Innovation and Inspiration from California

From John, January 21st, 2022

The Napa Valley in 1979 had an air of confidence that transcended everything else. The Steven Spurrier Paris tasting had occurred just 3 years prior and suddenly the wines of California, and especially the Napa Valley, were on the world wine map. It was a place of innovation where anything seemed possible and seemingly every grape varietal in existence could grow there.

The seeds of this success had been planted a hundred years before when Count Ágoston Haraszthy returned from Europe with a treasure trove of many hundreds of grape cultivars and planted them at his Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. In the ensuing years other individuals contributed further to the selection of varieties (Paul Masson bringing his famous massale of Pinot noir clones from the Côte de Nuit to Saratoga in 1895 and Ernest Wente bringing delicious clones of Chardonnay from Montpellier in 1912). With excellent vineyard sites in parts of the Napa Valley (and elsewhere), the scene was set for Steven Spurrier’s challenge to some of France’s most significant producers of Chardonnay and Cabernet sauvignon.

And soon many French producers were sending their next generation to California to see what was going on. I was fortunate enough to land a position as Assistant Winemaker at Carneros Creek Winery just west of the city of Napa. It was here in the somewhat cooler bay-influenced climate that Carneros Creek owner Bal Gibson and winemaker Francis Mahoney decided to plant Pinot noir. Their original planting used budwood from Louis Martini, further up the valley, but they soon realized that Pinot noir was a variety that easily mutates and is resplendent with a huge number of clones. In fact it became clear that the great vineyards of Burgundy were not planted to a single clone but rather to a rich variety of clones, each with distinct cluster morphology, flavor, color variations and so on. And it is this mixture (or “massale”) that gives the wines from these famous vineyards their complexity and richness.

Gibson and Mahoney entered into a relationship with a well-known and beloved professor emeritus from the UC Davis Viticulture school, Dr. Curtis Alley. Curtis’s idea was to plant a half-acre plot at Carneros Creek to nearly 20 different Pinot noir clones that he would gather around California. Because he was so well-liked around the state, it was difficult for people to say “no” to him. As a result, the little planting contained clones from many of the best known Pinot noir vineyards in California. He planted them using a “random numbers” table so that the clones were mixed up all over the vineyard. Each vine had its own stake with a capital letter denoting its origin; for example A was from Joseph Swan, E was from Hanzell, P was Chalone and so on. On the second day of my new job I literally met Dr. Alley as he was crawling around on his hands and knees under the vines; I crawled under a vine opposite him and introduced myself. Any emeritus professor who is willing to crawl around in the dirt of his pet project is clearly an amazing person and he made quite an impression on me.

To understand Burgundy, it is necessary to come to terms with the amazing diversity of clones that typify Pinot noir. As the clonal test plot at Carneros Creek grew and matured, it was a revelation just how much diversity existed for this one little grape variety: upright growth, downward growth, high vigor vines, low vigor vines, tiny berried clusters, large berried clusters, anthocyanins that absorbed mostly in the blue part of the spectrum (which means generating very red wines which was more typical of Pinot noir) but also anthocyanins that absorbed predominantly in the red end of the spectrum (which produced wines that were very purple in tone). Some clones had various types of virus (typically leaf-roll virus) which, as it turns out, is often a piece of genetic material that propagates from one generation to the next and causes the chlorophyll to denature late in the growing season. This causes the vines to turn brilliant red or yellow as the accessory pigments show themselves after the chlorophyll fades away. I found this clonal trait to be extremely interesting and it would become an enduring source of fascination.

As we made small batches of wine from each clone, the story became even more interesting.  Typically it takes Pinot noir around 100 days from full bloom to maturity. But at 100 days the resulting wines could be dramatically different. For example if one focuses on the aroma of “cherry” which is often associated with Pinot noir, some clones express pie cherry, others dark black cherries, and others a fresh Bing cherry while still others might show dried cherries. The array of aromas and flavors is astounding and leads directly to the conclusion that there is not in fact a “silver bullet” clone. Since the secret of great Burgundies is this amazing diversity of characteristics, carefully selected by many generations of winemakers, it is as if several hundred years of Burgundian winemakers have given us this gift of genetic heterogeneity! And realizing the amazing bequest that was sitting in front me, I intended then and there to make this a pursuit of my lifetime.

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