I‘m a sucker for fall foliage, but San Francisco, where I live, doesn’t get much of a show. So, taking Amtrak from Seattle down to Portland the other day, I was transfixed by the swaths of red, gold, yellow, and orange streaking by the window. As we sped down the line, I wondered why the leaves of one maple turn red while the oak right next to it is a lovely bronze. Nature’s love of diversity, I guess. And thank goodness, because if all the trees turned the same color at the same time those hillsides would be rather boring to look at—uniform blocks of nice fall colors, not that gorgeous pastiche.
Modern American vineyards are not like those northwestern forests. They are filled not with millions of trees that are slightly different from one another, but rather millions of plants that are exactly the same. And this sameness is the subject of an intense biodiversity debate. Recently, Allen Meadows, who writes a newsletter called Burghound, published an open letter to American Pinot Noir producers, saying that he thought that, in general, their wines had become boring. Eric Asimov of the New York Times also discussed the topic in a recent column.
As Pinot Noir’s popularity has exploded, California and Oregon vintners have rushed to get it in the ground. They purchase their baby vines from nurseries that offer a small selection of various USDA-approved clones. Some clones are known for early ripening, some for disease resistance, some for their cherry flavors. Then to ensure even ripening and for vineyard efficiency the winemakers plant these thousands of clones in blocks of the same soil, same orientation toward the sun (aspect), etc.
This practice can be contrasted with the way that Burgundian vineyards are typically replanted, which is by taking lots of clippings from an existing, mature vineyard and planting its great diversity of vines in a new place, thus replicating its quirks and variety. In California vineyards, all the identical clones in the same environment ripen at the same time, have the same flavor characteristics, and make a wine that tastes, well, boringly monodimensional. Conversely, in Burgundy, come harvest, some grapes will be more tart, some more ripe, some will be cherry flavored, some raspberry. To the contemporary American vintner all these irregularities are a headache, but to the French, vive la différence.
Some American vintners are starting to get it, and are making some of the loveliest, most complex Pinots in the country. Kevin Harvey of Rhys planted some of his vineyards with “suitcase clones”—varieties of plants of unknown or secret origin that were brought into the country without necessarily going through the USDA testing system. Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards isolated a clone he liked during his time as winemaker at Etude, which has a famous vineyard of heirloom clones that the winery’s collected over the years (and a wine called Heirloom made exclusively from that field). And Scott Wright of Scott Paul Wines has planted his new vineyard with four different clones mixed randomly in the vineyards. “People told me, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to do it that way,’” Wright explains, “but I said that uniformity is exactly what we didn’t want.”
Pinot Noir is famously unstable genetically, which means that over time vines mutate in the vineyard. It thus creates its own diversity, promising that in time American Pinot vineyards will be as genetically varied as Burgundy’s and will make wines as beautifully complex as a perfect autumn forest. But who wants to wait that long for wine that isn’t boring?