I want to believe that the day will come when Americans will have their own wine culture without relying on a French inflection. In his brilliant book, Religion: An Anthropological View, Anthony Wallace explains how a religion that develops in a conquered land will be influenced by the religion of the conquered. This is why Sumerian mythos is so prevalent in the Bible, or why Baptists handle rattlesnakes in a region where they were once sacred to the American Indians, or why Voodoo mixes Catholicism and tropical paganism. We do the same thing with wine in the United States. The French are our wine Gods.
Let’s be honest. As a wine culture we are young, ignorant and rough around the edges. The oldest California winemaking families are perhaps five generations deep (Pierre Mirassou goes back to 1854 with Pinot Noir in California), while grapes have been cultivated in Gaul since the conquests of Julius Caesar, if not longer. While it’s true that French winemaking families are being influenced by the ‘International Style’ (queue the hissing as Monsieur Parker and Rolland walk on and off the stage), we are still more enamored with the French than they are of us. We like to use ‘Domaine’, ‘Chateau’, and ‘Clos’ in the names of our California wineries (Clos Pepe does not escape the sting of this lash), to give our businesses panache, a sense of history and craft that is deeper and more ancient than we can ourselves fathom. We visit Clos Vougeot and see the ancient wine presses. We taste wines from vineyards first planted in the 9th century. The psychological impact of those experiences deeply impacts the psyche of the American winemaker and wine culture. We try to hang a beret on our brand, slip a truffle under the skin, put a Gallic veneer on our labels and our cellar doors.
Vine clones of French winegrape varietals, known technically as cultivars or ‘genetic accessions’, are a profound example of the lengths American winegrowers will go to attempt to pilfer a little glimmer from the Tour D’argent. The French association called ENTAV has carefully isolated ‘clones’ of various varietals since 1962, and these materials are the basis of most varietal plantings throughout the New World. Clones come in and out of vogue (tres Americain!), but we continue to be in love with the idea that we can capture the essence of French tradition by planting French vines in the United States and get similar results.
The vast majority (99%+) of all grapevines that produce wine today can be traced back to a single grapevine that appeared between the Black and Caspian Seas in the Neolithic period. This was a vine that became ‘perfected’ (basically hermaphroditic), likely due to early human discovery of a genetic mutant that produced an amazing amount of fruit in the wild. That single hermaphrodite vine was propagated, traded, traveled and planted throughout the ancient world. Everywhere it was put in the dirt it mutated into the varieties that we recognize today.
Then those varieties went through further genetic mutations to become slightly distinct from each other. These became cultivars, and the pure genetic mother of each cultivar is a numbered or coded plant that, theoretically, produces the scion material for every plant that bears its code. But even this idea has problems. Every time a ‘mother cultivar’ pushes buds into shoots, those shoots are genetically distinct from the canes from whence they pushed. The numbered ‘mother’ (e.g Pinot Noir 777) exists at ENTAV and at Foundation Plant Material Services at UC Davis—but guess what? They are not genetically the same plant after one year in the ground. They have adapted to their individual soils, climate, —merde, I almost said terroir. In other words, there is no such thing as a clone. Do these ‘clones’ produce a style of wine that is similar to the same clone in other regions? Yes. Pinot Noir 667 will taste like Pinot Noir when it is planted in an amenable site—but tests have shown that tiny differences in soil, climate and aspect often trump the importance of clonal selection in a pinot noir vineyard.
But it gets worse! When vineyards in the US are replanted, we rip out the wonderfully adapted plants that have developed and mutated to match the microclimate where they are growing, and we ‘reset’ the vineyard by using ‘pure’ clonal material every 25-40 years. We are hamstringing our own viticultural evolution, neglecting our vineyards’ desire to mutate into vines that are adapted to our own growing conditions.
Of course we have to plant something, and this is where our article is heading, but by relying on clones we are guaranteeing that we never develop our own heritage varietals, the final step to becoming a truly independent wine culture. I have always wanted to replant my family’s vineyard with massal selection: having vines custom grafted from buds sourced from our most perfectly balanced pinot noir and chardonnay vines, regardless of ‘clone/cultivar’. In this way, the vineyard will maintain every genetic advantage gained from climatic/soil adaptation vis a vis human intervention and choosing for balance and quality. Ironically, this is the way the French replant their vineyards. I guess I’m just another sucker for French vine culture. C’est la vie.