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Ambiente: I learn a new lesson about wine writing



I’ve struggled for years to find a broader context in which to talk about and understand wine. I decided a long time ago that the word “terroir” was hopelessly inadequate because it doesn’t describe enough of wine’s multiple dimensions. The most common definition of terroir includes only soil and climate, which is like describing a human being in terms of her height and weight. (Okay, maybe you can throw in eye color and astrological sign.)

Then I came across Professor Emile Peynaud’s term, “cru,” which is the combination of terroir plus human intervention: encompassing everything (according to him) from the land to winemaking techniques, marketing and even the physical attributes of the winery. That certainly broadens the perimeter surrounding what makes any particular bottle of wine that particular bottle of wine.

Still, the word “cru” seems limiting. It involves only the commercial or business aspects of wine. But what about the poetic and romantic parts? The emotional tug certain bottles give you? The way a wine makes you think and feel, what you ate it with, and with whom? Do we remember only great, rare bottles, or do we recall (as I do) that Zinfandel, drunk so memorably with friends on a deck high up on Mount Veeder, overlooking the vineyard, so many years ago? Surely these emotive reactions gird our attitudes towards wine as much as its objective qualities: the memory of having drank that bottle in that place, with that person, at that time in your life. Never mind the score someone gave it, or the amount it brought at auction, or whether it made some magazine’s top 100 list, or any of that stuff. Those criteria—imposed by others, rigid, almost alien—actually collide with our own, deeply personal comprehension of wine, and can confuse and befuddle us.

Then, the other week, my friend Vito Parente, an Italian wine specialist who runs the imports division for Jackson Family Wines, recommended a book to me: Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, co-authored by David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich (Lidia’s son), with a foreward by Mario Batali. In it, the authors introduce the concept of ambiente, which they describe as “the feel of a place…not just the geology, topography, and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it.” Included in this notion of “culture” are “the food products that grow in the same soil…the culture that created it…the people, the place…anecdotes…food talk, and recipes…” and every other slice of life that goes into and surrounds the interaction between human being and wine. “To know all that is to have a sense of ambiente,” the authors conclude, “which is a lot more fun than rooting around in the terroir.

When you think of wine in these terms—as ambiente—you realize how profoundly narrowly we have circumscribed the way we talk and think about wine. Wine has got to be so much more than a number, or the product of east-facing hills, or a blend of this-and-that varieties. Think of your own child (I think of Gus), and how no data set can possibly chronicle everything that child means to you. Even when I was a wine critic, using scores and 45-word reviews to summarize the impressions wine made on me, I fully understood how inadequate that was to conveying an encompassing sense of the wine. I rationalized to myself that, after all, that was my job—it was what I was paid to do—and was similar to what almost all the other critics were doing—and it seemed to be something consumers liked—so it couldn’t be all bad. At the same time, I never hid my feeling that there had to be more to talking and writing about wine than that. That’s why I wrote my wine books. It’s why I started blogging. It’s something I tried to convey in the longer articles I was permitted to write for magazines. It was my way of atoning for having committed the sin (albeit a very minor one) of reducing wine to formulaic simplicity.

And now ambiente comes along. I like the concept: it feels natural to me, as if it were something I’ve always known, even though I first learned about it only yesterday (as you read this). The sense of ambiente perfectly describes every taste of wine I’ve ever experienced: and, in fact, viewed in that way, the technical dimensions of wine actually are less interesting than understanding its ambiente, which clearly is what Lynch and Bastianich mean when they talk about how much more fun that is “than rooting around in the terroir.”

This is exactly why old wine writing—nineteenth century through the 1960s—appeals far more to me than the newer, modern style. The writers of yesteryear were more inclined to speak of the way wine made them feel. Of course, they brought extensive intellectual and technical understanding to the experience, so when, say, Andre Simon or Professor Saintsbury committed their words to paper, their enormous depth of knowledge pervaded every phrase; they wrote poetically, but it was poetry (like Eliot’s) deeply steeped in knowledge. This was language you not only read, but consumed; and, like food itself, it provided sustenance, not for the body but for the soul. It fired the imagination.

I have some good wine-writing projects coming up. Even at this point in my long career, I have so much to learn. That’s the wonderful thing about his job: you’re always getting better, because someone smarter than you is always pointing out the way forward. Thank you, David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich, for acquainting me with ambiente. It’s a lesson I will not soon forget.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Included in this notion of ‘culture’ are ‘the food products that grow in the same soil…the culture that created it…the people, the place…anecdotes…food talk, and recipes…” and every other slice of life that goes into and surrounds the interaction between human being and wine.'”

    How do we embrace the notion of “ambiente” for areas that have only a recent history of winemaking?

    What is the “ambiente” of British sparkling wine?

    Or Clarksburg Chenin Blancs?

    Or Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noirs?

    Or Paso Robles red Rhone blends?

    You have invoked the dangers of the proverbial “slippery slope.” Ambiente presents such a challenge.

    Regarding the notion of “cru” and the contribution of human intervention . . .

    The UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science’s Spring 2006 international conference titled “Terroir 2006″ featured a keynote address titled “You Said Terroir? Approaches, Sciences, and Explanations.”

    Stonestreet was a corporate sponsor. (Steve, using your relationship with JFW, maybe you can post a link to the study? It is password protected.)

    The Wine Enthusiast wrOte-up the international conference:


    The wine world’s most elusive yet most compelling concept — the role of terroir — got a thorough workout in mid-March during three days of panels and presentations at the University of California at Davis. Organized by several Davis academic departments and the new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, Terroir 2006 brought together geologists, plant physiologists, winemakers, writers and marketers from seven countries for serious talk about the taste of a place (and the occasional glass of wine).

    Some useful points emerged by consensus:

    The distinction between macroterroir or macroclimate (Napa Valley), mesoterroir (the Stags Leap District within Napa) and microterroir (a single vineyard within Stags Leap). All three frames of reference are useful, but not interchangeable.

    Global warming has major and perhaps ominous implications for terroir-based wines. If the special character of a wine region depends on a narrow band of climate, all traditional bets may be off. Sweden—yes, Sweden—is investing heavily in grapevines, just in case.

    Whatever terroir contributes, it’s losing ground to technology-driven winemaking in the world market.

    Controversies surfaced in abundance, though not always directly:

    Does terroir include only the physical characteristics (soil, climate, etc.) of a growing site, or human factors (winemaking practices, cultural traditions) as well? Keynote speaker Warren Moran of the School of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Auckland, New Zealand argued that terroir is a social category, constructed over time by people who manage a particular geography; other speakers were emphatic about the primacy of natural factors.

    UC Davis plant physiologist Mark Matthews woke everyone up on day three by maintaining that the concept of terroir is based on pre-scientific notions of how vines work — for example, that they draw their essential characteristics from the soil in which they are rooted, whereas modern plant science tells us wine flavor compounds are created inside the grape berries.

    Writer Karen MacNeil offered the most delicious speculation: What if all the planet’s truly great wine terroirs have yet to be discovered?

    Materials from the conference are posted at

    —Tim Patterson

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Worth revisiting:

    “The End of Terroir” [Part 1 of 2]


    “Meet the new meme: terroir as marketing” [Part 2 of 2]


    “Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?”


    “On terroir, and the vine’s microbiome”


  3. Steve, I believe no matter the term. You are spot on that the complexities can not be the sum of one word. To you point nor is one man or beast, summed up by one word. Sometimes though we are all inadequate.

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