When it comes to new leaps in science there are always debates whether the good of such advancements outweigh the bad. One such leap in science is CRISPR, a powerful tool that “can target and cut sections of DNA like a pair of molecular scissors”. Besides helping to improve crops by preventing genetic defects and disease, it has become a subject that is currently being widely debated among the scientific community as a necessary tool to lessen human suffering. But there is a moral conundrum when opening the can of worms of such a tool justified by preventing diseases and disorders as it leaves an opportunity wide open for unethical people in power to promote a misguided ideal in the human race and intentionally wiping out a large swath of the diversity of the world.
The legendary wine producer Michel Chapoutier has been fighting the passionate fight to keep diversity in his soil that is represented by the multitude of microorganisms below and on top of the earth as well as the wild yeasts that he allows to run free in his ferments to make wine. So when he took over this grandfather’s winery and vineyards in the northern Rhône of France, in 1990, he immediately adapted biodynamics so he could use the “strength of life and not the strength of death” to save the microorganisms that had been created for over 2,000 years in French vineyards. When it comes to keeping the diversity of life alive, Michel is absolute in his resolve to protect it and he believes the “soil should speak louder than the winemaker”. The only advancements in science that he thinks benefit winemaking are those which can “transform the soil’s potential into reality” and so for him, understanding what the soil needs to live is vital and that idea extends to his love for his vines.
Michel was inspired by a book called Primary Perception: Biocommunication with Plants, Living Foods, and Human Cells written by Cleve Backster (also available in French) to research the reactions of his vines. Cleve Backster was an American CIA agent who was a polygraph, aka lie detector, specialist who became obsessed with researching electrical responses of plants; he even studied experiments of a human just thinking of harming the plant and measuring the change in electrical response. His work is still considered controversial by the scientific community as scientists who have tried to replicate his research found mixed results yet there is something still very intriguing about his work. Some think that in the future there may be a study that will be able to explain Backster’s results.
And so Michel Chapoutier is experimenting with bioresonance that uses electrodes to measure the electrical currents of the vines in his vineyards. He explains that just choosing the right people to work with the vines makes a significant difference to the vine’s health. “The plants are more accepting of some people and not confident with others,” explains Michel. When it came to having a ‘green thumb,’ Michel thought it was about the ability to love the plants and to understand what they need. Michel enthusiastically exclaimed, “Some people think their grandmother has a green thumb but no it is just their grandmother loves the plants and the plants thank her by being in good health.”
From the start of taking over his grandfather’s estate, Michel has always made unorthodox choices for the times. When he came back from his travels in California during the late 80s, he foresaw the potential danger of focusing too much on advancements in winemaking in the new world that could derail the focus of the expression of the land. Even though European wines were starting to lose sales around the world to the new world wine producers, and many in Europe were feeling the pressure to adopt more of the new world style, Michel felt the way for European wines to survive was not to follow new trends but to intensify the intention to express the land. In 1990 he started biodynamic practices and initially became one of largest biodynamic wine producers in Europe; up until that time many of the biodynamic producers were tiny producers with only a few acres of vineyards. Michel felt that he needed to show that a bigger company could make organics and biodynamics work if both farming practices were to have a future. “Respect for the planet can not just be in the hands of the small businesses but big companies have to take care of the planet as well,” expressed Michel.
During those times that Europe was losing market share to new world regions, he felt that the AOCs (classification systems set up in various French wine regions) were just becoming brands, collective brands, for example he noted, “They would propose a Crozes-Hermitage or Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine instead of speaking of the soil and various aspects of their vineyards.” But Michel fiercely pushed forward in expressing the life in the soil as well as all the wild yeasts he uses in his wine ferments rather than promote a collective brand.
At first his neighbors doubted his biodynamic practices, such as plowing on the steep slopes in the northern Rhône, as it just wasn’t done considering the erosion that it could cause. But Michel explained that when he plowed, he would mix aerobic bacteria (survives in oxygenated environment) from the top soil and anaerobic bacteria (only grows where oxygen isn’t present) from deeper within the soil and it would form a negative charge and attract the positively charged rain; that is why his soil would not erode during rainfall because his soil would absorb the rain even though he was plowing a steep slope and soon Michel said his neighbors followed his example and today they plow.
Roussillon in the South of France
In 2000, it was certainly a surprise to top wine critics and fine wine drinkers when Michel invested in buying vineyards in the Roussillon, located in the south of France, as Chapoutier had already built a reputation for being one of the great wine producers in the Rhône valley producing some of the most sought after fine wines in the world. The Roussillon area was known for making fortified wine; quality non-fortified wine was never considered in the area by a wine producer that was as world-renown as Michel during that time. But Michel said that part of his passion for biodynamics was studying geology and through his study he realized that there were other areas in France that had great soils and a microbial richness that was created by over 2,000 years of transforming the microbial life of the soil under vines and were not discovered as quality wine regions yet, and the one at the top of his list was Roussillon.
The Roussillon vineyards have many similarities to the Rhône valley according to Michel such as climate similar to the southern Rhône and a wide range of ancient soils like the northern Rhône. A couple of these Roussillon soil types are some of Michel’s favorites such as granite and the range of soil that comes from the Cambrian age (soil over 400 million years ago that occurs on a narrow north/south strip between two parallel faults) that he has found in Banyuls, a wine area located in the Roussillon county, as well as other properties he has bought in Australia and the French wine region of Alsace. When he found out that Roussillon had 100 year old Grenache vines that had very little value to others yet great value to him, he knew that he had to make wine in this extremely intriguing region.
The unconventional ways of Michel that are rooted in his insatiable curiosity actually extend to other areas such as placing braille on his wine labels. A friend of Michel was blind and explained that it was difficult to buy wine in a store as he didn’t know what he was picking up and his friend wanted the independence of reading the label himself and so Michel placed braille on his labels so that every blind person could be empowered to read the labels themselves. And now that curiosity has led him to observing the electrical responses from his vines as he realizes that the right people, those who the plants trust, are essential when it comes to the health of the vines. Through this process he discovered that people with Down syndrome or autism have “amazing results with the plants in the vineyards” and he has seen a drastic improvement with his vines since implementing this new program.
Excellence From The Most Unlikely Places
When it comes to the extremely controversial tool of using CRISPR to remove sections of DNA, there are certain aspects of it that make it a tool for good. One woman’s emotional plea that was part of the PBS series addressing this topic was profoundly persuasive as she described her child who was born with a condition that was filled with constant pain and a life that never saw adulthood. No one should be born into such a life and no parent should see her child suffer in such a way if there are tools in modern science that can prevent it. But the other side of this tool has many aspects of it that are extremely questionable, even bringing into the debate of what would be considered a defect in someone’s DNA? Being hearing impaired? Blind? During this same series, a married couple discussed their concern when they found out their daughter was visually impaired as a baby as she suffers from a condition whose symptoms are best described as having Vaseline smeared on her eyes at all times. But as their daughter has gotten older they realized what a kind and compassionate child she has become and they believe that because she isn’t distracted by all the visual noise in the world, she can really focus on the needs of other kids and adults around her.
The CRISPR dilemma also extends to kids that are born with Down syndrome or autism and the general consensus that they will not be able to live a successful life and contribute to society. But is that line of thinking correct? Perhaps it is the world’s inability to see their special qualities that bring more of a sense of balance to the overtly competitive rat race that has been extremely destructive in many ways which is the true defect.
Just like Michel Chapoutier’s passionate exclamations of the detrimental effects of wiping out microbial life in the soil or the wild yeasts that live in the vineyards, his passion for recognizing the gifts among the wide diversity of the human race makes him forward thinking in many ways. As the human race battles to live in harmony with the earth as well as with each other, there is an opportunity to learn from those born with an ability to be more sensitive and patient with their surroundings. And that is one of the most remarkable things about Michel is that he realizes that by ridding the world of living organisms, or even potentially people that bring other benefits that don’t fit into a fast-paced, win at all costs check list, that the world will have no hope for finding the harmony that it so desperately needs… but thankfully Michel is a man that is filled with hope and a desire to unlock and show the world a path to a more diverse and better future.
Michel Chapoutier is known for his passion for bottling wines that are 100% of the same grape variety in the Rhône valley and he is “personally against blending” as he feels it distracts from the expression of the complexity of place. In the Roussillon, he is forced to blend according to the appellation rules of the wine region; also there are a mix of plantings of a few different grape varieties in the same vineyard.
2019 Les Vignes de Bila-Haut, Pays d’Oc Rosé IGP: Blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Cinsault. Salty nose with pretty floral notes – this is a rosé that can stand up to spicy food such as Mexican and Asian curries because it has good concentration of red fruit flavors and nice fleshiness on the palate.
2017 Domaine de Bila-Haut, ‘Occultum Lapidem Blanc’, Côtes du Roussillon Villages: Blend of Grenache Blanc and Vermentino. Michel noted that in some areas of the Roussillon, they have cooler nights because of the sea nearby. Honey right off the bat with a sense of wet stones with juicy peach flavors and a zing of citrus on the finish. This is from the single vineyard ‘Occultum Lapidem’ from vines that are over 40 years old and this vineyard has gneiss soil which is similar to granite as Michel noted but he said that granite has more quartz.
2016 Domaine de Bila-Haut, ‘Occultum Lapidem Rouge’, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France: Blend of Syrah and Grenache with only 2-3% Carignan. 2016 was a “very warm vintage” and so there are delicious blackberry jam flavors with black pepper and hints of tar yet it finished on a bright note of wild red cherries and mint. Michel is not a fan of Carignan and only likes to use around 2-3% to give the wine some structure. Also, Michel suggested serving this wine chilled by popping it in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes and it certainly displayed more of the subtle notes of crumbly rock and fresh fruit. This is from the single vineyard ‘Occultum Lapidem’ from vines that are over 40 years old and this vineyard has gneiss soil which is similar to granite as Michel noted but he said that granite has more quartz.
2018 Domaine de Bila-Haut, ‘L’esquerda’, Côtes du Roussillon Villages L’esquerda: Around 90% Syrah and some Grenache with no more than 2% Carignan. This has that smoky note that is so cherished from Syrah grown in the northern Rhône and it opened up with multi-layered black fruit notes (black cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant) with baking spices that were fresh, deep and steady in their qualities with a beautiful violet note that developed over time with nice fleshy fruit on the palate that had an energetic focus that was shaped by finely etched tannins and finished with a warming smoky minerality.
Michel’s enthusiasm for this single vineyard with vines ranging from 40 to 60 years old was off the chart with granite dominating this soil. “I love granite! Because granite in a wine expresses the summer rain that falls on hot stones,” exclaimed Michel. He described sitting on the porch in the country during the summer and around 5pm the rain starts to lightly fall and the smell of the rain hits the hot rocks that surround the house… that is the smell he gets in this wine.
A big believer in the power of wine that is made from grapes grown on granite soil as he always feels they stand out during blind tastings. He shared a story of him one time tasting over 100 wines blind with his friend Yannick Alléno (Michelin-starred chef in Paris) and they could always pick the wines grown on granite out. He said that Syrah grown on granite gives the impression of the summer rain on hot stone that is evident to him in this ‘L’esquerda’ wine and in his northern Rhône Saint-Joseph ‘Les Granits’ single vineyard on granite as well as other vineyards. He also talked about the “saltiness” one gets from the granite vineyards in Hermitage and that there is a smell of soot or tar that can come out such as being at one’s “grandparents’ mountain house and smelling the fireplace there.”