You heard the one about the suitcase clones, no? It goes like this: In the black of night a guy sneaks into a famous Burgundy vineyard - let's say La Tâche, but it could just as easily be Le Musigny or Clos de Bèze. He takes some cuttings of pinot noir vines, wraps them in wet cloth and smuggles them back to California. He propagates the vines and, voilà! He's got grand cru pinot noir.
Dubious? It supposedly happens all the time - the smuggling part, at least - if we are to believe the marketing for dozens of American wineries. Their promotional materials tell the story of the suitcase clones, or the brand-name version, Samsonite clones. In some variations, it was a friend of a friend who obtained the clones. Either way, vineyards all over the West Coast associate themselves in their marketing with Burgundy's greatest.
Such stories may excite gullible consumers who are looking for something, anything, to distinguish one of the myriad pinot noirs from another.
But the truth is that the origin of a vine, whether from a clone boldly swiped from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or meekly purchased from the local nursery, is at best meaningless. The grand cru association is a little like picking up a guitar like one Jimi Hendrix used and expecting "Purple Haze" to burst out. Fat chance.
And by the way, it is illegal to import agricultural material without proper quarantining.
Yet the continued fascination with suitcase clones, and with the arcane issue of grape clones in general, hints at the desperation of consumers to gain some sense of control over where their wine dollars are going. The more we know about the clonal selections, soil composition, rootstocks, trellising techniques, pruning methods and degree days, the better we can guess what's going to be in the bottle, right?
To an extent, yes, but even well-informed wine drinkers have a difficult time making sense of many of the technical details of winemaking, especially when it comes to clones. So let's take a closer look at clones and the actual role they play in what's in your glass, regardless of their origin.
Vines grow grapes because they want to reproduce the old-fashioned way, by enticing birds or other critters to eat the sweet fruit, a natural means of transporting the seeds to a new location for planting. Such methods prove inefficient to meet human needs.
The scourge of phylloxera, for one thing, makes it impossible for most vinifera grapevines to grow on their own roots. This makes growing from seeds cumbersome, so instead growers propagate vines from cuttings of parent plants.
The time-honored technique was a mass selection, in which growers would take cuttings from many different vines. The result was a diverse vineyard that produced grapes of many varied characteristics, particularly if that grape was pinot noir, which is somewhat genetically unstable and mutates far more easily and frequently than, say, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. This is why most suitcase clone tales are about Burgundy and pinot noir.
Many growers in Burgundy still believe a mass selection is the best way to plant a vineyard. Since many if not all of the great Burgundy vineyards are mass selections, the folly of filching a few dozen or even a few hundred cuttings is clear: it can't approach the diversity in the original site.
Meticulous growers used only particular vines for their cuttings. Perhaps these vines were the healthiest or produced the most flavorful grapes. Short-sighted growers might have singled out the most vigorous vines. Either way, by narrowing the clonal selection they were emphasizing their preferred characteristics.
By the late 20th century, scientists had grown expert at isolating clones that produced particular aromas and flavors, that were early ripening or slow to mature or were resistant to disease or produced wine dark in color.
In Dijon, France, a series of pinot noir clones became available with such designations as 113, 114 and 115, which were not only free of grape viruses but also emphasized the aromas and flavors of red fruits like cherry and raspberry, and 667, 777 and 828, which were reminiscent of darker fruits.
Regardless of the attention paid to suitcase clones, these Dijon clones have become the dominant selection among California pinot noir growers, particularly recently, when the number of acres of pinot noir planted in California has almost doubled, to 29,191, (about 11,800 hectares) in 2007 from 15,514 in 1999.
An over-reliance on these clones has troubled some wine writers, like Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator and Allen Meadows of Burghound.com, who have singled them out as one reason that so many California pinot noirs taste the same and lack complexity. Both writers, in fact, used the same word: boring.
It stands to reason. In a vineyard with a wide array of pinot noir clones, some will ripen faster, some slower. Some will taste like red fruits, others like black fruits, and some, maybe, will have fresh herbal touches. Blended together, they would most likely produce a wine of more complexity than a wine made from a small number of clones.
Meadows, in his latest issue, argues that the Dijon clones in particular taste pretty much the same regardless of where they are grown, which further contributes to uniformity.
Both writers have urged growers to aim for a greater mix of clones, not just the numbered Dijons but also older clones that go by names like Swan, Pommard, Mount Eden and Calera. There are quite a few others, some of which, in fact, originally came to California as suitcase clones.
One of the best-known suitcase couriers is Gary Pisoni, who owns vineyards and a winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The story of his 1982 vineyard rifling has been told so often and in so many different ways that it's difficult to separate fact from myth. These days Pisoni prefers to play down the whole episode, insisting wisely that clones are just a small component of the larger picture, which includes rootstock, soils, trellising and all the rest.
"Don't forget, Burgundy's had hundreds and hundreds of years to find out which clones grow best in which area," he told me by phone. "We're just getting started here in America."