Dos Equis’ “The most interesting man in the world” may have won the lifetime achievement award twice, but in the wine world no one is quite as interesting as Randle Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard. From pioneering Rhone varietals to using screw caps to farming bio-dynamically, he has been on the cutting edge of wine innovation for 30 years.
But his newest project may have the greatest impact on the future of wine.
We aim to create a truly unique, superior and nuanced wine, a “Grahm Cru,” an expression of the unique terroirs of our Popelouchum Estate in San Juan Bautista. We plan to do this by adopting a very unusual methodology – the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties, each genetically distinctive from one another – and blending them into a unique cuvée that the world has not tasted heretofore. In so doing, we might also discover individual vines that are more congruent to our site as well as those that might have greater global utility – disease or drought tolerance – in a changing climate. We plan to employ biodynamic practice and use other techniques – some new-fangled (the use of biochar), some old-fangled (dry-farming), to grow grapes in a more deeply and truly sustainable fashion.
Breeding 10,000 new grape varieties that would actually make good wine is a massive undertaking.
Most of the over 1400 grape varieties used to make wine have existed for hundreds of years. Viticulturists in recent years have been introducing diversity by using cuttings from established vines to propagate new plants, which remain the same sub-species but occasionally mutate in ways that are useful to winemakers. The result is a clone, a version of the same sub-species but with slightly different characteristics. If, instead of cloning, the vines were allowed to propagate sexually, each new plant would be a new varietal, i.e. a new sub-species that will most likely not be suitable for making wine. So creating a new variety is easy—just allow grapes to self-pollinate. But that would not be useful to the wine industry
Grahm’s idea, building on work done at UC Davis, is to allow vines with promising characteristics to cross pollinate thus creating a new variety, and then carefully selecting for further propagation, only those new varieties that have improved flavor as well as the drought and disease-resistant characteristics they are looking for. The hope is that after many generations of crossing and selecting, some of these new varieties will show increased ability to adapt to the conditions of the vineyard and provide winemakers with better fruit to work with. Presumably, each vineyard created through these techniques would produce utterly original wines, the perfect expression of terroir.
It is a time-consuming, expensive proposition that may not pay off for years, but one that might be extraordinarily useful in helping the wine industry confront climate change while improving their product.
Grahm has launched a crowd-funding campaign to help pay for the project.