Crowd Funds 10,000 Cultivars

Randall Grahm's Popelouchum Vineyard project draws $167K in first month

by Jane Firstenfeld
Popelouchum vineyard crowd funding
Winemaker Randall Grahm’s Popelouchum Vineyard project was fully funded at $167,000 on Aug. 28. The image above was captured from a video on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo.
Santa Cruz, Calif.—It was a cliffhanger, but winemaker Randall Grahm surpassed his aim to crowd-fund a dream vineyard in San Juan Bautista, Calif., where he imagines breeding 10,000 new wine grape varieties within a decade.

“We’re finished; we have met our goal and are at about $167,000. Miraculously—unprecedented or not—we knocked it out in the last 48 hours,” Grahm told Wines & Vines on Saturday. (The total had grown to $168,000 by Monday.) “We set it up as a team and spent a lot of time on it. Now the party’s over, and we have a hangover,” he said.

Only days before, the one-month offering for his Popelouchum Vineyard was stalled at around half the $150,000 target, but as time ran out, a total of 1,148 “founders” had invested amounts starting at $35. The website now states, “Original campaign was 108% funded on Aug. 28, 2015.”

Grahm, proprietor of 35,000-case Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, Calif., and its flagship Rhône blend, Le Cigare Volant, explained the enterprise in great detail on the Indiegogo fundraising site.

“We aim to create a truly unique, superior and nuanced wine, a ‘Grahm Cru,’ an expression of the unique terroirs of our Popelouchum Estate in San Juan Bautista (Calif.). We plan to do this by adopting a very unusual methodology—the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties, each genetically distinctive from one another—and blending them into a unique cuvée that the world has not tasted heretofore. In so doing, we might also discover individual vines that are more congruent to our site as well as those that might have greater global utility—disease or drought tolerance—in a changing climate. We plan to employ Biodynamic practice and use other techniques—some new-fangled (the use of biochar), some old-fangled (dry-farming), to grow grapes in a more deeply and truly sustainable fashion,” the offering states.

Biochar is hardly a new methodology: It is the use of charcoal produced from plant matter (think wildfires) stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Rarely employed in viticulture, biochar is available commercially. Grahm suggested possibly accentuating soil chars. “It might be a good strategy to allow soil char to emerge,” he said. “There’s tons of biochar around.”

The fundraising page continued: “The most significant aspect of this project is to breed 10,000 new grape varieties that have not existed heretofore. The intention of the breeding program is to incorporate the features of disease and drought resistance into the vine offspring, making them more sustainable, in light of global climate change, and ongoing impact on the planet. It is our intention to provide these varieties as a sort of ‘open code’ to any viticulturist throughout the world who may be interested in them. Greater diversity will make the world a more interesting place.”

The alternative world of Randall Grahm
With grape breeding efforts currently pursued by universities around the world, what makes this one different? Does it make any sense from a scientific point of view?

“That’s slightly difficult to answer,” Grahm replied. “There are basically two propositions, two bets. The first involves a vineyard planted with a diverse population of grapes—but organized—all descendants of common parents. The hypothesis is that a highly diverse, large population will yield a wine of unusual distinction and complexity. It’s not based on superior grapes.”

The second bet, he suggested, is: “By creating a very large population, in the fullness of time, maybe one to five distinctive varieties may emerge that have organoleptic properties congruent to site and have applications elsewhere.”

Grahm is a familiar and outspoken character on the world wine stage, known as a proponent of terroir characteristics. Since a blend of 10,000 varieties is not likely to display any distinct varietal character, will the cuvée be an accurate indicator of its terroir?

“That’s yet another hypothesis,” Grahm said. “One potential interesting strategy would be the intentional suppression of varietals to express terroir, which Biodynamic practices tend to express. If it were possible to harvest the same 10,000 varieties grown elsewhere and perform the same blend, would the cuvée taste noticeably different?”

That question is impossible to answer now and, Grahm acknowledges, it may not be resolved within his lifetime. “I don’t know if I’ll be around long enough to identify the needle in the haystack. At the moment I’m still occupied looking after Bonny Doon and harvest. I’m hoping within next year, I will transition to taking more care of this,” he said.

If and when it comes to fruition, the blend would demand an extremely long back label. Ever creative, Grahm suggested he’d consider an “accordion label” that would pull out and provide all the juicy details.

Practical or philosophical?
Is Grahm’s merely a quixotic quest, or will it add practical knowledge to the viticulture/wine industry? We asked academic experts to weigh in, starting with Andy Walker from the University of California, Davis, who’s been serving as a volunteer consultant to Grahm and the Popelouchum project.

On the Indiegogo site, Grahm summarized Walker’s well-known work, specifically in breeding disease-resistant vines, now as much as 97% vinifera, with resistance to powdery mildew and Pierce’s disease. “He now has resistant vines. It is now our job to figure out how to impart really positive, interesting flavors to them,” Grahm said.

How attainable is Popelouchum? “It’s hard to say,” Walker told Wines & Vines. “It’s definitely long-term. His goal is to increase diversity, primarily working with Grenache.

“No one has really worked this way. He’s thinking more of super-clones with distinctive character; definable differences, but not looking for a new variety,” Walker said. “He’s looking for nuance and behavior.” Walker said he’s been acting as a sounding board for the general concept, sharing his expertise on how to collect, harvest and sprout the infant vines.

“It’s more a philosophical take,” Walker said. “Developing a new variety will take a minimum of 10 years. “Maybe 25 is more realistic.”

Although he does not perform grape breeding, Dr. Paolo Sabbatini of Michigan State University is familiar with Grahm’s project and commented on “the enormous variability in that type of genetic material and the difficulty of tracking and reproducing the best genetic material for the project.

“Timing is also an issue. It could take decades before you have even decent results. If higher performing seedlings can be found in a reasonable time, grapevines still need to be grafted (Phylloxera problem) and the grafting could impact the performance of that new seedling modifying growth habit and fruit quality,” Sabbatini added.

Bruce Reisch, research leader at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station’s Cornell-Geneva Grapevine Breeding and Genetics Program, has been instrumental in bringing to market some of the best-known new cold climate hybrid grapes, including Traminette.

He redefined the Popelouchum project: “We’d call them 10,000 new seedlings. Minor changes, minor mutations. Seedlings are new crosses between existing varieties, and they are grown from seed,” as Grahm plans to do in his yet-to-be constructed greenhouse.

“We figure the success rate in our breeding would be 0.01%. I’m definitely looking at fewer than one in 1,000. From many crosses we make, we don’t save a single seedling. For some we save 10 or 15,” Reisch said.

“I’m all in favor of the principles,” he said. “There’s a need for breeding. There are many old varieties. It’s about matching with the site.”

Grahm noted that relatively few of his investors are wine industry professionals, but said hopefully, “I think people can still put money in if they choose. I don’t know exactly how it works.” Most current investors are fans of his wines such as members of the Bonny Doon wine club. Growers and winemakers, he noted, remain rooted in tradition and are often resistant to change.

Posted on 09.01.2015 - 10:49:50 PST
Thanks for interviewing the academic breeders. They would love to be able to raise $167K for their programs in a couple of months!
New York Viticulture