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Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?

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If the definition of insanity (as Albert Einstein is reputed to have said) is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then I must be insane for delving yet again into a discussion about the meaning of terroir—even when I know that such exercises will result in utter futility, as they always do.

Even so! The topic is irresistible to me; like momma’s milk to a thirsty baby, I’m unable to turn my head away when someone makes claims as absolute and contrary to accepted wisdom as those of Valéry Michaux, a French professor whose work was summarized (all too briefly) in the online edition of yesterday’s the drinks business.

Her position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as terroir, if by terroir we mean the chemistry of the soil, the climate or [even] local knowledge.” (By inserting the word “even”, I mean to associate Michaux’s position with that of another professor, the esteemed Emile Peynaud, who holds that the combination of natural terroir—soil and climate—together with the creativity of man elevates the entire wine-forming formula into what he calls “cru.”)

Whether or not you include the grower and winemaker along with climate and soil in your definition of terroir, for Michaux, is irrelevant. For she believes that the end quality of a wine, as well as its critical reception in the marketplace, is due to neither (or not much, anyway), but instead is the result of “the cluster effect,” a term borrowed from economics and sociology that refers to the type of activity that happens when “interconnected businesses working together in a region” collaborate, in a “very focused and strategic approach…to bring partnerships for funding, research and revenue opportunities.” This latter definition, from Forbes, uses Silicon Valley as the prima facie example of how the cluster effect works: small startup companies, rather than taking a “go it alone” approach, instead use a “strength in numbers” strategy to “accelerate…commercialization activities, raise additional capital, and attract new companies.”

Michaux also turns to the Silicon Valley model of the cluster effect in her thinking about wine. She attributes the success of certain wine regions, including Champagne and Rioja, to the same forces of “a strong entrepreneurial culture, direct competition, continuous experimentation, innovation and mutual help and solidarity” that characterize Silicon Valley firms, who engage in mutual-aid activities based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory.

Tantazlizing stuff. Since the drinks business abstract was so short (only 249 words), I turned to the Google machine for more information on Michaux, and found this longer coverage at The Australian, which says her theory may “horrify oenologists everywhere,” by throwing into academic doubt the entire collage of “climate [and] chemisty of the soil” as being responsible for the world’s greatest wines. Their greatness has nothing to do with the “myth” of terroir; it is a function solely of “strong governance creating a single territorial brand” [e.g. Champagne, Rioja] welded to “an alchemy between different virtuous circles” [professionals from various occupations] resulting in “the dominance of the best-known wines.”

Let’s break it down by taking Napa Valley as an example of a successful area. Michaux surely is onto something when she suggests that “an alchemy of circles” is at least partly responsible for Napa’s success. These circles surely include the historical figures that settled and elevated Napa, the George Younts, Captain Niebaums and de Pins who helped make Napa Valley a household name.

Another circle would certainly be the wealthy friends of the wealthy Napa owners: they helped spread the word (and the wines) to their own circles in San Francisco, New York, London, thereby giving Napa international cred. Yet another circle consisted of the writers and critics who wrote about Napa Valley, making it famous; and the more they wrote, the more other writers visited Napa Valley, were wined and dined, and further embellished Napa’s halo. (I think of Harry Waugh as a perfect example of the overlapping of several of these circles.) A final circle is the international coterie of winemakers and consultants (Michel Rolland comes to mind) who work in Napa, and whose influence is worldwide and powerful. And then of course there were the critics, Parker especially, who early championed Napa Valley Cabernet in the circles among which they had influence.

Circles within circles within circles. Certainly Napa Valley would not have risen to its present-day esteem without the active cooperation of all these groupings. Where I take issue with Michaux, though, is in her abrupt dismissal of the notion of terroir as the physical properties of the region.She seems to have written her recent paper in response to a 2012 Call for Papers from the Reims Management School, in Reims, France, the topic to address a “provocative” statement contained in a 2011 book, by Roger Dion, that “’Terroir’ is a ‘social fact’, the human construction of a territory both historically and strategically, so as to make better use of its resources than other territories and to respond to the specific expectations of a particular clientele.”

Once again, there’s a lot of meat there: certainly, no wine “territory” can possibly be of any use for the commercialization of wine without “human construction”; for vinifera grapes do not grow by themselves and automatically turn themselves into fine wine. “Strategies” are indeed called for; and strategies require collaboration on the part of all stakeholders, and cost money. And just as certainly, the “particular clientele” that is willing to pay premium money for the wines of Champagne, Rioja or Napa Valley does so with the expectation of buying in, intellectually speaking, to the notion of “quality products” grown in “Grand Crus,” as has been the case since, at least, “the royal families and merchants” did so during the Middle Ages.

Still, this argument, convincing as it is in some respects, fails to account for the fact that most of the world’s wine regions never have achieved the acclaim for terroir as have Champagne, Rioja, Napa Valley and some others (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany’s better districts come to mind). What has held back the others? Was it the absence of “interconnected businesses working together” (armed, presumably, with fiendishly manipulative genius)? Or was it that these non-successful regions simply lacked the terroir to produce great wine?

I leave the answers to the conversation. Maybe, instead of futile insanity, we can actually advance the issue a little.


In the future, everyplace will be “the next Napa” for 15 minutes

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It’s a slow news day, it’s been a long week, so you’ll have to cut me some slack here with this rather tongue-in-cheek post that actually does contain a kernel of observational sanity. An online news site, Uncover California, has a story today that claims Many people believe the promising wine region of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico, has the potential to become ‘the next Napa Valley’…”.

I did a quick Google search on “the next Napa” and it resulted in 9,170 hits. The first was called “5 Reasons why Lodi, California is the Next Napa Valley.”

Another is headlined “Texas Hill Country: The Next Napa?” (I like the way it hedges its bets with that strategic little question mark, rather like the fig leaf that Renaissance painters used to discretely place over Adam’s private parts.)

Then there’s good ole Fox News, which doesn’t exactly call New Mexico, Virginia and Ohio “the next Napa” but but implies they could be: “Look out Napa: 5 up and coming wine regions.” (Hey Rupert Murdoch, tell your writers not to forget the proper use of the hyphen.)

Finally, “Is the North Fork the Next Napa Valley?” asks Hamptons, an online zine.

Some of this is crass promotional over-zeal. Some of it may actually be believed by the people claiming it. But it’s an interesting angle on the hold that Napa Valley has on our collective imagination.

That there currently is only one Napa Valley is indisputable, the way there is only one Pope or one World Series champ. But speculation over who the next one will be is one of the delights of the media, and especially of headline writers, a breed unto themselves whose role in formulating the template of the day has never been properly analyzed. (My favorite headline of all time goes all the way back to 1975: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” That would be President Gerald Ford and New York City, respectively.)

Sorry to end the fun, kids, but there won’t be a “next Napa Valley.” The time is gone when an American wine region can leap to the top of the charts and fire everybody up. That train left the station in the 1990s and isn’t coming back. The public is too smart to fall again for such an anointing by the media, especially the wine media, whom it doesn’t much trust these days.

Have a great weekend!


A family winery bites the dust

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It’s always sad when an old, little family winery shuts its doors, as Milat Vineyards & Winery is set to do by the end of this month.

I never formally reviewed any of their wines, because they never sent me tasting samples. They didn’t have a high profile in Napa Valley, and perhaps didn’t want one; as the Napa Valley Register, which reported the story, observes, “Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living.” Playing the publicity game, with all the related frou-frou and social obligations, doesn’t seem to have been the Milats’ style.

Should it have been? There can be little argument that being skilled at marketing and promotion can increase a winery’s prospects. I’ve long been fascinated at how and why some small wineries make it big, while others get lost in the shuffle of history. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, plays a role that can’t be foreseen or managed.

Take a winery like Failla or Saxum. Neither Ehren Jordan nor Justin Smith had much money, connections or P.R. savvy when he started out. What “made” their reputations was a combination of interesting wines made from interesting vineyards, and a personal style that knew how to connect with the wine press. (In both cases, I was “present at the creation,” so to speak, and reviewed them early, so I know what I’m talking about.) They had, to use the current parlance, “stories” to tell, and both told them well.

Writers like me visit hundreds of vineyards and meet thousands of winemakers over our lengthy careers, so it is indeed saying something when we can recall individual visits, that occurred years ago, with crystal clarity. That’s the case with my first visits to both Failla and Saxum. Well do I remember roaming Ehren Jordan’s vineyard in the remote hinterlands high above the Fort Ross beaches. Equally vivid are my memories of Justin Smith guiding me along the terraced tracks of his James Berry Vineyard, where on a blazing summer afternoon he picked out the bleached fossils of whale bones from the white earth. This is not to say that either Failla or Saxum made the greatest wines of their generation. Both make very good, very specific “wines of a place,” although I would fault Saxum to the degree that the alcohol levels were immodest (but, oh, the wines! Amazing. Some of these West Side Paso Robles red blends are stunning.). But what both Jordan and Smith managed to do was impress themselves upon the thoughts of a writer (me, as well as, obviously, others), who then was in a position to afford them some publicity. And they did it without a P.R. department.

One could mention others in California’s long winemaking history who similarly succeeded based on the power of their personalities and the quality of their wines: Agoston Harazsthy, Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni, Jim Clendenen. They realized that the renown of a winery is tied to the acclaim its proprietor arouses in the media. This is not to say that such acclaim is the only thing factoring into the renown of a winery: Caymus achieved theirs without any ornate personalities at the helm; so did Ridge; so has Foxen (with the notoriously un-spinny, un-quoteworthy Bill Wathan), and so have many others who went about their work unostentatiously.

So there are different paths to success, but I have to wonder if Milat would have “made it” in the long run had they played the game with a little more perspicacity. But then, that would not have been them; it would have been inauthentic. This question of “authenticity” is, of course, currently much in vogue in wine country. Every winery and every winemaker wants to be seen as staunchly independent and free of the hyperbolic control of spin doctors and P.R. agents. It’s reached the point where hired P.R. personnel advise their clients on how to present the appearance of authenticity! Can a winemaker or winery be “authentic” while paying for professional public relations advice on how to be authentic? It’s a good question and I don’t claim to have the answer.

“Authenticity” is hard to define anyway. A strong, colorful personality can seem authentic simply because it is irreverent and impinges itself strongly upon an audience; but until we master the science of mind-reading, we cannot know to what degree a strong personality is “natural” to its holder, or to what degree it is a conscious construct, if not a fabrication, designed to attract attention (or if it is in fact a combination of both). What we can know—“we” being writers, reporters and journalists—is that some winemakers are more interesting and fun to write about than others; they get the press while the quieter ones often don’t. You have to wonder how much this gets factored into a winery’s success.

Anyhow, I wish the Milat family well. As the Chinese increasingly buy ownership of Napa Valley, which years ago began losing its identity as a tight, indigenous culture, we must mourn the loss of each of these little family wineries, which are the bedrock foundation of any wine region. Any winery’s death diminishes me (to misquote John Donne) and the industry as well. And I always have a special place in my heart for winemaking families who just work hard, year after year, against the odds but armed with great integrity, and who do so without resorting to flashy pretention.


Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!

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Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

* * *

Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.


What is a “crown jewel”? Can there be more than one?

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In the mid-1970s, writer David Darlington tells us in the June issue of Wine & Spirits, Robert Mondavi defined [the Inglenook Estate vineyard] for [Francis Ford Coppola] as the crown jewel of Napa Valley.”

The wine world loves crown jewels. Petrus has been called the crown jewel of Pomerol; ditto the DRC in Burgundy. The concept stems, of course, from Old Europe, which bequeathed to us not only the idea of an aristocratic hierarchy of vineyards, with one or a few at the top and all the rest clustered below, but of a human aristocracy itself, whose royal heads were crowned with gemstones. It was as natural for 19th century France to elevate four vineyards in Bordeaux to First Growth status as it was to celebrate its Kings as les seigneurs grands plus among lesser royals.

If Robert Mondavi did indeed tell that to Mr Coppola (and we must assume he did, for Darlington, the author of Angel’s Visits, is a great historian of wine), his claim must be put into context. Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyard, on the bench just northwest of the Oakville border, was already 100 years old in 1970, and always had produced acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines. There were few, if any, contenders to the throne in Napa Valley that could boast that legacy (Martha’s Vineyard was a mere infant, Harlan a gleam in Bill Harlan’s eye). Napa’s mountains—Spring, Veeder, Diamond, Howell, Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill—were completely undeveloped, or very nearly so. Thus Mr. Mondavi was on firm historical and qualitative grounds when he praised Inglenook to Mr. Coppola, who must have listened with wide-eyed alacrity.

Today, does anyone think Inglenook is Napa Valley’s crown jewel? I don’t think so. This is not to diss Inglenook as simply to point out that it now has plenty of competitors—so many, in fact, that it would be fatuous for me to try and list them. Let’s just agree that we can no longer identify a “crown jewel” in Napa Valley, or indeed in most of the world’s greatest wine regions. Instead of an aristocratic “crown jewel” we now have galaxies of jewels, glittering and precious and giving us incredible wine.

California, in other words, is a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. Inglenook, for all its past glory, has yet to prove its modern relevance; Mr. Coppola has his work cut out for him (and I wish him luck). Yesterday’s crown jewel may be today’s déclassé property. By contrast, yesterday’s underperforming (or even non-existent) vineyard may be elevated to glorification today, provided (a) it possesses inherently great terroir to begin with, and (b) is given the necessary nourishment (talent + money) to allow the winemaker to express that terroir to the highest degree of international reclaim.

There are not that many wineries with the wherewithal to pull off this feat. Even among those that are owned by the very rich, you’d be surprised how many stint on the required financial investment. Some proprietors, it is rumored, are not even in the game for the long haul, but only for investment or lifestyle purposes. Why invest tens of millions into a property you may not be able to make a profit on when you sell it off? Then too, some proprietors who spend millions on improving their vineyards, ill-advised from the start, may unfortunately own land that is not inherently capable of producing the greatest wine.

Others, a fortunate few, have the twin blessings of wealth and a discerning eye for land. It is with them that California wine’s future lies, and always will. This is the brilliance of our Western-style meritocracy: passion and generational commitment, and not  the mere lucky sperm of heredity, now transform vineyards, old and new, into crown jewels.


I support Beckstoffer’s idea to bring more tasting rooms to Napa city

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The most interesting thing about the Beckstoffer family’s purchase of the old [1905] historic building in downtown Napa was Andy Beckstoffer’s statement (paraphrased in the Napa Valley Registry’s article) “that Upvalley wine interests should invest in Napa city and build their hospitality facilities there.”

“Upvalley” traditionally refers to the northern parts of Napa Valley—St. Helena and Calistoga, although I imagine you could roll Rutherford into there, and by some stretches of the imagination (and I think this was Andy’s intention) you could even include Oakville and Yountville. For, reading between the lines, Andy is encouraging all wineries to “use Napa city facilities as a major part of their hospitality function.”

This makes sense from multiple points of view. The first, expressly cited by Andy, is that having wineries locate or relocate their tasting rooms, etc. in Napa city will “protect the integrity of the Ag Preserve,” referring to the 1967 act to protect Napa Valley’s agricultural heritage from the threats of population and development. Andy has long been active in supporting the Preserve, for instance in maintaining the lands bordering his Napa Valley vineyards.

There’s another reason why it makes sense for wineries to establish their hospitality centers in downtown Napa. For all the redevelopment that Napa city has undergone the last ten years or so—and it’s been nothing short of amazing to those of us who have watched it—there’s still a weird disconnect between the city and the valley that bears its name. For a long time, there was no reason for visitors to Napa Valley to even bother going to Napa city. There was no there there, aside, perhaps, from COPIA (which proved not to be so good a draw after all.) After the explosion of fine restaurants, hotels and other amenities since 2000 or so, there suddenly was, especially along the waterfront. But Napa city, despite its allures, still feels a little sleepy and rural, with entire blocks of downtown that seem to have hardly changed since the 1950s, and offer little of interest to the casual visitor. Bringing tasting rooms and other tourist draws will help build a bridge between Napa, the city, and Napa, the valley, and make Napa city a more thriving and interesting place.

There’s one other advantage to bringing tasting rooms to Napa: it will mean fewer cars on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, including fewer drivers who are drinking. If people can stay in Napa city and do most of their tasting there, Napa Valley will be a safer place for us all.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with Andy’s proposal. Some want to keep Napa city “local” meaning, I suppose, a town of furniture shops and dress stores. Others have pointed out the irony (they would say hypocrisy) of Andy Beckstoffer being for development in the city but against Napa Valley wineries hosting weddings—a distinction so fine I fail to perceive it. And this all occurs against the greater backdrop of where to draw the line between too much development in Napa and not enough; this fast-growth vs. slow-growth battle that’s actually been going on for decades. For instance, in 1960, a city master plan called on expanding Napa’s population to 1.1 million people. (The population currently stands at about 79,000.)

I don’t think uncontrolled development is a good thing, but nothing comes without a cost. Leaving Napa “local” risks losing precious tourist dollars; over-developing it could make it into a wine version of Disneyland. But I think that Napans are smart enough to figure out a balanced approach, which is why I support Andy Beckstoffer’s idea.


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