How to replicate a wine from 1500 year-old grape seeds

How to replicate a 1500 year-old Negev wine: 

  1. Unearth 1500 year-old grape seeds from the famed Byzantine-era city Halutza. (Done; credit Israeli archaeologists.)
  2. Extract DNA; sequence. (This is the easy part.)
  3. Check sequence against known contemporary grape genomes (to infer evolutionary relationships, and to double-check that seeds really weren’t refuse from archeologist’s lunch before proceeding).
  4. Realize that DNA sequence from seeds doesn’t represent DNA sequence of original cultivated vines, because Vitis species are notoriously mutation-prone. Halutza vignerons would probably have worked with grafted vines and selected varieties the way we do now (cf. Theophrastus who wrote about grafting in Athens in the 3rd c. B.C.). Deal, because we can infer a lot about the parent vine from the seed DNA but the stuff we can’t infer can definitely change wine quality (cf. reason why every contemporary commercial grapevine is propagated by cutting and not from seed).
  5. Synthesize fresh, lab-manufactured DNA from the old sequence (there are companies for this).
  6. Get someone like Dr. Andy Walker at UC Davis to (get his grad students to) clone new DNA into grape stem cells.
  7. Plant lots of babies. Watch lots of them die. Wait.
  8. Try to find a climate similar to c. 500 AD Halutza for vine cultivation (consult archeological meteorologist?) Hope that soil types also have something in common, or try to replicate historically appropriate soil.
  9. Accept that since grapes are subject to lots of somatic mutations, the new grape vines may change a bit along the way and not be exactly like the original Negev wines. Keep dealing.
  10. Consult Dr. Patrick McGovern (biomolecular archaeologist specializing in fermented beverages; Dogfish Head collaborator/co-creator of Midas’s Touch, etc.; outstandingly nifty person) about mimicking historical winemaking. Do what he says.
  11. Hope that Dr. McGovern has advice on how to handle the problem of modern Saccharomyces cerevisiae being a darn sight different than whatever might have been around to ferment things in the Byzantine Negev.
  12. Option A: Backtrack 15-20 years and clone person using DNA from bones found at Halutza dig. Raise in a bubble (consult designers of The Truman Show) to mimic growing up in Byzantine Halutza. Make sure he doesn’t try any wine until the replicated stuff is ready, then get him to write tasting notes. Option B: Accept that even if we’ve perfectly replicated an ancient wine (see above caveats about genetic variation, yeast, etc), we won’t actually have replicated the wine because we, the drinkers, will be different, and the wine only fully exists in its drinking and enjoying via the participation of complex sensory and thinking apparatus attached to a subjective human being.
  13. Drink the darn wine anyway. Invite Robin Trento over to make dinner (ask her to bring her own garum). Look up retirement residence addresses for the journalists who were “ready for a taste of the Byzantine Empire’s favorite wine” back in 2015 and make sure they get a bottle.

Update on saving a historic California vineyard: the news is good

If you already know what I’m talking about, the good news is that the California DWR plans to preserve the Jose vineyard when it renovates the surrounding marshland. If that didn’t make sense to you, keep reading.

This past March, a small hullaballoo arose in response to a California Department of Water Resources plan to reconstruct a tidal marsh in Eastern Contra Costa County in the general, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area. The project, while an otherwise lovely effort to protect and maintain verdant wetland habitat, would have destroyed a historic and utterly irreplaceable 14-acre Carignane vineyard (“the Jose vineyard”) originally planted in the 1880’s. I wrote about the project and reasons for saving the vineyard here: Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard.

This morning, the Dept. of Water Resources released their final plan and recommendations for the project, revised after a comment period during which 115 people (including me), and the city of Oakland, voiced concerns about losing the vineyard and supported changing the project to preserve it. The good news: the revised plan keeps the vineyard in place, along with a perimeter access road and an adjoining “buffer area.”

The original plan read: “The proposed project will result in the removal of the Jose Vineyard in order to achieve proper elevation and vegetation consistent with the tidal marsh restoration, which would be considered a substantial adverse change to the property under CEQA. Project redesign in order to avoid this impact while still meeting restoration goals has been determined infeasible.” Well, somehow they found the will to make it feasible, mostly by looking for soil fill elsewhere.

.6 acres of obviously newer, replanted vines at the vineyard’s edge will be ripped out and replanted with native dune vegetation, but the remaining 13.4 acres will stay put. This seems entirely sensible. While I think an argument could be made for keeping the whole vineyard intact as a historic site, the old vines are the most important concern here. It’s hard for me to argue for why we should value .6 acres of newish vines over .6 acres of good native habitat without intimately knowing the vineyard.

The project report recommends restrictions on what vineyard management techniques can be used in the interest of protecting the surrounding flora and fauna which, again, seems entirely sensible unless and until some deadly disease threatens the whole vineyard with salvation available only by drastic chemical means. I don’t know how significant the restriction is for this specific vineyard or if it changes anything about the way the vineyard is currently managed. But, again, it’s hard for me to argue in favor of using environmentally-damaging chemicals in agriculture ever, period.

In short, I feel comfortable calling this good news: for the herons and frogs, for the wine industry, and for however we represent the general interests of California history. And if you need to spend more time thinking about good news today, or if dense legislative language gives you thrills, you can find the full revised report here along with a summary of comments and the Department’s replies here.

Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard

In a classic case of a bad consequence to an otherwise-good idea, 14 acres of Californian vineyard planted in the 1880’s are at risk of being bulldozed in the course of environmental restoration.

The Environmental Impact Report on the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project, which plans to restore 1178 acres of farmland to tidal marsh around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is currently open for comment. To sign a petition asking for a 14-acre exception for the historic Carignane vineyard, go here.

Reasons why this matters:

1. The vines and vineyard represent agricultural techniques (sustainable, non-irrigated farming) valuable as both a historical and a practical lesson.

2. Carignane vines used to be common in California, but are now rare. This vineyard is a living testament to what the pre-prohibition California wine industry looked like.

3. Viticulture researchers look at grape genetics to understand why vines work the way they do and how we can make them work better. Jim Wolpert, the preeminent California viticulturist, argued that these vines represent a unique and useful source of grape genetic material in the letter he wrote to the project directors. Once that material is gone, it’s gone.

The petition organizers have compiled a much longer and more detailed list of reasons to preserve the vineyard.

The Tidal Marsh Restoration Project is, on the whole, a really excellent thing. 1178 acres of fields bordering Oakley that would otherwise have been turned into asphalt and concrete are instead being turned into tidal marsh — wetlands where streams and rivers meet the sea — with adjacent “shaded channels, native grasslands, and riparian forests,” according to the project description. If you live in a coastal state, you probably toured a tidal marsh as a school kid; they’re incredible habitats for all manner of birds and fish and amphibians and insects and what-not (your teacher may have called it an estuary; they’re overlapping categories). The Environmental Protection Agency says that tidal marshes even help regulate water flow during drought-flood cycles because they’re big, flattish spaces that tolerate a lot of water rising and falling. Bacteria in marshes improve water quality by processing fertilizer run-off, too.

All of this is great for local native wildlife, increasingly being pushed out — and let’s be blunt about it: killed and threatened with extinction — when developers build fancy high-rises over their habitats.

BUT: 14 acres in the middle of this area-to-be-restored contain some of the oldest vines in California. Those vines are irreplaceable. We can conserve the vines and otherwise proceed with the restoration project.

Saving the vineyard isn’t about the wine industry versus environmentalism. This isn’t about money. It’s about the value of conserving history, about recognizing that historic vineyards merit the same consideration as historic buildings and other monuments, and about not doing irreversible things today that we’re going to regret in the future. I’d encourage you to sign the petition, send a comment to Patty Finfrock at Patricia.Finfrock@water.ca.gov, and help stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason.