The Clones of Clos Electrique

From John, February 13th, 2016
Clos Electrique

Clos Electrique

The vineyard at Clos Electrique is a study in the power of the massale (the French term for selecting and propagating the best vines in a vineyard). Clos Electrique owes its existence to a number of different personalities, many of whom have long ago passed away. This writing is an homage to the various people who made our collection of vines possible.

I arrived at Carneros Creek Winery in 1979 to begin my stint as the assistant winemaker under the tutelage of Francis Mahoney, then considered the guru of Pinot noir in California. An extensive Pinot noir clonal plot had been established at Carneros Creek by the venerable UC Davis professor emeritus Curtis Alley. Alley had gathered clones from famous vineyards all over California and planted them on a random numbers basis. Each clone was marked with a lettered stake and most of the alphabet was utilized, which gives one an idea of how many clones he had managed to gather. While some of the material originated as “suitcase clones” from supposedly such notable domains as Chambertin, most of the great material was brought to California by one man, Paul Masson. Masson purportedly arrived in the vicinity of Saratoga in the late 1800’s bearing a huge amount of budwood from his native Burgundy. For hundreds of years the strength of Burgundy has always been found in the wide array of different clones of Pinot noir that comprise the vineyards. So Mr. Mason planted his vineyard to these disparate clones and from there, bits and pieces of his masterpiece were disseminated around California.

Inspired by Dr. Alley’s recreation of the massale paradigm, I began to gather many of these clones for my soon-to-be established vineyard in Oregon. I went to one of the most notable early Pinot noir winemakers in California, Bob Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards above the town of Sonoma. After spending a day in his vineyard gathering cuttings of some of his best clones, I sat down with Bob and he kindly filled me in on the history of Pinot noir in California. The best of it did indeed start with Paul Masson but the story gets richer from there. It turns out that a young man growing up in Saratoga in the early part of the 1900’s became friends with Mr. Masson. After purportedly hanging around his winery for years, Martin Ray purchased the property from Paul Masson in 1940. Unfortunately for the new owner, the winery mysteriously burned in 1943 and Martin was forced to sell the property and the rights to the name “Paul Masson” to Seagrams of New York. Before leaving, Mr. Ray took cuttings from throughout the original vineyard and planted them on a new piece of property high above Saratoga. That vineyard eventually became known as Mt. Eden Vineyard and it was this vineyard that became the source of budwood for many of the early significant Pinot noir vineyards of California including Chalone, Hanzell and Joseph Swan.

It therefore became my intent to gather clonal material from each of these seminal vineyards as well as others including Louis Martini and finally the mother block at Martin Ray’s Mt. Eden Vineyard. The winemaker & vineyard manager at Mt. Eden, Jeffrey Patterson, was kind enough to allow me to mark individual vines during the early Fall season prior to harvest. As a result I was able to select interesting cluster morphologies and small yielding vines while avoiding those with heavy infections of leaf-roll viruses. When we came back in the winter months to gather the budwood, we also gathered a bit of material from the Chardonnay block, part of which was also originally brought to California by Paul Masson. The bitter irony of that occasion occurred as we were gathering the wood: I noticed a lot of dust in the valley down below. Seagrams was at that very moment plowing under the entire Pinot noir block that Paul Masson had brought from Burgundy nearly a hundred years previously. So as I was attempting to bring to Oregon the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that state had ever seen, Seagrams was busy destroying the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that California had ever seen! So much for corporate agriculture.

The cuttings that I collected were rooted and planted in 1984 to a 2 acre section of vineyard in the Dundee Hills. To prevent deer damage in the newly planted vineyard, we surrounded it with an electric fence, hence the name Clos Electrique. The remarkable wines produced from this piece of terroir owe their unique qualities to the pioneering efforts of Paul Masson and Martin Ray as well as the succeeding generations of Californians who kept alive the clones and the stories about them.

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