Why Should Terroir Matter…
…in The Golden State Where All is Sweetness and Light Anyway?
Speech delivered by Randall Grahm at University of California at Davis on 2/5/2010
What I’m really thinking about these days – above and beyond how to survive in this extremely challenging economic climate – is how one might find real meaning in the wine business, in the Maslovian sense, after one’s basic needs for survival have been met. I believe that we in the California wine industry have to take a serious look at how we think about our wines, as our business as usual practices are no longer working so well. I think that it is time for us to take seriously the idea of terroir, not merely as yet another marketing ploy, but as a way to forge a deeper, more meaningful connection to the wines that we make.
I’ve been dipping into Naomi Klein’s recent articles – she who wrote the book, “No Logo”
about the insatiable ubiquity of corporate branding. (Ironically or maybe even double-ironically, if such a thing is possible, had she the desire to have copyrighted the name “No Logo,” she would have potentially been able to cash in on the current backlash against “branded” or more accurately, branded to a fare-thee-well merchandise.) Klein’s original critique of corporate American business, using Nike and Starbuck’s as paramount examples, was that corporations have gradually moved away from a focus on the actual real qualities of their products to a near obsession with the transcendental “idea” of their products. Sports shoes are no longer mere shoes, but proxies for “just doing it,” – presumably following one’s dream with an unholy amount of perspiration.
A cup of coffee is now about finding a safe living room (maybe safer than the one found in one’s own dysfunctional family) or perhaps it is about finding a virtual “community,” in which to ensconce oneself after one’s real community has more or less evanesced. Our products are no longer esteemed for what they actually are, where they are made, who actually made them, but for what they abstractly represent. There is now, as it is said, no more “there” there, and this is nowhere more acutely visible than in the wine business.
I would argue that the current contretemps that we are experiencing in the wine business is not merely the result of the perfect storm of the melting down of the world economies, combined with the phenomenon of every plastic surgeon, reconstructive dentist, rock star, sports star and dot com refugee deciding to enter the wine business at precisely the same time. At a minimum, I believe that there is also something akin to a spiritual malaise, a sort of “brand sickness” developing in our industry – just far too many wineries, brands, brand extensions they’re called, and
suddenly one has the rather vertiginous feeling that it is rather difficult to find the real value of anything any more. You walk into a wine store and it is a bit like walking into a dream, or maybe a Borgesian nightmare. Every label from those with depictions of stately faux chateaux to the goofy bears, naughty crocodiles, 48-pound roosters, and mad fish, is seemingly shrieking at top volume, trying to tell its story. Like Hansel and Gretel, you’ve wandered into a dense, enchanted forest of signifiers, and it’s become very hard to get beyond these surfaces, to penetrate to the heart of the matter.
Paradoxically, with all of this signifying going on, what I really think we are experiencing in the wine business is something like a “meaning deficit” – Do scores really matter? Does scarcity matter? What do we truly mean by wine quality in the New World, in the absence of history, demonstrable track record? Who can I really trust to give me the skinny on what I should be drinking? Ultimately, will it be up to me to decide for myself what I should be drinking? (Hint: yes, it will be.) What does it mean that my 98-point impossibly allocated wine is essentially unpalatable with any food at all? And why do I now see it at Costco?
There is something afoot in the wine business and it is something like a complete revision of our values. As painful as it may be for many of us in the business, maybe this is ultimately not such a bad thing. Likely it is just my febrile imagination, but I believe there is a deep restlessness in the buyer of New World wines, who suspects that as attractive as many expensive New World wines might be, there is just nothing utterly compelling about them; if you miss out on one, there will always be another one coming down the road that will taste not dissimilarly, and will just as easily serve. (This does not bode particularly well for someone who is attempting to formulate a business plan for a truly sustainable enterprise.)
I, at least, have the notion that “Napa” has ceased being a real place and has become nothing so much as an ideational construct, much like “wine country,” – y’know, the place where you go to enjoy a life-style, (a term which I must confess utterly creeps me out). So, I think that in this era of deep thirst for meaning, in a time where there appears to be no “there” there, we can learn quite a lot from the French idea of terroir, which is more than just a quaint Old World notion. Terroir is in fact the precise opposite of nowhereness; it is truly “somewhereness,” and therefore deeply imbued with meaning, the very antidote to what is poisoning our industry right now.
So, here is what I think is at issue: We use the word “wine” in multiple instances to describe a certain fermented beverage that we all enjoy, but there is a fundamental ontological difference, a different order of being, in the essence of what the word describes. (As an aside, historically, I have myself been somewhat complicit, to my shame, in blurring this distinction, and perhaps we can talk about that later, but I do imagine that I am going to Wine Hell for my zins.)
In the world of wine you can certainly dichotomize the universe rather neatly between the industrial, and the artisanal, the standard and the truly singular.
But there is an even finer distinction to be made, a distinction between what the French call vins d’effort, or wines of effort and vins de terroir, or wines which express a sense of place. You can almost think of this maybe as less of a dichotomy but rather as some sort of continuum. A “wine of effort” is one that bears the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker, and one where the winemaker has controlled virtually every aspect of the production, from the deficit drip-irrigation of the vines to the use of selected clones, selected “designer” yeasts, enzymes and malolactic bacteria; there is a strong overlay of “house style.”
(Allow me a parenthetical comment on drip irrigation: Despite the fact that on the surface, the idea of drip irrigation seems brilliant – who doesn’t think that small berries aren’t a great idea for red wine – I believe that this element of “control” also carries with it an unintended negative consequence, essentially infantilizing plants, restricting root systems, which means potentially less mineral uptake, and a much greater drought sensitivity, but most importantly a loss of the expression of the character of the site. It can be rather like growing grapes in flower-pots, making vines gatherers rather than hunters, the vitaceous equivalents of Chauncey Gardner, if you remember Peter Sellers in “Being There.”
For me, drip irrigation, followed closely by new oak and obscene levels of overripeness, are the most dangerous enemies of the potential expression of terroir.) But control is what we have been particularly skilled at in the New World, and it has given us stylistic consistency – the smoothing over of great vintage variations, which tend to vex many wine consumers, and in some respect has made New World wines particularly accessible to New World palates. But, I would argue that having eaten from the tree of wine
knowledge and seeking to control all unpredictable elements of the winemaking process, our wines have lost something precious, maybe a certain kind of quirky originality that makes them memorable. In becoming essentially flawless, I’m not convinced at all that they have become more interesting, maybe far less so.
Vins d’effort can in a certain sense be very impressive – think of Grange Hermitage produced in the Barossa Valley – but ultimately they are only as clever as the winemaker himself (or herself), which is to say, not that clever. They may be technically perfect and enormously likeable, but seldom if ever truly loveable.
In distinction, a vin de terroir is one that attempts to leverage (to use horrible MBA-speak) the intelligence and organization of nature itself, reflecting the unique characteristics of a uniquely favored site; the winemaker attempts to make his own contribution to the process essentially invisible, discreetly place himself in the corner of the painting.
Maybe just a quick word here about Biodynamics® and terroir: While I cannot particularly defend the methodology of Biodynamics from anything approaching the scientific/rationalist standpoint – it is essentially a kind of viticultural homeopathy with some other exotic bits thrown in
– it seems to be a very powerful practice to elicit both an expression of terroir in one’s wines, as well as a comprehension of that terroir in the practitioner. Biodynamics is agriculture with a very light hand – one never seeks to make gross changes in the soil composition to create a normatively “healthy” vineyard with of such and such levels of this or that oligo-element, but rather to attain a healthy, complex soil microflora, which leads to a greater expression of the qualities of the site. Biodynamic practice at the end of the day is really a form of meditation and an expanding of the consciousness of the practitioner – making him more present with his site, expanding his intuition and imagination. Without a level of great empathy, if you will, for one’s site, I don’t think an understanding of terroir is possible.
A producer – you can’t really even say “producer”, it is more like “discoverer” or “facilitator” – a something something of a vin de terroir tries to avoid the distractions of too many flashy bells and whistles – neither too much new oak, too much alcohol, and he eschews over-extraction.
Manipulating the wine to take the alcohol out of it, to put the acid back into, needing to make great and heroic interventions in the winemaking is an indication that all is not right with one’s terroir. It is a bit like the old vaudeville joke, “Doctor, I’ve broken me leg in three places. What should I do?” Answer: Stay out of those places. If you have to take your wine for a spin in the spinning cone, you should stay out of those places.
You can think of terroir as a sort of calling card, a fingerprint or a signal, a kind of radio wave that emanates from the site.
You have to begin with something like a strong signal – the vines are grown in a site that does a good job in meeting the vine’s needs for moisture, for light, for certain key nutrients, perhaps more consistently than proximal sites; soil moisture is held tightly and dispensed in a slightly parsimoniously manner, but wisely, as a clever parent would disperse a weekly allowance to a teenager. The vines can’t be over-cropped, and there has to be a deep, wide-ranging and healthy root system for the vines to pick up the signal – and it is up to the winemaker to amplify that signal without distorting it.
When it works, the result is breathtaking and creates a kind of sympathetic resonance within us; you apprehend the deep order of nature itself. The wine is elusive, a chameleon, haunting. It can be one of those “I’ve just seen a face” moments, and you are totally hooked. As they say on the MasterCard commercial, priceless.
So, it is clear to me that my personal path must be the pursuit of terroir, and as supremely worthy as this quixotic vision might be, it may certainly far more aspirational than realistically attainable, at least in one lifetime; I don’t know if I advocate this path for everyone, and wonder sometimes if I am not myself chasing after moonbeams. For one thing, there are just so many damn variables to consider – have you planted on your site the right rootstock, with the right spacing, the right exposure, and of course, do you have a felicitous match between your grape variety, the soil and the climate and microclimate? Is the site itself somehow unique and distinctive, with a unique geology, exposure?
Most importantly, you have to ask yourself, “Might I actually achieve something of true originality?” (I don’t even wish to broach the existential issues of the feasibility of identifying and understanding one’s terroir within a very short lifetime.) I must say that it really amuses me in a slightly sad way to see so many of my colleagues seeking to emulate Burgundy or Bordeaux or CÃ´te-Rotie in the New World, when it would be a lot easier and probably a lot cheaper just to buy some real estate in the paradigmatic site itself.
As daunting as the prospect of discovering terroir in one’s very short lifetime, here is why I believe terroir is supremely valuable and why it matters here in The Golden State: Apart from the obvious benefit of producing a wine that is thoroughly differentiated from that of one’s neighbors – which, by the way, is perhaps obligatory for continued survival at the higher end – seeking to produce a vin de terroir is possibly the only way one might truly gain additional complexity and depth in one’s wine after all of the machinations of a vin d’effort have been exhausted. I sincerely believe that at least technologically, we have reached a certain glass ceiling in winemaking. We know well how to produce wines without any discernible flaws, and have also begun to unlock some of the dark secrets of tricking up wines to pander to our customer’s tastes (as mercurial as they may be) and as significantly, to the sensibilities of powerful wine critics, whom I am convinced, can be fooled a non-trivial percentage of the time.
But, whether we are the trickor or the trickee, as my late professor, Norman O. Brown used to say, “Fools with tools are still fools,” and fooling one’s customers is a fool’s game.
When everyone has learned how to do it, the game is over, as it now appears to be. A wine of terroir speaks with an openness, a candor – it is what it is, and that is so deeply refreshing in these most cynical times.
In California, I imagine a true vin de terroir to be the ultimate low-tech product and perhaps the only truly sustainable proposition for growing grapes – non-irrigated, perhaps free-standing head-trained vines, grown without trellising – state of the art viticulture circa 1880. Maybe this will be the solution pressed upon us when water for agriculture is no longer abundantly available, and that can certainly happen sooner than later. Perhaps soon the cost of establishing a vineyard infrastructure – wires and stakes and cross-arms, irrigation systems, etc. will as well grow to be prohibitively expensive.
But, in conclusion, my thought is that the great value aspiring to produce a vin de terroir is not so much in its practicality – I’ve alluded to the fact that it may well be impossible to find terroir in a single generation – but rather, it is the gift that terroir gives us in how we choose to think about what we do. An esteem for terroir makes us look at our land and its custodianship in a different way, engendering a deep love and respect, a great gift to ourselves and to everyone with whom we share this planet.