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Terroir vs. personal preference: the critic’s dilemma?



Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?

That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?

I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.

It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.

I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”

This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.

Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.

Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.

  1. Steve, It seems to me that Ballard Canyon Syrah ought to be one of the poster children in this discussion because it disproves the naysayers point. I, like you, have a high regard for Syrah from that part of the world. Rusack and Stolpman make gorgeous wines from Ballard Canyon in addition to Larner, and, to my palate, they have a unique stamp of similarity that goes far beyong the so-called International style.

    Ripeness in and of itself is the sin that these folks detest. I have no argument with their personal preference for less ripe wines, but I cannot see how wines from Ballard Canyon or the Napa Valley can be dismmised out of hand as “Cali fruit bombs”. They have unique and common characteristics that can only come from their provenance.

    In short, it is possible to be riper than some of these brainiacs can stand and still have identifiable terroir that has not been lost to ripeness. Ballard Canyon Syrah is a great case in point, not because it gets “insanely” ripe but because it has varietal character and balance in addition to being ripe. And, yes, it does not pall after the first glass and neither does Napa Valley Cabernet.

    Methinks you are being too kind to the anti-New World folks.

  2. “alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.”
    I think that’s an over-simplification of what the IPoB crowd is all about and I think they’re trying to get away from what some people think is a fixation on alcohol level. But it’s easy to focus on the alcohol because that’s an actual number that people can relate to, whereas “balance” is a much more nebulous concept.
    To me, the Ridge wines are the epitome of “balance”. And I thank any of the folks in the IPoB crowd would agree to that. Yet many of those Ridges are in the upper-14% levels.
    EhrenJordan is part of the IPoB crowd. Yet many of his Syrahs are pushing 15%. Realizing, of course, that the official IPoB group only focuses on Chard/Pinot.
    It always amuses me that some of these folks who worship at the altar of terroir think that the highest calling of a wine is to display its terroir…as if it is something that just comes naturally from the vnyd, is God-given by a particular site. I often wonder what those folks would think of the Cabernets that came out of MontereyCnty back in the ’70’s. The wines, pyrazine-laden, reeking of canned green beans and canned asparagas, were pretty dreadful (weren’t they, Charlie??). They had terroir out the wazoo. That is what those sites gave (then) and should we love them because of their terroir?? I wonder what some of todays folks who worship terroir would think of those wines?? Fortunately DougMeador (a guy who seldom gets the credit for Monterey’s place in the Calif wine world he deserves) taught those folks how to farm those grapes and the Monterey veggies are mostly a thing of the best.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Tom and Charlie,

    “I often wonder what those folks would think of the Cabernets that came out of MontereyCnty back in the ’70′s. The wines, pyrazine-laden, reeking of canned green beans and canned asparagas, were pretty dreadful (weren’t they, Charlie??).”

    I remember them “well.”

    Both from the 1980s and today — literally.

    I recently organized the wine cellar of a 1970s decade collector. What wines he didn’t keep (First Growths, DRCs, Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard”), he gave to me.

    Monterey Peninsula and Mirassou and Staiger brands among his cast-offs.

    Like drinking a can of Little Green Giant green beans or asparagus. Ugh!

    (I had the same experience re-drinking early 1980s Santa Barbara County Cabernets, “gifted” to me by another wine cellar client.)

    How much of these unpleasant experiences do we ascribe to “less-than-successful” wine grape growing and winemaking . . . versus “terroir”?

    ~~ Bob

  4. A couple of thoughts from a vintner and winemaker, if I may:

    –Terrior is most often defined as the combination of local knowledge/customs as well as local soil and weather conditions. It remains variable and imprecise and in fact changes and evolves even for a specific location.

    –There is no single day of optimal ripeness for an entire vineyard, only for a single grape. In reality the precision is gained through a representative sampling plan more than by harvesting on a particular day. There may also be times in the vineyard when that perfect ripeness is achieved not once but twice or three times as late season weather makes it’s effects known. More often than not, weather dictates the best harvest date, whether or not ripeness is at it’s peak. It then becomes the winemaker’s job to bring out the full potential of that wine.

    –Alcohol is the single easiest ingredient to measure in wine and (plus or minus a percent or so) also appears on the bottle for all to judge. Yet the expression of that alcohol depends upon the remaining structure and intensity of that wine. If blind tastings have merit, then tasting a known wine without prior knowledge of the alcohol content has equal merit. Balance can be thrown off as soon as you look at the label for alcohol percentage.

    This notion of destroying “terrior” in the winemaking process is strictly a notion that depends upon degree. Nature prefers mediocre wine, varying wildly by year and conditions. Every decent wine has some optimization happening in the winery, yes even those described as true to their terrior. So in reality, it doesn’t really come down to “terrior versus personal preference.” It comes down to how much is too much, which is something completely about personal preference.

  5. Dear Charlie, you and I “get” it with wines like Ballard Canyon Syrah, and more importantly, so do consumers! As for being too kind–well, you know, I’m just a nice guy ; >

  6. Dear Bob Henry, I remember those wines too–although I must say one of the first wines I could afford, and that I liked, was an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey appellation, probably from the 1976 vintage. I wonder if I’d like that wine today, though!

  7. Patrick says:

    This dilemma of terroir vs. personal pref. brings out a key problem for all wine writers: Are you evaluating wines against some standard that the wine or the winemakers themselves seem to set? Or are you telling us what you personally think is best from a given tasting? The former position attempts some objectivity, while the latter is more subjective. If it’s any comfort, these sorts of issues also bedevil art criticism: Do you evaluate according to what the artist seems to be attempting, or do you evaluate according to your own (probably well-informed) taste? Big subject, and few wine writers seem to ever talk about it, with the very notable exception of Steve and the folks who have commented here.

  8. Dear Patrick, I talk about this a lot because it’s important, and because it interests me. As you probably suspect, there is no “right” answer. Wine evaluation is always going to be a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. The best that a wine writer can do is to become very knowledgeable about wine, in which case he or she has more credibility than someone who merely indicates a preference.

  9. TomHill says:

    “(I had the same experience re-drinking early 1980s Santa Barbara County Cabernets, “gifted” to me by another wine cellar client.)”

    Those early TepesquetVnyd (planted by LouisLucas in the early ’80’s, now Cambria) and Firestone Cabs were pretty dreadful. Pretty much ruined the reputation for Cab in SBC for yrs. Now…knowing where to grow Cab and how to farm it, the SBC Cabs can go mano a mano w/ any in all of Calif.

  10. Dear TomHill, based on my experience up to March 2014, when I took this new job and gave up general reviewing, I think you’re right that SBC Cabernet had a dreadful reputation because the wines were green. However I’m not ready to give an unqualified green light to Happy Canyon Cab. The promise is gigantic and I hope they do well.

  11. Brian M says:

    “…because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love.”

    Who’s DNA Steve? Based on my experience with your reviews and blog over the last few years I would say definitely you and definitely not me. Your statement implies that the preference for rich & ripe is the norm, which I do not believe it is. (Note the proper use of the comma!).

    Prior columns have discussed the drinking preference of millennias and the status of beer and liqueur compared to wine in the US. Maybe it is the preponderance of insanely rich and ripe wines on the shelves of your average store and “non-fine” dining establishments that turn people off of wine. Before I saw the light I thought all wine was nothing but fruity alcohol juice. Thankfully someone at a dinner challenged me to just drink what he ordered and my eyes were opened.

    But I digress. To circle back to the topic, your comments demonstrates firmly were you stand on the question of terroir vs. personal preference. A mosaic can be compiled from your reviews over the years (or at least the years I can attest to) that shows a trend towards this personal preference. Disparaging remarks you’ve made in your blog about earthy growth-classified Bordeaux stregthen the conclusion.

    Sorry to digress from the topic again. I just needed to comment on the aforementioned statement (and the one about IPOB being about alcohol level, but TomHIll covered that).

  12. Bill Haydon says:

    “…because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love.” –

    Brian is absolutely correct. This statement is asinine. You’re taking a twenty year market trend (largely confined to the US) driven by a couple of very biased media sources and a novice wine drinking public and somehow extrapolating some universal genetic preference for overly rich and ripe wines.

    What about the hundreds of years of liking more restrained wine styles? What about the fact that the overblown style is already on the wane in the country of its birth? Ridiculous statement.

  13. Mr. Haydon, please take a step back and look at the meaning of the statement and not the specific words.

    People like flavors that are accessible. It is why wine has kept changing over the years to more and more openness. The wines of the 1900s, turn of the century, were much higher in acidity and lower in alcohol. And that is true across the board.

    The Bordeaux of 1970 is lighter and higher in acidity than the Bordeaux of today. So is Rioja. And so is Napa Cab.

    There is, arguably, a prediliction on the part of consumers for foods and beverages that taste good. I like my lemonade tart and tingling. Not everybody agrees with me. I don’t drink peach or pear or other nectars–too sweet for my personal taste. But there is a reason why Coca-Cola outsells my style of lemonade. People prefer it.

    Steve is not wrong in his general direction. Look at the work of Peynaud. The days when the majority of fancy wines went into the cellars of the rich are gone. It matters not that my readers, and I presume Steve’s to a large extent when he was writing in the WE, are collectors. The wine drinking world, even those who drink wines priced in the top 10% of all wine, does not universally want wines that need age or that tingle with acidity.

    Whether Steve has overstated the case or not is not all that relevant because he cannot have overstated it by that much.

    There has been a backlash in some quarters against overripe wines, and but much of what is defined as overripe is simply riper than something else and still has balance, good varietal definitiona and still reflects its provenance.

    Steve focused on the wines of Ballard Canyon. He is spot on in his choice of those wines as lovely representatives of their place and variety despite having ripeness levels that Raj Parr and his disciples would find unacceptable by definition without ever tasting them.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Speaking as a wine retailing consultant who actually “works” the sales floor and “works” the wine bar at my clients’ establishments, let me add this observation to the discussion.

    If Millennials form a distaste for wine, it might be attributed to their lower (comparative to Gen Xs or Baby Boomers) income levels and resulting wine budgets.

    Frequent any wine aisle in the grocery store and check out the “fighting varietals” under 8 bucks. Under 6 bucks.

    (The same out-of-pocket expenditure as a six-pack of beer.)

    How many readers of Steve’s blog would be “satisfied” drinking these wines?

    Due to production budget constraints, they are caricatures of what “fine wines” taste like.

    If today I were a “salad days” Millennial introduced exclusively to “Two Buck Chuck” at every party I went to, I too would grab a beer instead.

    High-quality, entry-level priced wines for Millennials’s budget are what is needed to convert them into wine drinkers.

    And the wine industry has largely failed them: the producers, the distributors, the retailers, and the restaurant chains.

  15. Because my DNA statement is getting some blowback, let me explain. I meant that we humans are primed to like sweetness, and these rich, ripe California wines satisfy that sweet craving–even though they may be technically dry (which not all of them are).

  16. I am involved with making Cabernet in Napa and in a much warmer location in Solano County. The Napa Cabernet is higher in alcohol than the Solano County Cabernet. The Solano County fruit ripened much sooner and the Brix didn’t have a chance to get as high because of the heat. We all know that Cabernet is unlikely to reach high Brix in a cold region and can be unripe.

    The point is that the terroir of RARE places like Napa or Ballard Canyon allow for higher alcohol wines with great flavor. Even picking early in the ripeness window, their balance point will likely be at higher Brix than a warmer or cooler region.

    That said, its fair enough to diss a wine that is too hot, too rich, too “sweet” and/or too flabby. But, it’s misguided to diss these rare and wonderful wine regions.

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