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.
I had a little time to catch up on the proposed Freestone-Occidental appellation. Here’s what I found out.
It was first proposed to the TTB in 2009, according to First Leaf, a Sonoma company that helps investors acquire agricultural land, and whose website contains valuable information on Sonoma’s various wine regions. Freestone and Occidental are, of course, small towns in the southwestern part of Sonoma County. Here’s a link to one version of a map, Free-Occ, prepared by my friend, the AVA specialist Patrick Shabram. The website, everywine, has done a nice job summarizing the facts of the proposed appellation.
So what’s happened since 2009? In a word, nothing. “TTB returned [the application] last year,” explains Mike McEvoy, vice president of sales and marketing for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which has vineyards in the area. The problem, according to McEvoy: “The reason TTB gave was, they had clarified their view on new AVAs that overlap with existing AVAs. And because part of the Freestone-Occidental appellation overlaps Russian River Valley, they sent back the petition back.” The problem seems to particularly apply to Freestone, not Occidental.
Shabram told Marimar Torres, (who shared the email with me) back in 2012, that he was aware of the overlap problem, and that “resubmitting a revised petition with the overlapped area removed, is much more plausible.” McEvoy, however, says little has occurred lately to push things forward. He says a group of members of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, including Andy Peay, Ehren Jordan, Regina Martinelli and Ted Lemon, has plans to meet new month “to tackle this Freestone dilemma.” Unfortunately, the group wants any Freestone AVA “to include the area that’s overlapping with Russian River Valley,” which TTB is opposed to. Of course, no matter what the new eventual appellation is, starting this year it will have to append the words “Sonoma County” to it, according to the county’s new conjunctive labeling law, which will make for quite a mouthful.
My own feeling is that there should be at least one new AVA carved out from that area. I’ve always said the existing Sonoma Coast appellation is too big to mean anything. I was excited when Fort Ross-Seaview was approved by the TTB in 2011, but, as Marimar Torres, whose Doña Margarita Vineyard lies in the proposed new AVA, correctly notes, Fort Ross-Seaview is quite a distance away from Freestone-Occidental. “It’s so far north [whereas] Freestone-Occidental has a distinct personality.” The elevations there aren’t as high as in Fort Ross-Seaview, meaning the region is more subject to fog, making the wines deeper, heavier, more brooding than those of their northern cousins. Marimar’s 2005 Doña Margarita Pinot Noir is a classic example: dark, tannic and lush, not to mention ageworthy.
Thanks to Massimo di Constanzo for being my tour guide yesterday in Coombsville. This is Napa Valley’s hinterlands, a sleepy region of little homes and twisting country lanes that would be easy to get lost in. I’ll have much more to say about Coombsville in my upcoming story in Wine Enthusiast, but for now I just want to comment on the feeling I get when I visit a place that just reeks of terroir.
Terroir: there it is, that awful word again. I’m both a believer in it, and a scoffer of many of our official appellations that claim to have terroir but in reality don’t. But there are indeed places that look like they have terroir. Coombsville is one. So is Ballard Canyon, down in Santa Barbara County. So is Mount Harlan, where Calera does their thing. Edna Valley oozes a sense of terroir. So what do I mean by “places that look like they have terroir”?
For one thing, they’re fairly small in area. You can eyeball the entire appellation (pretty much so, anyway) from one point of elevation. Even if you can’t see the whole thing in one swoop, you can see the appellation’s unity on a topo map. For instance, this image of Coombsville
shows clearly how the region is so delineated: tucked into a crescent-shaped bowl beneath the Vacas that descends from rolling foothills down to the Napa River, where the flatlands of Napa City take over. Doesn’t that look like “a place”? It’s not sprawling, like Paso Robles. Nor does it even have much of the east-west spectrum of, say, Oakville. It looks like It has a unity of climate, soils and exposures, which is why you’d expect to find a similarity between wines of the same variety or blend. And you do. And that’s what I call regional terroir.
I’ve been lucky in having tour guides like Massimo help me all my career. When I first visited the Santa Rita Hills, it was Greg Brewer who took me all around. Andy Beckstoffer once gave me the royal tour of Rutherford, an experience I’ve never forgotten. Greg Melanson was kind enough to helicopter me (twice) over Pritchard Hill, an experience beyond praise; being 900 feet up in altitude is absolutely the best way to get the lay of the land. Michael Terrien once shepherded me around the Napa side of Carneros; walking that land showed me that the area is more complicated than I’d thought.
There’s a symbiosis between the wine writer, on the one hand, and the people he writes about, on the other. We need them, as much as they need us. Ultimately, our interests don’t necessarily coincide, but, there’s a mutual respectfulness–in the best of cases, anyhow. I’ve met a few vintners and growers in my time who were models of incorrigibility. But not too many, fortunately; this is a pretty well-behaved field to work in.
Lots of work-related travel coming up. I’m off to New York for a quickie tomorrow to attend the big Red and White Bash, Wine Enthusiast’s 25th anniversary celebration, at the Hudson Hotel, on West 58th, in busy midtown. From the sound of it, it’s going to be quite the par-tay. I already have my red and white “costume,” and Chuck lent me a really cool papier-måché mask he bought in London.
Then next week, it’s up to Geyserville for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. This is an offshoot of the annual Taste Alexander Valley consumer event, but the Cabernet Academy is an invitation-only thing for sommeliers. They fly in from all over the place for a series of seminars–four in all–which I’ll be moderating, at different locations throughout the valley.
The idea is to see if there are terroir differences between the southern, middle and northern stretches of Alexander Valley. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to before, so in the next week, I plan to study it. My impression, up to now, is that the major distinction in Alexander Valley terroir is between mountains and flatlands. If you take a property like Stonestreet, or Verité, they have to have an Alexander Valley appellation even though they’re thousands of feet up in the Mayacamas. That’s the same AVA all those wineries along Route 128 have, down on the valley floor, which makes no sense at all.
The late Jess Jackson tried for years to get his mountain vineyards under a new appellation. The mountain they’re on historically has been called Black Mountain. Jess wanted it changed to Alexander Mountain. He lost that one, a rare defeat for a man who seldom lost anything in his long, illustrious life. I don’t care what they call it, but that mountain does need a separate appellation.
At any rate, I think the temperature is a little hotter the further north you go in Alexander Valley, as it is in Napa Valley. The average high in July in Cloverdale, for instance. Is 93 degrees, while mid-valley, at Geyserville, it’s a little over 90. At Healdsburg, in the southernmost part, the average July high is 88.8 degrees. So there is that spread. But this is a simplistic way of looking at things, as there’s so much more involved. Along the Russian River, the soils are deep and fertile. As you climb the benches and get into the mountains, they become drier, thinner and less rich in nutrients. The mountains also are cooler, an important consideration in such a hot place.
Then, after Alexander Valley, I’m off to the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, where I’ll be co-hosting, along with Michael Jordan, M.S., a tasting of the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill. (Michael told me he was inspired to organize this tasting after reading the article on Pritchard Hill I wrote last year for Wine Enthusiast. The confirmed winemakers and wineries for our panel at this point are Phillip Titus (Chappellet), Andy Erickson (Ovid), Phillipe Melka (Brand), David Long (David Arthur) and Carlo Mondavi (Continuum). This panel will be a high point of the festival, but only one of many: as you can see from the schedule of events, Kapalua is a fabulous four days of some of the greatest wines and winemakers in California (not to mention food. I’m assuming the hotel has a gym where I can burn off the calories!). I can’t wait to go. My only regret is that Gus won’t be able to come with me. He loves the beach.
Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?
Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.
This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?
This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.
Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!
There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.
Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.
Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:
Destemming or not?
To inoculate or not? And with what?
To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?
What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?
When to drain off the juice?
Include press wine?
How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?
Cooperage and toast level
Natural malo or inoculate?
Stirring, if any?
Racking, if any?
Time in barrel
You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.
Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.
What I wrote yesterday isn’t to say that all Bordeaux tastes alike. Lewin doesn’t go there and, in fact, goes out of his way to point out distinctions between chateaux (e.g. Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion) that must be due to something–although he cautions the reader that “the only difference [between them] is that Haut Brion is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, while La Mission is planted at 8,000 vines per hectare.” Last time I checked, terroir does not include the way a vintner plants his vines, so what vine density has to do with terroir is a mystery to me.
In California, when you think of all the things that can mitigate or mask terroir (in addition to Lewin’s catalog, there’s clonal/selection, a tendency to use more oak, a general standardization of winemaking techniques, and considerably more career mobility than in Bordeaux), it becomes easier to understand why all coastal Pinots taste more alike than not. What the wine critic’s task then becomes is to look for differences of elegance, finesse, beauty, balance, texture, ageability and so on–qualities that are not merely expressions of local growing conditions, but of human influence, of proper vineyard management and superior winemaking skills. In other words, the writer’s task becomes the telling of stories, not repeating the conventional wisdom of the terroir meme, which is of very little use to consumers.
And so we come to yet another iteration or mutation of the concept of terroir: it now becomes a marketing tool, a word to use on back labels and sales brochures. How many wines have I seen described as coming from superior terroir that actually are purchased on the bulk market and blended into county-wide or even Central Coast and North Coast appellations? I wish we could put the toothpaste back into the tube and limit our use of the word “terroir” to the only place where it could conceivably apply: to small, individual vineyards that have produced particular wines (varietal or blend) over a longish period of time, where those wines have shown a consistent style and profile. (We might for example look at the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road for its Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem.) But I think it’s no longer valid (if it ever was) to talk about “Santa Rita Hills terroir” or “Russian River Valley terroir” or “Oakville terroir,” except in the most generalized way, and even then to warn our readers (those of us who have readers, anyway) to take these terroir distinctions with a generous pinch of salt.