Terroir: My Spiritual Journey (Part 1)
I’m a little bit nervous about characterizing my quest to produce a vin de terroir—a wine expressive of a specific place—as a “spiritual journey.”1 Not that popular literature isn’t utterly littered with accounts of unorthodox methodologies pressed into service for this or that spirit-quest, but in some sense it’s my own disposition toward Logorrhea that has perhaps been the greatest impediment to the journey itself. I’ve been very comfortable—perhaps rather too comfortable—talking and writing about the steps leading up to the journey: the planning, the maps and the guidebooks, the conversations with sage mentors, the extraordinary lessons that the universe is patiently trying to teach me through one serendipitous encounter or another. I worry that even just now in the writing about it I’m somehow deferring to a later moment the journey itself, allowing it to infinitely recede into the future distance like the castle of Kafka’s Surveyor. Any journey must be grounded in genuine action, even cerebral action, as this writing itself might in fact be so. But a real and genuine projection of oneself into the unknown, pushing oneself well out of one’s comfort zone, is another matter altogether. The burbling, sinuous stream of sentences I observe on the scintillated screen of my MacBook are my rod and my staff; they comfort me. (This cannot be entirely good.) But the actual journey, the real boots-on-the-ground work, is of a different order altogether. The work seems to require a rather different level of attention, and perhaps something like a total personal transformation, which of course affrights me to the very core.
I am a Luftmensch—someone who has his head in the clouds. I idly dream of idealized worlds,2 and my tendency to dream has historically often been a surrogate for action. Not that I haven’t been capable of taking bold action from time to time, but these actions have tended to be more of the grand gesture sort: Let’s freeze some grapes! Macerate some raspberries! Why not try our hand at those RhÃ´ne/Italian/Portugese grapes while we’re at it? I’ve been particularly good at formulating catchy slogans: A bas le bouchon! and Vive le screwcap! No, there is no real malaise due to lack of initiative. The problem is really something more basic, and has more to do with my inability to be totally present, especially with all of the fine details that truly matter.
For most of my life as a winemaker, as is the case for many “executive winemakers” in the New World,3 “winemaking” is, or at least can be, a largely weightless, almost magical exercise.4 The grapes (somehow) show up at your winery at an appointed day.5 You move (as if in a dream), through a ritualized protocol—cold soak for x number of days, punching down again and again (the cap always popping up again like the return of the repressed). At last, the anthocyanins have been extracted, wrestled into submission like Jacob’s angel. The wine has reposed in its vessel of conception for a Biblical forty days and forty nights, and you then direct your cellar crew to gently remove it to barrel. Time moves on; the pages fall off the calendar like abscised syrah leaves after the first substantive winter rain. You rack the wine a few times on propitious days;6 this sort of rote exercise begins to infiltrate your dreams.7 You sit at the tasting bench—here you are the master of your domain—enter into a semi-trance, and somehow a few short hours later you find you have composed a felicitous blend.8 Eventually you get around to bottling the distillation of these efforts at what you hope is le moment juste, but more likely is the moment your production manager reminds you that there’s no more room at the inn.
But is there not more to great winemaking than this? It’s not as if you’ve been a total stranger to the vineyard. You try to get the pruning right, the crop level right. You’re strident with your growers on the subject of irrigation.9 Perhaps you’ve made some biodynamic compost for your growers, or even caused some biodynamic preps to be sprayed on their grapes. You’ve done your best to be a squeaky wheel.
But can you really look yourself in the eye and claim to be a truly dedicated vigneron, a campagnard de terroir? For as long as I can recall, I feel as if I’ve just been going through the motions. I am not one with my vineyard;10 my own rather marginal competency as a viticulturist aside, I’m just not there nearly enough, nor do I yet truly have eyes to see.11 (You can put it down in part to the essential absurdity of the Urban Jew in a rustic setting—the Woody Allen oeuvre would certainly bear this out.12 )
And yet, I have asked both publicly and privately for the universe to give me a sign that it’s willing to cooperate in my new ambitious venture in San Juan Bautista—my effort to discover a true terroir in the New World, to bring the unseen into view. This isn’t something that will simply magically occur; it will require me to push myself to grow in a new way—that is to say, to sink my own roots into a new place and stand and survey what it is that I see. If I’m not willing to see what this place, my land, has to show me, and to learn from it, then I am nothing but a fool.
Allow me to restate the problem of the plantation of a vineyard in a virgin area ab ovum, as I have done in one form or another in a succession of these communiqués. I aspire to make a great wine—that is given. One must therefore begin with unusually great and distinctive grapes; you must grow them yourself if they are to arrive at the fanatical level of quality that you seek—also a given. So, as a prospective grower of brilliant and original grapes, you really have essentially two options, one more or less straightforward, the other far more arcane: you either find a grape that you love and figure out where to grow it, or find a unique place that you love and figure out what it is (Grapes? Peaches? Olives?) that might truly flourish there.
Certainly, the more straightforward option is to decide that you are hopelessly enamored with a particular grape variety—pinot noir, let’s say—and therefore your ambition/lust/compulsion is to make a great Pinot noir—or perhaps, The Great Pinot noir.13 You spend a number of years combing the planet, trying to find a site you imagine will be ideally suited—climate, geology, aspect, purchasability14 —to the cultivation of pinot noir. Now, you may prefer the wines of Chambertin or the wines of Musigny, or even the Pinot noirs of the Russian River. But whether or not you dare to imagine that your Pinot will ever taste even vaguely (or de VogÃ¼ély) Musignian, you likely already have a built-in model in your brain for strategies for success: “special” DRC clones, yield restriction, close-spacing, brilliant trellising, very particular winemaking techniques.15 If you are a reasonably clever person, your wine may well taste a bit like your Platonic Pinot, maybe even (drum roll, here) “Burgundian.”16 And if you present an interesting story and the wine tastes as good or better than similar wines made by similarly tortured and obsessed individuals, you may enjoy some success.
But have you really created something of original beauty? Is your Pinot, however powerful or concentrated it might be, as balanced, refined, or haunting as the humblest Burgundy from a modest appellation?17 I ask you, candidly, what have you actually accomplished, apart from gratifying your own wish to compete on the world stage and to see how you stack up against the Greats?18
I know I’m sounding a little pious and judgmental here. Everything we do is in service to our egos—and really, who am I to judge? Maybe I have it totally backward, but it seems to me that the more appropriate approach to making a wine that the world actually needs is to follow the latter course: to make the sincere effort to identify sites with a (perceived) potential to express a distinctive terroir;19 to determine what variety (or varieties) of grapes would be particularly well adapted to that site; and to do what you might to really accentuate the site’s distinguishing characteristics. Of course, whatever your approach, you’re primarily trying to show the world how clever you are. But at the same time, you may also be bringing true beauty into the world, and fostering diversity; this is to the good.
I have been giving a lot of thought, as you well know, to precisely what I should grow in San Juan—or more to the point, how I might best honor the site and at the same time do something that’s really useful. What I’m looking for, it seems, is a methodology that lets me even approach the question of what is most mete and proper. We’ve had Claude and Lydia Bourguignons, the famous French soil scientists, out to the farm.20 They seemed to feel that the place had real potential and were sincerely excited by the uniqueness of most of the soil types they observed chez nous. They gave us some valuable insights as to the nature of our soils, as well as advice on what steps might be taken to optimally preserve and express their distinctiveness. And yet when I asked point-blank about what varieties might be the most suitable, they seemed to fall back on certain idées reÃ§ues, or at least upon historical precedents—cabernet in gravel, merlot in clay, that sort of thing.
“So, ruchÃ¨ on this windy, gravely slope, Claude? What do you think?”
“I’m sorry, Randall, I just don’t know very much about ruchÃ¨.”
We have a wonderful northeast facing limestone hill—I mean a serious limestone hill. “Nebbiolo?” I tentatively ventured.
“Maybe,” said Claude, “but nebbiolo behaves a lot like pinot, and doesn’t want to get too stressed. And it is rather windy around here. What do you think about palomino?”
“Chopfallen” is an expression S.J. Perelman was very fond of.21 Yes, we know that palomino does well in chalk (in Jerez), but does the world really need more palomino on chalk? Or even more palomino on anything?
The way forward must be to look for a method that would build upon the world’s received knowledge, and to allow that knowledge to expand and evolve; one must do the most familiar work differently—smartly, but differently. One must find a method that would allow one to pose a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, iterate, and observe. But how to do this in what remains of one very, very short lifetime?
- A Twitter follower (don’t ask) recently asked about the “helical” vineyard I’d once proposed planting in Pleasanton, CA., as a sort of recursive, Borgesian encyclopedic exercise beginning at a certain point (maybe even with grapes that began with “A” (Abrostine, AlbariÃ±o, etc.) and never subtracting, but always adding, refining. It occurs to me that these essays themselves are largely recursive, maybe even helical, and that every spiritual quest is as well. [↩]
- Specifically worlds populated by wine (and cider) bottles filled with liquids so unspeakably delicious and complex they move the imbibers to something the psychologist Maslow might characterize as a “peak-experience.” [↩]
- Maybe there is an analogy for executive chefs. [↩]
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being Doon. [↩]
- In fairness, I do actually visit the vineyards any number of times before the grapes “show up,” but the farther away those vineyards are, the fewer times I visit. I confess that often these vineyard visits are primarily fly-bys; I don’t feel I really know them well from the inside out, and this is largely the problem. [↩]
- Ideally, with a waning moon and rising barometric pressure. [↩]
- Doing cellar work—something I haven’t done in years (topping barrels in particular)—was terribly vivid for me in the nocturnal hours: removing the bungs—did you remember to put them back? Cleaning up the wine that you had spilled around the bunghole (childhood memories of spilled juice). Wrestling with the physicality of the barrel, like a memory of scuffling with a childhood friend or sibling. You have slept fitfully of course, waking numerous times from your slumber, to taste, perchance to blend, to tweak, to rack no more—all the time imagining that your dream of this wine is mostly a sweet one. [↩]
- You always want to check this a few times to make sure the blend remains felicitous, as wines (and tasters as well) certainly have their own ups and doons. [↩]
- This recalls the famous Far Side cartoon about what we say to dogs, and what they hear. [↩]
- Since most of the vineyards we work with are generally not “great”—all somewhat less than ideal in one way or another—I’m often anguishing over how much effort/expense is worth expending to extract incremental improvements in quality; e.g., how much biochar do we buy for our growers’ vineyards? Do we do this for all the vineyards? Some of the vineyards? The best ones? The worst ones? Vineyards with three-year contracts? Five-year contracts? (It is so incredibly tedious to have to think about these things: I would far rather be applying the very attenuated bandwidth I still possess to actually observing the results of field-trials, rather than squinting at trial balances on reams of spreadsheets.) These long-term investments are likely not justifiable from a strictly financial standpoint, but the effort to do one’s best within one’s financial means is truly the only viable spiritual course. [↩]
- I’m spread pretty thin with all sorts of responsibilities these days—to my great chagrin, I’m still spending a lot of time in sales and marketing, PR, and simply playing a gracious host. But I certainly was pretty asleep at the switch with respect to our Soledad vineyard. For years I blithely imagined how virtuous we were with our biodynamic practice, perceiving not at all that our soils had become utterly compacted—most likely a function of the slightly saline irrigation water and the relatively heavy tractors we were using. Sustainable? Not by a long chalk. [↩]
- The Ashkenazi population’s predisposition to Asperger’s Syndrome (at least according to David Mamet) is another explanatory mechanism and perhaps a particularly apt one in my own instance. Social and physical ineptness, obsessional flights of ideation, extravagance of language—check, check, check. [↩]
- You know you love it because you have tasted it (or something like it) maybe once or twice. But how different it is to imagine that you will love something that you have never seen, heard, tasted, or touched before. Maybe it’s the great romantic in me speaking, but the love of the what-might-be seems to be the greatest love of all (at least potentially). [↩]
- The land presumably must be for sale and not located under a shopping mall in, say, downtown Palo Alto, and of course you must have a non-trivial amount of scratch on hand to purchase said land and develop it. [↩]
- I’m certain there’s occasionally some map/territory confusion here, whereby winemakers believe that the technique itself (or the fact that you are doing x) adds value to the wine, rather than the persuasiveness of the flavors of said wine. [↩]
- If you can even put your finger on those elusive qualities that make Pinot noir “Burgundian,” you may have arrived at a deep understanding of the essence of Pinot. [↩]
- Answer: I’m afraid it won’t be. It may well be impressive and delicious, but that will be a function of the scrupulous detail you have paid and the enormous capital you have expended, rather than to the absolutely perfect congruence of the site, variety, rootstock, and cultural practice. And, by the way, your wine will likely cost way more to produce than a grand cru Burgundy. [↩]
- And of course the opportunity to have your heart broken into a million pieces. [↩]
- This of course sounds far easier than it actually is. Apart from the need to determine whether the site has interesting geology and meteorology—sufficient water-holding capacity, adequate cation exchange capacity (important for growing red grapes), and adequate rainfall—there’s really a deeper question of whether the property really speaks to you and you alone. Is your destiny linked to that of the property? How do you know this? [↩]
- They work with the fanciest domains in the world, advising on the most felicitous match of cépage and rootstock to soil type, as well as on agronomic strategies for amplifying the individuality of the site. [↩]
- I knew that I was succumbing to the same fallacy of the poor and tortured pinot-obsessed; if I love the variety enough, my love will allow me to do something that no one else in these parts has been able to achieve. [↩]