It Takes One Grape to Reimagine California Wine
By Eric Asimov
WITH temperatures here regularly hitting triple digits in the summer, the Clear Lake area, about an hour by car northeast of Healdsburg, Calif., seems awfully hot to grow grapes. The Mayacamas Range blocks the cool ocean breezes from the west; Mount Konocti, an extinct volcano, looms to the east; and at night you can see steam rising from the geothermal fields surrounding Clear Lake, the second-largest geothermal area in the United States after Yellowstone.
Yet Bernie Luchsinger, who has been growing grapes here since he arrived from Chile in 1968, does quite well. He and his daughter, Pilar Luchsinger White, manage Luchsinger Vineyards, which grows sauvignon blanc for the big wine companies, along with other grapes, including a bit of trousseau. Surprisingly, it’s the trousseau, an obscure red grape from the Jura region of France, that has won the Luchsingers a small measure of attention and captivated a tiny but influential segment of the California wine trade.
The story of Luchsinger Vineyard’s trousseau is a departure from the usual California narrative of success with the great grapes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Few people outside the Jura had ever heard of trousseau 15 years ago; even today, nobody in his right mind sees trousseau as a great commercial opportunity for the industry.
Yet the flicker of interest in California trousseau is a sign that the state’s wine industry may evolve in unexpected directions, and that its past was more complex than is often thought.
The first indication that the Luchsinger Vineyard might be noteworthy came when Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, the proprietors of Arnot-Roberts, decided they needed to make a trousseau wine. They already produced superb wines of balance and restraint, and, like many in the wine vanguard, they had developed a taste for the wines of the Jura in the last decade. The problem was, they couldn’t find any trousseau in California.
“We had called vineyards and nurseries all over the state,” Mr. Meyers said. “Finally, we just typed ‘trousseau’ into Google and worked backwards.”
The trail led them to the Luchsingers, who, though they grow the grape, had never tasted a trousseau wine. In 2001, Mr. Luchsinger had a brainstorm: imagining that California producers might want to try their hand at fortified wines, he would plant six acres with five of the grapes used to make port. Why not? The Douro Valley of Portugal, where port grapes are grown, is awfully hot, too.
Among the grapes he chose was bastardo, a lesser port grape that historically was used in Madeira, too, and that happened to be identical to the trousseau grape of the Jura. As Mr. Meyers and Mr. Roberts learned, the two acres he planted seemed to be the only vineyard block in California devoted to the grape.
Alas, the Luchsingers found that no producers were interested in making a port facsimile. While they managed to sell a few grapes here and there, the first real interest came when the Arnot-Roberts team arrived for the trousseau in 2009.
The first vintage of Arnot-Roberts trousseau, though a minute quantity, made an immediate impression among like-minded wine producers who sought alternatives to the recent California paradigm of substantial, powerfully fruity wines. Like the best Jura trousseaus, the Arnot-Roberts trousseau is a paradox. It’s pale (almost as pale as a dark rosé) and light-bodied, yet it’s intense, with a firm tannic grip. It’s also energetic, floral-scented and uplifting, with a lovely, refreshing bitterness.
“I’m really surprised that the wine we make from here is as good as it is,” Mr. Meyers said last month, standing in the vineyard with the heat almost shimmering.
Arnot-Roberts’s trousseau so stimulated the imagination of their colleagues that other producers wanted to make their own. Using a cutting from Luchsinger Vineyard, Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines grafted over three and a half acres of his Russian River Valley vineyard to trousseau, and plans to add three more acres, and perhaps some more in another vineyard in Anderson Valley.
Copain’s 2011 Russian River trousseau is a gorgeous wine, a little softer and darker than the Arnot-Roberts, but earthy, with underlying mineral flavors. Mr. Guthrie took some to a recent food-and-wine event in Nashville and said it was a big hit.
“People want something off the beaten path,” he said. “We’re not going to take over the world with trousseau.”
Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley Cellars and a leading scholar of old California vineyards, used Luchsinger cuttings last year to graft over one acre of merlot on gravel soil in the Bohan Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast.
“I’ve had probably 40 people call me and ask me if I’ll sell them grapes,” he said. “As soon as the word got out, people started calling.”
Rod Smith, a longtime California wine writer, and his wife, Catherine Bartolomei, a proprietor of the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in the Russian River Valley, have planted a small block of trousseau in their Lost & Found Vineyard. Up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Jason Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards has also planted trousseau. It may be a couple of years before either of these vineyards produce a commercial crop.
Even so, if you were to put together all the trousseau on the West Coast, it would still amount to a dozen or so acres, producing very little wine. Nonetheless, it represents much more than a mere handful of bottles.
For centuries the Old World wine culture developed locally, as each village and valley experimented with grapes, determining what grew best in their particular regions. The United States wine industry, though, developed in a global economy, with a small handful of grapes repeated in region after region, largely for commercial reasons. It’s exciting to imagine what the wine landscape would look like if grape selections had evolved more organically.
“I’ve been steadily disappointed to see everybody working with the same grapes over and over again,” said Mr. Smith, who has observed the California wine industry for 30 years. “This kind of exploration is not only fun, it’s very substantively leading to a different future, a whole different look to the California wine industry.”
Whether trousseau turns out to be part of California’s future, it most definitely has been part of its past. Now that he has had a little experience with trousseau, Mr. Passalaqua said, he realizes that he has seen it repeatedly among the interplanted zinfandel field blends that characterize old Napa vineyards he works with for Turley.
“Hayne Vineyard has quite a bit, and now, it really sticks out to me,” he said. “The Moore Earthquake Vineyard, it had a block that was 25 percent trousseau.” He also mentioned the Library Vineyard in Napa and the Fredericks Vineyard in Sonoma Valley as having discernible trousseau vines.
Mr. Passalaqua traces the grape to the 1860s and the Jackson Research Station, one of the many agricultural research centers in the state. Now, with the grapes he is growing, he and his wife, Olivia, will make a little wine, and he will sell some of the grapes to Arnot-Roberts.
“I applaud the fact that they had the guts to do it,” he said. “Their wine was the first that I thought was world class. They opened the door for anyone else who wants to do it.”
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