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Rebutting critiques of California terroir, this time in Napa Valley


A reader made the following comment yesterday on my most recent post, Terroir and cru: an exploration. I don’t usually reproduce reader comments in full, but this one contains many interesting and complex points I want to address. Here’s his comment:

Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.

First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.

So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.

Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.

The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their [sic] is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.

Many of the opinions expressed above are widely shared throughout American wine circles. Anyone in this industry is aware of them. In essence, it’s a critique of California wine reduced to the following points:

-California wine has become Parkerized.
-Parkerization is a code word for too high in alcohol, too ripe, too oaky.
-As a result, the wines lose their connection with terroir–the ground in which they were born–and become internationalized in style.
-There is a movement afoot now whereby consumers are rejecting such wines.
-Producers of these wines increasingly must resort to marketing tricks in order to sell them.

We’ve heard all this before. It’s an old argument but it does have its adherents and the issues need to be addressed whenever they arise. The truth is that the style of ultraripe wines, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon, is one that people like. That’s why producers make these wines: because they find favor among buyers. I myself reject the argument that high alcohol trumps terroir because it makes no sense. Logically, there is no reason for that to be true. Those who believe it have to assert that something in the ground that is transmitted to the wine can only be expressed if the ABV is below a certain number. That is implausible to me. After all, alcohol levels have been rising in France, too, so one would have to argue that even in France, the notion of terroir is being lost. Eventually one becomes a terroir-ideologue, finding violations everywhere, fixated on a romantic notion that doesn’t exist.

Some consumers may well be rejecting high-end, expensive, high alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would suggest that is due more to the economy than to any shifting in taste. When the Recession hit, everything pricy got hit. Napa Valley wine will find its way, I’m sure, as recovery occurs.

As for those “marketing reasons” producers rely on to tout their terroir, nothing new there either. Bordeaux and Burgundy have been doing it forever. That’s what high-end wine does: tries to convince people it’s special due to its ground and that no other wine can ever be quite like it. The Napans learned that from the French. Yes, Colgin does it. Continuum does it. Harlan does it. Screaming Eagle does it. Ditto Araujo, Dalla Valle, anything with the word To Kalon or Tokalon on it, Shafer, Staglin, Ovid, Diamond Creek, Vineyard 7&8, Duckhorn. Lord knows I’ve criticized some proprietors for not letting me taste their wines blind, which is a marketing trick if you ask me. But that’s not to say they’re not in possession of spectacular terroir capable of producing spectacular wines. They boast about their terroir because it’s real, not because they’re trying to trick people into thinking it’s real. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

So you can see I reject most of my reader’s comment. But I do thank him for reading my blog and for taking the time to express his opinions, which I respect. I just don’t happen to agree with them.

  1. A few things
    1) I often wonder if all of the people who are criticizing the Shafers, Araujos, Screagles of the world have ever actually tasted them. Or is that they are assuming that because so many low-mid range Napa cabs are made in a way that seeks to emulate the flavors of the big hitters (be they the 125USD + cali cab, or first growth bordeaux) – a practice which, despite my love of great Cali wine I DO think it very problematic- and because these sorts of low-mid wines are more often than not awkward and not fun to drink, that they just make the assumption that the models for these wines must be equally awkward.
    Or is it more that it has become so trendy to see ripe fruit as a bad thing; the artificial dialectic flipping, courtesy of Parr and his cronies, of acid over fruit is now what you have to accept as dogma if you to be seen as knowledgable about wine. Or is it familiarity breeds contempt. All of the above and more I expect. The certainly not to say that there isn’t much criticism to be levied at the CA wine scene, there certainly is. But what region, in any given period of time, doesn’t have issues that it needs to be held accountable for. Yes I’m looking at YOU Cote D’Or. I want my $$$$ back for all of the absurdly expensive, thin, overcropped crap that I had to endure in the late 80s-early 90s —my formative wine years.

    2) The concept of terroir, wholesale, needs to be put under careful scrutiny
    On the one hand, its the most obvious thing in the world: environment matters in raising living things and some environments will be better for some living things than others.
    On the other, the amount of specificity in wines that are attributed, and presented AS FACT, to terroir seem, in the 21st century, to be intellectually lazy. Much like the notion that my hand words the way it does because some “god” built it that way. Lazy.
    Is it really the limestone I’m tasting in this wine, Mr Vingeron? Really? Have you corrected for all variables? Is this not a case of correlation being presented as causation.
    Sure the idea of terroir is poetic and beautiful; despite my skepticism, I often find myself drawn to it. However, as with all other discoveries in the natural world, I expect that the truth is far more beautiful and beguiling than the poetry

  2. Dear DR, lots to think about in your comment. Thanks.

  3. Man, I need to proofread for typos before submitting these things!!

  4. John Buckley says:

    Everyone assumes that the French AOC system is so tightly controlled that it’s impermeable to fraud. If you scan over old news articles over the last several years you’ll find otherwise.

    I think what matters is not necessarily the vineyard but the climate that year at that particular location. On any given year perfect wine can come from different regions. I think that overall the Paso area has a better climate for reds than Napa, but those are fightin’ words in certain circles so I don’t bring that up too often.

  5. As a wine drinker, and not a vineyard or winery owner, I don’t give a flip about folks in the flyover states having an anti-California wine bias. Leaves more for me.

    I’ve enjoyed wine produced from all around the world. Taste and preference is subjective, and a trained palate notwithstanding, everyone’s got a right to like what they like.

    For me, the finest wines in the world are produced in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma County. Big, bold vineyard-designated zinfandels from this area are by far my favorite.

    The blog commenter is just a guy with an opinion. Market prices, wine shipment patterns, and tourism counts provide empirical evidence to the contrary of his “sour grapes” assertion. And if he can’t distinguish an Alexander Valley from a Dry Creek Valley wine, or a bottomland vineyard from a ridgeline vineyard, then that’s his shortcoming, not mine (or many others).

  6. Steve/all – good issues here…end of the day, Marketing will be marketing, with one goal. But the laisse faire marketplace will eventually dictate the winners. High-end cults have their place, and their market. Medium-priced wines have a much larger (if less vocal) constituency, and quality does reigh supreme over time. It isn’t terrior nearly as much as winemaker/house consistency and capabilities thru vintages thick and thin. Shafer succeeds because of great talent…as does Staglin and dozens of others. Great grape sources help, but we’re all had mediocre wines from great sites.
    And lest we forget, this isn’t an artistic endeavor – it’s a business. I know few/no wineries in it for the sake of making great wine alone…there is a return required, hence the investments in marketing, sales, etc.


  7. carlos toledo says:

    As someone who visits wineries in the new world and in europe to me the idea of a nature only derived american terroir sounds… out of tune. Of course i know there is terroir in the States… even in Africa there’s wine terroir, though it’s awful for wine.

    Anyone who has ever taken long trips inside parks in the US and Africa or Europe knows what i am talking about. Things are so well laid out and setup in the States they look like what we call “a doll’s house”.

    The gap between wineries in Europe and the Napa region is even wider (except in the high brow bordeaux. By not coincidence a huge business region as well). In the US all the fences are perfectly white painted, the asphalt (or black top as my loving friends say in Iowa) is impecable… the irrigation systems seem to be designed by NASA.

    In short, American wineries sin may be that they look too good from the outside.

    I am suck at writting in english (god, maybe in any other language), i hope my point is understood. Get those wineries less nice, americans, just so we can sense your terroir.

  8. Morten Hallgren says:

    Your reader brought up valid points, that simply will not go away. The increased frequency of such reaction is a snapshot of the change in the dominant American taste in wine. Yes, there are still many people enjoying over-ripe, jammy, high alcohol wines. Presumably, they are mostly older, mainly smoking men, who have largely lost their taste buds and the ability to pick up nuances and balance, but need something in the vicinity of a port wine.
    The issue with using the term “terroir” in this context is that it makes absolutely no sense! This kind of wine can be made anywhere hot enough: California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, Australia, North Africa, Southern Italy, Spain… This is precisely why there cannot be any detectable connection between the wine and the specific conditions of where the grapes are grown. This was thrown out with the race to produce wines stating “more is better”. The two approaches are incompatible: you either produce balanced wines where you can pick up subtleties and nuances and eventually connect them with a terroir or you produce this style of wine, which precisely intends to remove all such nuances under a slab of oak, alcohol and jammy fruit. Wine producers and wine drinkers need to choose one of these two categories; there is no overlap.

  9. Kurt Burris says:

    If there is no terroir in California then Napa grapes should sell for the same price as Lodi fruit. Ain’t seeing that happening any time soon unless those diabolical marketers convince us of the superior terroir of the delta.

  10. Morten Hallgren says:

    The fact that Napa wineries have been able to sell their wines for higher prices and therefore pay more for their grapes does not have anything to do with terroir. It has everything to do with marketing, colossal investments and monuments that show well in glossy magazines.

  11. Morten Hallgren, if that is true of Napa it is also true of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the best Tuscan wines, etc. etc. etc.

  12. Morten: I don’t see how you get over the fact that what you say is a matter of taste, not objective reality. You define “balance” in a way that suits you. Many others, myself included, fine balance in the big Napa wines. I will also quote DR [whose comment is below in this string]: “I often wonder if all of the people who are criticizing the Shafers, Araujos, Screagles of the world have ever actually tasted them.” Have you? Or have you just tasted less expensive wannabe versions that quite frankly aren’t very interesting?

  13. Kurt Burris says:

    Morten: The Lodi Grapegowers have deeper pockets than most Napa wineries. If it was all marketing they would have it in the bag, and have done very well in the marketplace with some pretty mediocre (in my opinion)wines, thanks to that marketing. But they still aren’t making the quality wines that are produced in some parts of Napa.

  14. Carlos, I love you, man, but you’re really a little out there with this comment. You’re saying the Napa wineries have no terroir because they look too good? Come on!

  15. Morten Hallgren
    You make the specious argument that “high alcohol” (though curious where your threshold is for that term) is equal to “overripe”, “jammy, etc.
    It’s OK, I used to make the same proclamations, but then I was honest with myself and realized that I had been avoiding certain wines for years; so my opinions were out of date and had no empirical data to back them.
    So for the sake of intellectual honesty, I’ve been going out to taste wines that I’ve avoided for years. I’ve been driving up to Napa (a place I’ve avoided for years) to taste and test my assumptions. What I’ve found is that my assumptions were just not reliable – what I was tasting, ON AVERAGE, didn’t line up with my opinions.
    I found myself tasting too many wines in the 14.5-15+ (labeled. who knows how high the actual ABV) which seemed elegant, pretty and light on their feet. Now there were also plenty of pruney, overripe, messy wines; but they didn’t necessarily correlate with higher stated ABVs.
    This left me wondering if the issue with these bad wines was more a case of not understanding how to farm your land/grapes to get a particular result; that they key issue is poor farming practices. I can’t say for certain, just a hypothesis. However, when I, for example, taste at Kenzo, and find wines labeled in the hight 14s which seem absolutely delicate and pretty; I’m forced to re-think my notion of: High Alcohol = Brutish and Porty.

    Additionally, I need to take exception with the idea that there are only two types of wine and wine drinker and that we must pick a side.
    Whilst the aforementioned Kenzo wines thrilled me, so too can I be thrilled by a racy herbal Chinon. It seems pretty stupid to limit ones self to drinking wine based on some half thought through fashion

  16. Randy Caparoso says:

    With all due respect, Mr. Burris, there are no “diabolical marketers” with secret agendas to hoodwink consumers, particularly in respect to “superior terroir” — whether you are referring to the Delta as being possibly superior to Napa Valley, or vice-versa.

    In fact, the entire thread of this conversation points to the fundamental issue concerning the definition of “terroir.” To say that a wine, any wine, expresses “terroir” is not to say that it is superior to another wine, and therefore deserves the higher price. Terroir in wine is, plain and simple, an expression of “place,” not quality, or an indicator of price. To say, for instance, that a Chablis is very strong in terroir qualities is not to say that it is a superior wine to a Meursault, or vice-versa. A Chablis is a Chablis and a Meursault is a Meursault, and whatever you think is “better” has more to do with personal predilection than anything organic.

    The same thing for Napa Valley vs. the so-called Delta (i.e. Lodi and Clarksburg). Who cares which wines are “better?” If you like, say, the plump taste typical of Lodi grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and can’t abide by the taste of a steelier Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, then the better wine comes from Lodi, no matter what the price.

    Steve, I agree with everything you say, especially concerning the over-hyped “alcohol” issue. Going beyond inconsequential (in my opinion) talk about alcohol, ripeness or oak: as good as Napa Valley wines are, in recent decades most of them have obviously been crafted more for high scores than for expression of terroir; which is a shame, if you happen to be someone who is more interested in wines that taste of-a-place. I don’t blame your reader for his/her healthy skepticism of those who are suddenly claiming “it’s all about terroir” when anyone with two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth can see that terroir has far less important to them than the 98 point scores that attract legions of buyers. Then again, 98 point scores makes for a lot of profit and ability to buy more expensive barrels. Point being, though: don’t suddenly start talkin’ terroir, because now you truly do sound like you’re claiming that for marketing purposes, and in the process abusing the very meaning of the word, terroir.

    My perspective: these days I am finding many beautiful terroir expressions in a lot of conscientious, honestly grown and produced wines everywhere — in Lodi, Mendocino, Lake County, Livermore through the entire Central Coast, and yes, even in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. There are a lot of vintners who prioritize vineyard expression, letting the chips fall where they will in terms of scores or other kinds of marketing monikers. More and more consumers are finding that they are liking this — hence the movement away from brands that trade on scores, and more towards wines that are even deliberately made in contrarian styles (“contrarian” has always sold, too — just more so today).

    You can fool some people all the time — which will keep the high priced Napa Valley producers in business for a long time to come — but not all the people all the time: in my humble opinion, a very positive, healthy, and democratic trend for the entire winegrowing industry, and especially for consumers.

  17. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, thank you for your thoughtful response to my comments. Though I know that we fall on opposite sides of this debate, I do respect your thoughts on the subject.

    First of all, I want to assume that we are talking about establishing a true, codified terroir based system of crus….not just throwing the word “terroir” around in an if you can’t beat them join them sense while on a market visit to a terroir-centric market.

    Let me clarify and expand on a few points that I made yesterday as well as answer some of your points. First of all, I meant to write that Truchard and Hudson have hundreds of acres of planted vines, not hundreds of planted vines. Were it the latter, then it truly might be able to display a singular terroir. I picked those two vineyards for a reason. I believe that Carneros is one area of N/S where it could be possible to establish terroir driven wines for the simple reason that it’s consistently the coolest region and the least influenced by the vigorous volcanic soils which become increasingly dominant as one moves North. The problem here is one of vested financial interest. Sure these vineyard owners will submit to a cru system provided that all of their plantings are judged Grand Cru, but do you really think that they will allow an outside authority to establish a system that will lock in what they can charge for various blocks of their vineyard? I don’t. FWIW, in my production days, I worked with fruit from both these vineyards, and there is are significant variations in terroir AND quality within the vineyards, yet not as much as be expected for my following point. Another interesting notion to ponder is one of varietal selection. Hudson vineyard has slightly less than half the planted acreage as Vosne Romanee, yet has 10 varietals planted. Is the terroir here, so magnificently varied that cultivars that are planted hundreds of miles away in France are somehow suited to be planted yards away in Carneros? Or is this a business decision? Would Lee allow any limitations on his freedom as a businessman in order to have his vineyard designated in the Cru system?

    With regards to a few of your specific points


    I can only speak to the markets that I am intimately familiar with on a recent basis, and those would be Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington D.C. I will agree with you that everyone at the mid and high end of the market suffered when the recession hit but no further. High end Napa/ Sonoma wine is simply dead in these markets, yet high end European imports have rebounded extremely well. I often take part in a few beers with a group of local wine salesmen when I’m in town, and they are all unanimous that there is a strong Chicago market for a five to eight hundred dollar case of Burgundy, Piedmont or Ribera del Duero, yet the same price point from California can’t be given away to anyone outside of a few steakhouses. The “can’t give it away” phrase is not mine. While it certainly comes off as pejorative, it’s the term that salesmen on the street working for artisanal distributors are using to describe Napa and Sonoma right now.

    On a macro level, one can look at market share trends over the last dozen years. In 1999, imports accounted for 18% of the US wine market and had steadily been declining since the late 1980s. By 2010, they were up to 31% and are expected to land in the 34 or 35 percent range for 2012. The number is even more shocking when considers that during the last decade, imports dealt with the anti-French backlash, the 04-06 collapse of the dollar against the Euro and the collapse of the high end Champagne market post 2008. If that’s the overall numbers for the entire United States, what do you think the trend has been in traditionally strong European oriented markets such as the four which I’ve listed above?


    There’s a certain amount of truth to this, and to delve into its roots would be an exercise in and of itself. Is it a function of global warming (certainly the soils have not suddenly become more fertile and volcanic), the influence of certain importers (Eric Soloman, Bobby Kacher) influencing producers to produce Napa style wines or the leviathan of RMP? Probably a complex mix of the three. In any event, I don’t believe that it has been an across the board phenomenon and the major European wine regions are still producing terroir specific wines. Kermit, Neal and Joe haven’t gone out of business, and in fact seem to be thriving right now.

    In the market, I see two related responses to this. The first is the unsophisticated buyer who simplistically says European Good…Napa Bad! He’ll turn his nose up at a California wine (say Scribe) that I think is trying successfully to make well balanced, complex and table friendly wines yet have a list full of Eric Solomon’s Priorats that are every bit as “parkerized” as anything out of California. OTOH, I do see the more nuanced and sophisticated buyers that discern the difference between a Burgundy from Rosenthal and an over manipulated example from Kacher. Who are–though warily–willing to give a winery like Scribe a fair chance. If California has a chance to reach them, then it is going to need a lot more wineries making wines like Scribe (lower alc, lower Ph, less oak) to change its overall image. Is that possible? Or does it go back to my original point yesterday that this isn’t a sincere embrace of terroir or balance but rather a knee-jerk marketing reaction to unfavorable market conditions.

    Which leads me to my next point. Does Napa have terroir? Certainly. A flowerbox on my roof deck in Chicago has terroir. The question is does Napa have a terroir that is capable of making wines that are both “terroir specific” (i.e. clearly delineated characteristics within an appellation and even within individual sub-appellations and vineyards. Inextricably tied to this is the question of can it produce lower alc/higher acid wines that are more table friendly? I think it does only where it’s cool and non-volcanic. Far too much of Napa has much more in common with Southern Italy (hot and fertile) than it does with the regions that Napa likes to compare itself to. To get physiological ripeness and tannin ripeness North of Yountville is virtually incompatible with making European style wines. Much of Napa does have terroir. It’s just that it’s not terribly good or well suited to making the style of wine that is in favor today.

    Finally, one last thought. On an individual, consumer basis the rule of thumb has always been that when individuals transition away from Napa Cab/Chard to European wines, they almost never come back. The stereotypical example is an old friend of mine. As a grad student at Berkeley he discovered wine and was able to get on some of the most allocated mailing lists (Harlan, SE etc) early on. By the time I met him a decade later, he was still taking his full allocations only he could immediately flip them at auction and turn them into German Rieslings, Burgundies and Barolos. So the question becomes, what happens when entire, sophisticated metropolitan markets turn their back on Napa/Sonoma in favor of Europe? Do they follow the model of the individual and never come back?

  18. Steve, not to defend Carlos, but I think you missed his point. I think he meant that he sees the wineries as too “manicured.” He is suggesting (I am not fully agreeing) that because of the “cosmetic surgery” of irrigation and other human interventions, the cru overwhelms the natural terroir. This goes back to my comment yesterday (which you so happened to ignore) about the possibility of pure terroir being covered up by the human elements that make up “cru.” I don’t fully stand by Carlos on this statement, but do think he raises a valid point.

  19. Selection of variety within in the AOC is a historical construct based on the best knowledge available at the time.
    The idea that the supremacy of these selections will, as well as knowledge and natural conditions will remain invariant over time, is intellectually lazy. I expect Mr Hudson has much better science available to him than did the people who originally planted in Vosne Romanee; not to mention the climactic change.
    So whilst there are economics in play in both regions, not planting anything else in Vosne, is more a matter of blind adherence to tradition than anything factual – centuries old experiments are not really a good way to proceed factually.

    I’m not suggesting that traditions have no meaning or should be arbitrarily abandoned; hardly. I am however suggesting that the blind adherence to them with he assumption that the hold the invariant truths and best way forward, is about as useful as running a society based on the bible in the 21st century

  20. Selection of variety within in the AOC is a historical construct based on the best knowledge available at the time.
    The idea that the supremacy of these selections will, as well as knowledge and natural conditions will remain invariant over time, is intellectually lazy. I expect Mr Hudson has much better science available to him than did the people who originally planted in Vosne Romanee; not to mention the climactic change.
    So whilst there are economics in play in both regions, not planting anything else in Vosne, is more a matter of blind adherence to tradition than anything factual – centuries old experiments are not really a good way to proceed factually.

    I’m not suggesting that traditions have no meaning or should be arbitrarily abandoned; hardly. I am however suggesting that the blind adherence to them with he assumption that the hold the invariant truths and best way forward, is about as useful as running a society based on the bible in the 21st century

  21. This is an intriguing debate to me as one who helps various groups find, buy and sell vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties. To simply say that a region or terroir is noted soley for marketing sake is to take an incredibly broad and uninformed brush stroke. There’s no doubt that wineries are interested in making money and will push which ever horse looks like a winner but that is just one part of the complete picture. There are AVA’s that have been bastardized and should be further refined. The Sonoma Coast is one in particular because for anyone who is familiar with the area, they can assure you that wines made from Occidental area are much different than those that come from the Petaluma Gap area. There’s no doubt that the terroir plays the dominant role in the differences. In the Napa Valley, wines made from Howell Mountain fruit are overwhelmingly different than those produced on the valley floor in the Oak Knoll district.

    These are just a couple examples in a long list of differences in micro-climates and soils that can change dramatically in a short distance. It is likely too much to ask someone in New York, Chicago or Miami to understand and comprehend the nuances among the north coast region. The differences aren’t just real, they’re defining. If we could make a wine that would be easily identifiable as Sonoma or Napa may make it easier to lump in a category. From a marketing perspective that may make things easier. The reality is that we have so many different terroir/s that it provides a vast universe in the north coast alone.

  22. Morten Hallgren says:

    This is not only a California issue. Sadly, prestigious producers in the Medoc have decided that this is the winemaker(or owner) decided wine style ( not terroir) needed to gather the attention and high scores from publications. You could argue that they deserve more blame as they threw away 100+ years of excellence. Meanwhile, I keep enjoying the wines from 1966 with 11.5 -12.0 Alcohol; cheaper than current releases too!

  23. I hope my opinion will be taken on face value. I have no agenda other than to share with you my experience albeit a lot different than yours. I am an Amateur Winemaker and I have made in the 25 years of my experience a fair amount of wine made with California grapes. I know this is a discussion of terroir but I can tell you Central Valley grapes are over cropped and produce a wine lacking in body, structure and acidity. Then when Lodi grapes became available to us on the East Coast we did enjoy an improvement. In recent years we are lucky to be able to purchase Napa Fruit. The difference in our wines is extraordinary. In 2008 we obtained an Atlas Peak Merlot. To us it as it fermented was something we had never seen before. We didn’t even understand how to handle the tannin structure. By 2009 we learned to what to expect. But it was in 2009 we obtained Beckstoffer’s Rutherford George the Third Vineyard Fruit. We knew from the very beginning we were in the big leagues. After two years in new French Oak we have an elegant young wine. It is not an alcohol bomb nor a fruit bomb either. It is exceptionally balanced. We have made it again in 2010 and now again in 2012. Last year we had the opportunity to make the Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Cabernet. It is too early to tell but so far it is impressing us greatly. Now as you talk about terroir, we visited Napa for the first time this year and we toured the Missouri Hopper Vineyard. We learned the soil was the same as To Kalon the clones of the vines are the same as are the root stocks. And I really doubt the climate is any different just a bit down the road. I guess my point is can’t a terroir be really large in size? Maybe the French are jealous. We as Amateur Winemakers are humbled.

  24. Dear Gene Florot, you are moving up! From Central Valley to Lodi to Beckstoffer via Atlas Peak! Congratulations.

  25. I find these arguments a bit too idealistic. Alcohol content is quite high in Chateauneuf-du-Pape as well as a favorite of terroirists: Sardinia. Some Sardinian wines can reach up to 17+% alcohol, but many sommeliers and terroirists will praise these wines to high heaven. And if European wines are out-selling US wines here, as Steve said, it’s due to QPR more than a deep love for terroir. It’s just easier to find a really good $15 bottle of European wine than a really good $15 domestic wine.

  26. Re: Kurt Burris, Hear, Hear.

  27. carlos toledo says:


    Kyle Schlachter got my poorly explained point. And perhaps i should have extended my comments to wineries spread out all over the new world countries. Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and last the U.S.

    It’s a tall order to envision something so nature-ish as a terroir coming out of those hi-tech prestine places.

    I know the risks i take when i comment something in this space. Too many smart experienced people. I deserve some reprimand.

    By the way, (mainly) Californian wineries do a shitty job promoting themselves worlwide. If they care or ever do so. Americans are the best when it comes to business, why won’t they look outside their country?… Maybe the domestic market is so huge and hot that there’s no reason to export.

    We speak english too, american wineries.

  28. Carlos, you are always welcome here. Whenever I see your name on a comment it makes me glad. I just don’t get the connection between a pristine property and the expression of terroir. Which Napa properties do you have in mind as examples of hi-tech pristine?

  29. Steve, you know very well that there are many hi-tech pristine vineyards in Napa (there are everywhere). Vineyards that utilize, let’s say, Fruition Sciences sap-flow sensor would be such examples. There’s nothing wrong with that in my view, but those examples could support Carlos’ statement. I’m beginning to feel that my comments aren’t welcomed by you…

  30. carlos toledo says:

    Which Napa properties do you have in mind as examples of hi-tech pristine?

    Steve, generalization is for the most part wrong and unfair. I am not by any means a specialist in american wine — when i lived in the US (SFO and later Iowa) i used californian wine in the kitchen or merely to get drunk. Took mom to Napa valley and i was the driver.

    That said, i meant that the idea foreigners make up of new world wineries is of too much lab and too little nature. The very opposite of the european wineries. “Terroir is god-sent in europe, is man-made in the new world”. Hell, i’ve seen huge fans in action in wineries at night. How much of a terroir is that? Smoke to combat freeze? Burned tires? Seen aplenty.

    Now, i am rather aware that i may have been brainwashed by the nice people from Spain, Italia, Portugal and the good, humble, down to earth French.

    That idea of too much manipulation in the new word (i’ve named the countries before) has flown and stuck.

    In the food market there’s a general opinion (in my environment, my reach of knowledge) that european food is food of terroir (people use this expression) while american food is not serious. Wrong? Yes. Does it work for many people? Yes. No one i know of hops on a plane to dine in the U.S. whereas many go to Scandinavia after a bland 3 stars michelin restaurant.

    I am a late developer. I’m sure i’ll find out more about your market and then come back with my hat off and a bow.

    Loved the topic and the comments. You’re the man.

  31. “Laudatores temporis acti” live in a dream world; full of amnesia or willful forgetting. The notion that modernity somehow, and by default, eradicates nuance, interest, detail and high craft, is just laughable.
    Forward people, forward

  32. I hate being late to the dance. Great topic Steve and kudos to re-printing a “letter to the editor”. I read through almost all of the posts here and enjoyed all the differing views. Randy talks my language and I believe that the sense of place is the sure way to keep the wine industry from tipping towards becoming a commodity. One of my main issues with ratings and the Parkerization of wine is that it does not account for place enough in it’s template.

    I have a story from more than a decade ago that captures my view on terroir and sense of place. I won’t mention the AVA or the producer.

    A fellow Sommelier that I worked with wanted me to love a Northern Cali Pinot Noir on the list where we both were Sommeliers. He tasted me blind on it one day, I analyzed it in the Court of MS (my tasting prowess at the time was good enough to get me invited to take the MS Exam) manner and determined it to be Hermitage le Sizeranne from Chapoutier. He was thrilled because the Sizeranne was a favorite of both of ours from the list ~ he felt he had proved his point. I felt he had proved mine. Though the wine was excellent, it didn’t taste of the place or grape from which it came. I let him sell the wine, while I focused on wines that were more “true” to their place and grape. Yet years later I dined at the same restaurant with my business partner and ordered the current vintage of that Pinot Noir as I knew it was the right wine for my business partner even if it didn’t taste “true” to its place & grape. My fellow Sommelier was still working there and raised an eye-brow when I ordered it 🙂

    p.s. RPJr once called this Pinot a dead-ringer for Burgundy…hmmm, maybe he was thinking of Burgs that were once “juiced” with some Moroccan fruit.

  33. Kurt Burris says:

    Randy: I think you missed the “If” at the beginnings of my post. I believe that there is terroir. My point was that IF it was all marketing than the deep pockets would win. But I do think there are diabolical marketers out there trying to hoodwink the consumer. Why else is the wine aisle in most CA chain grocers so uninspired? Sorry Steve: That’s probably a subject for a different thread.

  34. Many interesting points brought up in this discussion. One I would like to focus on is Bill Haydon’s comment: “To get physiological ripeness and tannin ripeness North of Yountville is virtually incompatible with making European style wines.” I disagree with this, and I suppose he is basing this on the old idea that the climate just gets warmer the further north one goes in Napa Valley. As I have posted before on this site, the climate of Napa Valley is much more complex than this. Keeping an eye on the car thermometer when driving around the valley, it is fascinating to see how the temperature changes based on elevation, and also based on proximity to marine air flowing in through the various gaps in the Mayacamas Range. My small Cabernet vineyard on Diamond Mountain, is slow to ripen compared to valley floor vineyards 2 or 3 miles away. Tannins are mature at 23 or 24 brix. I invite Bill to come on by sometime and I will pour several vintages to illustrate that European style wines can be made on the outskirts of Calistoga!

  35. Bill Dyer, you are so right. I’ve watched my car thermometer for many years driving through Napa in the summer months. Many times the temperature has risen between Oakville and Yountville! Granted this is not scientific but it always makes me wonder. And obviously, you can lose or gain 10 degrees driving between the top of Spring Mountain and Highway 29.

  36. Despite France’s “connection to the terroir”, it has not helped Bordeaux and Burgundy keep from becoming high priced average wines. I have lived in France now these last three years, and I attend at least six wine shows a year and judge in one a year. The Brits and the Chinese have driven the prices of those wines to ridiculous levels for average wines (if the French admit the 2000s have not produced great wines, save for 2009). Despite the Bordeaux crybabies, having “Chateau” or “Clos” in their names is no guarantee of quality. They use gimmics in selling as well.

    In the Languedoc-Roussillon (where the emerging new stars of vignerons are today in France), as well as the Rhone Valley, alcohol content is higher than B&B, but those wines have not lost connection to the terroir. Fantastic wines are being produced at good prices because they are underheralded (which is good for m cellar).

    I brought a $20 Cabernet Sauvignon (from Alexander Valley) to France. I brought to the guy who runs the local wines shop. He is quite knowledgeable, and calls a spade a spade (even told me Bordeaux was becoming irrelevant — too predictable and uninteresting). That little, unassuming California Cab blew him away, he said it was the best Cab he had ever tasted. When he learned the price he almost shouted “Bordeaux is in big trouble!”

    In short, terroir always plays a big role whether anyone admits it or not. It does complicate the wine selection picture for the general public, which is why many French producers are publishing their varietal contributions on labels now. But Americans, IMHO, have been too lax in acknowledging the role of terroir, except in a gross micro-climate setting (Napa, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, etc.). I think it is time we bring terroir into light for American wines — not necessarily to the Cru designation, but at least some sort of appellation control — especially in light of the rise of American blends (which I find exciting).

    Off the soapbox. 🙂

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