Happy Accidents

These “happy accident” high-wire, mechanized chardonnay vines set a new planting standard for Monterey Pacific. Photo credit: Jenny Devine.

Who doesn’t love a happy ending…especially when, at the beginning of the story, things are going all wrong?

One of my favorite such stories involves cheese. Years ago, when I lived on Long Island, NY, I was tasting with cheesemaker Art Ludlow at his family’s artisanal Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton. As I gushed over the delicious, unusual morsel in my mouth, Art explained it was the product of a “happy accident.” A wheel of cheese being aged as a cheddar was accidentally inoculated with the Penicillium mold that makes blue cheese. In such a small production setting (in the Hamptons, no less), a whole, unsaleable wheel would be a big loss. So rather than throwing it away, they waited to see what would happen. The resulting blue-veined hard cheese turned out to be a bestseller.

At the ASEV-NGRA Precision Viticulture Demo Day held this month in the Salinas Valley (see related post), Steve McIntyre of Monterey Pacific added another of these stories to my collection. Three years ago, when his team was scheduled to plant the high-wire chardonnay vineyard we visited, they found themselves slammed by projects and suddenly out of time. “We were in hurry-up mode,” he said. Rather than rush the new vines into the ground, they had the nursery hold them till the following year. Of course, that would add cost at the nursery, but it would save costs in the vineyard—and even better, ensure that when the vines were planted, they could do the job right. Eight months later, after they’d had time to prep the site and source the stakes and special wire-lifting attachment they put atop each one, they were ready to plant. They could even sort and, if needed, test the vines, now 40 inches tall (atop a 24-inch graft union)—a nice headstart on the 50-inch trellis they’d be trained on. In the ground, those vines produced higher tonnage, faster than others planted 50 yards away the previous year (the year these vines were supposed to go in). The mistake was so successful, it has become Monterey Pacific’s preferred planting M.O.

The New York Times’ Eric Asimov wrote this month of the wines Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat Winery made in 2021 after wildfires made their planned production impossible. Some of its most expensive grapes went into California-appellated wines as fruit from across regions—and vintages—were combined to make up for shortfalls. Although the results are wines “even the producer’s most ardent fans would not recognize,” Eric writes, general manager and winemaker Tracey Rogers Brandt expresses a deep appreciation for their new “climate-driven creative wines.” She says: “During harvest I thought I was going to lose my business. I didn’t know if I could pay my people. And I love these wines.”

Even my role with NGRA, which I started five years ago this month, was born from what at first felt like a wrong turn. When I moved from New York to California to take a job with the visitor’s bureau in the beautiful Temecula Valley, I realized quickly it was less focused on wine than tourism—an important component of the industry but far removed from the viticulture and enology aspects I care most about. A friend happened to receive and share with me a job posting for NGRA (then NGWI) and the rest is history. I got to be a part of a hidden-gem wine region, learned a lot, made invaluable connections and value the experience I had in Temecula. And I realize now that if I hadn’t taken that misplaced step, I wouldn’t have found this job that I love. And I might never have discovered my passion for science.

The thing is, happy accidents take time to unfold. They’re only apparent after you’ve made the best of a less-than-ideal situation. So, to everyone facing the unintended consequences of circumstances gone awry, remember that there may yet be some beautiful outcome. In the wise words of John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end!”

Donnell Brown