Randall Grahm, the veteran vintner behind Santa Cruz’s Bonny Doon Vineyard, is often painted as an iconoclastic character prone to outlandish points of view and bombastic commentary. But when I meet the long-haired, bespectacled man in the small mission town of San Juan Bautista, about 40 minutes south of San Jose, I find him more level-headed and insightful than most folks I encounter. In fact, Grahm’s grand vision of the world, even when ambitious and avant-garde, is much more basic than bizarre.
I’m there to explore his latest adventure, the nearby Popelouchum Vineyard, named for the indigenous Mutsun people’s word for “village” and “paradise.” This sacred slice of San Benito County is where Grahm will spend the $169,700 he recently raised through a crowd funding campaign on a quest to develop and discover California’s own grape varietal—or as he puts it, a New World Grand Cru.
“Why do something that the Europeans can do so much better than we can?” he asked of California’s decades-old attempts to make fine wines out of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and other noble Old World varieties. “Is it our best contribution to make a good facsimile? What have you achieved? You’ve made a good copy. I think we in the New World should aspire to more than that.”
So he’s planting as many of the world’s 2,000-plus varietals that he can get his hands on, then plans to cross-breed them, with a target of 10,000 different grape types to choose from. The 400-acre property, which he bought six years ago from the money he made selling Big House and Cardinal Zin brands, features various soil types—limestone to granite to clay to sand—and sits in between the cool Monterey Bay and warmer Santa Clara Valley climates. It undulates from gently sloped, north-facing hills to mountaintops with 360-degree exposure, some spots wide open to maritime winds, others baked by the hot sun. Altogether, the property’s 110 plantable acres are quite a Goldilocks situation, offering the diversity of conditions required to find a varietal that will work in various corners of the Golden State.
With climate change at the forefront of his mind, Grahm is seeking to discover a grape that is more sustainable, drought-tolerant, disease-resistant and ripens in the right season, not too early (as we’ve seen with Pinot Noir this harvest) and not too late (as can happen with cool climate plantings of Syrah and Grenache). He’s already growing a couple acres of Grenache on Popelouchum’s flats (including Grenache crossed with itself) and some Pinot Noir on a precarious cliffside near the barn he will convert to a winery. There’s also an indigenous Texas grape bush being grown for rootstock as well as a Piedmontese grape called Ruché.
But Grahm bubbles with excitement about a laundry list of other grapes he will soon plant as well, from Tibouren to Rossese, Chasselas to Listan Negro. His early prediction is that the successful grape will likely be based a hearty one from the Mediterranean—“they’re like Zorba the Greek,” he laughed of that boisterous character—in which he will be able to “impart elegance.” But he is quick to admit, “The methodology is still evolving.”
Grahm is also banking on the use of biochar—a charcoal used for farming that he imports from Romania—as a “terroir amplifier,” for it holds more water and transfer nutrients from the soil better. If the massive size of his squash or exuberant flavors of his alpine strawberries grown on his adjacent farm are any indication, we should all be gardening with biochar, which also fights global warming by sequestering carbon. “This will save the planet if the planet allows itself to be saved,” he said.
Now in his early 60s, Grahm knows he may neither see the planet saved nor the true results of his experiment, which he thinks will take at least a decade to start bearing any semblance of success. That’s why he’ll be spending this post-harvest winter building a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization to carry the project deep into the future, ensuring a legacy far beyond his years.
In the meantime, Grahm remains focused on the goal he’s had since entering the wine business in the 1970s. “I know only one algorithm: make really, really good wine,” said Grahm. “I’m convinced that when you drink wines with life, they nourish you on many levels—spiritually, aesthetically, philosophically and possibly even physiologically. When I drink wines like that, I feel better. So how do we make wines with life?”
Popelouchum is Grahm’s grand attempt to answer that question for generations to come.