Roger. Do you copy? I repeat: do you copy?
So you're out to dinner with your best, metrosexual, big wig buddy. You know the type: a Ray-Ban wearing, Armani suit doffing, mildly irritating, name-dropping, B-list celeb clinger-on. Out to impress, you present the magnum of Screaming Eagle you won/purchased at your kid's preschool auction (note: if this was an actual auction item at your child's school fundraiser please drop us a line so we can re-enroll our children elsewhere), and he sighs with ennui. Clearly bored, he taunts you to dazzle him with something more exotic. Dramatic commotion below your table, followed by a voila, and an abracadabra, and a bottle of La Tache vaporizes beside your breadplate. Then, you reveal the piece de resistance: a bottle of Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir? Gentlemen, we have a winner! Now in a possessed trance, your dining companion lapses into a droning, mind numbing dissertation about "Calera clones," Domaine Romanee-Conti cuttings, merits of Dijon 115 versus 667, UCD 1A, and the origin of UCD 4. What have you done? Wade though the murky grape must and thick pomace of pinot production deeply enough and you're bound to get stuck in the thorny notion of clones. Now, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, "I am about to get scientific on your ass." Simply put, a clone is a vine or group of vines that were propagated asexually from a single "mother" vine; thus all of the progeny are genetically identical to the original parent plant (talk about growing up to become just like your mother!). Presumably, all of the resultant vines have the same growing characteristics, berry size, berry weight, ripening profile, and most importantly, flavor. When a grower picks out a particular clone of pinot noir, to further a specific flavor characteristic or mouthfeel or color, tannin, structure, composition, or whatever, that process is "clonal selection." Today specific clones of pinot noir are available to growers via commercial nurseries or through university programs like UC Davis. Some of these clones are imported directly from France, plants known as Dijon clones.
As it relates to modern viticulture, clonal selection began in France in the 1950's, with Raymond Bernard's work in Morey-St.-Denis. His original efforts sought to propagate disease free plants, so he tagged and observed visibly healthy vines over many growing seasons. However, he also conspicuously selected and compared vines of different berry size, weight, and growth patterns. Individual cuttings from different mother vines were grafted onto new rootstock, compared for many more years' observation, made into individual, small lots of wine, and taste tested by experts in Beaune. Simultaneously, the same cuttings were cataloged by the ENTAV (Etablissment nationale technique pour l'amelioration de la viticulture), a government agency. When stars aligned and a particular selection's yield, consistency, flavors, color, and disease-free status coincided, the first Dijon clones were born.
Around the same time, in California, Harold Olmo, a plant geneticist, began to collect, catalog, and follow budwood from local heritage vines. He compared his findings with European cuttings he imported himself. Meanwhile, in the early 1950's, fearing the devastation of foreign vine blight, the US Department of Agriculture banned importing "uncontrolled" plant material without permits This forced the government and the University of California to collaborate in the Foundation Plant Materials Service (FPMS), i.e. the "clean stock program." The FPMS (now the Foundation Plant Services- FPS) remains the predominant legal vehicle for introducing European vine cuttings into United States vineyards. It catalogs its ENTAV-sanctioned French clones with confusing, nonconsecutive three digit designations like UCD 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, and 828. In California, UCD/ Dijon clone 115 is the most widely planted, lauded for its perfume, brilliance, consistency and completeness. Clones 667, 777, and 828 are favored for concentrated flavors, intensity, and depth.
In the 1970's, Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek Winery established a controlled study pitting 11 FPMS clones against budwood from 9 respected, California pinot producers. After 10 years of investigation and comparison, 7 of 20 selections reigned supreme - 5 were UCD "clean stock" selections and the other two hailed from famed Chalone and Swan vineyards. The "Chalone" and "Swan" clones now have UCD numbers too, like the others. And this is just part of the story!
Zikes! What's a grower to do? There now exists a dizzying array of numbers, uh I mean plants, to select and cultivate. Yet pinot is a genetic chameleon that always changes its stripes; over 1000 clones a.k.a. phenotypes a.k.a. variants of Vitis Vinifera ‘Pinot noir' are known to exist in Burgundy alone. Presumably, each particular variant is a product of natural selection: molded, mutated, and genetically nudged by the distinct variables of microclimate and soil composition. What is to say that 3 or 7 or 20 years from now the Dijon 115 in my backyard is still genetically identical to your Dijon 115 across the state? Is this the gout de terroir? Or is it just hokey B.S. and voodoo? Most grape growers insist a good site with well drained soil trumps clone anyway.
On the side of our palate, however, our tastebuds tell a different story. In fact our winemaker, Chris Nelson, had this to say, "115 is creamy with mid palate weight while 667 shows more tannin and structure. 777 is aromatic and fruit forward compared to the Swan clone which is floral and elegant." He insists that overriding traits do exist among certain pinot clones but concedes that grapes grow differently in different places.
Shiftier still, compare these above the board plant genetics to the darker, unpoliced, clandestine underbelly of the business: "suitcase" clones. In the U.S., certain pinot obsessed producers believe that making superior Burgundy-styled wine demands top rate budwood from Burgundy. Thus begins an oral tradition of grape lore involving certain California winemakers scoffing in the face of the USDA and importing prized French vine cuttings themselves- often procured/ snatched from the top rated wine producers in Burgundy. (Ironically, as you now know, building a vineyard from a pile of discarded plant cuttings from yesteday's pruning in La Tache isn't even clonal selection! It's technically a field selection, advancing a vineyard from lots of different "mother" vines. But never mind that). Nonetheless, tales of folks smuggling back cuttings from La Tache or Domaine Romanee-Conti in their underpants abound. Most folks in Burgundy didn't seem to mind until cocky California growers advertised the origins of their personal "clonal selections" too loudly, too proudly, and too often. Fearing their pedigreed plants would lose cred if California flaunted parallel wares, the French appellation nomenclature institutions cried, "Mon Dieu! C'est unfair! This violates our intellectual property laws!" So now, these fabled California cowboys are more circumspect and thoughtful when asked "Mary Mary quite contrary, how does your pinot clone grow?"
Sourced from North American PInot Noir, John Winthrop Haeger, University of California Press, 2004.