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Terroir, briefly



We had another lovely and successful event yesterday, a first-class audience of about 60 wine-savvy people in the Vintage Hotel in downtown Portland. You never know with this kind of audience what topics will prove to be the most interesting, but in this case (and maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise) it was terroir, or more precisely, the role of the human and whether or not man (and woman) is part of terroir.

Now this isn’t just an academic question. As I said in some of my remarks, terroir is more than however you define it; it is often the beginning of communication (sometimes heated) between people in seminars or informal chats. Talking about wine, rather than “just” consuming it, is of course one of the most pleasurable parts of the wine-drinking experience, and not just talking, either, but talking about the wine’s qualities, and the vineyard, and how and why it is unique, and what part the winemaker plays in all of this, with all the consequent complexities that involves; and of course, as you can see, this is how people like myself and my friends spend a good part of our days and nights. And the notion of terroir can be, more often than not, the icebreaker that sets it all off; and, to judge by our audience, it set them off, too.

I explained my own idea, which I have borrowed and adapted from Emlle Peynaud, that man is not part of terroir, but that terroir + man = cru. I haven’t fully worked this out in my head, but the Platonic-Descartesian philosophy distinguishes between the natural world (terroir) and mind or spirit as within the natural world, but somehow and mysteriously apart from it (the natural world does not think; man thinks, and therefore “is”), and since man, aided by his thought processes, which are creative (which is not to imply that nature is not creative), can profoundly shape and impact nature, then “cru” becomes that interplay of man and nature that makes (among other things) wine. Or, to put it is a less blowhardy way, God makes vinegar; man makes wine. (Someone else said that.)

When we were batting this around, my friend Julia Jackson asked how man could not be considered a part of terroir, since man-made climate change and global warming are having such an obvious impact on climate (cf. wine in Great Britain). That was a good question. My two cents: For the first time in history man is having an impact on climate and weather, i.e., the ability to alter it. That never happened before, so it was not necessary to consider whether or not man was part of terroir. He was not, because climate happened independently of anything man did. Now, though, climate does not happen independently. Well, it still “happens” all by itself, but is radicalized or perturbed so much by carbon emissions and other things that it is changing the weather in historic wine regions. Bordeaux is getting warm—Oregon, too. Someone told me they heard an eminent climate scientist saying the Aleutians could be a good cool-climate growing region in twenty years. So maybe you do have to say that man is part of terroir. When the unprecedented is happening, you have to throw out your old paradigms because they no longer work.

It delighted me that the younger members of our audience loved this conversation. They, like their predecessors (my generation, and the generation before me) love thinking and talking about wine. They will be talking about terroir when they are old men and women, and so will their children (assuming they are wine geeks), and their children’s children, because for wine lovers, terroir is the gift that keeps on giving (and the wine writer’s full employment act!).


  1. I want your job.

  2. Haha

  3. Man has altered the soils of vineyards for centuries. Is soil not a part of terroir?

  4. Patrick says:

    All good thoughts Steve. But I get off the bus at this idea of “cru”. Terroir + man does not equal cru, it equals wine!

  5. Bob Henry says:

    The deforestation of the planet’s surface — through lumbering or burning down groves to repurpose as farmland for non-native plants consumed as food (e.g., grains, fruit, nuts)– has altered climate and weather for centuries.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Julia and Steve bring their road show to Los Angeles on Friday.

    I look forward to a spirited debate.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s a jump start to the debate from the U.S. Geological Survey:

    “How does land-use change affect climate change?”

  8. Excellent post. Very Portland

  9. Patrick, well, yes, but “Cru” pushes the conversation in a particular direction.

  10. Kevin Pogue says:

    Why are you guys even bothering to discuss this silly terroir stuff? According to UC Davis professor Mark Matthew’s new book, terroir is a “myth”. Steve – I’d love to see a blog post with your thoughts after reading it….

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Steve has introduced (via Émile Peynaud’s writings) the subject of “cru.”

    [See blog titled “More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru” and posted Mar 17, 2016: ]

    Let me quote André Tchelistcheff from Robert Benson’s “Great Winemakers of California” interview book:

    “Ecology is very up-to-date in the California wine industry today, as it was forty years ago, regarding two basic factors: micro-climate and grape variety. I grant these are two factors of great importance, but I’ve always fought for my own philosophical principles in winemaking.

    “I believe there are third and fourth factors which correlate to the general ecology.

    “The third factor is soil — physical and chemical structure, profile of exposure, depth, humidity and richness of the soil.

    “The fourth factor is the HUMAN BEING being as ecological manager. We divide the ecology into the ecology which is given us by Mother Nature or the Great Lord, and we can’t change that ecology; and then managerial ecology, which is full of the possibilities of man. Man uses the raw material given by the Great Lord — soil, varieties and climate — and manages them in the best way, according to his own dream, image or ideals.”

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Resurrecting this old chestnut two-part comment . . .

    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.)

    Excerpt: “The conference keynote speaker was Warren Moran, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), who addressed the various approaches, science, and explanations of terroir.”

    The Wine Enthusiast write-up on 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?

    — Tim Patterson

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Terroir from another consumed plant perspective . . .

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat “Sonoma Living” Section
    (August 22, 2010, Page D1ff):

    “All About the Dirt;
    Guests try to sniff and match various soils with foods that are linked to them”

    By Meg McConahey
    Staff Reporter

    Laura Parker grew up a city girl in Denver. But she remembers her long, hot summer vacations on the family farm in Iowa as wonderfully sensual. It wasn’t just the sight of corn fields and grazing dairy cattle and vegetable gardens. She remembers it with all her senses — the smell of it, the sound of it, how it felt on her skin and hands.

    “I would be the one that just before dinner or supper they would send out to the garden to pick things because I didn’t know how to do anything else,” she remembers, still seeing her 8-year-old self in bibbed shorts shimmying in the dirt.

    “I remember being belly-down in the garden in the furrows with the warm soil. Your little belly would be just so warm and your backside would be getting the breeze coming in. I would be picking beans. It would be one for the basket. One for me. One for the basket, one for me.”

    Decades later, those deeply embedded memories inspired Parker, a painter and graphic designer, to make soil her artistic media. Through her “Taste of Place,” she leads people back to the farm by poking their noses into a glass of damp soil. Just as winemakers have long maintained that each vintage is infused with the particular TERROIR in which it was grown, Parker posits that each carrot, bean or radish is equally linked by taste to the soil from which it was pulled.

    She sees it as a both performance art and “intervention art” — aimed at getting people to think differently about the food they consume and to make the connection between what they eat and where it came from.

    Parker conducts “tastings,” pairing fresh-picked produce with its native soil. Tasters who make their way to her “bar” will be presented with a wine glass filled with soil and a plate of vegetables. Their challenge? To taste the just-picked food, catch a whiff of wet dirt and see if they can detect a connection.

    The glass, she maintains, is just a whimsical device, a way of “engaging people whether they taste wine or not.” The wine glass has a familiarity. People know instinctively to swirl the liquid — in this case a luscious mud of varying shades of brown or red — to lift the glass to the light and catch the colors and poke their noses into it to catch the aroma.

    “You know you’re going to smell it and look at it and swish it and see what it looks like and make some kind of reference,” she says.

    Some skeptics approach the bar assuming it’s a joke. But once Parker has them engaged in tasting, say, a carrot from the silt loam of Tierra Vegetables in Windsor or a crisp Romano bean from Early Bird’s Garden and then smelling the grassy, gravelly loam in which it was grown on Chalk Hill, a lightbulb of recognition frequently turns on.

    It’s a concept she created four years ago for an exhibit, “Hybrid Fields,” at the Sonoma County Museum. Since then she and her mobile tasting bar have taken to the road, doing similar tastings from the International Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon to the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Throughout the month of August, Parker, who divides her time between homes in San Francisco and Camp Meeker, has been conducting soil tastings at Studio Barndiva in Healdsburg on Saturdays, a monthlong engagement that will culminate on Friday with a soil-paired feast in the gallery drawing in foods from farms throughout Sonoma County.

    Whether they can actually taste the soil in the bean or smell the bean in the soil is almost beside the point, says Barndiva owner Jil Hales. An owner for some 30 years of her own farm near Philo, Hales is a passionate advocate for local farmers and a leader in a movement to “Eat the View” through such organizations as Fork & Shovel, which brings together farmers and chefs.

    Hales says when you take dirt out of “where it lives” it becomes dirty, and that has a negative connotation in the minds of most people.

    “It’s so much in our heads that there’s no value to dirt,” she laments.

    Before a tasting, Parker, who also paints large canvases of luscious, sensuous fruits and vegetables, will go out to a farm and select just the right crop. Then she makes a hole in the soil and takes a sampling of dirt from the same furrow. She stores her soil in big glass Ball jars, properly labeled according to government soil maps.

    It’s a take on the long-held concept of TERROIR that grapegrowers have long spoken of — how a grape reflects the specific geographic characteristics of the vineyard from which it was grown and harvested.

    Longtime Healdsburg grapegrower, farmer and breadmaker Lou Preston said he’s never heard of anyone doing anything quite like Parker’s dirt-tasting.

    “How much more immediate can you get than the dirt that a plant grew in? It’s not just the county or this side of the river or that. It’s provocative and suggestive and a graphic representation,” he says. For the Barndiva soil-paired dinner, Preston is contributing bread he will make from grain he grew in his “Manzanita gravelly silt loam.”

    Deborah Walton, owner of the Canvas Ranch in Two Rock near Petaluma, is also contributing to the tasting dinner. She said she relates to Parker’s passion for soil. It was the book, “The Soul of Soil” by Grace Gershuny and Joseph Smillie, that inspired her to go into farming many years ago.

    Her task, she says, is soil-making, something each farmer does in her or her own way.

    “That’s why a tomato or turnip from one farm can taste so different from one grown on another farm with different soil, different tillage, different amounts of rain and sun, different amendments,” she says. “That is the soul of the place.”

    Displaying soil in a glass is not not just an olfactory experience. It’s visual. Each soil has a different look, says Parker, a different consistency. Some are deep chocolate, others heavy with clay that will leave a filmy coat on the glass.

    The experience of getting close to the soil can be profoundly moving to some people, sweeping them back to childhood, or even to a more primal connection with the land.

    There was the grandmother who came in to Studio Barndiva with multiple generations of her family. She nosed a soil, says Parker, and was drawn back to her garden and her children.

    “She would talk about her table and the kind of food she likes to make. And then she looked at my drawings and at one point grabbed my hands and said, &‘This is so profound for me.’ She started to cry.”

    And there was the young man, she recalls, who came to a tasting in San Francisco who had never seen a a radish and wound up waxing on in amazement for 15 minutes about his discovery.

    For Parker, it doesn’t matter so much how people experience a soil tasting.

    “I’m just bringing forward the idea of thinking about these things, wherever the starting place is for you,” she says. “This isn’t precious. I’m happy if someone just stops and takes five or 10 minutes and has whatever experience they’re going to have.”

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Which is the stronger influence: terroir or the winemaker’s art?

    Excerpts from San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (June 28, 2009, Page R7):

    “California Winemakers Try Out New York Grapes”

    By Jon Bonné
    “Thirst” Column

    If urban wineries have become commonplace, the term doesn’t really begin to describe Red Hook Winery. For one, most aren’t so close to public housing, in this case the 5 sprawling acres of the Red Hook West housing project in Brooklyn. The closest thing to a babbling brook is the Gowanus Canal, recovering from its tenure as one of America’s most polluted waterways.

    So what in the name of the Dodgers are two of California’s most high-profile winemakers, Abe Schoener and Robert Foley, doing in this New York borough?

    Pin it on Mark Snyder, the winery’s co-owner and New York distributor of the wines sold by Foley and by Schoener’s Scholium Project. Snyder, a sound designer for Billy Joel and other artists, grew up a few miles away, in Brooklyn’s Gerritsen Beach neighborhood (near the Rockaways), and located his wine business in Red Hook, the increasingly revitalized — if edgy — industrial slice of Brooklyn that now boasts galleries and restaurants but still lacks a subway stop. Snyder wooed two of his top talents to go bicoastal.

    “We wanted to do something in the neighborhood that wasn’t just having an office,” Schoener says.

    . . .


    Back to the matter of inspiration. Schoener is a New York native, and Foley’s parents have roots in Manhattan and Brooklyn. So East Coast fealty was in place. But mostly they were intrigued by the chance to work with very different vineyards in a very different setting. Unlike projects like Manhattan’s City Winery, their fruit hails from the north fork of Long Island.

    . . .

    They hope to show what Long Island can achieve without benefit of the warm, dry West Coast climate that Foley calls “God’s gift to viticulture” — in other words, with rain and all the other real weather that keeps vintners in, say, Bordeaux, awake at night. The biggest challenge for Long Island wineries generally is to keep their winemakers; it is often a way station to more high-profile gigs.

    . . .


    What’s most curious, though, is the dual-cylinder winemaking. THE FRUIT IS ESSENTIALLY SPLIT IN TWO, HALF FOR AN “A[-be] S[-choener] PROTOCAL” AND HALF FOR THE “B[ob] F[oley] PROTOCOL.” Bob Foley applies his high-impact Napa chops to create clean, polished wines; Schoener’s take, as with Scholium, is far more experimental.

    “It’s a perfect choice, because BOB AND I MAKE ALMOST DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSITE WINES,” Schoener says. Christopher Nicolson, a veteran of Littorai, minds things from day to day while the other two visit every other month or so.

    HENCE THE SAME FRUIT, BUT RADICALLY DIFFERENT RESULTS. SCHOENER’ REDS are fermented in large oak puncheons using mostly indigenous yeasts; FOLEY’S [REDS] are in steel tanks with added yeasts for consistency.

    Foley’s 2008 Cabernet Franc, left on the grape skins for 15 days at most, is a glossy, silky effort; Schoener’s, on its skins for 30 days or more, is grittier and more textural, with a classic Loire-like nose.

    Schoener’s Merlot is ropey, with a tobacco kick; Foley’s is clean and floral, filled with blue fruit.

    Almost all the wines are made using neutral oak barrels. They rarely top 13 percent alcohol, two big differences from both mens’ California habits.


    Schoener’s hand is notably evident in the white wines. There’s a skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, made without sulfur dioxide as a preservative and due for a full year in barrel, saline and scented with celery shavings, a distinct cousin of Scholium’s the Prince in His Caves. Also a mineral-punch blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewurztraminer, with minimal sulfur dioxide used, due to be served from the tap at Daniel Boulud’s new restaurant, DBGB.

    . . .

    [Use the embedded link to see the accompanying photo exhibits. ~ Bob]

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