Do We Really need 10,000 New Wine Grapes? – Randall Grahm’s Project – James Melendez

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2-September-2015 – San Francisco

I was surprised when I first published my article and the negative responses I received.  I don’t think it was a criticism of Randall Grahm but questioning the project.  I think fundamental questions have not been answered and I looked at the media and few pieces have looked at this project to ask critical and crucial questions.  The amount raised I doubt can facilitate 10,000 new varieties.  I harken back to my original comment of taking 8 thousand years to get to approximately 10,300 varieties.

I did get a response from Randall and it was great to see a lengthy response.  I think the harder and hardest work begins.  I don’t think that we will see 10,000 new varieties that have the merit of being worth of wine creation; also creating a more complex DNA is a big challenge.   More DNA diversity is required to combat against disease and weather pressures but the intent to create this doesn’t guarantee drinkability.

I do think the complexity of the IP component will be much more complex than Randall expects.  I think the Crowdfunding might be idealistic now but I am not sure that will always hold.  If for example this project which I do anticipate to be a very long one might not only be multi-generational but what will heirs of a named wine grape do other than perhaps “have” a name of a grape of a relative.  Do they own the right to any other benefits of this name?  If they don’t – why not and if they do what is it?

How will this project manage expectation of stakeholders.  I do think from what I have read this is a bit Quixotic and an over-reach of something that I do not see how this adds to the heritage of Vitis vinifera or other grape species.  I would like to see timetables and a more comprehensive plan and this plan should be known to each person who gave money in this crowdfunding exercise.

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I got several notices about this new project by Randall Grahm.  I had to read it again and again to understand the intent of 10,000 new wine grape cultivars.  I was wondering why 10,000 and why not 5,000 or 1,000 or even 100.

If we are looking to create grapes with a greater genetic diversity and also taste good it is indeed a very tall order.  Is it about creating a Vitis vinifera, a hybrid, other Vitis species that exist already or new species that have not yet existed?  We have approximately 10,300 cultivars according to my own taxonomy.  I read on and saw on Indigogo the video where Randall explains this project and I could not distillate why we need 10,000 more wine grape varieties.  If the reason is for greater yield’s doesn’t mean a better tasting wine.   Creating genetic diversity in Vitis vinifera may be a challenge; and maybe the best way to do that is let nature take it’s course.  Developing a new species while possible may not develop into drinkable wine or possess those that are drought or disease resistant.

It has taken at least at 8-9 millenia to get to 10,300 cultivars; some by accident, some purpose driven.  The 10,300 wine grape cultivars are not all being produced and the experiments for purpose driven wine grapes doesn’t always yield the desired result.  Marsellan a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache was meant to produce large berries and high yields per acre/hectare but instead it ended up producing small berries.  Marsellan was not considered to be a success based on it initial scope/goal and hence producing commercial wines from this grape is something done by only a few producers.

The Seibel series of hybrid wine grapes – approximately 1,544 have not yielded truly any wine grape cultivars that anyone would recognize Seibel 1000 Rosette or Seibel 10082.  Ehrenfelser a cross between Silvaner and Riesling – the hope was that it would ripen early; as it was developed for Germany or climates challenged with shorter growing periods and intended to produce a Riesling-esque wine.  I talked with growers of Ehrenfelser and I am told it takes the same time to ripen as Riesling itself and the taste….well it isn’t Riesling.  I am skeptical of creating the “next Pinot Noir, next Riesling or next Syrah” as Randall says in his video.  Vitis vinifera find its way; and the more successful ones are those that are not purpose driven.

The Indigogo site mentions about creating a Grahm Cru for purposes of creating a unique cuvée of all 10,000…”that the world has not tasted heretofore.”  True the world has not tasted anything quite like that.  But because such a blend doesn’t exist today doesn’t mean that it should.  I am not sure it would be tasting like a different wine than what we have today.

How will this project work in terms of production and the necessary site(s) to develop and create these 10,000 varieties.  And selecting parent grapes to produce offspring that are going to be viable let alone drinkable is a tall wine glass order indeed.

I remain skeptical and I would like to read a plan on how this is going to be done and within what time frame; this is a multi-generational project and the scope of funding I do not think is adequate.  Many plant biologist say there is a need for greater genetic diversity in wine grape cultivars–and yet I do not know if this project is looking at this need and if so how is that addressed?  Greater genetic diversity in Vitis vinifera might be something highly sought after however a greater diversity might make that which could be created unremarkable.  Unremarkable insofar as just because genetic diversity in Vitis might be achieved does not guarantee it would be drinkable let alone compelling?

I also don’t understand this fundraising in terms of naming a grape variety after you if you donate money to this project.  What controls are in place to insure that naming is done in a standard and transparent manner.  What if a highly desirable grape is produced is there a possibility of changing financial contributors name to one who gave more on the fly?

Also, if one grape variety is the next Pinot Noir and it is named for a financial contributor who is the IP owner; wouldn’t the financial contributor be entitled to a royalty?  According to the Indigogo site for this project you can have a cutting in 10 years–having a cutting and owning or getting royalties are a different matter altogether.  These details are not listed for this superbly complex project.  While on the onset it seems simple and straightforward the 10,000 wine grapes goal make this a very complex project that I don’t see a path, approach or roadmap that will make this project a reality.

With our current grape cultivar set only a small percentage is farmed commercially.  And I would posit that there are many relatively obscure wine grapes that have yet to be exploited for commercial use and hence I am not sure this project is taking account of the beautiful grapes we have today.  I am skeptical about developing the next Pinot Noir, Riesling or Syrah as these grapes were not purposely created.  I am happy with and appreciate our current set of Vitis vinifera grapes and I think any new outstanding wine grape varieties that might come to be are not in the thousands but a very small number set and no where approaching 10,000.

¡Salud!
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About James Melendez

I love wine and have had the privilege of working in the wine trade as a senior national wine marketing manager for a wine, food and home goods retailer in 30+ US States. I executed into making wine experiential and made 'wines of the world' programme work in a highly regulated framework for a successful business proposition. My "wine" site also incorporates those categories intimately involved with wine such as food, travel and lifestyle. This site incorporates my many dimensions of interest. I love to review and also talk about many aspects of wine. I have been privileged to visit many wine countries and find them enthralling no matter how many times I visit. I love all aspects of wine: viticulture, history, winemaking, brand development, wine regions and many more aspects. This is a living tradition that needs documentation, education, reporting and reviewing. Do I have favourite varieties and styles? I love so many varieties and often it is situational and yet there are time honoured wines that I anticipate and I am passionate about. I like all colours of wine and all styles. I have had a mad passionate affair with sparkling wines and they are always top of mind. Wine nourishes our soul and is the key to connecting with other people at our dinner table. Salute, James © 2014, 2017 James Meléndez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved – for my original Content, logo, brand name, rating, rating graphic and award and designs of James the Wine Guy. James the Wine Guy also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social medias.
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One Response to Do We Really need 10,000 New Wine Grapes? – Randall Grahm’s Project – James Melendez

  1. randallgrahm says:

    I think that James perhaps misunderstands several important points pertaining to this project. First of all, there is absolutely no need for 10,000 new grape varieties, but to find five or ten extraordinary ones you very likely need to create 10,000. I have no expectation that “purpose-driven” breeding will create anything like the grape variety of my dreams or anyone else’s dreams. Some of the most interesting grapes have been the results of unanticipated surprises and technical errors. But this does not obviate the need for some reshuffling of the genetic cards, in light of climate change and increased disease pressure, not to mention the desire for many of us to be able to farm in a more sustainable, i.e. less interventionist manner. Andy Walker has already done some great purpose-driven breeding (with Vitis arizonica) to confer substantial disease-resistance (Pierce’s, powdery mildew) into a number of vinifera varieties. Do these selections have the most interesting flavor profile possible? Most likely not, and they can certainly be improved upon. One of my personal intentions is to discover new varieties of grapes that are capable of elegance while grown in a relatively warm and dry climate. That is something that is of particular interest to me, but the fact that I will be creating a substantial amount of new germplasm (most of it not so interesting), may well be of interest and utility to others as well. The amount of money that I hope to raise in this crowd-funding initiative will be just a pittance and will not go very far to see this initiative to fruition. But it will be a good first step in reaching out to find a community of like-minded people who are interested in both sustainability and discovering what the New World might be able to accomplish out of the shadow of the Old. B/t/w: A vineyard planted to 10,000 (or any real large number) of genetically distinctive grapes is a methodology I’ve proposed not because I have any certainty that it will succeed in making a great wine, but because it is a reasonable method to suppress varietal expression, the better to more vibrantly express soil characteristics. The by-product – the germplasm of 10,000 new grape varieties – is useful whether or not the wine is brilliant or not. It may take a while to figure out how to usefully segregate/organize the diverse grapes. (Do you keep the red ones apart, the white ones apart, or mix them all together?) Again, if you have more grapes than you need, you are free to discard the ones you don’t need (or harvest them for verjus). But you don’t really know what you have until you have it.

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