One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)
We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.
Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.
Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.
Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)
Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”
Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?
TOMORROW: Part 2.
I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”
That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety
I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.
But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.
By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.
Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.
Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.
There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.
Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?
Every five or ten years a book like this must come out in order to fill a gap publishers feel is important. After all, new generations of wine lovers arise who want something just like this. It’s handsomely prepared, beautifully photographed, with awesome maps of the kind Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson pioneered. These are coffee table books that look and feel and actually are expensive.
The book is “American Wine,” authored by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy (University of Caifornia Press, $50). I wish I could report that it is better than it is. I suspect Murphy did the heavy lifting, with MW Robinson lending her more glamorous, but perhaps rather over-exposed, name.
There is very little news here. We get the basics of various regions—Lake County, Chalk Hill—but almost nothing beyond the basics. There are no new interpretations, no innovative takes on the conventional wisdom, just repetitions of what we’ve long known. One searches in vain to be surprised, or stunned, or even to disagree; but the book has a blandness that makes it conventionally vanilla. The authors seem content to trot out the same old names, and I have to wonder (I’m just raising the question, not making any allegations) how the wineries whose labels are displayed in sidebars were chosen. Product placement ads?
For newcomers, “American Wines” is an acceptable place to start. It’ll get you into second gear. But if you’re looking for groundbreaking information, something to take your knowledge to the next level, give it a pass.
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I first knew Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen as The Wine Guys when they began writing for Wine Enthusiast. They now are the World Wine Guys, thanks, I suppose, to their evolving interests, as expressed by their fine new book, “Wines of the Southern Hemisphere” (Sterling Epicure, $25). It’s hardcover, and quite lengthy—580 pages, compared to 278 for the Murphy-Robinson collaboration.
Michel Rolland wrote the Foreward (good catch, guys!), and has it right when he calls the book “a wonderful idea [because] Nobody has ever done this before.” I’ll take him at his word: I certainly know of no other book on South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Anytime a duo of authors can come up with something new in the somewhat predictable field of wine books, they deserve kudos.
The book certainly feels well researched. In structure, it’s conventional: each country begins with a little intro, then a section on major grape varieties, a breakdown of official regions, and then a long paragraph or two on individual wineries. There also are amusing and informational Q&As with winemakers, as well as the occasional recipe. The maps could be better; I wish they were as sumptuous as the ones in “American Wines.” But then, the book would cost twice as much.
If you, like me, are under-educated about these countries, “Wines of the Southern Hemisphere” is the perfect place to learn the ABCs.
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The sad fact about wine books these days is that, more and more, would-be authors have limited choices. So many have been written, with such little originality. Production values aren’t so important: creativity is, not to mention great writing. Are there any new books that you think deserve attention?
I revert quite often to the theme of wine’s “authenticity” in this blog, not because the concept is all that meaningful to me—it isn’t, in the sense I’ll get to shortly—but because it’s become the go-to meme with which others place wine into value tiers, usually to the disparagement of California.
We’ll call them the Authenticists, that nouvelle school of wine critics who claim that, in order for wine to meet their criteria of “authenticity,” it must be
- made in a foreign country, usually Europe
- with decidedly little technology or intervention
- in a place with a medieval heritage
- produced from a family whose winemaking traditions extend far back into history
- and who live modestly, even quaintly
- and it doesn’t hurt for them to have charming characters: a curmedgeonly Patriarch, a wise old Matriarch, a revolutionary son
- the wine itself must be modest in alcohol
- from an individual, usually old vineyard
- and satisfy the Authenticist’s version of “connectedness” to the land
The latest author to celebrate these values is Terry Theise, whose 2010 book, Reading Between the Wines, is out in paperback from University of California Press.
The book, rightfully, has been touted for the beauty of its writing, something Theise, who imports wines from Europe into this country, wanted to accomplish; his preface lauds the “lapidary style” of writing, which is “polished and cut to the point of transparency…that allows the object to shine through.”
As an admirer of good writing myself, I support this aim. That a wine writer should take the time to actually focus on impeccable writing is, mirabile dictu, a stirring antidote to this age of 140-character Tweets and wine “writing” that is characterless to the point of morbidity. Theise writes the way I like to read: with muscularity and attitude, precision and color, passion and intelligence. He must have left his editors at UC Press (who were the same as mine) with precious little to do because he gave them perfect copy.
But I want to look past the evident elegance of Theise’s writing to examine what it is he is saying, which seems to me dipped from the old, tiresome well of Authenticism. The indirect slam on California comes through in statements like “I don’t like Hummer wines,” in wholesale indictments such as “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,” to anecdotes about the “connectedness” of Mosel winegrowers to their land and tradition in a way that implies that California winegrowing families possess no such connections, to assertions that the village of Zeltingen is “somewhere,” populated by “people who embody it,” as opposed to—what?—Los Olivos? Boonville? Forestville? which presumably are “nowhere,” and whose populace is disembodied?
Theise visits the grave of an old Mosel friend. “I love that he lies in the slate, the soil where his Riesling grew.” People like his friend “were the people of this place in the world. It’s no accident that there are almost no international consultants, the ‘flying winemakers’ from here. The Mosel gives its vintners all the stimulus they need.”
We are to conclude inferentially that California vintners have no connection to their land (tell that to the Seghesios, whose ancestors rest in Alexander Valley soil). That they are arrivistes without roots, lacking concern for their neighbors, uninterested in anything save hype and profit, who hire outsiders to tell them what to do and have no sensibility of their own. Theise tells a story of Mosel families who got up early one Christmas morning to help a neighbor pick Eiswein. “Afterward they gathered…for soup and Christmas cookies. And when they left they were all singing out Merry Christmas…”. “I ask you!” he cries in wonder at such communal love; “…being a Mosel vintner signifies membership in a human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”
There it is again, the insinuation that California (and the entire New World?) runs on “mere occupation” while the ancient, ennobled peasant-vintners of the Mosel have a spiritual connection to their land and culture that lifts their wines into some rarified category of Authenticism. Do California winemakers not help their neighbors, when help is needed? Certainly they do. They may even sing Christmas carols at that time of year. I could cite tales…And I would bet that the amount of money raised for charities, especially for field workers, in Napa Valley dwarfs anything in the Mosel.
Theise is right to poke fun at “flying winemakers” and a mythical “Hubris Hill” $125 cult wine (no doubt a Napa Cabernet) produced by a hired-gun winemaker employed by a billionaire lifestyle-seeking ex-engineer or Wall Street mogul. Such people do litter California wine country, and Lord knows I poke fun at them all the time because they’re so easy to satirize.
But to throw the baby out with the bathwater—to imply that the state is inauthentic based on a handful of extremes—is unfair and ahistorical. I’ve struggled to understand California bashing for a long time, whether it’s our wines or our weather or our lifestyle (“San Francisco Democrats,” “brie-and-Chablis drinkers,” “fruits and nuts,” etc. etc. ad nauseum). I suspect it’s part envy, but I also try to see things from the perspective of the Authenticists. Look, last week I drank and loved an entire bottle of Melsheimer 2010 Reiler Mullay-Hofberg “Schaf” Riesling, from the Mosel. Low alcohol (7.5%), from a family who’s farmed their slope for five generations, over 200 years—a gorgeous, admirable wine, just the kind of “connected” vintners Theise loves.
But when I look at their picture on this website, I can easily see a bunch of Mondavis or Seghesios or Pedroncellis or Davies or Bundschus or Benzigers, or any of scores of California families whose love of their land and connection to their culture are no less profound than that of anyone in the Mosel. And I think: good writing or bad writing, Theise still is indulging in California bashing. It’s silly, it’s a trope too easily depended upon by writers, and it’s time to get over it.
Most of how I taste, I learned from Michael Broadbent. Not the man personally—from his little guidebook, “Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting,” whose 1982 edition, the fourth, I bought for $5.95.
That book brought me from a dilletantish approach to tasting, in which I simply poured the wine, tasted it and thought about it, to a more structured, one might say scientific approach. Michael took the reader through the actual mechanics of swirling, sniffing and tasting, explaining what to look for, how to know what you were experiencing, what to expect from different wines, even how to write a proper note. I devoured that book, over and over, re-reading it time and again to ingest its wisdom. It remains, in my humble opinion, the best guide to wine tasting ever written.
I wonder how others came to learn how to taste. We call it “tasting,” but it’s so much more than that, really. First of all, on a perceptual level experiencing a wine involves all the senses, from the Pop! of pulling the cork to the feel of the wine on the palate. But there’s so much more to the wine experience than “mere” perception. There’s the intellect, which never stops thinking, and briefs us on other aspects of the wine: If we’re tasting blind (for instance) the intellect scrolls through its database and tries to determine if the wine might be a Cabernet Sauvignon, from Bordeaux, a new release or maybe one with some age on it.
There is also the esthetic sense that only humans seem to possess. (Do animals have an esthetic sense? Gus certainly appreciates certain things, like warmth, dryness, food and water, my lap, a belly rub, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call those “esthetic appreciations.”) Humans, however, have the capacity to be captivated by the artistic mastery of created things. We may stand before an El Greco in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I used to do when I was an art student) in absolute awe, mindful of how hard it is to create such complex beauty with nothing more than an arm and hand, paintbrush and paints. To think that human intelligence and taste, with all the education, practice and understanding that inform them, was capable of painting “View of Toledo” is part of appreciating it: that painting appeals to us on every level of being human. Same with wine.
But understanding wine needs more than an esthetic appreciation, for all its importance. It needs a structured understanding, and this can be achieved only by study and application. Which is exactly what Michael Broadbent gave me, thirty years ago: the practical tools to take what was essentially an inchoate experience and translate or elevate it into something that could be written about, described, repeated and remembered.
Every time I taste a wine, every wine I have ever experienced is in some mysterious way evoked in my memory. Not consciously, of course, because there have been too many, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But in some alchemically subtle way, that wine I am now experiencing stands in relation to every other wine, finding its way into the pantheon and taking its place, in just the proper order, beside all the others. The population of memory-wines in my mind is a very orderly one, where the inhabitants behave properly, according to their place in the hierarchy.
It is for this reason, among others, that I remain comfortable with the 100-point system of scoring, which actually is a 21-point system in Wine Enthusiast’s way of doing things. When we were kids in grade school, our teachers used to make us “line up” by size place: smallest kids in front (usually, me), then medium sized kids, and finally the big guys in the rear. Each kid knew exactly where to take his place in the line, like atoms arranging themselves into molecules according to some greater force than themselves. Wine, in my mind, is like that. As soon as it enters the “schoolyard” of my head, it finds its way to its proper place in line, which in this case means its place in the 21-point system. Michael Broadbent himself did not subscribe to the 100-point system, but neither did he rail against it. “Points are awarded” to wines during tastings, he wrote, adding, “Maximum possible can be 7 points, more often 20, sometimes 100,” meaning that he was intellectually open to the validity of the 100-point system. Then Michael went on to ask all the right questions: “Are words necessary? On what sort of occasion? Great wine—for whom?”
Michael framed the conversation more articulately than anyone before him ever thought to. We are still asking the same questions today.
A few new books to recommend for summer reading before summer ends.
Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age [Joel Butler and Randall Heskett] is, as its title states, an encyclopedic narrative of the story of wine from its misty origins at the dawn of time. The authors trace wine’s appearance on the human scene from pre-Biblical days, basing their history on archeological and other physical evidence, and then turn to Biblical exegesis to explain the Noah story of the planting of the vine, followed by wine’s steady penetration of Jewish culture. Then they trace wine’s path through ancient Greek and Roman societies, and end with an amusing chapter: Seriously, What Wine Would Jesus Drink? [You'll have to read it to find out.] It’s a good book, a little dry, but packed with scholarly information. Joel Butler is one of the first two Masters of Wine in the U.S., and an old friend of mine. Randall Heskett is a Ph.D biblical scholar and president of Boulder University. Read their book for a solid background on wine’s role as nurturer of the culture.
Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food & Wine [Ken Arnone and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan]. I can hear you thinking, “Oh, no, not another wine and food cookbook!” Well, yes…and no. It’s laden with recipes that are more conventional than exciting (tandoori chicken, cheese ravioli, beef bourgignon); if your library resembles mine, you probably have a dozen cookbooks with the same recipes. But what makes Pairing fun and useful is its treatment of wine. The authors recommend one wine for each dish [moderately priced and relatively easy to find), but they devote considerable energy to explaining just why that particular wine works so well, so that if you can’t find it, you have enough information to substitute something similar. For example, they recommend a Cantravelli Taurasi Riserva for grilled lamb chops with mint emulsion. I might not have the time to look all over town for this Italian Aglianico, but reading that the chops want a wine that’s “full-bodied, dark fruit (blackberry), earthy, grilled meat flavor, gripping tannin, slightly rustic,” I might choose a dry, cool-climate California Syrah. Surely that wouldn’t lead to disaster?
The authors also do something I’ve never seen before: they pair each dish with several wines that didn’t work, and explain where things went south. With the lamb chops, Washington Merlot and California Chardonnay are no-no’s because they clashed in some way with the food. The Chardonnay, they write, worked well on several layers with the lamb, but ultimately “the dish and the wine end up canceling each other out.” That’s an interesting take on wine and food pairing. Ken Arnone, by the way, is a Certified Master Chef (whatever that is), while Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is a Master of Wine.
I’ll mention also Doug Shafer’s new reflection on the story of Shafer Vineyards, A Vineyard in Napa. Some great personal histories here of his Dad, John Shafer, himself and the inimitable Elias Fernandez, everybody’s favorite winemaker (I gave him and Doug a chapter in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California). And, when I have a chance, I’ll try Amarone: The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon, just out from The Wine Appreciation Guild.
Never stop reading! (And I don’t mean tweets.)