The Bee’s Knees
Winter Solstice 2010
To HS: ¡Mira!: A Rimshot1. By the time you read this, there will have been a significant development in der kleiner Doonwelt. Pacific Rim—you do remember Pacific Rim, the brand we quixotically produced for so many years under the aegis of Bonny Doon, schlepping grape juice down from Eastern Washington to Monterey County to ferment and ultimately get blended with the crisp and floral Mosel wine from our friend, Johannes Selbach, (sea-schlepped—the wine, that is—through the Panama Canal), then the whole business trucked back up to Santa Cruz to be bottled, back in the day; an enormous investment of time and energy (totally worth it) in service of the noblest white grape of them all?—has just been sold to the Mariani family, owners of Banfi Wine Group. The Asian woman on the front label—in the first iteration she had just placed down a weighty copy of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung before drowsing off and dreaming of the Platonic form of Riesling, depicted on the interior side of the back label—bringing to mind how important it is to have a rich inner life (something that wine, on a very good day or night might well abet). Well, this was all before we relocated the company to the Great Northwest, entrusting it to the very capable Nicolas Quillé and crew, who have all done a magnificent job of growing the brand handsomely and making some lovely wine in the bargain. So, now it’s been sold—oh, great joy—but what this means on a personal level, apart from the upwelling of memories, is that the sundry parlous Damoclean swords have been sheathed (the last several years had been very tough) and we now have some financial breathing room to take care of business, the first order of which is to proceed amain with the establishment of our vineyard/farm/kibbutz in San Juan Bautista.
Ratiocination. “So, how is it going in San Juan?” you ask. Well, we’ve had our ups and doons, as I’m somewhat wont to say. We had planted a little more than one-half acre of pinot noir last spring very densely (in every sense of the word), and had what I’d imagined to be an enormously clever idea: the setting out of a very thick layer of straw mulch between the plants to conserve moisture and to suppress weeds. It did work brilliantly in doing that, but also had the unfortunate unintended consequence of creating the most ideal ecological niche for very, very large rats, who lost no time at all in creating a vast thoroughly integrated rat habitat: rat arterials, feeder and frontage roads; rat schools, churches and hospitals; rat industries (manufacturers of rattles and rattail files, radiator repair); service organizations—the American Rat Cross; rat condominia… You get the picture. We had rats up the yin-yang in our young, tender planting. They chomped down to the ground maybe 40% of the plants, very careful to leave the poison oak companion plants. So we trapped the rodentine fressers,2 removed the straw, and voilÃ , the problem abated, and mercifully, under the god Pan’s watchful encouragement, maybe 70% of the damaged vines somehow managed to grow back.
Don’t Go Near the Water. In the John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row,” there’s a character continuously at work building a boat, but somehow never managing to finish. As soon as he’s nearing completion, he invariably decides that the aesthetic concept or the building material or something is all terribly wrong. The real problem, as another character explains, is that the boat builder is, very simply, afraid of the water. It has been a comforting fantasy of mine over the years to daydream continually about planting a wonderful, miraculous vineyard, and this of course has excused me on some level from actually going out and planting aforesaid vineyard. This was going to be a very special, magical vineyard, after all, and whether it was to be planted in the form of a helix or on some sort of esoteric hexagonal or heptagonal grid, or grown up an olive or peach tree, or perhaps somehow arrayed as the topological projection of a Fibonacci series—I’m not quite sure how one would manage this (I’m still pondering)—this rosy fantasy is what has kept me going in times of great adversity, when fermentations have inexplicably stuck, when malos have gone when they’re not supposed to, and have not gone when they should, when I’ve failed to pick before the rain, or alternatively, pulled the trigger too soon just before the sun came out with a smile, or when, having gone to a much lower SO2 regime (it seemed like a good idea at the time), I’ve observed the resultant spike in diverse microbial creepy-crawlies crawling out of the woodwork. In these challenging times, I’ve had a certain tendency to become transformed into a grape-growing Walter Mitty, a Walter Vitty, if you will. “Just give me a great terroir and a few (well, actually more than a few) oddball grape varieties, and I’ll show you; I’ll show you all!” But now something has changed. It is no longer the dream that is compelling, but rather the gritty work itself that beckons.
En Plein Air. The joy will come, must come in the thousand small decisions that are to be made: which rootstock, which varieties, for Godsake—or will there even be anything like distinct grape varieties in this new radically envisioned undertaking?3 And how might we make a great imaginative leap into dry-farming a parcel that (at least parts of which) we’re told is un-dry-farmable? Where will the pÃªches de vigne go, and where the olives and where the black raspberry patch? How can we coax supernal flavors, the second derivative of dry-farmed tomatoes, out of our produce? Time to send away for those exotic Italian seeds, radicchio as sleek and brightly carmine as a turbo-charged Maserati. And most important, will there be goats for goat’s cheese, sheep for fresh ricotta? Burrata, the fresh farm cheese that dare not speak its name? It is rather easy for me to become lost in the reverie of imagining, but the imagining will soon (if cards are played right) turn into digging post-holes and setting fence posts, and there, if things work as I envision, I’ll have ample time to day-dream whilst lost in the Zen of some real work.
No Boeuf with the Bourguignons. It really is an enormous “To Do” list I’m compiling, and we are barely up to the “B”s. Foremost among the Bee’s Needs: Bourguignons, Bio-char, and Blood Peaches, aka pÃªches de vigne. We’ve had the Bourguignons—that is their last names: Claude and Lydia, the eminent French soil scientists—out to the place to visit, to give us their advice on how to optimize the expression of terroir.4 There were a couple of patches that struck them as somewhat pedestrian, but they were awfully excited by most everything they saw. “We’ve never seen such a diverse array of soils on a single property, including some globally very rare ones—limestone and volcanic (along with more common metamorphic and granitic), as well as the ultra-recherché and beautiful allophane soils.5) ,6 I am fairly certain that I was projecting my own heart-thumping sense of excitement at a particularly climactic moment of the visit. We had just hopped into a soil pit and seen the streaks of chalky white material. Could it be? Claude then expertly whipped out his vial of sulfuric acid,7 and, testing the material in situ, pronounced it definitively to be pure calcaire. Again, I may well have been projecting, but I imagined I saw a slight lump in his throat when he made the pronouncement. You should know that the Bourguignons have publicly been rather skeptical about the possibilities of a real expression of terroir in the New World, and maybe (this is truly all my imagination), they felt at that extraordinary moment the need for perhaps a slight—or total—revision of their worldview. The limestone patch is out on a bit of a promontory, very windy, and we’ll need to plant a very substantial windbreak. Is there any reason in the world this windbreak could not be hazelnut trees, inoculated with truffle fungus? ((Apart from the fact that we would likely be attracting every wild boar in the Tri-County area.))
Sehr Trocken. If you have been following my slightly obsessive ideational thread for the last few years, you’ll know that part of the belief system is that the discovery of terroir is not really possible absent dry-farming. The block at San Juan we had planned to plant this coming spring (with a great selection of grenache from an unnamed source8 in the ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape appellation) is at the very top of our property, on a relatively windy mesa, with fairly shallow, rocky soils, i.e., ones with not so very great water holding capacity. Our “experts”—and we’ve heard from a few—have not agreed on much apart from the fact that this section is not likely to be farmed without supplemental irrigation.9 Because this issue (the need to express terroir vs. some degree of practicality) appears to be more or less intractable, I do what multiple generations of Grahms have always done,10 namely to ask the considered opinion of every single person they meet capable of making an intelligent comment on the subject.11 At a farm-to-table dinner about a year ago, I saw an old friend, Greg Steltenpohl, someone I know to have a great interest in matters of sustainability, and in catching up with him, I shared my concerns about dry farming in San Juan. Greg told me about something called “biochar,” which a number of people in the sustainable community had begun to talk about in rather glowing tones.12 Now, I have the rather off-putting habit of putting things off to the very last minute, and when a decision about how/when we were going to plant the grenache was imminent, the time to research biochar in earnest could be put off no longer. As it turns out, not only is biochar utterly relevant and congruent to my ideological bent, it is something that we should all be thinking about rather sooner than later. So, what the heck is biochar, and why should it compel our interest?
(Loup-garou) Garrigue’s Disease. Biochar is the product of pyrolysis, or the thermochemical transformation of organic material in the absence of oxygen; you may know it under the nom de barbecue of “charcoal.” Apart from its stellar utility at 4th of July shindigs, why else should it be so interesting? When biochar is returned to the soil, it does some very magical things. Not only is it useful in enhancing water holding capacity (it holds six times its own weight in water), but as significantly, it seems to dramatically activate the microbial life in the soil, resulting in far greater availability of soil nutrients, and consequently producing healthier plants and more nutritious produce. From a terroirist perspective, the soil microflora are terroir’s pre-amplifier, boosting its signal. The mycorrhizae in the vine root hairs are terroir’s carny hawkers, shameless promoters and costermongers, strong-arming those reluctant Midwestern cations to give it up and live a little, join the show—step-right-up-get-yer-haunting-aroma-here. But most important, the real genius of biochar is that it seems to be the most practical strategy—perhaps truly the only strategy we have at this point—to reverse the effects of global warming. After burning fossil fuels for 200 years, we now have the opportunity to put coal back into the ground and sequester the carbon (net carbon negativity)—for, oh, say, 10,000 years—whilst making our soils more arable and filled with life. Seems like a very cool trade-off.
Swiss Char. There is a great interview from Ken Payton, of Reign of Terroir, with Hans-Peter Schmidt, a Swiss anthropologist turned viticulturist who is doing original research in the use of biochar in vineyards. Beyond thinking about biochar as a magic bullet, Peter is thinking about how one might use the vineyard as a platform to create real biodiversity and something approaching a true polyculture, even on sites that are water-limited. This has always been the great tragic flaw of the California climat—no summer rain to support flowering plants, which in turn support a balanced insect ecology.13 If we can create conditions to allow flowers to bloom longer into the season, the benefits to the ecology and stability of the vineyard eco-system are incalculable. But possibly more to the point, a paradise is a garden of infinite delights, not just a place where a single item is produced, as stellar and soulfully intoxicating as it might be. The nature spirits are as attention-deficit challenged as the rest of us, requiring a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sensory pleasures—sights, scents, and tastes—to keep them in a sunny mood.
Red Alert or Taking Umbrage. There are blood diamonds, there are blood peaches, and then there are pÃªches de vigne,14 the latter two items being juicy members of the Prunus genus, possessing deeply pigmented red juice and something approaching the quintessence of peach fragrance. I first encountered pÃªches de vigne or “vineyard peaches” while visiting Michel Escande, a brilliant grower in Minervois, in the Midi, who for many years supplied us with syrah for our Domaine des Blagueurs brand.15 He had just a few scrawny trees, but I tasted the fruit and was utterly knocked out, to the point of obsession, such that I have always been on the Prunus persica qui vive when visiting any part of Europe where grapes are grown.16 Needless to say, whilst traveling in those parts, I am essentially always literally on Red Alert. No one really knows why these peaches have shown up in vineyards, apart from the folk knowledge that they ripen at more or less (usually a little sooner) the same time as grapes, and that they are a most cordial fruit to consume whilst harvesting, or potentially under which to find shade, though these diminutive guys provide relatively little relief in the torrid Midi midi. I’ve had the great fortune to meet two of the most knowledgeable people in the world on matters pertinent to genus Prunus.17 One is grower/plant breeder Andy Mariani of San Martin, who has a vast collection of peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines, as well as every permutation and combination thereof, and is still looking to breed variants even wilder and more flavorful; the other is Todd Kennedy, an attorney and passionate rare fruit maven, who is undoubtedly the Final Word on any discussion anent our sappy, succulent, chin-drizzling, fuzzy, fruictiferous friends. Todd has graciously given me a number of pits of true pÃªches de vigne from his collection; it is my hope that they will give rise to some viable offspring ’ere long. They’re currently reposing in the refrigerator, undergoing an obligatory chill period. I will plant them out in the next few weeks, hoping for the very best.
Seeds of Change. I don’t know whether you’ve managed to follow any of the published reports of our plans to grow grapes from seeds at San Juan. I’ve written about this a fair bit in this monthly-ish blog, and I have to say that this project is what truly gets me going every morning. I’ll spare you the goriest details as to why this is interesting to me,18 but the project seems to be incredibly resonant with everyone who learns about it. Maybe it’s just the human need for hope, for regeneration, that the image of the seed evokes. This project will not be the savior of the wine industry (or of anything else), but it may perhaps produce wines that will sing a song that has not heretofore been heard.
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- This is a terribly inside joke (and a palindrome as well), and its intent was to surprise and delight Harmon Skurnik, brother of the eponymous Michael Skurnik, our distributor in New York. If memory serves, we put this inscription on the corks (remember those?) of Pacific Rim Riesling. I think fondly back on the days when it seemed possible to do all sorts of goofy things with our marketing, with minimal fear of repercussions. [↩]
- A slightly grisly footnote: I have remarked once or twice before on the enormous sense of energy or vitality the San Juan site possesses. It is a bit hard to quantify, but one thing is for certain: when an animal meets its demise on the property, there is an almost instant recycling of its relevant bits. Within 24 to 36 hours of the fatal snap of the trap, there is little left of the rat but the tail—rat-tat-tué. [↩]
- Though if you have read the recent post on the Been Doon So Long blog on the subject of growing grapes from seeds, you will note that I’m now essentially at a point where I’m thinking the whole notion of a grape variety, or particular clone of grape variety, may well be thoroughly moot. [↩]
- Only in France can you find “geologists to the stars,” at least in the viticultural firmament. The Bourguignons’ roster of clients is so impressive as to be known by virtually any newbie Shanghainese wine aficionado. [↩]
- Allophane soils, at least in the New World, are exceptionally exotic, to the point where many non-French (or at least non-Bourguignon) soil scientists are even unaware of their existence, as they are often (erroneously) confused with simpler clay soils. Allophane, known as an “amorphous” mineral, perhaps the hermaphrodite of minerals, possesses both anion and cation exchange capability, a rich repository of plant nutrition, but with the tragic flaw of being very easily compacted. The Bourguignons made us solemnly promise not to rip these soils, nor to run heavy equipment over them. (We have learned that there are apparently quite a number of super-light narrow-gauge European caterpillar tractors that one might inadvertently drive over the foot of a co-worker without necessitating an immediate visit to the emergency room. [↩]
- I am also utterly jazzed about the presence of the volcanic soils, which are perhaps the most mineral-intensive ones of all. Whether we end up planting nerello mascalese—God knows if we can find that—or something else, there’s no question that these sites will produce some extraordinary fruit. [↩]
- Claude and Lydia, like many consultants, spend an inordinate amount of time on airplanes. But they, unlike most consultants, also travel around by air carrying a diverse array of highly reactive/volatile chemical reagents. I believe Claude explained to me his stratagem for foiling airport security regulations anent these substances, but can’t just now recall how he does it. [↩]
- Ex ChÃ¢teau Rayas, via a slightly circuitous route. [↩]
- There is no absolutely definitive reason why we have chosen to plant grenache in this section, apart from the fact that we need to plant something, and grenache, especially on its own roots (non-grafted), is among the most drought tolerant varieties there are. [↩]
- Actually, it is just my mother and very possibly her mother who employed this stratagem, but for all I know, this behavior may well be behaviorally encoded in the DNA. [↩]
- This method also actually seems to work. [↩]
- No, the stuff is not radioactive. [↩]
- Companion plantings (sometimes also known as weeds) adjacent to vines protect the soil from the bright rays of the sun and support microbial flora that also nourish the vines. [↩]
- Blood peaches, or “Indian” peaches, superficially resemble pÃªches de vigne in that they are both rather small in size, dun or grayish in appearance, and covered with a fuzzy down. Depending on the particular tree and where it is grown, the flesh and juice will either be a shockingly vivid, bright red or largely so. According to Todd Kennedy, the pÃªches de vigne (of which there are actually several variants) come from a different genetic line than the Indian bloods, but have independently arrived at a similar appearance. The true pÃªche de vigne is more deeply, reliably pigmented than the blood peach, and is more aromatic, but also exhibits slightly more astringency and bitterness. PÃªches de vigne are seldom seen at market (their shelf-life is not so great), but they are used in Europe to create amazing jams, eaux de vie, and fruit liqueurs (the sweetness of the liqueur or jam a device to mask the astringency). [↩]
- Michel himself is an amazing individual, with wines that are little known in the U.S. (He has had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with his importer, and I’m honestly not sure whether they have presently kissed and made up.) Michel is somewhat of a mystic, and presents a slightly dreamy, distracted, moody countenance to the world; however, he is very tuned-in to the subtle energetic forces in his climat. Michel does not suffer fools; I was given to understand it was somewhat miraculous that as an American I was given the warm welcome I invariably received. But the French are fabulously rigorous about their personal boundaries. I’ve eaten many, many times at the table chez Escande, and in ten or so years of visiting, have been received in his cave de accueil, but never into his proper fermenting area nor barrel cellar. [↩]
- They are found throughout Europe from Germany to virtually all of France (Alsace, Burgundy, and the Midi). Curiously, I’ve never seen them in Italy, but I have to believe they are there. Not surprisingly, the cultivation of vineyard peaches provides an interesting glimpse into the character of das Volk, le peuple. German vineyard peaches (Weinbergpfirschen) are procured from nurseries, where they are grafted onto proper rootstock, each tree genetically true to die Mutterpflanze, and planted in organized rectilinear fashion. French pÃªches de vigne, on the other hand, at least in the historically dirt-poor Midi, were/are typically produced from peach pits after the peach had been sensuously savored and discarded, to randomly appear the following spring as a seedling in the vineyard. The advantage of the German method, of course, is that the desirable characteristics of the mother plant are retained; the advantage of the French method is that it just is what it is. [↩]
- I suppose that peaches—maybe it is their highly sensual, if not vaguely sexual Platonic form—are something that can feed a sort of Nabokovian obsession. [↩]
- Sorry, but I can’t resist here. The coolest aspects of this project—growing grapes from seedlings—are twofold: 1.) The rooting habit of seedlings is somewhat different from plants made from cuttings; the seedlings exhibit a greater degree of geotropism—i.e., they tend to root straight down—and this may well confer to them a greater degree of drought tolerance (a beautiful thing), as well as the ability to mine a larger soil volume for nutrients (and hence a more articulate expression of terroir); and 2.) When you grow grapes from seeds, you have essentially recombined the genetic information of the mother plant, resulting in subtle or not so subtle differences from the mother plant. (A red grape parent will yield red, pink, and white offspring.) While nearly every offspring may be thought of as “inferior” to the mother plant, i.e., not possessing the full expression of desirable characteristics, it is my hope/belief that in the manifestation of this extreme degree of genetic diversity in the plant material, one will end up with a wine of great nuance and complexity. The expression of varietal characteristics will recede in prominence, and perhaps other aspects (ahem—terroir), will come to the fore. [↩]