One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.
Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.
Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…
A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.
Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?
It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.
Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.
When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).
We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.
But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.
And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.
And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!
Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.
One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.
But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:
If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.
The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.
The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:
I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.
And my favorite:
Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.
I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.
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.
Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?
That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?
I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.
It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.
I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”
This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.
Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.
Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.
One of the constants of the wine writer’s job is describing wine regions. Whether it’s the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the Santa Rita Hills or the Finger Lakes, the wine writer is expected to understand the region’s terroir (climate, soils) and its impact on the major wine varieties and types produced there.
I don’t think there’s ever been a wine book that didn’t contain this information; at least, I’ve never seen one. It’s part and parcel of the wine writer’s challenge to explain why wine smells and tastes as it does. After all, if you take this away from the writer, there’s not much else to opine about!
So how’s it done? You’d think the wine writer would visit the region/s he’s writing about, but this isn’t always possible, given the financial constraints of the trade (don’t get me started). So the wine writer makes certain compromises: he looks up to see what others have written about the region in question—others with, presumably, more opportunities for world travel than he possesses (or who accept all those junkets!).
The traditional way of researching what others have written is, of course, books. But we’re in the Age of the Internet now. Why bother to read a book when Google can give you anything you want for free? The result is a new generation of wine writers that appropriates pre-digested information from the Internet.
I’m not saying there’s anything immoral about this, but it can be dangerous. The reason is obvious: You can’t trust everything you find on the Internet. Few people, I admit, have the motive to lie about something as dull as the effects of the mistral in the Rhone Valley, so the wine writer who depends on the Internet as his source of this kind of information is on generally solid ground. Still, second-hand sourcing can be risky.
I don’t think readers want, as their first choice, a wine writer who gets her facts from the Internet. They prefer, or at least deserve, hearing from writers who actually go to the places they write about. And not only go to them—but spend time in them, year after year walking the land, breathing the air, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind, smelling the earth and the soils and the underbrush, sensing how the temperature and wind patterns shift hour-to-hour, talking to anybody and everybody about anything and everything, and drinking the wines from that place to determine for oneself what they’re like. Well-heeled writers, sometimes sponsored, can travel vast distances of the globe, parachuting in and “reporting” on Austria or Crete or someplace else the sponsors send wine writers to for 3 or 4 days. But is this the best kind of wine writing ?
The worst thing in the world for the wine industry is for old myths to be repeated. There are so many of them; so many are wrong. If every wine writer took the following oath, wine writing would take a great leap forward: “I vow not to automatically believe things just because I read them or heard them from someone. I vow to come to every wine experience with fresh eyes and an open, inquisitive mind.” Wouldn’t that be something?
Isn’t it time to retire these tired old clichés about the “mystery” of terroir and how “undefinable” it is, as this article from the Sacramento Bee once again illustrates?
I mean, that kind of thinking is 40 years old. It was a staple of the wine media for decades to describe terroir as an “ineffable concept” that’s almost impossible to translate into English.
Well, it’s not impossible to translate; and since we’re not likely to stop using the word “terroir” anytime soon, we might as well agree to stop agonizing about its impenetrability and simply to accept it for what it is:
Terroir is the three-legged combination of weather/climate, the physical aspect of the vineyard, and human intervention that results in the creation of wine. Period. End of story.
What’s so impenetrable about that?
People still seem to be surprised that wines made in different vineyards are different, even when those vineyards are physically close. This article describes a study that found “significant differences” in such wines. But what else would you expect? Identical twins, separated at birth and raised in different circumstances, will turn out differently. Besides, from the point of view of a winemaker who is seeking to express the uniqueness of her vineyard site, there’s little to be gained from such studies. You’re not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. It is true that with every new generation of wine drinkers it’s important to stress the importance of site. But there’s really nothing mystical or ineffable about it. Mass-produced wines don’t care about terroir and neither do the people who buy them. Small production wines are the ones that exhibit terroir, thank goodness, but I should think we can appreciate them without analyzing them to death. These studies go on forever—they’re the university enologist’s full employment act. But for you, me, most consumers and most winemakers, we already know all we need to know about the characteristics of a vineyard, and I don’t see how further analysis at the molecular level is going to improve the wine’s quality. If anything, if you bury a winemaker with too much technical detail, you run the risk of undermining the artistic elements of her creations.
It’s fine to talk about terroir, but we should resist the impulse to put it on a pedestal and worship it as some ineffable aspect of the Universe that cannot possibly be understood. Let winemakers who care about such things do their work. Scientific studies may assist them, but can in the end prove no more valuable than walking the vineyard year after year, season after season, vintage after vintage, knowing the vines in the fullest details, and resorting to instinct to allow the terroir to express itself. For that third leg of the terroir stool—human intervention—with all its subjectivity and hunches, is what ultimately elevates terroir from mere physical factors to the level of art.