Terroir and Meaning: An Interim Recap
What do you do with your life to make it as meaningful as it can be? It has been a while now that I’ve realized that I was not cut out for a brilliant career as a medical researcher, who might potentially find the cure for a dire disease, nor, has it turned out that I really have the aptitude or inclination to be a great social crusader or enlightened politico (if that is not too oxymoronic for words). My sole talent, at least as far as I can tell, seems to be that of a winemaker, an eclectic one at that – a métier that might perhaps allow one to make a very small, eensy, discreet contribution to the sum of human happiness. For great wine, even sometimes wine that is less than great, can be a wonderful comfort to life’s sorrows.
Now, the problem is that I, as an aging baby-boomer, confronting his mortality, want ever more meaning in my life, and at least for now, I’m trying to achieve more meaning in my chosen work. This might not be intuitively obvious, but there are some real issues with finding great meaning in growing grapes and making wine in the New World, such as I do, and the issue has something to do with our problematic relationship to the Old World; we suffer from the “anxiety of influence,” in Auden’s phrase.
In other words, it is not clear what we can do in the New World that is not hopelessly derivative of the Old World, either by attempting to emulate Old World styles or by defining ourselves in our rejection of the Old World aesthetic and sensibility.
The Old World, through the sheer chance of felicitous historical circumstance – geography, culture, and social organization – found fertile ground, as it were, for the development, at least in some areas, of a high wine culture.
It was primarily the church, monks to be specific, working over centuries in the same sites, who were able to accrete subtle and detailed knowledge about the practices leading to the creation of the most sublime nectar – all for the greater glory of God, of course. This knowledge led to the identification of the truly great sites for wine growing in Europe – the grands crus, if you will.
As a winemaker in the Old World, if you are fortunate enough to be entrusted to care for one of these great vineyards, your job is really two-fold. First and foremost, you are not to screw it up. Secondly, if you have the wit to manage the first part of your imperative, your secondary task is to explore as deeply as you can, discover, as the French would say, your particular terroir, i.e. the individual distinctiveness of your site. By the way, it continues to amaze and delight me that a winemaker whose family has been making wine in the same location for more than 500 years still talks earnestly about continuing to “discover” his or her terroir. The great crus of Europe are a gift to the world and a winemaker entrusted with their care has been given a rare privilege.
Why are vins de terroir, or “wines of place” so special? The French make the distinction between vines de terroir and vins d’effort, or “wines of effort” that we do so well in the New World, i.e. those that bear the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker, where the winemaker attempts to control as many variables as possible (drip-irrigation and cultured yeast, for example), and it is his or her intelligence that largely dominates the wine. These wines, to their credit, tend to be very consistent, and generally do not surprise us greatly either positively or negatively. The problem is that they are only as intelligent as we human beings are, which is to say, not so very. A wine of terroir is one that somehow captures and reflects the great intelligence of nature itself; it opens up a vast breathtaking vista – kind of like the Grand Canyon in a glass – and can awe us with its great depth and complexity. It creates a visceral link to Nature within us and this is a priceless gift. These are wines with life-force, i.e. derived from grapes that have drunk deeply from the soils in which they have grown, imparting a distinctive carte d’identité of their appellation of origin.
So, returning to my own existential dilemma. What are we to do in the New World that will permit us to make wines that are as distinctive as the great European wines of place and are somehow also truly relevant to the consumer who is looking for meaning, i.e. real originality? In the New World, we’ve already figured out through winemaking legerdemain how to make wines of superficial charms, better living through maquillage, that fool most of the bright, sunny New World palates most of the time – these wines like Dracula, do not throw any shadow.
As much as the American wine critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator may love these wines and the producers who make them, deep down we know that what we are doing is really throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that some of it will stick.
In California, we’ve rejected the notion of geography as destiny in favor of reliance on our wits – isn’t this the American way? – seeking technical solutions to making “great” wine, wines made by formula and by the obsessive control of as many variables as possible. We’ve being doing this, I suppose, because it’s more or less worked out well for us, at least for now. California wines are consistent and generally absent conspicuous flaws.
But producing a pleasant wine that doesn’t offend anyone is a rather different proposition than wishing to make a wine that will make its imbibers swoon in ecstatic delirium. To paraphrase the famous Meg Ryan scene in When Harry Met Sally, I’d like, please, what that latter producer is having.
So, you want to do something great in the New World. How do you begin? It should be obvious that you have to grow your own grapes, but that begs the fundamental question: “How do you know you’re growing the right grapes in the right place?”
While there are an infinite number of stupid ways to decide what to grow – you grow Pinot noir in Fresno because you love Pinot noir and you live in Fresno and you like it there – there are really only two reasonable solution sets to the problem of what to grow where. You either begin with a grape that you love and try to find a place where you reckon it will be happy, thrive and produce expressive wine, or you begin with a place that you love (and love it not the least for its unique agronomic virtues) and figure out what it is that you might optimally grow in your very special site.
The first solution, which is pretty much what most thoughtful growers pursue, apart from the silly ones who are stuck on Pinot in Fresno, is not, I believe, the best way to creating a unique and distinctive wine.
It is most unlikely that we will find a piece of real estate in the New World as congruent to the unique requirements – climatological, pedological, or hydrological – of a given variety, clone or clonal mix of grapes as you’ll find in any of the great Old World vineyards, which have been finely tuned and adapted over centuries.
Our Pinots will not se pinot, if you will – the Burgundians really use this expression, by the way – in the New World without a truly Herculean effort. If you love Burgundy, it’s ultimately a lot cheaper to buy all of the Burgundy you’d ever want to drink.
I have of course forgotten to mention the important reason, if stupid one, why winemakers, at least male winemakers, attempt to grow grapes where they do, and that is a question of testosterone titer. We fling ourselves in the direction of pinot, for example, the “heartbreak grape,” knowing how impossible it is to win her heart.
Or alternately, we hire surrogate suitors, Ã la Cyrano de Bergerac – they’re called winemaking consultants – to put in a good word with the fickle mistress.
My contention is that while there are indisputably certain grape varieties that are more interesting than others, what may ultimately be at issue is not the superiority of one variety over another, but rather the appropriateness of fit of a grape or set of grapes to a given site, as well as the potentially unique characteristics of the site itself – maybe there are an infinite number of solution sets to the mystery of how to express terroir – and that brings us to what I believe is the superior strategy of first identifying a truly great site and then working out what it is that you are going to plant.
What is a great site for grapes? Even now, there is still a great philosophical divide between the Old World and New, with the Old World remaining staunch defenders of the primacy of geophysical characteristics, while the savants of UC Davis, at least when I was a student there, claiming that the real issue is one of climate and everything else is a work-around. Clearly, both factors – climate and soil – are crucial, but at the very least you want to avoid the need for a vast number of heroic interventions in your farming practice.
As the old vaudeville joke goes, “Doctor, I broke my leg in three places. What should I do?” “Stay out of those places!”
Certain soils are particularly interesting for the expression of terroir – calcareous, granitic, schistous and volcanic soils, for example, probably because they are mineral-rich and have a lot of interior surface area to support a large population of mycorrhizae, the symbiotic fungi that live in the roots of plants and transport micro-nutrients into the vine.
(You can think of these microorganisms as terroir’s amplifiers.) But there is a slightly tortuous path between vibrant mycorrhizal populations and a glass of wine that makes us want to cry out in joy and wonder. I fear I may be getting a little bogged down here in geeky scientific detail.
What I really want to talk about is winemaking, or more specifically, wine-growing as a sort of spiritual pursuit – a quest for excellence, but also a quest for balance (personal as well as vinous) and for communion. We don’t have quite the same pathway available to us in the New World – that of the custodianship of a rare treasure – but perhaps there are some aspects of the notion of terroir that can inform our efforts, and maybe even inspire a new paradigm of this seemingly inviolate, sacrosanct ideal.
In a certain sense, the language of terroir has a lot in common with the language of the spiritual acolyte. One finds one’s personal truth in service to an ideal or reality beyond oneself. The great European wines are named after their place, not after the winemaker – often incorporating the unique geographical features of the site. Discovering terroir is a rigorous discipline, a devotion, you might say, that allows the vine-tender to approach, ever closer, the object of his adoration.
You might call it an I-Thou relationship, in the language of Martin Buber; the site is not a thing to be used, but rather to be embraced and honored. Winemakers – they’re not even winemakers, they’re vignerons, vine-tenders – they come and go, but the terroir goes marching on.
In the New World, we have not received The Good Word, the prescriptive code of viticultural virtue. We are perforce all vinous existentialists of a sort, and have to make our own personal choices about what is beautiful, and might only accidentally discover the truly original. In the recent past, the New World has often taken the path of focusing on wine’s superficial charms but to my mind, this is clearly a dead-end; now it’s time to meet the wine and vines in a new way, but how?
There has always been an implicit cultural aspect to terroir – the notion could not exist without the Cartesian mind-set and the Gallic attitude toward property and historical continuity as the nation’s true patrimony – and human beings, as interpreters, were and are still always obviously required for terroir to speak. But, maybe it’s now time to expand the notion of terroir beyond the strictly geophysical, or allow a new idea to emerge, the idea that perhaps human beings might in some sense become explicit co-creators of terroir. The most obvious problem for the discovery of terroir, of course, is one of time: The elucidation of terroir has historically been something that has unfolded over centuries.
Unless the technology depicted in the film, Avatar, is on the immediate horizon, it would seem one can’t get there from here, at least in a single lifetime.
I have not yet told you my own perhaps crackpot idea for enhancing the possibility of the expression of terroir without the benefit of centuries of iteration and observation.
My notion is to grow grapes in a way as to enhance the soil characteristics of the wine – dry-farmed, deep-rooted vines grown in a healthy, vibrant soils, but also to de-emphasize varietal characteristics themselves, by creating something akin to the old field blends of yesteryear, but with a significant difference. I would propose to grow grapes from seeds, the result of vinifera crosses, rather than from clonally propagated material, as is typically done to retain the desired characteristics of the mother vine.
This would yield a vineyard of extreme genetic diversity, each plant a distinctive genotype. But the questions remain: Will you gain subtlety, nuance and complexity in the resultant wine or will you have cacophony? What degree of difference do you want to see within the population?
Do grapes that are close enough genetically synchronize their phenology, their ripening patterns, as happens with the menstrual cycles of women living in close proximity? Do you cross two varieties that derive from the same geographical area (Grenache and MourvÃ¨dre) – ones that you know play well together from a palate perspective, or do you cross varieties – this is generally a better idea from a genetic perspective – from very disparate bloodlines, as it were? All of these questions are very highly fraught.
Seedlings are interesting for a number of reasons – you find a recapitulation of all of the genetics of the forebearers, favorable and less so. The plants themselves, if you plant them correctly, exhibit strong geotropism, or the tendency to root straight downward, which is quite interesting from a drought-tolerance aspect, and should certainly enhance the expression of soil characteristics.
But what is perhaps most interesting is perhaps the Gestalt phenomenon of the suppression of one set of taste impressions to allow the emergence of yet another.
I’ve ridiculed a bit the growers who allow emotion (or hormones) to cloud their thinking in making good decisions about what to plant, but what I’d like to now suggest is that what is most needed for terroir to emerge in the New World is for wine-growers to learn a kind of deep empathy above and beyond empirical observation.
In the same way that we are now seeing an explosion of the possibilities of consciousness through the rapid expansion of our computational capabilities, allowing for a sort of externalization of our minds, maybe we can think of terroir, or actually, something beyond terroir, as no longer reposing exclusively in the actual physical site itself.
But, the real power of this idea – to create a vast population of genetically distinctive individuals on a single site is really twofold: a) Might one find an unprecedented level of complexity and distinction when you blend them together? b) In the fullness of time, might there be a particular individual or set of individual plants that really stands out as far as its unique degree of adaptation to the site, selection massale on a very vast scale? (Perhaps that observation may require more than a single lifetime.) Bear in mind, there is a human being who is making choices about who are the worthy parents in this experiment. This human being has to be guided by intuition and inspiration, and in the end, his choices are perhaps a bit arbitrary. In the end, the resultant wine ideally should be a delight to his sensibility and aesthetic.
Maybe it’s the narcissistic, somewhat pantheistic Baby Boomer in me, who maintains the fantasy that I, or some transformation of me, will live forever.
Maybe, what I’m really dreaming about is perhaps a bit tangential to a real expression of terroir. But, if this project allows me to developer a deeper degree of empathy for the vines or even just presence – which is the aspiration of every spiritual pursuit – it will have been highly worthwhile. Also, not a bad thing to perhaps create a slew of new germplasm – remember each vine will be a new and distinctive grape variety – as a paying it forward to the future. I have been so incredibly blessed with the extraordinary opportunities I have been given, this is the very least I can do. Thank you.
This speech was delivered to the International School of the Peninsula on October 6th, 2013.