Who knows if Randall Grahm’s Popelouchum Vineyard in San Juan Bautista, California is the future of viticulture. That depends on how his mad experiments work out. Will his plots of old European varieties, Furmint, Timorasso, Ruché and Rossese, head-trained and dry farmed to test their drought tolerance and flavor potential, find California to their liking? Perhaps. But that’s old school experimentation.
Growing plants from seed so that every plant is genetically distinct but related—some red, some white, some pink—a vineyard of mutants. As far as I know there is nothing like that on the planet.
What’s the point? He’s betting on this as a strategy to express soil characteristics by effacing varietal character.
I’ll let him explain. He says he believes this some of the time:
My belief is if you have a very strong terroir, a very expressive terroir, you can probably plant a lot of different grape varieties and still produce an interesting wine even if the grape varieties themselves are less than brilliant. I think they just act as a carrier to express soil characteristics. And it think this is true because of the evidence from some fairly neutral grape varieties that don’t really have a lot of complexity on their own under other conditions, things like Chasselas, the Swiss grape Chasselas, or the grape mission, the mission grape or Listán Negro, which is related to the mission grape. They are all pretty neutral grapes but under certain kinds of strong terroir they can produce complex wine.
If this turns out to be true and his army of mutants produces distinctive wines, this might have enormous implications for the interesting variations wine can produce. There are at least two ways of thinking about the result. In one case, every wine is an enormously complex field blend, each one distinctive because each vineyard would consist of genetically distinct individual vines. But if Randall’s intuition is correct, all that individuality might disappear into a collective suppression of all varietal character, thus amplifying the flavor identity of the vineyard and making the taste of terroir even more available.
It may take many years to discover the truth. Nothing good in wine happens overnight. That is one thing that is unlikely to change.
This experiment in genetic diversity is only a taste of the insight that springs from Randall’s fertile mind.
This recent interview, from which the above quotation was taken, hosted by Mattia Scarpazza’s podcast “Looking into Wine,” will get you up to speed on more highlights. Give it a listen.