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Randall Grahm Dreams of California

The Bonny Doon philosopher’s new grape-breeding project is buzzy but holds intriguing possibilities for the future of wine
Randall Grahm's life in wine has taken many turns, but he hopes the Popelouchum grape-breeding project will be his legacy.

Posted: Aug 13, 2015 12:40pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

In a crowd and in press materials, Randall Grahm of Santa Cruz's Bonny Doon Vineyard is prone to making pullquote-tailored pronouncements. For what he's billing as a final act, the Rhône Ranger-turned-Big House businessman-turned-vineyard hound has been especially bold. "Popelouchum—The Project" is, according to a press release, "possibly the most original viticultural project ever attempted in the New World."

Popelouchum (Poh-puh-loo-shoom) is a "New World grand cru" experimental vineyard in which Grahm hopes to breed 10,000 new grape varieties. Grahm is hyping it on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, with donors winning lavish dinners at places like Blue Hill and Chez Panisse and with people like Mario Batali. Yet "no one in their right mind would fund this!" Grahm trumpeted at Popelouchum's Manhattan launch party.

Was Grahm just being theatrical, with only a handful of vines even planted? Speaking with the man one-on-one, the sound bites mostly fall away, and a picture emerges of an ambitious undertaking a dozen years in conception and as many more until completion.

All his rule-breaking over the decades, Grahm felt, "wasn't adding up to a particular thing." So after years of bottling dozens of cuvées, he decided to transition into "a committed relationship" with a special site. After surveying many tracts, Grahm bought a 400-acre spot near San Juan Bautista, Calif., in 2009. He then brought in soil scientists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon to help him carve out four distinctive parcels, totaling about 20 acres, for the laboratory vineyard.

"Truth be told, I would have preferred a slightly cooler and rainier spot," said Grahm, who had originally hoped to develop a California Pinot Noir grand cru. But Popelouchum's regional climate (Napa or Carneros are fair analogues, he said) would put him face to face with the Ghost of California Future: "How were we going to grow grapes in a truly sustainable fashion and produce elegant wines in light of climate change?" Grahm decided he'd need to make new grapes altogether.

Right now, he's selecting seedlings (rootstocks go in the ground this coming winter) for what he expects to be about 35 parent varieties to begin crossing. His search has taken him pretty far afield. An early favorite is Rossese—a.k.a. Tibouren—the aromatic, high-acid variety of Provence and Italy's Liguria. Fer Servadou of southwest France also intrigues, as does Ciliegiolo in Italy's Maremma. More conventionally, Grahm likes Nebbiolo, Grenache, Cinsault and Picolit. He asked, "What would a Jura grape look like crossed with an Italian one?"

The various parents, Grahm hopes, can contribute color, texture, structure, aroma, drought tolerance and disease resistance—or some combination—to the 10,000 kid grapes of Popelouchum. He'll dry farm the vineyard and follow biodynamics. In 10 years, the estate wine will be a blend—of grapes that don't exist yet.

From this mishmash, future winegrowers would have access to 10,000 new varieties to play with in California's changing climate conditions. After that, Popelouchum's caretaker would ideally zoom in on a few specimens that took exceptionally well to the site. Grahm doesn't know that he'll be around for those vintages. Popelouchum will likely require non-profit status to fund its way to the finish line.

The next launch party is scheduled for 2025.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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