Is this how Europe sees us?
They gave us attendees to the Wine Writers Symposium last March a free copy of The World of Fine Wine, issue 30. I didn’t get around to reading it until just the other day, and a fine magazine it is indeed.
One of the columnists is David Schildknecht, who is part of Parker’s team. He wrote a piece on terroir which, unfortunately, I was unable to find online, so I can’t link to it here. There was nothing particularly new in it; it’s pretty standard stuff, if a bit stuffy to read. But it was interesting because David revealed a certain Eurocentric view in referring to “the one-time heartland of terroir denial, Northern California.”
It seems that David believes that, after a long period of insisting that terroir doesn’t exist or matter, California now “champions site-specificity,” proving that “a paradign shift has clearly occurred…What too you so long?” David asks California.
Let us now deconstruct these remarks so that we can prove their untruth. David offered no evidence that California has only lately stumbled into an embrace of terroir, other than an interview with Tony Soter, who no longer makes wine in California but rather in Oregon. Hence, it’s not at all clear why he feels that way, i.e., that 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years ago California pooh-poohed the notion of terroir. (David cites Matt Kramer as having discovered the importance of place 20 years ago.) I mean, really, this is not only silly, it’s disrespectful of decades of history. Look at the boutique era for proof that the founding fathers of the modern wine period understood terroir perfectly well, even if they didn’t feel it necessary to use a Frenchified word for it. Did such pioneers as Donn Chappellet and Al Brounstein not pick their mountains for terroir purposes? They did. Did Josh Jensen not travel the state looking for limestone before he created Calera on Mount Harlan? He did. Did Patrick Campbell choose the vertiginous slopes of Sonoma Mountain because he knew it would make ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon? Yes. Did the daring vintners who planted vineyards on the far Sonoma Coast not have a passionate dedication to terroir before they tackled that forbiddingly harsh region? They did. Was the late Jess Jackson unaware of “a sense of place” when he bought and developed the Verite and Stonestreet properties, high up on Alexander Mountain? He was not. Did Sir Peter Michael choose his spot high on Mount St. Helena by accident? No.
All these pathfinders sought terroir, and I could go on and on citing others who knew exactly what they wanted in a piece of dirt and then went on to realize it. Northern California, or California in general, has never been a bastion of terroir denial. We can agree on that. So what would lead David to say it was? Here we have to get inside the man’s head. There are several reasons, I think. One is the standard old European bias against California, and more broadly against the U.S., that we are a collection of idiotic boobs with no taste or discernment. Another reason is because there’s been a very tight little in-group of European wine writers and MWs who talk only to themselves–and they tend to be insulated and perpetuate the same myths over and over. The reason David doesn’t know that California has always been aware of and in search of the greatest terroir is because he doesn’t read people like me. I could have told him so a long time ago and prevented him from writing something so patently vapid. And a final reason may simply be the Francophilia that so many European wine writers feel in their bones–a belief that may not even be conscious, that only Old Europe can have true terroir, that all coastal California is, is a western extension of the Central Valley.
No, California’s great winemakers know perfectly well what terroir is. They always have. Nothing “took them so long.” What “took so long” has been for David to finally grasp that California “gets it.” Well, better late than never!