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On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.

I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.

The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.

Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.

Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.

So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.

The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.

I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”


How wine can be as cool as beer and cocktails

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It’s certainly true, as Robert Parker pointed out in his recent interview in The Drinks Business, that high wine prices are “a problem and a concern” and that they are creating “a caste system” in which “the younger generation” cannot afford top wines from regions such as “Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or from California.”

But there’s nothing really new about this situation. It’s been so forever. In fact prices for Bordeaux today, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were 100 years ago. What is interesting, to me, is the complex psychological contortions by which consumers (and some critics as well) arrive at the conclusion that price is a determinant of quality.

Long ago, vintners understood that the public suffers from this misapprehension. According to Edmund Penning-Rowell, who wrote what is still, to my mind, the most authoritative book on Bordeaux (“The Wines of Bordeaux,” 1969), Baron Phillippe’s [de Rothschild] intense conviction [was] that Mouton-Rothschild was as good as any first growth, and for his money better than most. The only way that this [i.e. rise in its perception by the market] could be achieved was by asking a price as high as any first growth and if possible higher than all.” As Penning-Rowsell later makes clear, the Baron “was able to do this successfully.”

Baron Rothschild, of course, also was the partner of Robert Mondavi in establishing Opus One, which, at the time of its launch (the first vintage was 1979), was the most expensive Californian wine.”

This strongly suggest that Mondavi learned his lesson in pricing from his friend. And we know, from personal experience, how many wineries, faced with tough sales, raised their prices, only to find demand radically increased.

Nowadays, the price of Opus One (about $240 for the 2011) pales in comparison to that of Screaming Eagle ($2,400 for the 2012 in the aftermarket). If your mind works the way most peoples’ minds work (including mine), it can be hard not to be impressed by that kind of price. A rational part of you thinks, “If it costs that much, and knowledgeable people are willing to buy it, then it must be one of the most fabulous wines in the world.” And, of course, these very famous and rare wines always are fabulous. But their prices bear no relationship to their quality, with respect to similar wines from similar appellations. This is why seasoned wine critics taste blind.

Back to Parker. He knows as well as anyone that the Bordeaux, Burgundies and Californians he helped push to astronomical heights can be very difficult to suss out in blind tastings. Why some people continue to buy them is, in fact, a matter for behavioral and cognitive scientists, not wine critics. As for the “younger generation,” I’m not so worried about them. They couldn’t afford Bordeaux First Growths in 1929, when Latour et. al cost nearly three times the price of Gruaud-Larose and Langoa, and they can’t afford it now.

Is price, as Bob speculates, “one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.” ? It could well be, although good craft beer cannot be described as cheap. As I, and many other, observers have noted lately, beer and spirits seem to have the wind at their sails in a way wine at the moment does not, at least in our urban centers. Another question: Has this trend been created and fostered by the media, or did the media simply pick up on something that was already occurring on the street? As usual, it’s a little of both. What craft beer and cocktails have done—which wine has not—is to rise to the level of being cool. All those tattooed young mixologists, those hip brewmeisters, the trendy bars that have popped up from the Mission to Soho—they are the modern face of beer and spirits. What is wine’s modern face? As far as I can tell, it’s a young woman who opts for Pinot Gris on a date, your grandfather, or a somm.

I don’t overly fret about wine’s future because these trends come and go. Wine has been the most successful alcoholic beverage of all time for a very good reason; and what has worked for humans for thousands of years is likely to work for them for thousands more. Nor is wine in any particular financial trouble in the U.S. But it has lost a certain frisson of coolness, or at least the perception, the optics of frisson. In reality, wine is as cool as anything: winemakers themselves are as cool as any dashing mixologist, if not as visible.

But beer, in particular, is on a roll. In Britain, the brew industry is sponsoring a “There’s a beer for that” advertising campaign, crafted by the wildly successful filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), that was launched on Downton Abbey, and also is huge on Twitter and other social media.

If the industry is to lure the under-35 crowd away from beer and spirits to wine, it has to find ways to speak to them in their own language, on their own turf. This involves an accurate and fearless study of how beer and spirits are actually succeeding. One could do worse, as an academic enterprise, to hang out in a Valencia Street bar and study who’s drinking what. I volunteer for this vital work in the field, as the Margaret Mead of the cocktail lounge.


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