Who’s Your Daddy?
Out here in the vineyard, winter is our slow season. On days that are not filled with rain, we prune last year’s growth. The downtime due to the rain gives us time for winery projects and even the occasional ski jaunt; this year I enjoyed a powder-filled, back-country day on Grey Butte, beneath Mt. Shasta. Winter is also the time of year to collect budwood. Budwood is the dormant cane, cut into manageable lengths, containing a half-dozen dormant buds situated along the cane where leaves once grew. We use the budwood to replace twenty to thirty forlorn vines that perish over the past year for one reason or another. This winter I had the pleasure, and task, of collecting budwood for grafting onto the four new acres of rootstock we planted in the spring of 2008.
These are the last plantable acres on our estate property. Alas, a few apple trees from our site’s days as an orchard were sacrificed, but a good sized erosion feature dating from the same era was finally mended. As this was the final opportunity to work with clones we did not already have or to expand with existing clones that we felt were particularly superior, determining what to plant required some deliberation. We settled on two clones of Chardonnay, two of Pinot noir and one of the two clones of Viognier that we already farm. Though I’ve already written a little on the history of the Chardonnay vine in California, my winter budwood collecting and accompanying research have filled me in on some more of the arcane lore of Chardonnay in the vineyards of California. Warning: this may be more detail than any but an oft-isolated grape grower finds fascinating.
Block sixteen was grafted to a second Old Wente selection (in the spring 2006 newsletter I wrote a little about the Old Wente selection we planted in 1998). This one originated from Lee Hudson’s vineyard in Carneros. Lee says he received the budwood from Alexander Valley Vineyards, who must have sourced it from the McRae’s or the Martini Old Wente mother block. What I personally know about this selection is that when I worked harvest at Newton in 1993, it was the best Chardonnay in the cellar; the competition was stiff, since an Old Wente selection from Larry Hyde’s vineyard was also in the cellar. Lee warned me that his selection had a little leaf roll virus, but I am still excited to add another Old Wente selection of memorably top quality even if the clusters and yields are small.
Block seventeen was grafted to Chardonnay FPS 66. To counter-balance the madness of planting a known diseased clone – diseased clones often delay ripening, and in Chardonnay produce tiny clusters – I planted certified clean material, hence the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) number. But here’s what’s neat: In the early nineties, FPS introduced a new protocol for cleaning up virused submissions. You’ll recall how in my earlier newsletter article I explained steam treatment of virused wood and its potential shortcomings. The new technique, shoot tip meristem culturing, is free of any shortcomings including unintended genetic mutations caused by the steam heat environment. Here’s how it works: in a grapevine, the shoot tip grows faster than the virus that inhabits its vascular tissue. If you slice off a few hundred cells of the shoot tip and “plant” them in a petri dish, voila, you end up with a clean plant free of disease without any risk of genetic mutation!
And what was FPS 66 before it was cleaned up? Here is what the National Grape Registry (maintained by FPS, UCANR, USDA) says: “This selection is a Mt. Eden clone. FPS 66 was collected by FPS Director Deborah Golino from a Chardonnay block that had been planted by Simi Vineyards on Piner Road in the Russian River Valley around 1990. The source of the Mt. Eden clone plant material was grower Larry Hyde’s vineyard in Carneros. Dr. Golino, viticulturalist Diane Kenworthy and Simi winemaker Zelma Long selected four vines from the Mt. Eden clone block at Simi. One of those four vines evolved into Chardonnay FPS 66, which first appeared on the California Grapevine Registration & Certification Program list in 1999.”
I was very interested in pursuing a Mt. Eden selection of Chardonnay not due to any direct experience but because of the high esteem in which it is held by winemakers that I respect. It is California’s other heritage selection line and has nothing to do with the Old Wente selections. Mt. Eden was brought in to this country from Burgundy by Paul Masson and planted at his La Cresta vineyard in 1896. Winemakers have lauded the Mt. Eden selection as an excellent blending component, known for both its minerality and power. When I went to investigate clone 66, though, the published story fell apart.
Zelma Long says she selected the material from Larry Hyde’s place, with Diane Kenworthy, based on her enthusiasm for what Larry was selling Simi at the time. She remembers very virused vines, but thought the wine was superb. This selected material was propagated by Zelma and became the Piner Road Vineyard that Simi still farms today, yielding around 3.5 tons per acre. It was never replanted with the cleaned up version of itself. Zelma submitted the budwood to FPS in 1994 and does not remember if it was called Mt. Eden or something else. Larry Hyde says he never had a Mt. Eden clone, though he does have some very virused stuff (including one with a pretty acute virus called corky bark) on St. George that came from the central coast. Heavy infection, including corky bark, is consistent with Mt. Eden grown elsewhere. Diane Kenworthy seems to remember that internally at Simi, they began referring to their Hyde selection as Mt. Eden because they knew something about where Larry’s source obtained the material. A viticultural consultant that knows Larry’s vineyard was very excited about this virused material, informing me that Larry had recently sent this material to FPS to be cleaned up, and it would be released soon.
So I decided to call the owners of the famed old vineyards from the central coast to see what I could uncover about the source of Larry’s very virused wood. Jeffery Patterson of Mt. Eden says that he never gave any budwood to Larry Hyde. Josh Jensen from Calera planted his Chardonnay in the seventies, before Jeffery bought Mt. Eden. Josh says he planted Old Wente obtained from a nursery, available because a customer canceled their order, and has never brought any Mt. Eden onto the property. Hmm. So either FPS is incorrect in that 66 is not Mt. Eden but an Old Wente selection (and the material has recently been submitted to be cleaned up, now for a second time), or Diane’s source is wrong and the Piner Road material originated from somewhere else.
When I went to pick up the material from FPS, Deborah Golino mentioned that Zelma wasn’t present the day that she and Diane selected the budwood and that the Piner Road vineyard had a collection of heritage material from which they selected what was thought to be Mt. Eden, with the source unknown or undisclosed.
Well, what to make of that?! So despite my best intentions to play it safe with our second planting of Chardonnay, we have an experiment, yet again. I am optimistic; in fact, I am quite excited. But if the wine turns out to be ordinary, at least we can graft over to a different selection and won’t have to rip out the vines. If we can’t be sure of the vine’s origins, at least the “certified” status guarantees that the vines are virus-free. It reminds me of the hour I spent looking for one of my skis in a powder field this past winter. Sweaty and exhausted, I finally felt a solid smack under my pole. And I was off.