Randall Grahm announced just a few days ago the launch of a crowdfunding campaign for an ambitious grape vines breeding program in the heart of California’s Central Coast.
At his San Juan Batista estate in the San Benito County, called Popelouchum (pronounced “Poh-puh-lou-shoom“), he envisions to breed over 10,000 new grape varieties in search for unique expressions of the local terroirs.
Seeking 501(c)3 status for the project, Randall not only aims at discovering a ‘New World Grand Cru‘ (or ‘New World Grahm Cru‘), but will be looking at sharing the fruit of the research with the world’s wine community and with “others who want to follow in our footsteps.”
Intrigued and fascinated by both the forward-thinking and anachronic sounds of the Popelouchum Project, I asked Randall to tell us more about it and elaborate on his vision in a guest post.
The vine breeding process is famously slow, especially when crafting world-class wines is the objective. Bordelais in Bordeaux, and Bourguignons in Burgundy just to mention those spent centuries breeding and selecting the best plants for their regions, in the form of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir and achieve with them the finest expressions of their region.
As the world is now faster-paced than ever, how would breeding be the next solution to better matching land, climate and vines?
The following guest post was written by Randall Grahm exclusively for Social Vignerons:
“10,000 New Grapes as a Radical Method to Reveal Terroir
I’m wrestling with an issue that has plagued me for as long as I can remember. Part of it is existential: What can I as a winegrower in the New World do that has real meaning? The more objective corollary to this is, “What is the New World good for? Can it truly produce a wine that is both original and world-class?” I take it as a matter of faith that the only wines that truly matter –the ones that provide a real aesthetic and emotional frisson – are vins de terroir, or “wines of place,” wines that transcend mere varietal expression and offer another complex dimension of experience. Call this quality “minerality” or the expression of soil characteristics or simply “wines with life-force,” (i.e. the capacity to age and develop complexity); it has been systematically elusive in the wines of the New World.
How does one even begin to produce a wine like this, especially within the confines of a single lifetime? My thought is that we in the New World have been overly fixated on trying to find precisely the “right” variety to grow on our sites. News flash: We likely won’t get it right, or as right as they have in the Old World with centuries of iteration and observation, and likely as not, a varietal wine almost anywhere it is grown in the New World, absent utter random favorable chance, will come off as lacking a sense of embedded complexity and nuance. Our varietal selections will never be as congruent or as seamless to our sites as the great Old World examples. So, how to proceed?
I am launching a very ambitious program to breed 10,000 new grape varieties at my farm in San Juan Bautista, which I call Popelouchum. In fact, I’ve even launched a crowd-funding initiative to create the literal seed money to bring this to fruition: http://igg.me/at/GrahmCru. My strategy is to initially focus on creating individual grape varieties that will act as carriers of terroir’s message, as a matrix through which terroir’s expression might emerge. It’s perhaps a bit counter-intuitive; Instead of initially fixating on finding precisely the “best” grape, why not look at what a large set of grapes, all consanguineous, might do as a suite? By actually de-emphasizing varietal character, might these grapes reveal something new and unexpected?
It will certainly take some time, but part #2 of this project has the aim of identifying grapes that are particularly congruent to our site, but that might also be of particular interest to other viticulturists, both for their agronomic properties – resistance to particular disease issues, viz. powdery mildew and Pierce’s Disease – as well as to their unique flavor characteristics.
The intention of this project is somewhat different from what has been attempted in other breeding programs, but shares some common characteristics. In general, grape breeding is done with the intention of solving particular, concrete problems but this program has the more open-ended intention of discovering something more elusive – beauty, balance, elegance.
The methodology of this project is still evolving, but really begins with a preliminary survey of which varieties seem to really be particularly successful on the site – ripen at the right epoch, with appropriate acidity and sugar balance, are less prone to disease and drought pressure, etc. This, in and of itself, will take some years to determine. But, after it is done, one begins the imaginative and creative work of the grape breeder, using one’s intuition as much as scientific training to imagine the phenotypic expression of a given cross.
It is perhaps a radical hypothesis to suggest that if one might farm grapes in such a way that soil characteristics are well expressed – this might be achievable through Biodynamic methodology, dry-farming, restricted yields, the use of biochar to enhance mineral absorption, etc. – maybe the particularity of the grape varieties grown (presuming that they ripen at more or less the right time and have appropriate balance) is not so crucial. They become at this point, mere conduits of terroir. It is a hypothesis that the presence of the large number of genetically distinctive grapes, each of them members of the same tribe, might yield a wine of unprecedented complexity and nuance, at the same time better expressing soil characteristics partially due to the fact that varietal character has been so well suppressed.
This is certainly a project that might last well beyond my own lifetime, at least I hope it does. But I feel that I have an opportunity here to do something useful for the wine world, as well as potentially have an enormous amount of fun in discovering something new and possibly sublime.
 A significant part of the “meaning” is trying to discern one’s destiny, i.e. what could it be that one was put on earth to achieve (or try to achieve).
 I am remiss not to mention that I believe my property in San Juan possesses some extremely interesting and distinctive soil types – calcareous, granitic and volcanic – ones that I imagine might be particularly well-suited to the expression of a “wine of place.”
 Finding the “right” grape is in fact, the second part of the project, as I will explain in a moment.
 We are hoping to build upon the work of Professor Andy Walker, who has already been able to breed into a number of vinifera varieties (by crossing with Vitis arizonica) significant resistance to Pierce’s Disease and powdery mildew. What remains is to now breed potentially more favorable flavor characteristics into these vines.
 Ironically enough, while that may be the stated intention of most grape breeding projects – finding such a new variety that tastes like X, but has the added feature of being more cold tolerant or disease tolerant, etc. – what seems to, in fact, happen often is that in the breeding process, a particularly unusual grape emerges, sometimes even as a result of a mix-up in the nursery (as was the case with Scheurebe, but which somehow strikes the breeder’s fancy. One may be aiming for a certain result, but in fact, simply by reshuffling the genetic cards, as it were, all sorts of interesting surprises may emerge.
 It is generally accepted that the “female” parent of grape crosses is largely responsible for the flavor characteristics of the resultant offspring. The role of the “male” parent is perhaps less well understood, but seems to be correlated with growth habit and general “vigor.” It is my intention to grow grapes, at least the red ones, as free-standing head-trained vines, so upright growing vines with good vigor (which is well correlated with drought-resistance) would help guide the choice of the male parent.”
Read further about Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard’s website or on his Been Doon So Long blog.
The following video presents Randall Grahm’s Estate Vineyard project at Popelouchum to discover a ‘New World Grahm Cru‘:
Featured image at the top is a photo by Ted Holladay.