Time to throw away the suitcase
There’s been talk of suitcase clones ever since I’ve been in the biz. I wrote about the rise of illegally-imported budwood in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Back in the 1990s, winemakers, mainly Pinot Noiristes, bragged about bringing in special stuff from Romanée-Conti or wherever. Some of their reputations were based, in part, on their scoundrelly behavior; they were legends for being outlaws. Even though it was always soto voce — under the table — everyone knew who’d done what. California’s a big state, but the wine community is a little village.
To tell you the truth, I never stopped to think about the downside of bringing in budwood that hadn’t gone through the proper channels. It seemed pretty harmless to me. After all, these winemakers or growers had good motives: to increase the quality of California wine. All they were doing was going around a slow, bumbling bureaucracy, right? So who cared?
Well, as things turned out, maybe we all should have cared. Check out this article, Moth forces wine country’s secret into the open,
reported from the Associated Press but widely repeated in the last 24 hours. This is good journalism, folks, and it’s made me rethink my formerly casual attitude toward smuggling in illegal budwood.
Turns out this new European grapevine moth that’s threatening Napa vineyards may well have hitchhiked straight into the heart of Napa Valley on smuggled wood. There’s no proof, but “Agricultural officials say that had the European grapevine moth (Lobesia botrana) innocently evaded inspectors on a container ship, the first trapping of the grape eater would have been near a port,” not 60 miles inland as Napa Valley is from my hometown port of Oakland, the leading port of entry into Northern California.
Makes sense to me. I guess what I don’t understand is why anybody would need plant material that’s not already widely available in the U.S., especially in Napa Valley, where the smuggled wood would almost certainly have been a Bordeaux red variety. Isn’t there enough good Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Merlot, etc. available commercially? Why would somebody need a few sticks from Pavie or Latour or wherever? Asimov had a nice post on suitcase clones a few years ago, in The Pour, where his money quote was this: “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.”
True, true, true. It would be like me playing a Stradivarius: no matter how good the instrument, the noise it made in my untalented hands would be awful.
We’ll probably never know how exactly the moth came into California, and even if the authorities could prove it was from vine wood, we’d never know who the culprit was who brought it in. The culprit himself might not even know. So California vintners and growers, it’s time to stop this dubious practice. It’s had its advantages in the past; no more. No more suitcase clones, period.