The 2021 harvest was near. I called my winemaking partner, Lane Tanner, and asked her to find as many neutral oak barrels as we could gather - we had to accommodate extra fruit coming in. The quality in this new, mysterious vineyard was just too good to pass up.
I dubbed the vineyard ‘The Wild King,’ after seeing what it produced after being allowed to grow, unfettered, unpruned, and unwatered, for more than a year.
There was more fruit hanging than we could handle in our little winery, so I threw some feelers out to a few of my winemaker friends; to see if anyone was interested in getting some last-minute Pinot Noir at a bargain price. Every single one of those winemaker friends, after they came to look at the fruit in person, said yes. Ryan Roark, Gavin Chanin, Jessica Gasca, Mike Roth, and Ernst Storm were all on that lucky list. The most memorable visit of that bunch was with Gavin.
“This just turns everything we think we know about viticulture on its head,” he exclaimed excitedly. “We spend all of this money on the best vineyard management practices, year after year, and then we come across fruit like this that came from doing nothing. It blows my mind.”
The challenge, as I saw it, was how to maintain the vineyard going forward. If I continued to leave it unpruned, eventually the vines would overgrow the rows (maybe within a year), and the vineyard would become basically unmanageable. You already could not drive a tractor down the rows, which means it would be nearly impossible to carry out normal practices such as composting, mowing or weed control. Even hand-harvesting would become completely impractical at some point.
The reaction from every one of the vineyard experts that I queried was a whole lot of pondering and head-scratching. Not one of them had ever heard of a successful vineyard practice that excluded pruning. They all recommended pruning during the coming winter and going back to a more conventional farming method.
At home one night I explained to my wife, Kali, that I had to figure out a different way forward. “I don’t want to go back to normal,” I said, “I want this vineyard to produce fruit like this again.” I wondered aloud who I might call on who could think outside the box.
And then it came to me: Randall Grahm.
For those of you who don’t know Randall, a brief history. Randall graduated from UC Davis in 1979 with a degree in Plant Sciences, where as he states it, he developed a “single-minded obsession with Pinot Noir.” He purchased a property in Bonny Doon, a neighborhood in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and planted vineyards. His wines, produced under the Bonny Doon label, were hugely influential on the burgeoning California wine business. Randall was an early adopter of biodynamic practices, and earned the nickname the ‘Rhone Ranger,’ having been largely responsible for the introduction of Rhone varieties to the American public. I have known Randall loosely for many years (my father was a co-conspirator, and a huge fan, in times past), and I figured there was no better person to ask to think outside the box than he.
Randall in his happy place, the vineyard. Popelouchum, 2021
Randall arrived on a cool August day and I toured him around our young plantings, then took him down the hill to see the wild vines. We walked the rows together while he looked curiously at the small bunches and plucked berries off the vine and popped them into his mouth, spitting seeds at pace with his steps. “Remarkable,” he said, more than once. After many long minutes, I explained my conundrum. He smiled.
“What you have here,” he said, “is the classic battle between winemaker and winegrower. One wants quality and the other quantity. The trick is to find the balance where one can make a great wine, and still make money growing the fruit.”
I agreed, but expressed that it still did not answer my question: what should I do with this vineyard going forward, and even more importantly, next year? I guess I was hoping to get some definitive answer from the guru, as though he had the answers to one of the wine world’s greatest puzzles. He was quiet for some time, and then started to offer some suggestions. His greatest piece of advice was to not to be afraid to experiment. He also suggested I connect with a few other people in the industry that were pursuing alternative vineyard practices, and he gave me some names.
We took Randall to dinner at our restaurant, Pico, and had a wonderful meal, punctuated by much wine philosophy and many ‘Randallisms.’ After Randall said his goodbyes, I didn’t feel much closer to an answer, but woke up the next morning with the semblance of a plan.
I decided to divide the Wild King Vineyard into blocks, and experiment with each block in a different way. One section would be pruned traditionally the coming winter, while another block would be allowed to continue another year of wild growth. I would also experiment with watering. Some sections of the vineyard would be watered on a regular schedule, while others would not be watered at all - to simulate the way that the vineyard was farmed the prior year, and to see which, if not all, of the techniques were what made the most difference. One way or another I am determined: to again produce the magically wild fruit that we came upon in 2021.
Next up: The Wild King Ascends into Madness
- Will Henry