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The Quest for Sacred Wood...

Wine industry lore states that years ago, one of our true pioneers, Josh Jensen of the Calera Winery, managed to procure some grapevine wood from a vineyard that is considered by many to be one of the greatest sources of Pinot Noir on earth. While it’s never been particularly clear if the wood came from “Romanée-Conti” or “La Tâche,” it was supposedly from one of these two hallowed vineyards owned by the famous Burgundian winegrower Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. 

Once home with his new vines, Josh planted them, thereby expanding the source for the material. Being the nice guy that he is, he then proceeded to share the material with some of his associates. By the time I found out about the stuff, it had taken on almost mythical proportions.

I suppose my saga with this material really began in a discussion I had back in the late 1980’s with fellow winegrower, Doug Maedor, at the Ventana Vineyard in Monterey County. Knowing that Doug was an acquaintance of Josh Jensen, I asked him if he had obtained any of the special wood. Doug’s take on it was that Josh’s wood was terribly “virused.” Rather than take a chance on material with unpredictable levels of disease, he was much more interested in the new wave of Dijon Clones that were beginning to make their way into the industry, thanks to work being done by David Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard) and his association with University of Oregon. I remember Doug’s counsel regarding Josh’s wood: “All I can say is that if I were working with it, I’d proceed with extreme caution.”

Grapevine viruses can be tricky. To this day they are elusive insofar as any definitive identification in a plant pathology lab and it is very difficult to estimate how debilitating a virus or combination of viruses will be, if starting from scratch, newly planted vines have them in their tissues. Some viruses are seemingly compatible with the vines, or vice versa. While they typically cause the vine’s leaves to turn red toward the end of the growing season in the fall, the question is, does it happen before or after the vines have ripened their crop? Some are so virulent that they literally end up killing the vines over time. To put Doug’s concerns into perspective, he is a Vietnam-era ex-fighter Pilot. When a guy like that says “be careful,” it’s probably best to take heed. “Even if the virus does not spread from block to block,” he said, “the problem with having the stuff in a newly planted vineyard is that by the time you replant after watching those vines slowly die, you have lost a decade.”

A few years had passed, and then in the spring some time in the mid 1990’s I met one Jim Clark, a fascinating guy who had come from the world of business; specifically the field of Organizational Development. Jim had studied at Harvard as a grad student under the renowned Abraham Maslow and went on to become a bit of a guru himself when it came to organizational psychology in large corporate systems. When he was finished with all that, instead of going into the field of comfortable retirement, Jim decided to step into the wine business in the Carmel Valley. As fate would have it, my table was located next to his at a wine tasting at a super posh event that they used to have every year up in Carmel, called the Masters of Food and Wine.

Now, people in the wine business tend to be very dedicated. Feeling as though we are always on some kind of crusade, some of us just don’t quite get enough of it, Monday through Friday. We do crazy things that make us feel like we are constantly close to the Holy Grail. Jim Clark was one of these folks. He had just poured me a taste of Pinot Noir that was from the petite little vineyard he had planted … in his backyard!!!

“It’s in your backyard?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said proudly.

I remember thinking to myself, this guy is pretty cool.

“Wow, the wine is really good.” Then I asked, “What clone is it?”

“Do you know Josh Jensen?” he replied.

A shiver ran down my spine. I remember being stunned as I asked, “Is your vineyard sick?”

“Well,” he confirmed, “it does tend to shut down a bit early.”

I would say the thought of Josh’s wood probably crossed my mind at least a hundred times over the years between my conversation with Doug Meador and that fortuitous moment with Jim Clark. I mean, it’s not like I thought about it every day, but still, when something is really intriguing like that, you don’t ever completely let it go.

“Would you mind if I come up some time and take some cuttings?” I asked.

Like Josh Jensen and Doug Meador, along with being a bit quirky, most people in the wine business are usually pretty nice.

“Sure,” said Jim, “whatever you want.”

While I wouldn’t be able to take cuttings until the next winter when the vines were dormant, I first had to visit the vineyard in the fall when the visual signs of virus would be apparent. When I got there in late October the tiny vineyard looked as though someone had painted it a dark, rusty red. It was actually quite beautiful. But what I was hoping to find would not be red; it would be green. My theory was that some vines, depending on their genetic makeup, might tolerate the virus better. Or, who knows, perhaps I would find a vine that simply worked its way past the virus. I don’t know; it just seemed to me that the best thing to do would be to find a vine whose relative’s are rooted into a neighborhood like La Tâche, but at the same time didn’t look like it had one foot in its own grave. 

Sure enough, I found some vines that were at least greener than 99% of the rest of the vines, and there were 2 vines that showed almost no symptoms of virus. I tagged 15 vines total and then secured the next appointment for my return that winter when I would be able to find the tags on those defoliated vines and take dormant wood from them. As it turns out, it was my mom and dad who ventured up to Carmel for a getaway weekend. Before returning home they stopped for a visit with Jim Clark, and my dad clipped 15 sticks for me; one from each potentially momentous vine.

So what did I do with them? Well, knowing that they could very well be full of disease, I did not plant them in my vineyard. Instead, I did what some of the more crazy people do in this business; I planted them in my backyard. I actually got in a bit of trouble because to make them all fit into this one little area, a couple of them ended up in the kid’s sand box. My wife was like, “What were you thinking?”

While a few of the cuttings died, eleven of them grew into vines that I observed for five years. In years three and four I started to see visual signs of virus in some of them. By the end of year four I had removed all but six of them. Year five rolled around and we sold the house. Three of the remaining vines looked promising. It was winter that year when we moved, and literally the last thing I did before tossing the keys to the new owner was to take cuttings from those three vines.

I took those cuttings and planted them down at the bottom of small isolated canyon where my vineyard nestles up against Highway 246. It was kind of a low spot and my thinking was that any soil-borne viruses would drain out of the property at that point and not infect the rest of the vineyard. The cuttings took off and started growing nicely because the soil is pretty fertile down there. The only problem was that being in such a low spot on the ranch, cold air drained into it every spring causing severe frost damage. The vines would start growing and then a month later they’d look terrible for pretty much the rest of the season, and I couldn’t tell if their measly appearance was due to frost or virus. I contemplated putting in frost control, but for three vines? Huuuh! So I ended up taking cuttings once again, this time quarantining them in a tiny little out-of-the-frost-zone vineyard that I call “The Laboratory.” My vineyard manager, who must watch a lot of TV, calls it “X Block.” Finally, a good decade after obtaining the wood from Jim Clark, I started to see my first results.

And so it is, from three of the vines in Jim’s back yard, I now potentially have three clones of Pinot Noir. As to whether or not Jim’s three vines came from different vines in Burgundy remains a mystery. If so, then I should have three different clones. If all three are descendants from the same vine, then what I have now are three selections of the same clone that may or may not have different levels of virus. At the time of writing these notes, all three of them appear to be either virus free or at least compatible with what ever may be in their systems. The one that seems to be the most vigorous throughout the growing season, I have named after the Greek letter Psi. Yes, being the strongest of the three, this is a play on the word Cyclone. For lack of other creative ideas, the next strongest potential clone has taken on the name Mama #2. This is a play on the fact that any grapevine clone stems from an original mother vine. That one vine becomes the genetic footprint for the expansion of all the material that comes from it, i.e. the new clone. While Mama #2 was not as healthy in the beginning as Psi, in a world where you only have three of these things, you plant all three, then see what gives.

And then there’s the scrawny one; Long Shot. To be fair to Long Shot, it’s located in a single row on the outer edge of The Laboratory before the ground drops down into a dry creek bed. It is thereby exposed to harder, untilled soil as well as an abundance of gophers and squirrels that have been nibbling on it ever since it was unfairly planted there. While it could very well be that someday I’ll wish I’d named it Psi, when all three of these things started growing, I didn’t think that one of them was going to make it, and so it was dubbed Long Shot.

At this point I have expanded Psi and Mama #2 into a tiny half acre test block. In 2010 I made my first amazing wine from them. From a commercial standpoint, until I am totally comfortable with the virus status of these vines, the test block is going to remain confined and small. Since I have wanted to share this story and develop the Psi Clone trademark for sometime, I have decided to make a cuvee of Pinot Noir each year that will incorporate my few precious gallons of Psi and Mama with two other hearty clones that currently make some of my vineyard’s most powerful wines, namely Dijon 777 and 114. For additional sizzle, I have also decided to farm all the grapes for this wine organically. As time goes on, I am hoping to bottle pure representations of Psi, Mama #2 and Long Shot. Until then, keep in mind that my pursuit of the Holy Grail is not a 100 meter dash. From 500 square foot backyards to 500 acre vineyards and beyond, it is a saga, the results of which we will be able to taste over the years as it unfolds.

I was told by Doug Meador in a recent conversation that Jim Clark passed away some time ago. Doug was kind enough to help me cobble together these notes, and in the process he led me to two other holy grailers who knew Jim Clark quite well, Mike Benziger (Benziger Family Winery) and viticultural consultant Barney Barnett. What I distilled from my conversations with all these guys is that in my efforts to procure sacred wood, what I really came in contact with was a great man. When I told Mike and Barney that I am growing vines, with wood that came from Jim’s back yard, it was like, “Wow, how cool is that!”

While Jim Clark started in the human laboratory, what we have to thank him for now was his work in the laboratory of Pinot Noir, and for being a living expression of the mojo that makes this laboratory the coolest of them all.