10,000 Grapes for a New Grand Cru at Popelouchum

Recently I attended a wine maker luncheon with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, where he briefly discussed his plan to produce a more extraordinary fine wine by producing new grape varieties. He currently has an IndieGoGo campaign to finance the project that I urge readers to support.

“The discovery of a new Grand Cru brings more happiness to humanity than the discovery of a new star.”
-Randall Grahm

Initially, I couldn’t completely wrap my head around the idea, but I remembered that Dr. Harold P. Olmo’s California Oral History interview was on the subject of plant genetics and new grape varieties and it helped contextualize Randall’s project perfectly. When I read most of the oral history series on wine long ago, it was one that I only skimmed. Unlike Randall, I didn’t truly understand what challenges wine faced or more importantly what was possible.

I just read the entirety of Dr. Olmo’s 1973 interview by Ruth Teiser and it may be the most exciting of the whole series (As a resource, the oral history series is epically useful). Asking Randall about Dr. Olmo on twitter, he noted that they had sat down and talked new grape varieties over the years. Dr. Harold P. Olmo passed away in 2006. [see Harold P. Olmo wikipedia for more background]

For those not completely up on the new grape varietal particulars of Randall Grahm’s Popelouchum plan, I hope to use Professor Olmo’s ideas to show that it is pretty much the only path left to make wines more natural. It is also very much feasible and has a big dormant tradition supporting it. Randall Grahm is probably the only American wine maker that can pull it off. The time is now!

It is not common knowledge, but grape hybridizing and other forms of varietal improvement have been staggeringly important to viticulture over the last century. We tend towards an illusion that varieties like Pinot Noir, consumed in the U.S., are the same as those in Europe, and that they’ve been the same for centuries, but that isn’t exactly true and a passage by Dr. Olmo tells the story of how clonal variation was noticed.

But after a few years of records and just working with these vines, one could even stand at the end of each block and look down the rows and know that the selections were different. In some cases the leaves would redden slightly earlier in the fall, and in some cases the canes would tend to arch over and others not. There were differences that were evident to even an inexperienced person. Once you had enough replications from this original vine you could see differences that you couldn’t see before. (p. 94 selecting within a variety)

Selecting within a given variety can only take a grape so far and its probably done because we are clinging to the legacy and symbolism of varietal names as well as forcing varieties into sites that they aren’t acclimated enough to. Overall weaknesses are made up for with vineyard interventions like irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, and then even further in the cellar.

And in essence this is what I was thinking about, that basically, unless you have the quality in the raw material, all of the manipulation that you can do is not really going to improve it. Now, can you take the poor grape and make an excellent wine out of it, even with all the technology we know of? – Olmo coming to the same conclusion as Peynaud (see p.135-6)

Dr. Olmo came the conclusion that the only way to improve wines was to improve the grape and this is precisely the dormant tradition Randall is continuing. A difference is that Dr. Olmo and others were working on commodity wines and Randall Grahm is tackling fine wines which have a different set of aspirations. South African Pinotage, among the most famous hydrids, is a commodity grape and the same is true of the other enduring California hybrids like Carnelian and Ruby Cabernet. There has yet to be a fine wine hybrid used for a Grand Cru and it just may be the only path to getting there in the New World.

In Dr. Olmo’s day, California fine wines didn’t exist like they do today and there was no established demand that could lead anyone to tackle supply problems. Olmo specifically acknowledges this point and spends time smartly discussing the marketing of wine and the acceptance of new varieties. For those interested in naming their Popelouchum varietal, there are also spectacular passages on the topic. Other passages on naming reassignment, as the UC Davis teams set out to correctly identify and trace the lineage of grape varieties at the outset of prohibition, are wildly interesting. These were long term projects of tremendous foresight whose value was hard to realize at the time and the Popelouchum project is yet another one. The return on investment for kickstarting new fine wine varieties could prove phenomenal (if you have the patience of a wine maker).

Only now with momentum for natural fine wines, and under the specific guidance of Randall Grahm (who else has 300k+ twitter followers?) could the market handle new fine wine varietals and that is why the ideas have never been common conversation before. When a wine maker truly becomes a terroirist he can start to transcend mere grape varieties. The New World also does not have the legal restrictions of the Old World so there is opportunity in California to actually set an enviable precedent for what terroir in wine can actually be.

Olmo and Peynaud had no large concern for intervention like we do now. They simply recognized there was a ceiling to how good wine could be with the technological pursuits of the day and they wanted to push through it. Having seen the industry adopt uniform practices and watching uniqueness disappear, they had to promote another route.

I feel, for example, that with many of our white wines, despite the fact that our varieties are very different, that the technology is such, the cold fermentation, the way it’s filtered, the way it’s handled, that the refinement of the wine has given us a mediocrity. They’re good wines but they’re pretty much alike. (p. 137)

We now have large symbolic objections to certain interventions because we understand the environmental consequences or that they strip uniqueness we’ve come to prize. The natural wine movement has made large strides in making sound expressive wines while minimizing intervention, but advancement like recognizing the value of polyculture will only get you so far, the next step is in the nursery and the road is long.

A vineyard with 10,000 genetically different varietals might be hard to imagine for some people so lets consider imagery from Dr. Olmo’s Guggenheim sponsored trip to Persia where he encountered a unique valley of almonds:

Of course, they plant most things just from seeds, so there’s a tremendous variation. And literally, for example, any variety or any type of species you want to mention. Almonds, for example. In the northwestern part of Iran there are villages there that have literally millions of almond trees. They’re just planted all over the place. They’ll cover whole valleys. And every tree is different from every other tree. It’s a fantastic amount of variation. And somebody could go over there just about find all of the variation that you’d want to find. (p. 76)

This is all at odds with American agriculture as currently practiced. Planting from seed which creates a hybrid from two parents as opposed to grafting clippings is what leads to the diversity, and big numbers allow for the finding of synchrony to weather conditions and resistance to diseases that are inherent to a site. We typically think of site acclimation as picking varietals that will achieve adequate yields and oenological ripeness within the rhythms of a site. We can also define acclimation in terms of disease and drought resistance without intervention and this of course has a spectrum. Ten thousand new varieties gives that many chances to push for higher levels of acclimation and that is towards terroir.

For commodity wines, because of their vast scope and economic importance, finding disease resistance was of grave immediacy. Foresight and investment was needed to stave off the next catastrophic epidemic. Phylloxera was not a one off event and other diseases lurked in the vineyards of the world. No one could noxiously spray their way out of Phylloxera, the only path was disease resistant root stocks.

More than a decade ago, Randall Grahm had a run in with Pierce’s disease on a vineyard planted with Pinot Noir that has shaped his career and likely the vision for the Popelouchum project. He knows cautionary tales first hand. In Pierce’s Disease, a bacterium rapidly kills all the vines by blocking the vine’s vasculature. Dr. Olmo had done a lot work with the disease, achieving resistance from it for certain types of non-fine wine grapes. (More recently, Dr. Andy Walker of UC Davis has also immersed himself in developing Pierce’s-resistant varieties.)

Back in the 1930’s, Professor Olmo actually had a research vineyard that was at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Veteran’s Avenue in a ritzy corner of the UCLA campus. According to the Oral History tale, the property had astounding real estate value so it was only in use for short period before being developed (in the grand scheme of agricultural time). The property was unique because Pierce’s Disease was predictably carried to the site by all the insects that inhabited the shrubs of the stately homes surrounding the small inner city vineyard. Dr. Olmo’s team kept planting hybridized varieties hoping for resistance and when they died they would start over and try something new. There was a fear that if the disease spread it could be as catastrophic to California as Phylloxera was to Europe.

As I understand it from Olmo’s Oral History interview, Pierce’s disease was the reason Vinifera grapes could not grow in southern states like Florida. This was overcome by the hard won discovery that the wild Rotundafolia “Scuppernong” grape could produce disease resistant hybrids (Supposedly Andy Walker has made more really big advancements here using Vitis Arizonica and getting non-Vinifera character to disappear). Such discoveries opened doors to grape cultivation further south that we enjoy today. Breeding grape hybrids is a powerful tool but it has never been aimed at fine wines.

Dr. Olmo’s work gives us a template and a realistic timetable of what to expect from the Popelouchum project. New vines can take almost a decade to become productive and further years are necessary to identify vines that are truly more acclimated to the site than others. This means Randall Grahm is giving the world of wine a big gift. He is undertaking a project that is clearly longer that his working life and sound financing and a community of interest are paramount to making sure the advances never disappear.

Part of being a Grand Cru is endurance. Will we be able to enjoy the fruits of a vineyard over a 100 years and many different stewards? Again, acclimation is at the heart of it all. It will take decades of experimentation to create a Grand Cru level of harmony between the chosen varieties and the land. The bond is measured by the lack of intervention in the process. A relationship is pursued that won’t be interrupted by drought or untimely rain or calamitous local disease. A bond where the site gives the grape its most extraordinary expression.

Wine and the vision of the winemaker teach us all about foresight. Dr. Olmo started projects requiring decades long commitment that helped change the world of wine. The torch has been passed to Randall Grahm whose Popelouchum project is going to expand our understanding of what is possible in our new world of fine wines. We have been given the opportunity to participate and I urge people to join in, your personal return on investment could be spectacular.

“The discovery of a new Grand Cru brings more happiness to humanity than the discovery of a new star.”
-Randall Grahm

I urge you to donate!

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