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Randall Grahm: radical new project

Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm is about to embark on a radical project to make wine from a vineyard grown from grape seeds of uncertain parentage.

The aim of the long-term project, which Grahm will announce on 7 August, is ‘to produce a distinctive and original wine that’s pleasant and interesting,’ or, as he has also described it, ‘a true vin de terroir.’

He will eschew the normal practice of planting clonal selections of vines reproduced by grafting.

Grapes are difficult to grow from seeds because the hard outer layer of grape seeds discourages successful germination.

By contrast, reproducing vines by grafting is essentially cloning. The process yields a new vine and rootstock with the fruiting end having the identical DNA of its parent vine.

Grafting is quick, predictable, and the most economical way to start and maintain a vineyard.

When vines are propagated by grafting a cutting from an old vine to an existing rootstock, the result is an exact genetic copy of the parent vine.

Now Grahm (pictured) is looking to create a vineyard of ‘extreme genetic diversity’ by planting an 8ha ‘mother block’ vineyard at his San Juan Bautista Central Coast estate to Grenache and other varieties yet to be determined.

This initial vineyard will be actively cross-pollinated, either by hand, or by growing the vines in close proximity, perhaps with cane overlapping cane, so that the vines are more likely to pollinate each other.

He will then plant seeds from grapes spawned in the mother block vineyard into a new, larger vineyard. These will be grown into new own-rooted vines and dry-farmed.

The resulting next-generation vineyard will be a unique, super-hybridized vineyard that will produce a single, dry-farmed red wine.

‘Traditionally, (in cross-breeding vines) you would create a lot of variations and then select for the physiological qualities that you’re looking for. I’m not looking for an individual characteristic. I’m looking for qualities that warrant inclusion or exclusion,’ Grahm said.

Grahm told Decanter in an interview in August’s Decanter magazine that the project will take generations. ‘It stands or falls on my ability, and it may fall on my daughter or grandchild, to identify the relevant criteria for exclusion or inclusion. I’m setting up an interesting set of conditions for something to happen and then it devolves to me or someone else to figure out what is happening.’

The winemaker is the first to admit that he has no idea how this experiment will turn out.

‘When you create a vineyard with a population of extreme genetic diversity, something interesting will happen. But no one really knows if the premise is sound.’

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Written by Tim Teichgraeber in San Francisco

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