This is pretty cool—a new blog that addresses “the practice of wine public relations, wine media trends, marketing ethics and news commentary.”
Lots of blogs, including mine, have written stuff over the years on these topics, but I don’t know of any blog that is solely dedicated to them. The creators, Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur, call their site SWIG.
I’m sure it will be a success, especially if Tom and Julie Ann—both old friends of mine—keep it free. It’s not clear to me how often they’ll post, or if they view SWIG as a vehicle to drive paying customers to their own, separate public relations firms. Nonetheless, P.R. is a subject of importance and ongoing interest to winery principals—as well it should be—and so SWIG will probably be eagerly read. (Besides, as we all know, Tom is an entrepreneur who knows how to successfully start things up!)
I do want to comment on something Tom wrote on their website. “There is a body of knowledge which guides all publicists, regardless of industry, as well as there being a body of knowledge that guides wine publicists specifically. The intersection of these two bodies is what Julie Ann and I had in mind to explore here at SWIG.”
This is true, as far as it goes; but what interests me is where winery communications is going, as opposed to where it’s been—and believe me, it’s going someplace it hasn’t been before. For that matter, so is the entire wine industry; the two are interrelated. For it seems to me that we are leaving, if we haven’t already left, the “classical” era of winery P.R. and are chugging along into one that—as with all futures—we see only “through a glass, darkly.”
Tom has it exactly right when he states “The Number One Golden Truth of Wine Public and Media Relations [is] YOU MUST ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” In past “classic” times, this wasn’t always appreciated by the crafters of publicity messages. Back then, advertisers felt free to lie, knowing that no public agency or consumer outrage would check them. This 1930 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes actually had the nerve to suggest that smoking was good for your throat and lungs!
Tom’s claim notwithstanding, not all wineries always tell the truth. There are lies of commission, and lies of omission; you can’t know what you don’t know, and wineries sometimes don’t want you to know all the stuff they do (like adding mega-purple, or blending in Central Valley grapes, or putting a little Syrah into that nice Pinot Noir, or soaking the Chardonnay in wood chips, or reducing the alcohol by technical gizmos).
But in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to keep anything secret, so wineries are better off figuring out how to be completely candid, even when it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. You can always turn a lemon into lemonade, as Dear Abby used to say.
However, the bigger questions remain: Why does a winery need a P.R. and communications firm? If they can’t do the job themselves, how should they choose an outside firm? How can they measure the return on investment they pay to the outside firm? Answered in reverse order, it can be awfully hard for a winery proprietor to tell if his P.R. firm is worth it. The P.R. people will tell him it takes time for plans to achieve fruition, which is true; they say, also, that some of their results aren’t measurable, which also is true. This is why some wineries remain locked into unholy matrimony with P.R. companies for years, yoked to firms that are not helping them. It’s also why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wineries will peremptorily fire a very good P.R. firm that actually is advancing their cause: they get nervous, or their brother-in-law tells them he has a better firm, and so the pink slips go out. (Do firing managers still give out pink slips, or am I dating myself?)
How a winery should go about choosing an outside firm is one of the biggest decisions they’ll make, and also one of the most difficult. If I was a winery, I’d ask my successful friends, who represents you and how are they doing? But I’d also apply good, old-fashioned common sense: Do you like the firm’s owners? Do they seem honest, up-to-date, familiar with digital communications and social media? Or are they stuck in anachronistic approaches? Finally, why does a winery need a P.R. firm? It’s all about communication, stupid! The days are long gone when a winery proprietor could sit alone, in splendid isolation, and think that his wine will go out there and sell itself. That used to be true, in certain circumstances and to a certain extent: for example, wineries that were located on well-traveled tourism routes could depend on an influx of visitors who would buy the wine, even if it was horrible. That’s increasingly hard to do, as consumer’s palates are educated. And some wineries coast on their reputations for years, depending on their old customers to continue buying them. But guess what? Old customers die.
Finally, I’d say that the relationship between a winery and it’s P.R. firm cannot be one based only on occasional exchanges. It’s all about intense teamwork these days: neither side—winery or P.R. firm—can generate the best ideas, but only both sides working together, so that brains can rub against each other, causing sparks of imagination and creativity that are geared toward the winery’s specific needs and talents. The winery that blithely accepts from its P.R. firm a template with a boilerplate approach is asking for trouble.
Anyhow, like I said, I’m sure Tom’s and Julie Ann’s new venture will be a success. I wish them good luck, and I’ll be reading SWIG (and often commenting on it) whenever they post.
Mark Gordon is senior digital communications manager for La Crema Winery. He oversees all digital media outreach for the company’s various brands, including social media, blogs, and web development and design. He’s also my colleague. I interviewed the 46-year old recently in Healdsburg and began with a tough question.
SH: Aren’t you too old to really “get” social media?
MG: I’ve been involved in the web since its infancy. What you tend to find after a while is what goes around comes around. Something that’s being touted as new and innovative is something most likely that’s been done before. A case in point would be Facebook. It’s AOL done right–an evolution of that. And I bring a varied background. I cut my teeth in journalism, back when cutting-and-pasting was actually cutting and pasting things! So having a good foundation in writing, wordsmithing and knowing the basics of journalism helps on digital, because it all comes out in storytelling.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is social media to a winery?
I’d say that social media is probably an eight. But marketing yourself digitally is a ten. By that, I mean social media is a tactic, but there are other tactics out there as well. The key is in finding the right blend that resonates with whom you’re trying to attract as a consumer.
What social media channels do you work with?
All the usual social media suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. That’s where we play the most, as far as social’s concerned. All those channels are designed to drive people towards our own properties, particularly those that have blogs, where we can tell more long-form storytelling and deliver more meaningful messages. Pulling that circle out a little wider, I’d say then you talk about sites where link-sharing is important: StumbleUpon, or reddit, or some of the “food porn” sharing sites, like foodgawker. And then another circle is getting relationships going on with other influential publishers, so your message can be carried outside your sphere of influence.
One year, MySpace is big; the next, no one uses it. How do you stay on top of social media’s fast evolution?
Agility. As a digital strategist, the important thing is to look in your crystal ball and see where you think things are trending. I mean, Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling.
What is the role of wine bloggers?
Wine bloggers are in the mix. They can be influencers, people who can help carry a message on behalf of a brand. For us, one of the most important things for wine bloggers is obviously that earned hit.
What does that mean?
“Earned media” means a blogger writes about one of our brands in a manner in which they’re not paid for their work. So we get them samples, or it happens completely organically that they review one of our wines, and that’s a super-valuable thing for us as a company to have those impressions out there on the web.
What about paid wine bloggers?
We call it “influencer outreach.” It’s identifying folks who resonate with our core consumer, and finding ways to work with them. In some cases, it may be something where we pay them as essentially a journalist for hire, to not only write stories on our behalf on their blog, but through other channels. If they have a big following on Pinterest, maybe we do something with them. If they’re influential on Facebook, maybe we ask them to post on our behalf.
Is that all transparent?
It is transparent. The Federal Trade Commission now requires any sort of paid content marketing to be disclosed. So all the folks we work with disclose that.
La Crema just launched, with your help, Virtual Vintner last Monday. What is that?
Virtual Vintner is a crowd-sourcing platform where we’re tasking members of our community and people who are enthusiastic about wine and winemaking techniques to help us craft, from grape to glass, the next La Crema wine. We start off with the decision that will set the course for this adventure, which is whether you want to make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. And from there, it becomes a choose-your-adventure style program. At each step of the journey, we’re not only asking folks to make decisions, we’re giving them the tools they need to make a decision that resonates best with what their personal tastes are, and educating them on the process of winemaking.
How long does the contest last?
We don’t consider it a “contest.” There are contest elements within it, but it truly is an interactive journey. Within that map of different elements—the varietal, the region, the vineyard, the barrels and so forth–we’ll ask people to make a series of choices.
Will there be winners?
Over the various stages, every time you vote, you’re entered in a sweepstakes, and the winner of that particular sweepstakes will come out to Sonoma County for a one-on-one at La Crema, to meet with winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, maybe get to do some barrel sampling.
So they get a nice vacation!
They get a nice vacation, yeah. And there will be other “contests” as well. Once we get the wine into barrel, Virtual Vintner will have a flavor-describing contest, where participants will have this ability to assume what the tasting profile on that wine might be. They’ll write up a series of tasting notes, and whoever comes closest to what our expert panel determines the flavors to be, will win another prize.
How can people learn more about Virtual Vintner?
I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.
Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.
A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.
Were it only that simple.
It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.
That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.
Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)
Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.
As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.
The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.
Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.
There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.
I don’t know that I’ve ever fully laid out, in this blog, my views on the three most common forms of wine tasting: single-blind, double-blind and open. So let me do so.
I’ve long argued that no one way of tasting is “right.” Each has its pluses and minuses. If there were one “correct” way we all would have accepted it by now, so the fact that we haven’t suggests there is no one correct way.
Single-blind tasting, in which you know something about the wines (maybe their region, variety and vintage) is useful, in that it’s blind enough to prevent bias, but gives you some context in which to make evaluations. This question of “context” has been woefully underreported by the wine and academic media, in my judgment. Why context matters is difficult to prove to those who think it doesn’t; it’s an almost political point of view. But suffice it to say that context gives the taster at least some parameters within which to base his conclusions. The following metaphor is a little stretched, I’ll admit, but gets the point across. Let’s say a juvenile is on trial in a courtroom for some youthful infraction. The D.A. wants to throw the book at the kid, but the judge permits his parents and teachers to testify. They offer a view of the kid that’s far different from the one the D.A. presented. The judge, after taking all these views into account, adjusts his sentence accordingly. That is “context.”
Double-blind tasting by contrast allows for no context (except, obviously, knowing the color and stillness or bubbliness of the wine, which may be sweet or dry). To extend the above metaphor, the judge allows no “character witnesses.” He simply bases his conclusions on the law/s the defendant is alleged to have broken, and makes his sentence based on prescribed punishments. This is “unfair” in that it fails to take anything into account other than the actual act of lawbreaking; but one can argue (and extreme law-and-order societies do so argue) that it is after all the fairest, most objective and consistent and least emotional approach to jurisprudence.
Open tasting must break with the metaphor and use a different rationale. In open tasting, you know exactly what you’re tasting. The argument in favor of it is that it’s only fair to know all the facts before making a judgment. This is why so many proprietors insist on critics visiting the winery and tasting with the winemaker; they will not send wine to the critic to taste anonymously in some lineup. This approach, too, makes sense if you view it through the lens of another metaphor. Let’s say your child wants to marry someone. You, the parent, feel you should have some say in the matter: your child’s protestations of love for the fiancé are not enough to convince you that this is a marriage that will succeed. So you insist on meeting the lover and knowing more about him or her: About the parents—the financial situation—the prospects for making a living—the person’s moral fiber—his or her commitment to your child. Surely this is not an unreasonable approach for a parent: He wants to experience the lover “openly.”
How a person tastes wine depends on his reason for doing so. A negociant or a winemaker assembling a final blend may decide to taste double-blind: the sole purpose is to produce the best wine possible. A wine critic may choose to taste single-blind, as I did at Wine Enthusiast (and as I believe many other major critics do). But a wine critic also may choose to taste openly, as I know for a fact some of the world’s most famous English-speaking critics do. They will argue (and who am I to disagree?) that they are perfectly capable of disregarding their knowledge of the wine so that they arrive at an objective conclusion. One can even suggest that open tasting is simply an extreme case of single-blind tasting: After all, if you already know something about what the wine is, then how much “worse” can it be if you know still more?
In the end, we can conclude one thing with certainty: The critic who tastes openly will be a lot more consistent in her reviews that the critic who tastes double-blind. If you value consistency in critics (and the winemakers I know say it’s the single most important thing they look for), then you probably want your critic to taste openly. Finally, I’ll just say that this discussion involves a lot of inside-baseball stuff: All this may be controversial within the critical/winemaking community, but the general public doesn’t give a hoot how their critics taste. They can’t be bothered with the details: All they want to know about is the review and score.
“There is a group of wine directors out there that feel that their mission is to educate the consumer. I think this is a dangerous philosophy. If people want to ask questions, fine; but if you’re going to stand there and proselytize, well, check please.”
I didn’t say it: The immortal Fred Dame, M.S. did, in the August issue of The Tasting Panel magazine. (Sorry, I could not find a link.) So if you’re a somm with hurt feelings, don’t blame me, play the Dame game! But seriously, this is an important topic Fred alludes to, because it addresses some of the most controversial questions in today’s restaurants: How to best serve the customer who, after all, is the basis of the entire industry? And what exactly is the proper role of the sommelier?
The somm arguably is the most informed person about wine in the restaurant on any given night, especially when it comes to her own wine list. She knows more than 99.9% of the customers do. The risk is that there can be a tendency on the part of very knowledgeable people to showcase their knowledge to others, especially when they’re getting paid to do it. This can be tendentious, even tiresome, if done with a heavy hand. Or it can be interesting and educational. The somm has to walk a delicate line, trying to find that balance. I take Fred Dame at his word when he talks about “a group of wine directors out there” who cross over the line. He knows a lot more about the world of the sommelier than I ever will, so when Fred says something is happening—and that it’s “dangerous”—we should heed his words.
This relates directly to the area of the overly-precious wine list. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the phenomenon, which seems to be on the rise, of the wine director whose wine list is so arcane, so dominated by obscure countries and varieties, that average customers, frustrated at not being able to find things they understand and like, ask if they can just have a nice Chardonnay! It’s perfectly understandable for a somm, who’s worked long and hard to get where she is, to have developed a personal preference for obscure wines. It’s also understandable that the somm would then want—passionately—to share those wines with her clients, the diners. There’s joy in pedagogy—but not in pedantry.
I “get it” when somms get bored and tired of the same old popular wines and varieties. I used to get tired of having to write the same “what wine to drink at Thanksgiving” article every year! It’s a form of burnout common among sommeliers, wine writers and many other people who perform repetitive functions.
But it seems to me the sommelier has to put her own feelings aside, in favor of those of the customers. I myself have generally good experiences with sommeliers, but etched into my memory are some awful ones. The bad ones all have this in common: The somm pushed his or her own agenda onto me, with disastrous results (from my point of view). Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.
I’m willing to let a somm advise me about certain wines with which I may be unfamiliar. This is especially true if (a) the somm can bring me a little tasting sample of the wine he wants me to try, and (b) I have a guarantee that, if the suggested wine fails to meet my expectations, I can substitute something else for it, and not get charged for the first glass. (I would never gamble on a full bottle of a wine I knew nothing about, based merely on the somm’s advice. Way too risky.)
But I don’t want a somm, or anyone else in the restaurant, second guessing my preference, or making me feel like an idiot, just because I want a rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay with my scallops. I don’t know if that is specifically what Fred Dame had in mind by his “dangerous” remark, but since we’re all in the business of trying to get people to like wine, it’s not a good idea to alienate them with pontification, pandering or pretension.
Everybody’s shocked, shocked about what Rudi Kurwanian did, but faking wine is nothing new. Below is an extract from Cato the Elder (234 BC-149 BC), a Roman statesman, on how to fake Coan wine—a wine that should have been made from grapes grown on the island of Kos, but that, as Cato points out, can be fabricated using cheap Italian grapes. The addition of all the salt water was because Coan wine apparently was salty, perhaps like Manzanilla sherry.
“If you wish to make Coan wine (Cato says), take water from the deep sea on a calm and windless day, seventy days before the vintage, from a place where no fresh water can reach. When you have drawn it from the sea, pour it into a vat. Do not fill the vat, but leave an empty space of five amphorae [about 30 gallons]. Cover up the vat, but leave a space for the sea water to breathe. After thirty days, rack it off cleanly into another vat, leaving its sediment. After another twenty days, rack it again and leave it till the vintage.
“Leave the grapes from which you intend to make your Coan wine on the vines, and let them be thoroughly cooked and ripened. When it has rained and dried up again, pick them and expose them to the sun for two or three days out of doors if there is no rain, or if there is rain set them out on hurdles under cover, and pick off any moldy berries. Then pour ten amphorae of your sea water into a fifty-amphorae cask. Then remove the berries from the stalks and press them down into the cask with your hand until it is full, so that they may soak up the sea water. When you have filled the cask, close it, leaving a small space for the air to pass. After three days, take the grapes out of the cask, press them and store the wine in good, clean, dry casks.
“That it may have a good bouquet, do as follows: Take a pitched potsherd and put on it a glowing live coal, perfume it with various scents to be found at the perfumery, put it in a cask and cover it up, so that the fragrance may not escape before you put it in the wine. Do this the day before you rack your wine into the cask. Transfer your wine from the press to the cask as quickly as possible and leave it for fifteen days with a cover, leaving an air space, and then seal it up. Forty days later you will bottle it in amphorae, adding to each amphora a forty-eighth part of must boiled down to one half. Do not fill the amphora above the point where the handles start. Put your amphorae out in the sun in a place where there is no grass, cover them so that no moisture can get in, and do not leave them in the sun more than four days. Then remove them to the cellar.”
* * *
So you see, counterfeiting wine is just about as old as wine itself.
By the way, speaking of the Ancients, when they described their wine, in their treatises and poems, they didn’t use the kind of language we do today, which is of comparatively recent derivation. (I mean the analogies to fruits and flowers, and talk of acidity and tannins and oak.) Our winespeak would have puzzled them, perhaps even appalled them, as hopelessly mean and barbarian. They saw wine as a gift of the gods, and when they wrote of it, they tried to grasp—sometimes with success—its essential mystery as well as its divine properties. They did not attempt to describe what wine tasted like (as we do) so much as what drinking it felt like (as we do not). Here, for example, is Bacchylides, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Socrates and Alexander the Great, on a certain wine:
“Sweet compulsion flowing from the wine warms the heart, and hope of Love returned, all mingled with the gifts of Dionysus darts through the brain, sending the thoughts of men to heights supreme. Straightway it overthrows the battlements of cities, and every man dreams that he is heir to a throne. With gold, yea, and ivory, his house is gleaming, and wheat-laden ships bring him from Egypt over the flashing sea, wealth beyond count. Thus does the drinker’s heart leap with fancies.”
Are we better off with “notes of blackberries and cherries”? Not really. But we’re stuck with it, for the time being.
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.