San Francisco Chronicle
The next new wine thing
With grape orgy, vintner hopes to spawn a new California wine
“California doesn’t need good Pinot Noir,” announces Randall Grahm, driving slowly up a rocky, uneven slope in rural San Benito County.
It’s a good day to be here at Popelouchum, Grahm’s property on the outskirts of the tiny town of San Juan Bautista. In a characteristically wacky move, the winemaker — who over the decades has whittled down his once-massive Bonny Doon Vineyards brand to a smaller and increasingly experimental operation — crowdfunded this vineyard. He surpassed his goal of $150,000 in the final 48 hours of his Indiegogo campaign, reaching $169,000 on Aug. 28.
It’s not a typical method for planting a vineyard. But little about Grahm, or Popelouchum, is typical.
Grahm’s 400 acres here top out at 1,300 feet in elevation, and from this precipice one can see the flat farmland far below, with its patchwork of peppers and radicchios. There’s a clear view of a smaller hill, where a stark white cross perches, placed there by the missionaries who forced out the Mutsun people from this area several centuries ago. Like the missionaries and the Mutsun (whose word for “village” he’s adopted as the name of his site), Grahm considers this “a very sacred place.”
It would seem there’d be no better place than a “sacred” one to plant Pinot Noir — that elusive, finicky grape that sources the red wines of Burgundy. That was Grahm’s original idea: Find California’s Côte de Nuits. But “then I realized that was indulgent,” he says. “What’s great about Burgundy, maybe more than the (Pinot Noir) grape itself, is the soils.” Chasing that magical confluence of plant, climate and earth would be futile in San Juan Bautista, or anywhere other than Burgundy, for that matter.
“Are we content with making copies of European wines?” Grahm, 62, asks.
Instead, his project at Popelouchum is to discover a new great California wine, one wholly original.
It’s a complicated undertaking, and Grahm himself doesn’t have it all sorted out. Ultimately, his goal is to breed 10,000 (yes, 10,000) new, genetically distinct grape varieties, with the hope of finding a few, or even one, genius grapes. Do we need new grapes? Well, it turns out that Vitis vinifera hasn’t had sex in 8,000 years. (Awkward!) When the boundaries between wild and cultivated plants were blurrier, grape sex spawned some fantastic offspring: Thank the union of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc for Cabernet Sauvignon. Agriculture, which isolates cultivars and species from one another, changed that. No one’s been complaining: We’ve got thousands of grape varieties. Surely that’s plenty.
To Grahm, however, that’s complacency, and he wants to jolt California out of it. “Everyone assumes that everything is already known,” he says. “But there are brilliant grapes, brilliant soils, that by historical accident went misunderstood or unknown.” He hopes, first of all, to explore the potential of unsung-hero grapes from obscure corners of France and Italy — Rossese, Fer Servadou, Picolit — which he believes have qualities suitable for California. Then he will breed. He’ll choose two white grape parents and two red grape parents, and from there it’s a Fibonacci’s rabbit type of situation.
The guiding principle becomes mathematical. Because Popelouchum will be “closer to a state of nature,” Grahm says — a complete ecosystem with many species of plant, situated to flower continuously throughout the year, nourished by a compost-charcoal potion called biochar that he calls “crack cocaine for soil microbes” — he reasons that the site’s natural biodiversity should, simply by the laws of probability, yield something great.
There are other lofty goals along the way: Find droughtresistant vines; find vines resistant to Pierce’s Disease and powdery mildew. So great is Popelouchum’s potential benefit to the global wine industry, Grahm believes, that he is applying for 501(c)(3) status, to make Popelouchum a nonprofit enterprise. Whatever he discovers he will share — viticultural open code.
It’s fascinating to hear the Central Coast’s philosopher king wax poetic about his quest for Burgundy, his love for the Rossese wines of Clos Cibonne in southern France, and his ideas about what makes a grape a good breeder (“One of the parents should have a Zorba the Greek-like quality”). His mission is attractive: the quest to find something critical that we don’t yet know about making wine in California.
I confess skepticism. I love California Pinot Noir — I don’t buy the idea that a wine is a failure if it’s not the greatest example of its type. Is it possible that Fer Servadou could be the great undiscovered California wine? Sure, but it may be unknown for very good reasons. Sometimes novelty is just that: novelty.
But freedom — literally — is California wine’s greatest virtue. Unlike Burgundy, where law dictates which grapes
vignerons are allowed to plant, California can do whatever it wants, and always has. “California’s competitive advantage is that it’s unburdened by convention or history,” Grahm says.
That’s another California specialty: believing unwaveringly that you can create a new world. It’s a powerful, godlike confidence that Californians from the 49ers to Steve Jobs have exerted throughout the state’s history. The ambitious project at Popelouchum might change our wine, or it might not, but one thing is for sure — the same tenacious curiosity that gave birth to it is what has made California wine great so far.