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 Côte-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.

    49 Responses to “Why Should Terroir Matter…”

    1. Randy says:

      “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.)”

      This is truely a great comment from a leader in the industry.

      RP, WE and WS… Are YOU reading this? Get our from behind your NYC desk and come out to WC and see all the shit wine you’ve been promoting for nearly two decades.

      Terroir is possibly the only solution to bottom-lining, corporate winemaking.

      • Tell it, brother. Alas, I am afraid that producing a vin de terroir is likely not the viable solution for producers selling inexpensive, mass-produced wine – the standardization of flavor profile and the deep marketing budgets to promote those wines, i.e. the Yellow Tail Model – probably works better. But if you are selling very expensive wine, as many in Napa Valley, for example, are now trying to do, I do believe that your best chance of success is to really try to find the originality of your site and make a product that has real distinction, not just an attractive flavor profile.

      • I’m not sure if it is the only solution – vins de terroir are possibly often out of the price range of the ordinary drinker. But certainly honest wines – non-spoofilated in the parlance of Joe Dressner – are definitely a step in the right direction. Like so many other aspects of modern life, we have become quite inured to the grotesque and the outré.

    2. steve boyer says:

      A hearty welcome to the “wine elite anti-flavor brigade”! (at least according to RP)

    3. George Parkinjson says:

      It just may be that the strength of the truth you speak is like a great lost civilization.
      Few understand it, few employ the lessons of the past, fewer still refuse to listen to the truth, many more will keep doing only what they know because change, although the only constant in life, is hard for most to embrace.
      Our hope is that future generations will recognize the importance of place and we will eventually realize a better “there there” in the wines we produce. cheers.

      • The esteeming of the preciousness of place, whether in our wines or in our environmental milieux is most certainly a function of consciousness. Our culture tends to guide us towards thinking in terms of expedience – how can I use things? – rather than in terms of how can I best appreciate the unique treasures that surround me.

    4. Evan Dawson says:

      Wonderful. Just one quibble: You write, “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.”

      I would argue that those wines are not trying to tell a story at all. Those labels are designed to get attention, not tell a story, because there is not much of a story to tell.


      • I think that you are right; perhaps I might have been slightly more rigorous in my argument. The critter wine labels one observes on the shelf are like shiny baubles one sees at the bazaar, and generally don’t bear (as it were) great scrutiny.

    5. Very interested in your comments and perspective on Biodynamism. Something about it seems to work, and maybe it is really about the “light hand”. However, I cannot help but feel that some practitioners view it as an end, rather than simply a means.
      This leads to the question: why is there not a deep literature regarding efforts to improve on biodynamics? It strikes me that this cannot be construed as perfection achieved, so why aren’t practitioners constantly searching for even better?

      • You bring up an excellent point, and agreed that many of my colleagues, especially in the New World may tend to regard the practice as a virtue in itself. (It certainly is a wonderful, conscious way to farm, but in and of itself is no guarantor of anything.) I think that the challenge of biodynamics is really to find a mechanism to make it a living, dynamic rather than a more fossilized, static practice. We need to create something like a real biodynamic community where farmers might systematically support each other other with ongoing research, and build from one another’s successes and failures.

    6. Tom says:

      Truly inspired thoughts. It’s also nice to hear a vision — obviously this is a pretty strong piece of criticism — but at the same time you demonstrate there is an alternative. Thank you — really enjoyed the post.

    7. Fabius says:

      Great article, the most interesting and well-written I’ve read in a long time! You touch on a lot of points in it, but I think the main thrust of it is selling the idea of ‘terroir’ (well not exactly ‘selling’ more like promoting). Anyway, the main thing that struck me, is the lengths and depths of analysis you’ve gone to explain something that’s patently obvious (from a European old world perspective, that is).
      But even though I’ve always believed in terroir and consider it essential for a quality wine, your arguments and reasonings have convinced me even more (if possible!) and have clarified my thoughts. I especially liked the references to the ‘idea’ of a product and there being no ‘there’ there any more, etc. It made me think of another book ‘Pattern Recognition’ by W.Gibson, a novel about viral marketing where the main character has a physical allergy to corporate logos! I think wine-drinkers (even in the mass-market) can feel this emptiness and falseness foisted on them by the corporate marketing gurus.

      I think also that in the US you’ve systemized, ‘processized’ commoditized, industrialized and controlled the wine-making process to death. Which is not necessarily a bad thing altogether as before we used to have the exact opposite, ie secret, mysterious arcane wine-makers, bordering on the magical and alchemical! The problem with all the processed industrial wines is that even if they are technically ‘flawless’, they are all the same, boring, false and dead! No doubt, the solution lies somewhere between those two extremes.

      I found it strange that you focussed on bio-dynamics, seeing as they’re such a small minority. What about regular organic agriculture, which is a lot easier to understand and toactually do? A lot of people are turned off by or don’t understand the ‘esoteric’ bits of biodynamics.

      No moonbeams! The zeitgeist is moving towards terroir and away from process control-freakery!

      • Thank you so much for your kind remarks. Perhaps I might have clarified to a greater extent that the practice of biodynamics is in fact just one potential road to the expression of terroir in wine, and there does in fact exist more than one path. Biodynamics is interesting to me in that its practices seem to very explicitly conduce to a greater expression of terroir on a site, and there is perhaps a slightly lighter hand in the kind of activities suggested. In other words, biodynamic practice really seeks to achieve the individuation of a site, which is another word for terroir.

    8. Sam Goth says:

      What fraction of the early medieval world view that gave us terrior transplantable so it can sustainably give us original wine?

      • I would imagine that likely the percentage of vineyards planted in medieval times that actually yielded wines of a distinctive sense of place were relatively small, but this doesn’t really detract from the validity of the notion. Perhaps it was even a relatively small window of time in which the conditions existed for the the culture of terroir to emerge. And yet, it is still a profoundly beautiful notion that continues to resonate in other places, in other times.

      • Charles Serrano says:

        The term ‘terroir’ has some pretty early usages.

        Étymol. et Hist. 1. 1212 tieroir « territoire » (Vente, Ctes d’Art., 47, A. Pas-de-Calais ds Gdf. Compl.); 1229 terroir (Trésor des Chartes du Comté de Rethel, éd. G. Saige, I, 101, 22 ds Morlet, p. 216); d’où 2. 1283 terroir « terrain considéré par rapport à l’agriculture » (Philippe de Beaumanoir, Coutumes, éd. A. Salmon,773); 1549 goust du terroir (à propos d’un vin) (Est., s.v. goust); 1561 fig. resentir son terroir (d’un homme) (J. Grévin, Théâtre compl., éd. L. Pinvert, Au lecteur, p. 49). Du lat. pop. *terratorium du class. territorium, territoire* d’apr. terra, terre*.

        source: http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/terroir Centre national de références textuelles et lexicales ; March 2010

        I found the 1549 goust du terroir (à propos d’un vin) that largley predates the Napoleonic appelation system to be very interesting.

    9. D. Bedros, Santa Cruz says:

      Ugh, this is nauseating. I think you probably mean well and truly intend to evolve the wine world over here but the endless pontification of terroir is hard to stomach when I have yet to taste a BD wine that embodies terroir and attractive and complex flavors (take a Cornas for example). A hollow wine does not get “buddy” points by the winemaker explaining at length that it’s because it has “terroir”. I’d love to be an advocate of BD wines and I continue to taste them hoping to notice a gem one of these days. And perhaps that can help the terrior cause.

      • I’m not sure if I’m really understanding your drift. You seem to be unhappy with biodynamic wines being capable of expressing terroir, but I truly can’t agree with you on that point. Look at the DRC wines, the wines of Zind-Humbrecht, Anne-Claude Leflaive. Yes, some biodynamic winemakers tend to use less SO2 in their wines and this can lead to rather pronounced microbial funk – maybe this is what you seem to responding to. I am with you in your great esteem for Cornas; for me there is no greater expression of Syrah.

    10. Bruce says:

      While I agree with much of the introductory material, I can’t take seriously the ponderings on “terroir.” Why?

      1. To have any relevance at all, “terroir” ought to refer to the distinctiveness of wines made from a single grape variety from a specific location. Since Boon Doon makes a number of wines that either are blends of varieties and/or are sourced from different vineyards, the lecture on the need to strive for “terroir” rings more than a little hollow to me.

      2. More generally, “terroir” is a useless, philosophical construct that doesn’t really tell you anything useful. If you want to differentiate “interventionist” versus “non-interventionist” (or at least put those constructs on a spectrum), then you have something useful and tangible to discuss.

      The simple fact is that “terroir” doesn’t exist in the actual world; it’s a human concept to describe what is ultimately the human endeavor of making wine. While factors such as climate and soil clearly are relevant, wine does not make itself. From deciding where to plant a vineyard, to deciding what what grape varieties to plant, canopy management, trellising, pruning, dropping fruit, when to pick, getting the grapes to the winery, selecting all of the variables in fermenting and elevage, to deciding when and how to bottle the wine–these are all HUMAN choices and decisions.

      Put another way, if someone decides to plant a warm climate grape in a cool climate, you’ll end up with an underripe grape. You can make wine that will “express” the flavors of using underripe grapes–your wine will suck in a distinctive way–but it will still suck.

      So let us not pretend that there is some magical “terroir” that exists in some mythical vineyard surrounded by rainbows and unicorns. The first duty of wine is to taste good and play well with food. It’s a beverage.

      • Bruce, I don’t disagree with any of your premises. Do I have a right to state an opinion to state about terroir, despite the fact that I produce largely (though not exclusively) blended wines? I would hope so; my comments are aspirational; vins de terroir are the wines that I would most wish to produce. But Rhone wasn’t built in a day, nor are new, truly sustainable vineyards planted and productive. Agreed that interventionist/non-interventionist dichotomy is quite useful, but as you point out correctly, the whole question really hinges on whether one has had either the wit/luck/accretion of historical knowledge to plant grapes in the right place, with the appropriate culture. Without meeting these criteria, any discussion of terroir is rather moot.

      • Charles Serrano says:

        The notion of terroir is not just a construct, It s a cultural artifact, evidence that points to a different way of looking at things. The French have a long and complex attachment to the land they live on and the soil they cultivate. French culture is replete with examples. Notre Dame de Paris, as with much gothic architecture in Paris is made of stone found under the city of Paris. Older neighborhoods have buildings that identically match the pavement of the cobblestone streets where they are located. An old roman arena, Les Arènes de Lutèce, serve as a playground for children in the 5th arrondissement. It is as if buildings have grown from the ground itself. But architecture is not the only domain where the French find themselves linked to the soil.
        French people identify themselves with their place of origin. Accents aside, amongst each other French people will give their land (‘pays’) of origin as a way of letting others know what they are about. The word ‘pays’ means more than country, there are very clear connotations of region and ethnicity. To be ‘dijonnais’, or ‘toulousain’ is a point of pride. Such appellations imply cultural differences, food preferences and clear penchants for particular sports teams. It is the linguistic equivalent of one American saying to another, I am a Central-California-Coastian. The concept of ‘pays’ plays a part in how a French person defines him- or herself.
        The French know where their food comes from. At the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, the animals and plants are the attraction. If you want to see tractors, irrigation systems and chemical fertilizers you have to go to the convention centers outside of the city. Furthermore, you will see a prize bull standing right next to a food concession giving away beef kebabs. There are no qualms at all about buying chicken with the feet on, or cooking rabbits with the heads on. The French are aware of the fact that their food comes from the land and they live with that notion in their day-to-day consumption.
        Another example of how fundamentally important the concept of land is can be found in the French national anthem. La Marseillaise, is a violent song meant to evoke strong, visceral feelings of national pride and defense. It pays homage to the land and the soil in the refrain: Aux armes citoyens ; Formez vos bataillons ; Marchons, marchons ; Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons (May impure blood water our furrows).
        You can dismiss the comcept of terroir only by ignoring that that is how French people see things.
        Jose Bove, an AOC roquefort maker, has very definite opinion on the topic and as you are probably aware has had some success in affecting public policy.
        The question is then, how does this affect wine: You cannot argue that there is no effect without completely ignoring the INOC (The Institut National des Appellations d’Origine ). The INOC not only regulates wine labeling in France as a quality control measure, it regulates what cultivars can be planted; how the vines are trained; appropriate canopy management; tonnage of fruit harvested; fermentation methods; pricing; and, distribution. An example of such regulation is that premier cru Bordeaux wines have to be fermented using native yeasts.
        That only leaves you with one logical arguement – French wine and food are not that great anyway.
        The French have been setting the standard for a long time and rightly so – they make darn good food and wine. I really think you are ignoring something obvious just because you do not understand what it really implies.

    11. KC says:

      Interesting discussion of terroir and authenticity. Reminds me of Heidegger’s description of dread as being nowhere “at home.”

      • I love the Heideggerian reference. For me the recognition of a wine of terroir has always been linked to a feeling of at-homeness. The feeling of being at home is itself linked to the minute details of the home – the niches, nooks, the places that one has made one’s own.

    12. The concept of terroir is certainly an elevated idea in some circles, despite being as down-to-earth as it truly is.
      In places where the vineyard locations, and the cultures that tend them can trace themselves back for thousands of years, the evolutionary emergence and refinement of such an idea is explicitly natural. In this country, where the culture of wine is not so deeply rooted, and fine juice jockeys for position amongst other beverages in the main marketplace, the subtlety of terroir as an idea alone is challenged, to say nothing of being accepted as a reasonable goal. Just as it can be hard to explain to a 5 year old why home made pasta and meatballs are better than that which comes from a can, so too is the work of explaining terroir to the American palate. But someone has to try.

      • I do like the analogy of the home-made meal to a wine of terroir. The problem with certain confected or spoofilated wines as they are called in some quarters is that they “work” for the same reason that fast food works – they are biochemically destined to resonate with certain proclivities that are hard-wired into our physiology. Maybe the appreciation of vins de terroir is something that has to be culturally acquired.

    13. J Hartinger says:

      wow, really surprised at these comments, but Bravo to Randall. Yes perhaps BD has not been a terrior driven wine. Will you punish the prodigal son in his search for self-discovery?
      I suppose I am a terroirist. France, Germany, Italy has had hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of farmers living outdoors, living in their land, knowing everything about it, differentiating wines based on vines nothing more than yards apart. People can taste the difference. They apparently like the difference. California has 10-20 years and way too many Vins d’effort IMHO.

    14. Peter W. Meek says:

      OMG, he’s founded a new religion!

      (and in the same breath, defined the next, new, greatest marketing phrase: “vin de terroir”.

      • Tithing to new religion can be done safely and conveniently through PayPal at our website. It was certainly not I who has coined the phrase vin de terroir; the term has had currency for quite some time. Ironically, the French have been tremendously unsuccessful in promoting terroir as a marketing tool. Consumers who respond favorably to vins de terroir are generally not so susceptible to obvious marketing efforts; they tend to be far more inner-directed and buy the wines out of sincere love and appreciation for them.

    15. Fabius says:

      In order to reply to your Points 1 and 2 and to your 3rd paragraph, I think we would need 2 wineglasses and at least 1 bottle of wine (with or without ‘terroir’) 🙂
      But just to clear up your last point, a wine that expresses terrior is not necessary always good wine at all. In your example, the wine made from warm-climate grapes planted in a cool climate would in fact express the terrior AND it would suck. The two things are not mutually exclusive. It’s just that the only wines with terroir that are promoted are the good ones (obviously). I mean, who in their right minds would promote a wine that sucks, even if it expressed its terroir? though it is ‘technically’ and ‘logically’ possible to do so. It would be a bit like implementing a bad business plan, ie even though it were drawn up correctly and contained all the required elements, what would be the point?

    16. Stephen Grant says:

      Remember the Lonely Crowd?- “other-directed” vs. “inner-directed”? The “other” was (only) other people (that way lay the bourgeois misery Rousseau among others described); the “inner” was, well, mis-named, because that way, strictly, lies solipsism: in reality, the book’s inner-directeds were in fact often oriented upon an other, just not people, either some categorical imperative whose origin we don’t need to go into here- or God. Terroir is an other that can make us independent of each other. Jean-Michel Deiss once made the motion of picking up a handful of soil, and said, “For me, this is liberty.”

      • Thank you for that very lovely comment. One might simply call terroir the “that which truly is” or maybe that which truly remains. But it is incredibly liberating to try to serve something larger than oneself. As being a relatively self-absorbed individual, the practice of serving this larger other, if I can really stick to it, might well represent something like my spiritual path.

    17. One could feast (and flourish) on these words for years. They crystallize something that has been swimming in my mind for a few years – That California winemakers has lost their way and are leading the wine drinking public astray. In the relentless pursuit of control, 90+ ratings and ego gratification, they are being deceitful; they are taking the easy path to predictability, and in effect are producing something more akin to fermented beverages (the house style you refer to) than wines that reflect “the deep order of nature” that is so magical and inspiring. I fear that I will now force all my good, dear friends who love “The Prisoner” and other such fruit puddles and Napa smoothie type wines to read your brilliant posting.

      • I love a fruit smoothie as much as the next Santa Cruzan. But as applied to wine, it is just very fatiguing to the palate. I have the conceit that there is an unconscious knowing of what you are missing, but it is very hard to bring to consciousness. The current Bonny Doon line-up are not yet vins de terroir, by a long-shot (they are in many instances blends from multiple sites), but I hope that they do reflect a sensibility that esteems wines with life-force, a degree of minerality, and possess digestibility, i.e. they don’t weaken the person who consumes them. The vins de terroir will come with time.

    18. Phillip Hart says:

      I think Bruce is missing the point. Of course “Terroir” exists, it is not man made, but it is reflected by what man does to the earth. Irrigation, fertilizers, manipulation, will result in an extremely lightly terroir (Earth) driven wine. Dry farming, holisticaly approached farming will result in a strongly driven terroir wine. Granted the manipulated wine may have mass appeal but since when does appealing to the masses suggest quality. For me it comes down to “What do I want to put into my body”
      You can take all the above with a grain of Earth as my tastes are questionable, enjoying Retsina, Campari, Tabasco on my eggs. Oh, and yes, I dry farm head trained vines on steep hillsides making certified Biodynamic wines with old fashioned alc. levels in California.
      One of my favorite remarks when people taste our wine is “It’s so different”, and then they buy some. Wouldn’t it be wonderfull if wines from the same area were all “Different” for natural reasons (the specific land the grapes were grown on). A veritable cornucopia of Heavenly delight right here on Mother EARTH!

    19. Hypocrisy Hunter says:

      Dear Randal,

      Your quest for terroir is a noble one, and there is no question that it can be achieved. However, before you publicly criticize the global wine industry for its inability or unwillingness to produce authentic terroir-driven wines, you should really examine your own operation, because as far as I’ve seen, it does not coincide with your new-found philosophy.

      How can someone as intelligent as yourself not see the hypocrisy in your comments about the meaninglessness of extravagant artwork on wine labels, and the hidden evils behind company branding? Arn’t you the guy that just dropped thirty thousand dollars for a two-page comic strip ad in Wine Spectator in an attempt to re-brand your image?

      Also, as someone else has already pointed out, many of your own wines (including your signature “Cigare Volant”) are comprised of multiple vineyard sites, scattered throughout the state. How does this equate to a pure expression of site?

      Lastly, I would like to point out that your interpretation of Biodynamics is extremely distorted, and completely misses the point. Maybe we are reading different texts, but I don’t recall Steiner ever advocating Biodynamic farming principles for their ability to enhance terroir. In fact, if you take a close look at Demeter’s website, there is nothing stated about Biodynamic’s effect on terroir, or even wine in general for that matter. According to the official Demeter mission statement, Biodynamics is meant to “improve the health of the planet and its people by providing certification of products whose ingredients are grown and processed according to the highest agricultural and environmental standards.”

      The fact that Biodynamics promotes the expression of terroir in wine is nothing more than a fortunate coincidence. If you were truly as enlightened on the subject of Biodynamic farming as you claim to be, you would realize that your top priority should be the overall sustainability of your entire operation, not just the sustainability of your vineyard.

      I can assure you that Steiner would not approve of the idea of transporting a crop from its growing area to a destination two hours North in order to finalize its production. I can also assure you that he would not approve of using a synthetic closure such as a screwcap, which is petroleum based, and devastates the environment. Especially when there is a perfectly suitable alternative that is manufactured using natural material. Do you think Steiner would even entertain the idea of using mechanized weed-eaters in place of cows and sheep simply because cows and sheep are less reliable? Your current understanding of Biodynamics simply fails to include its founder’s ultimate goal – which was (and still is according to Demeter) – to improve the health of the planet and its people.

      Maybe it’s time to stand naked in front of the mirror again.

      – Hypocrisy Hunter

    20. Geoff says:

      cool perspective

    21. Bruce says:

      Bruce, I don’t disagree with any of your premises. Do I have a right to state an opinion to state about terroir, despite the fact that I produce largely (though not exclusively) blended wines? I would hope so; my comments are aspirational; vins de terroir are the wines that I would most wish to produce. But Rhone wasn’t built in a day, nor are new, truly sustainable vineyards planted and productive. Agreed that interventionist/non-interventionist dichotomy is quite useful, but as you point out correctly, the whole question really hinges on whether one has had either the wit/luck/accretion of historical knowledge to plant grapes in the right place, with the appropriate culture. Without meeting these criteria, any discussion of terroir is rather moot.

    22. Great article about terroir! I an advocate of terroir and although I agree with the pros and cons above, I essentially believe that terroir, the product of interaction of man and nature, conform the perfect blend of elements to produce the very memorable wines anybody would like to try… at least once in his/her lifetime.

    23. Victor, Thanks so much for your comment. Agreed with you that vins de terroir are the only ones that really haunt us and stick in our memories till the end of our days.

    24. Liz Caskey says:

      Great piece on terroir. I agreed with most of it. Particularly enlightening was on your differentiation between vins d’effort and vins de terroir. In Chile, where I live, the wine industry is going through an interesting time of dissecting this, similar to what happened in California. Fortunately, there’s several winemakers who stick to their guns in finding terroir and not just “house style”. Thanks!

      • Of course the great temptation is the play for short-term financial success. No question that the development of a “house style” rather than the exploration of one’s authentic terroir tends to pay off in the short-term. And with the way that most companies’ finances are structured in the New World, imminent financial return is unfortunately a pretty general imperative. But there are always those quixotic dreamers who will fight the good fight.

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