Popelouchum Revisited

Elaine Chukan Brown visits Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon’s cradle of dreams, his new vineyard well off the beaten track in San Juan Bautista. 

The last time I visited Randall Grahm’s new Popelouchum vineyard more than three years ago there was little planted. There was a small nursery full of young Grenache vines planted close together and waiting to be replanted in another location. There was a wide swathe of experimental rootstock just getting started that was developed with UC Davis plant geneticist and rootstock specialist Andy Walker. And there was a clandestine block of head-trained Pinot Noir planted on an unbelievably steep slope tucked into the folds of the mountain and surrounded by forest.

In June this year, I drove several hours to San Juan Bautista, south of and inland from Bonny Doon’s base in Santa Cruz, to meet Grahm and see how his Popelouchum site has progressed over the last few years. I also had a chance to taste the first wines made from this site, all in tiny quantities. Even the one and only commercially bottled wine constituted a mere 27 cases.

Popelouchum itself is 415 acres (168 ha) total with around 80 plantable acres. The site was divided from a larger parcel once owned by a religious group as a private retreat. It’s geologically complex as it sits directly beside the San Andreas fault, with the ridge of a mountain rising from the centre of the property, and a smaller geological fault line just a mile or two away from the backside of the mountain. As a result, the site includes a mix of soils derived from volcanics, granite, limestone, and aliphatic clay, which helps brings some water-holding capacity, increasing the potential for dry farming. Importantly for Grahm, the site had also never been planted before he bought it. Few other vineyards can be …

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