Dunne on Wine

A unorthodox winemaker’s dream: An original California wine

Randall Grahm
Randall Grahm

Randall Grahm and Nicole Walsh are strolling through a young orchard on the outskirts of San Juan Bautista, the sleepy mission town just south of Gilroy.

They dart from tree to tree, grab an heirloom apple from each, take a bite, and discuss its merits – or lack of. They toss the apples they like into a lug box. Later, the apples will be made into cider.

Tall, gangly, easily distracted and possessed of a sharp and dry wit, Grahm is the founder and “president for life” of the winery Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, a 50-minute drive to the west. Walsh is his longtime vineyard manager.

For the moment they are preoccupied with apples and adjoining rows of pears and quinces because Bonny Doon now makes cider as well as wine.

But it’s the vineyard that has brought us to this arid and bleached property overlooking San Juan Valley. Grahm has named the vineyard “Popelouchum,” which is what the Mutsun tribes of the region’s native Ohlones called the site. It is pronounced “pop-loh-SHOOM.”

“Popelouchum,” explains Grahm, has been interpreted to mean “paradise.” Whether it turns out to be his own viticultural paradise won’t be known for a long time, maybe not within his lifetime, he concedes.

What is known is that Popelouchum represents Grahm’s most audacious experiment yet in his goal to create a truly original wine, one that represents with animation, complexity and longevity the nature of the setting where the grapes are grown. “The whole point of this exercise is to give voice to the distinctive quality of this place,” Grahm says with reverence and conviction.

He refers to Popelouchum as a “bespoke vineyard,” perhaps the first of several in which new strains of grapes tailored to grow in trying conditions yield “a new style of wine that didn’t exist before.”

“Perhaps a very highly complex set of genetically distinctive varieties will produce a wine of unique complexity and interest,” Grahm adds. “There may well emerge some varieties with unique flavor profiles as well.”

Toward that aspiration, he envisions using Popelouchum to breed 10,000 genetically novel varieties of grapes. Several acres already have been planted to such existing varieties as grenache blanc, grenache gris and furmint. Others, including such obscurities as rossese, picolit and ruche, are in his nursery, awaiting propagation. He’s focused on those grapes at the outset because he senses they have the stability and character to best help fulfill his hopes for the project.

He accepts that within those 10,000 new varieties of grapes maybe only a handful will stand out for their flavor or suitability for the site. “We have some time to figure it out,” he says.

In addition to providing fruit for a unique kind of wine, Grahm sees Popelouchum as a laboratory to develop grape varieties that are more disease resistant and drought tolerant, and adopt vineyard practices that are more sustainable in a world undergoing climate change. The vines of Popelouchum, for example, will be largely dry farmed and head trained. “What does this place want to grow with the lightest possible touch?” Grahm wonders.

(Grahm and Walsh also mix compost with biochar, a kind of activated charcoal believed to help retain mosture in the soil and aid a plant’s absorption of nutrients. “You can’t escape the hand of man,” Grahm acknowledges.)

Grahm has been an exceptionally inventive, irreverent and insightful presence on the California wine scene since graduating from UC Davis with a degree in plant sciences in 1979. He has often challenged, in both word and deed, conventional ways of growing grapes and making wine. For one, he’s long been a proponent of organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming. For another, he has toyed with odd winemaking techniques such as “sensitive crystallization” and “micro-oxygenation.” And he was such an early and earnest advocate of Rhone Valley grape varieties such as mourvedre, grenache and syrah in California that he is often called the state’s original “Rhone Ranger.”

But despite his unorthodox ways, he’s made such solid wines and marketed them so imaginatively that he long ago developed an enthusiastic following. Thus, when he launched an online crowdsourcing project a year ago to help underwrite Popelouchum he quickly raised $173,000, topping his goal by more than $20,000.

His experiment is in its infancy, with its methodology and testing still evolving. He is lobbying to get viticulturists of UC Davis engaged, and he has set up the vineyard as a nonprofit venture with the intent of sharing what he learns with other growers and winemakers.

For years he’d been scouting for just the right place to pursue his dream of making an original wine. This was it, he realized when he first set foot on the property in 2009. Not only was he drawn to the site for its benign climate and the diversity of soils – volcanic, limestone, granite, clay – but because he realized he had seen the place before, in a dream. He bought 450 acres, but figures only around 80 will be planted. Tucked high among the oak trees that flank the nascent vineyard is a large equipment shed that easily could be transformed into a winery.

“This really is a very magical place, a spiritual place. There are still spirits here, and I’m not sure they are settled. There has been a lot of violence here,” Grahm says, glancing to a large white cross atop a nearby hill, symbol of the coerced assimilation of resident natives practiced by the region’s missionary friars. He’s also not unmindful that the San Andreas Fault runs through the area, and that several valleys and ridges converge in the vicinity. “It’s a very powerful and liminal place, there’s a kind of nexus here – climatologically, geologically, politically.”

He recognizes that early mistakes have been made in his trial-and-error approach to viticulture. The narrow spacing and the compost he used for an initial plot of pinot noir was disastrous, fostering a colony of voracious tree rats. “It was a perfect habitat for them. They built freeways, hospitals, condominiums. They took out half the vines very quickly,” Grahm laments.

But pinot noir is really what he wanted to make when he was drawn to the wine trade nearly 40 years ago, and he isn’t giving up. He’s nurturing a small plot high in the hills of Popelouchum. “I can’t let it go. It’s like being in a bad relationship. You know it’s no good but you can’t let it go.”

His nemesis aside, Grahm’s overarching goal is to come up with a wine so fresh and singular that it makes the world of wine more interesting, even soulful.

“I’m hopeful that at least a few of our wines will express real uniqueness,” Grahm says. “Whether this uniqueness truly comes from the site itself or from the oddball assortment of grapes might take a rather long time to sort out.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.