particular exercise will probably not permit me to introduce non-vinifera species into this particular pool. Finding grapes that are most sublime when turned into wine and are also more resistant to powdery mildew, phylloxera, Pierce’s Disease, and nematodes might well be just too wide-ranging a brief to address this lifetime.)) or even find the grape that perhaps makes a wine one would most like to drink. ((A writer is faced with a similar conundrum. There are certainly plenty of books—some of them great, some less so—out there to read. But only the writer knows what is the book that he most wants to read. If he can’t find such a book, he has no choice but to write it himself.)) Ultimately, if the purpose of the exercise is to find a grape or set of grapes intended to optimally express the inherent unique qualities of the site, its terroir, the question really becomes how might one identify those grapes that are optimally suited to it—that in some sense belong. As an example, it was observed long ago that pinot noir was a particularly brilliant grape and generally well suited to the Côtes de Nuits, and with centuries of iteration and observation, an individual grower could find the individual vines on his site that were slightly better suited—they were a little sweeter, a little less prone to disease, or just happened to catch the vigneron’s eye. Through sélection massale, an individual cru could progressively grow more individuated, and better adapted to a particular site. Hand, meet glove.

In the case of San Juan, by allowing such expression of so much genetic diversity through hybridization, there may well emerge a set of individual plants that appear to be utterly at home there—indeed, look as if they’ve been there for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, it may well turn out that the blooming, buzzing confusion of thousands of genetically distinct individual vines, each with its own story to tell, may itself yield an utterly unique wine, a complex tapestry with special qualities that are the result of the accretion of minute differences.

Whichever path I pursue—perhaps it will be logical to pursue them both, the microcosm and macrocosm—it’s clear that the skill I must most assiduously cultivate is that of careful observation, admixed with intuition. My job will be to thoughtfully design arrays of potential interest and then look deeply at them for the appearance of startling new patterns.


Complexity, harmony, synchrony. How to begin? It could certainly be argued that the qualities I’m seeking in this vineyard plantation are not too dissimilar from the ones I’m seeking to discover within myself. As a winemaker, I’ve worked for most of my career with the notion that it was I who was directing or at least attempting to guide the “winemaking” process. But there have been other signifiers. Just a few years ago we mounted a couple of vertical Cigare Volant tastings, sampling wines from every extant vintage (albeit in large format, so the maturation process was greatly slowed). What was most surprising was that the two most interesting wines of the tasting were the ’84 and ’85 Cigares. It could be argued that they were great simply because they were old and bottled in large format, but I’m wondering if there isn’t perhaps a deeper lesson here. When I began producing Cigare, I (along with everyone else in North America) knew very little about Rhône grapes. In retrospect, it is nothing short of miraculous that the first vintages of Cigare came out well at all. I’m not arguing that I was divinely guided to work with Rhône grapes the way that Republican presidential candidates are guided to run for office, but rather that I had at the time something closer to a “beginner’s mind;” I was far more open to the suggestions of my own intuition. I was somehow more connected to something. ((But how does one know if one’s connected to a higher intelligence or simply to one’s own propensity for grandiose thinking?))

It’s now very clear to me that despite whatever skill I might possess as a winemaker, my wit is in fact remarkably limited, and I’ve lately wondered if there might well be other ways of enhancing my own intuition without careering off in the direction of wholesale self-delusion. I’ve always been intrigued by accounts of those who have managed to somehow communicate with—what shall we call it?—a wider, broader world beyond our ken. At the same time, being a bit of a skeptic by nature, I’ve always imagined that participation in this psychic realm was something that would be forever beyond my grasp. But in holding this attitude, I have come to understand, I may well have created a major artificial barrier to my own personal development as a winemaker and as a human being, and I’m now reasonably certain that to make a wine of great complexity, I must find a way to let go of my own need to direct matters entirely, and somehow call on Nature’s infinite intelligence to assist me.

The name we’ve just bestowed on our property in San Juan Bautista is “Popelouchum,” the Mutsun word for the village settlement around the town. (Its secondary meaning is “paradise,” which can in no way be disputed.) I recently met some Native Americans and explained to them my desired aims for the property, and the Chief suggested I consider something like a vision quest there. At first he suggested that I spend four days fasting, with no food or water, and I’m not sure anyone can actually live four days in the outdoors without any water, but obviously: no computer, no iPhone, no Twitter, Facebook, no interaction with other people—conversing only with oneself, the nature spirits, and the wildlife of San Juan. The Chief finally agreed, to my great relief, that a twenty-four hour period, with access to drinking water, might be a more appropriate way to begin. But certainly an education in the solitary must be central to the practice: the exercise of seeking the True Thing only works if it gives one true joy in the absence of the refractory lens of the Other.

car-rg-melie2Also recently, my friend Jeff gave me a most unusual book called Perelandra Garden Workbook, by Machaelle Small Wright. The basic premise is that one can cultivate one’s intuition concerning appropriate actions to take in the garden (on whatever scale or by whatever metaphoric extension one considers the term). The notion relies on the existence of nature spirits called devas who are only too happy to help guide one toward the most suitable actions that will provide balance, harmony, and order. One might ask the devas about which particular seeds to sow, for example, when and where precisely to plant them, the most appropriate planting density, desired soil amendments, etc. The method is deceptively simple. You allow yourself to enter into a slightly meditative state, thus making the membrane of your own consciousness more permeable to that of Nature’s, and then use a method called “muscle-testing,” in which you ask the devas for guidance with carefully worded yes-or-no questions. Using the reactions of your own body as response—a greater or lesser degree of muscle strength or weakness—you more clearly discern Nature’s intentions; thus you have inserted your own body into a sort of feedback circuit with Nature’s will. The main idea, if I may be utterly simplistic, is that there’s a greater consciousness within and beyond our own, and that we can allow our decisions to be guided by our own intelligence, aided by a supra-rational force within our reach.

I’ve really only just begun the work. I’m still developing my technique to establish clear signs of “strength” or “weakness” in my muscle reactions; this is very challenging to me, as I tend to overthink things and second-guess myself. I’m horribly self-conscious of what I’m doing, certain that I must appear to be utterly foolish to any outward observer, ((And of course worried about failure in the material realm. What if the wine that I make from the new hybrids tastes just utterly dreadful? )) and vaguely worried that I’m on a path of self-delusion. ((This blog post itself has been incredibly difficult for me to finish, undoubtedly due to the fact that I have my own fears of appearing to be utterly foolish. But meeting these fears is no doubt essential to one’s spiritual growth. )) And of course one can certainly get a bit caught up with positing of the mere existence of “nature spirits” in the first place, each with its own particular personality, specialty, and even sub-specialty.

But one need not visually or auditorially observe these spirits nor even initially believe in their literal existence for this methodology to be effective. What one begins by taking on faith may gradually take on a greater degree of substantive reality, and the existence of these spirits (a reality in virtually every culture apart from that of us Westerners), represents a powerful metaphor for Nature’s intelligence. One can empirically observe the results of gradually following the advice of the nature spirits, as well as the changes in oneself, as one becomes more sensitive, observant, and intuitive.

This methodology is perfectly suited to the work that must be done at San Juan. ((I’ve also been privileged to spend some time with several indigenous people in the area. For them, our world is utterly alive with spirits that walk along side us. )) As I’ve mentioned, there will be very different rules for this place—it won’t look like a vineyard, but rather like a garden. And yet, of all of the possible plants that can be planted, one must still choose. If you are going to hybridize vinifera vines, there are truly no extant guidelines; you only have your intuition as to what might make the most useful cross in your unique location. The whole notion of a mixed or promiscuous plantation is to find the most appropriate biotic balance for ongoing sustainability, and this is not something that a mortal human being, or at least this particular one, is likely to just accidentally hit upon.

Whatever we end up planting at Popelouchum, it will be an opportunity for me to become more present, more deliberate, and to push myself into strange and unfamiliar areas. Will I end up hearing voices only audible to myself? In some sense, I truly hope so. The greatest impediment to my growth as a winemaker has been the internalization of the voices of those I’ve wished to please. It’s time to listen to another set of voices.

    21 Responses to “Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 2)”

    1. Wayne says:

      Few of us will ever get a chance to explore something that is the culmination of our life’s endeavors. Few of us can be a Getty, or in this case, a Grahm. It is certainly a privilege.

      Each of us, when we have lived enough, and learned enough, and voyaged far enough, would envision a different ideal place, our own Popelouchum. It must be an extraordinary feeling to build something so uniquely representative of your life’s work.

      I can imagine the anxiety you must feel, for in fact, this may not work in the way that you intend it to work. The ultimate goal, to create something the world of wine has not yet know, would be a sublime achievement to be sure. But any outcome will be a great voyage, for you and your dear family, and of course the Doonies. I don’t think there can be failure, from what I have seen, it is already a great success. Whatever it becomes, will be perfect for what it is. Sometimes, the greatest effort we can make to fix things is to let them be as they are.

      • Thank you, Wayne, for your extremely heartfelt comments. You are totally spot on in your assessment that the meaning of this project is the voyage itself. However far this goes, it is already a great success. For me, the effort of thinking about peche de vigne trees (how many?, where are they placed?) in apposition to the grape vines (of what stripe?) is already mind-expanding. Thank you for your great spirit of encouragement and support.

    2. Carla says:

      Randall: Ah, the musings and reflection are a joy to read; intelligent (nay, eloquent) fodder, and inspirational to wine person from up north (Napa).
      I clearly remember visiting BD while a grad student @Illinois, feeling that I’d somehow come home while walking the property. Remain engaged to wine and your writings. Now, if they weren’t so thought provoking I could shake insomnia!
      Off to pour a glass. Perhaps soon a Cigare, near you. Interested to learn of your journie(s) and the fruits of that vineyard before 25 more yrs pass. -C

    3. Chris says:

      “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Thoreau

    4. Gareth says:

      Fascinating stuff. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on how it turns out. Lovely to read your words of wisdom again – welcome back!

      • Thank you so much. Good to be back. Was pretty distracted with harvest for a brief while. But thinking deeply about what we are doing at San Juan, and more importantly actually being present is the top priority at this point.

    5. Your humility before the process at hand is ingratiating and more than a little inspiring. I would guess that all you have to remember is they don’t call it a higher power for nothing. Why is it we search so heartily for explanations to everything? The older I get the more in love with mystery I become.
      Marvelous post. Thank you.

      • It is indeed humbling to learn that we essentially know nothing and that the explanatory stories that we tell are just a way to make us feel (illusorily) in control. Possibly the very best thing about wine is its unexpected strangeness, its ability to surprise and challenge us. Rather like riding one of those giant raptors in Avatar – you hang on for dear life.

    6. David says:

      I’m mixed on his wines, but I think Mr Thackery is an intelligent spokesman for the field. He makes some statements on terroir that I think are worth listening to and discussing; agree or not

      • Thanks very much for your note and for sharing the clip of Mr Thackery. I greatly admire and enjoy Shawn’s wines (when I can find them), but of course completely disagree with him on the comparative importance of the vineyard site and the contribution of the winemaker. I have said on numerous occasions that it is only vins de terroir that can really convey a real sense of soulfulness, but I think I might be willing to grant a possible exception to Shawn’s wines. Maybe because he has such an extraordinary aesthetic sensibility that his vins d’effort have a certain extra dimension of complexity to them; who is to say? In a sense it is a great pity that he never (to my knowledge) sought to grow grapes himself. He might have well brought his formidable intellect to bear on what I believe is the far more critical aspect of the equation.

    7. David says:

      I have to say, I don’t always agree with you, but I love your spirit of experimentation and honesty about success and failure. Very refreshing!

    8. Jihane says:

      What a great post. It’s so reassuring to know that no matter what stage of life or career one is at, the habits of second-guessing and internalisation can remain with us all.

      I lived in the Rhone valley for a few years and the approach you’re taking – one of intuition and the embrace of nature was one that produced some fabulous expression of terroir through Rhone varieties at the hands of adventurous winemakers. I’m excited for you! I look forward to reading more and to see how you decide to move forward. ‘If we all did the things we are capable of doing we would literally astound ourselves’, or so said Edison.

      You’ve already astounded us with your wines – have faith and astound us with your courage. Good Luck!

      • Thank you so much for your very moving, inspiring words. This is really not false modesty, but winemaking is not the most difficult of arts if one is paying reasonable attention. If you are aware of certain basic principles you can certainly make wines that are bound to impress most of the people (and critics) most of the time. And yet once you have acquired these skills, if you do, it is or can be a bit of a dead-end. At the end of the day, it is really all about the meaning that you can bring into your own life and this can only come about when you feel that you have really pushed yourself beyond your imagined limits, chiefly in the bravery department. In our culture, we are somewhat addicted to praise and generally phobic of ridicule. (I’m speaking from a sampling size of one.) We have but one life to live; why not try to take audacious risks? It seems that failing to do so will only leave one with a great sense of regret at the end of one’s life.

    9. Tia says:

      Very good post, Randall. Glad you are back.

    10. mark bunter says:

      Dear Mr. Grahm
      I ran into you today at a coffee shop in Napa, and said “Hello”. So funny- I saw you from the back, hunched over your mind-sucking electronic device, and thought-“that dude has hair just like RG- THAT takes some balls”. And it WAS RG! I forgot to say in my befuddled celebrity-induced panic that thanks to your example I now list all of the ingredients on all of my wine labels. Almost no consumers realize all the shit that goes into their “value” wine. They assume it’s just grapes. Nice job, wine industry marketing juggernaut. I had a run-in with Alice F. and the Natural Wine crowd during Natural Wine Week in S.F. A lot of foaming and fuming, and some pretty sketchy wines (also a VERY FEW good ones). It seems very simple to me- abandon ideology and tell the truth about your wine. On the label. Thank you for showing the way and encouraging my rational departure from status quo. Have you considered Norton as part of your vineyard experiment? Partly native, so very appropriate. Also very disease resistant. And totally freaky, which you seem comfortable with. Your Albarino is your single biggest success, in my mouth’s opinion. Cigare Volant notwithstanding. I am exploring how successful I can be with no-addtion winemaking- which I believe is the only way terroir can truly exist. I read that Paul Draper thinks SO2 is necessary to expression of terroir. I understand why he would say that, but I’m trying to get there without it. Syrah seems to lend itself to that, with its reductiveness, anthocyannin and tannin. They seem to be preservative, despite the high pH in my vineyard.At least, Syrah has been my most successful additive-free wine so far. Everything else I eventually chickened out on, and added SO2. Mark

      • Thanks so much for your note, Mark, and good on ya for the ingredient labeling. If you think about it for a nanosecond, if one is making quasi-natural wines, or even if one isn’t, this (ingredient labeling) is a beautiful thing to do. As a winemaker, it makes you think more than once about everything you do, makes you more careful. Not sure about Norton, but have a reasonably open mind. If I were to consider a non-vinifera in the mix, would perhaps look at some vitis californica or maybe some berlandiari, which potentially confers drought tolerance. As far as SO2 free wine, I am utterly convinced that the key is having the most microbiologically active soil that one can possibly create. (Biochar should likely help immeasurably, as would the favor of mineral-rich volcanic soils, say.) Certainly, if you can create “minerality” in wine (whatever the heck that is), you can essentially solve the oxidation problem. The other challenge, of course, is the issue of microbial spoilage, viz. brettanomyces. To that end, I believe that minerals as well may well serve an ameliorative role – I can’t even come close to positing a mechanism, but intuitively it makes sense. Someday someone will isolate a very benign brettanomyces strain, and clever winemakers may soon consider the virtue of a tertiary fermentation. Best of luck. Keep those pHs peachy. Randall

    11. mark bunter says:

      You hit the nail on the head re ingredient labeling. It does indeed make you think many times before making an addition. As it should be. Thanks. Mark

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