Why Terroir Matters: Can Its Pursuit Also Help Us Save the Planet?

I have spent an unseemly amount of time in the last several years obsessing about terroir.1 The notion that a wine can also in some sense be an embodiment of a place strikes me as the most unique quality of this magical beverage, the most valuable thing that wine can teach us. For me, terroir’s self-evident truth carries with it a deep, almost elemental, psychic force and resonance, one that comforts and informs us. A wine absolutely can also be a place—in the same way a forest nymph, like Daphne, can also be a laurel tree. Just ask Ovid. One might conceive of terroir in any number of ways; I imagine it as a beautifully ordered wave-form, arising from a harmonically attuned vineyard—one wherein every element is in perfect balance.

Terroir is all about “difference”—the French, who seme to have semiology deeply embedded in their genes, are notoriously preoccupied with “difference,” and while it can certainly be said, somewhat tautologically, that all sites possess terroir in some form of another, strong or weak, the notion of a great terroir is about one that somehow manages to rise above the others in the distinctiveness of its signal. It is the difference that seems to make a difference.

A great terroir stands out; it is remarkable. In Europe, where elegance and complexity have historically been in great esteem, grapes are generally grown at the coolest, most extreme location of their possibility. A great terroir will ripen its grapes more completely more years out of ten then its neighbors; its wines will tend to be more balanced more of the time than its less fortunate contiguous confrères. But most of all, it will have a calling card, a quality of expressiveness, of distinctiveness, that will provoke a sense of recognition in the consumer, whether or not the consumer has ever tasted the wine before. Without becoming overly anthropomorphic, I would suggest that a great terroir site has something akin to intelligence, which is the ability to successfully adapt to a variety of climatic challenges.

moselThe soil of a great terroir will have the physical characteristics that allow the vine to extract more or less the correct amount of moisture from the soil appropriate to its needs, and trigger certain physiological signals in the plant at appropriate times—again, more consistently than its neighbors. It will have a chemical make-up that provides for all of the macro-elements in more or less balanced ratios, and very critically, will possess a definitive, eclectic assortment of oligo-elements. But, it should also be noted that great terroirs are not merely an inventory of various minerals in appropriate ratios. There are also the geophysical characteristics of a particular terroir that critically mediate water availability to the plant; this is a function of both soil texture and the movement of the water-table during the growing season.2 Thus, a great terroir will lead to a Goldilocks and the Three Bears-like solution for the vine, neither too much available water, creating excessive vegetative growth and flavor dilution, nor an acute water deficit, leading to jammy, vaguely Antipodean flavors at best, raisinettes at worst.

I fancy great terroirs to be a bit like wise parents of teenage children, dispensing water to their plants parsimoniously like a weekly allowance, making sure that that which is given out on Monday will last all the way to the weekend. Lastly, very significantly, it is literally the very finest detail of the soil’s structure in a great terroir, its degree of microporosity, that allows for the proliferation of beneficial soil microbes, specifically mycorrhizae, bringing minerals into the plant roots; they are thus terroir’s pre-amplifiers, if you will.

beauty-maskThe French make a salient distinction between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—wines that are notably marked by the imprint of human efforts, as opposed to wines whose character primarily reflects their place of origin. Ultimately, vins d’effort are wines easy to like—presumably they are constructed with precisely that in mind—but difficult to love, at least truly and deeply. Vins d’effort, especially those of the New World, attempt to hit the stylistic parameters of “great” wine—concentration, check; new wood, check; soft tannins, check. And yet the net result is like a picture of a composite, computer-generated “beautiful” person; it is never as compelling as the picture of an aesthetically “flawed” but unambiguously real person. I believe that some part of us—very likely a part that doesn’t function on a conscious level—responds to the deeper order of a vin de terroir, to a level of complexity that derives only from the ordering of Nature itself, not from the order imposed by a human being.

But what of the possibilities of a vin de terroir in the New World? The sheer unlikelihood of its discovery in a short lifetime has been, for me, a kind of ongoing, ultimate buzz killer. While certainly many modern New World winemakers have protested—methinks rather too loudly—the sincerity of their intentions to achieve a vin de terroir, the reality is that so much of modern grape-growing practice, at least in the New World, is very much at odds with the systematic discovery of terroir. The problems are generally everywhere, beginning with the location of vineyards in climatically (as well as geologically) the wrong sites, thus requiring the need for gross manipulation of the must post-harvest. And of course—and this is the real root of the problem, as it were—because we New Worlders like to control most everything we can, we therefore do. We subject our vines to drip irrigation; on the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but it has the effect of growing the plants hydroponically—looks good on the outside, but not much happening on the inside. We tend to use a limited number of the “finest” clonal selections—nothing but the best for our wines—but this tends to give us wines of greater sameness, not real distinctiveness.

Historically, at least, vines were spaced widely apart and were asked to carry rather heavy yields, at least on a per vine basis. (As an aside, there is probably no better predictability of wine quality, all things being equal, than looking at the ratio of the total weight of vine roots to the volume of fruit they are producing. This, along with the vibrancy of the microbial life in the soil, is perhaps the most important factors in how one turns up the volume up on terroir.)

vine

Obviously, old vines with deep roots, and dry-farmed vines that have to search far and wide for water, will be ones that will capture a greater sense of the distinctive qualities of the site itself.

And then in the winery, we have used designer yeasts, designer enzymes, organoleptic tannins, wood chips and or 100% new oak, on wine made from grapes harvested at preternatural levels of ripeness in climates too warm to allow for proper acid balance—but don’t worry, we can fix that with a good dose of tartaric or maybe take the wine for a spin in the spinning cone. We thus tend to systematically obliterate any possible expression of terroir, should the faintest glimmer of it accidentally emerge.

Think of it this way: the qualities of a wine emerge from essentially three factors: 1) its terroir, 2) its genetic patrimony—the rootstock and grape variety or mix of varieties that have been selected, and 3) the myriad of stylistic and technical decisions made in the fermentation process and élevage of the wine. In the New World, we tend to be very good at the deployment of factors 2) and 3), but not quite so clever in expressing factor 1). There are certain soil types that are particularly marked in their unique expression of terroir; limestone soils, granitic or schisteous soils, and volcanic soils often have such a strong character that the variety itself may not even be discernible in the wine. I recently tasted an amazing Listan negro from the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands—these are vineyards that look as if they are grown on the moon, if the moon had palm trees.

The growing conditions there are quite extreme—warm, dry, and very windy; this is likely one of the most extreme places in the world where grapes are grown. And yet, the wine is totally brilliant. But what is also amazing is that Listan negro is a synonym for another grape—the Mission grape, believed to be the first grape brought to the New World by the Franciscan monks in the 16th century. What is fascinating is that the Mission grape, at least in California, is arguably one of the very the worst vinifera grapes in creation—no redeeming qualities to speak of—no flavor, no color, no acid. And yet, under these special conditions in Lanzarote, it is but a carrier of terroir, and performs beautifully.3

What I would like to suggest is that the apprehension and appreciation of terroir may ultimately be a question of gestalt, i.e., instead of a focus on the more obvious charms of the wine, the fruitiness or oakiness or varietal distinctiveness, one instead brings into view those deeper elements seemingly lurking in the background. This is the mineral character that I sometimes conceive of as a sort of capacitance of the wine, its persistence or dimensionality, giving the primary flavor a sense of depth or relief; I can almost visualize this as kind of duotone, that slight shadow or sense of dimension that you can see in a printed image.

I know that grokking the notion of “minerality,” and specifically its great virtue, can be quite frustrating to many people. Personally, it took me many years to “get” Cornas. I didn’t like it because it didn’t taste like Côte-Rôtie: flowery, sexy and voluptuous. Cornas was about stones. Then one day, something shifted, and I realized that it was the austere stoniness of Cornas that in fact gave it its real interest, its soulful depth.

The most radical conclusion that may be drawn is that in the instance of a hyper-expressive terroir, perhaps the choice of variety and clone may matter very little, providing that you are more or less in the ballpark of selecting a variety that ripens at the right time with an appropriate acid balance. So, in the event that I can find a way to grow grapes with a strong mineral character, I am not going to sweat so much whether I get the grape variety and the clone or clones precisely right; it just may not matter so much.

seed-cardSo, returning to the idea of the discovery of terroir in the New World: I have an idea that may be utterly mad, but equally may be inspired, perhaps revolutionary, if not the most impractical viticultural practice ever contemplated. Why not grow grapes from seedlings?

The best way to do this—that is if one is not to so concerned about the insane amount of highly trained, specialized labor involved in doing it, as well as the tedium of the process itself—is to hybridize several different grape varieties with a single genetically stable vine (such as grenache or carignane)—this “stability” attribute seems to have something to do with how long the variety has historically been cultivated. One would select the varieties for the characteristics one imagines will be aptly suited for one’s site. (It’s far more convenient, though still a chore, to simply collect seeds from a single variety of grapes, and this perhaps can also be interesting, but too much interbreeding, whether in grapes or in Hapsburgs, does seem to weaken the bloodline.)

The process of hybridizing grapevines is amazingly painstaking—you have to remove the male parts of the flowers with a teensy tweezers, whilst peering through a jeweler’s loupe. (This is called “emasculating” or “castrating” the flowers—ouch). Then, shortly thereafter, you sprinkle pollen from the lucky sperimenti club on the receptive flowers, cover up the cluster with a paper bag to prevent random intruder pollen, and hope for the best.

The aim is not necessarily to identify the “best” individual selections—probably as challenging as identifying the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama in a crowded Tibetan delivery room—but rather to consider what might potentially be expressed by the totality of the vines in a given terroir. It won’t be “varietal” characteristics, that’s for certain, but if not that, then what might it be?

This is a very ambitious project, and it rests on a couple of core beliefs, the validity of which is essentially unknowable until the deed is doon. The first is the belief that the wine produced from grapes grown from a large number of genetically distinctive vines, none or few of them possessing “superior” characteristics, will in fact be more interesting and complex than a vineyard planted to relatively few genotypes, all possessing highly favorable characteristics; perhaps from this diversity of voices, a rather different set of signals will emerge; that which was formerly in “deep background” is now front and center. The second belief is that the rooting characteristics of vines grown from seeds might allow one to render a much more amplified and perhaps distinctive expression of terroir.

Vines grown from seeds exhibit a much higher degree of geotropism, or the tendency to form a vertical taproot, growing straight down to China.

You can observe this in volunteer plants that pop in the garden, which have germinated from a seed. A vine with a more downward rooting habit will root more deeply and possibly exploit a wider range of minerals; my surmise is that it will make a hardier, more drought-tolerant plant. All of this assumes of course that one is planting in an area sufficiently isolated and without a history of planting, so a vinifera vine might peaceably grow without fear of imminent phylloxera infestation.

What I find compelling about this project is the opportunity for a grower to take advantage of the stunning richness, diversity and adaptability of nature, expressed in the seed’s potential, as well as of the experience of a collection of grapevines responding to a particular set of environmental challenges.4 But what is also interesting is the opportunity for a human being to employ his or her intelligence to make discriminating, empirical judgments concerning the kind of vines that seem most harmonious and congruent for a particular site. I like the tremendous open-endedness of the project. In fact, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. Maybe this is the only way to invite some degree of magic into our world.

bee-hotelOn the subject of magic, I recently met a fellow named Hans-Peter Schmidt in the Valais region of Switzerland. Peter is involved in a number of very interesting projects in Switzerland and southern France, but most notably those that think about vineyards and farms as truly sustainable, biological systems. His vineyards do not look anything like conventional ones: there are fruit and nut trees; flowering, insectary bushes; hedges and herbs embedded amongst the vines. His aim is to create optimal diversity within the system, as well as to extend the length of the season in which a greater range of biota might be able to grow and flower.

By dint of the additional organic material incorporated into the soil, as well as by the increased number of diverse species, from leaf-borne fungi and bacteria to honeybees, cohabiting the site, there is an enhancement of natural homeostasis, both hydrologically and biologically. He is also working with an extremely interesting material called bio-char, something you will all be hearing about within the next few years, if you don’t know about it already. This material will, in my humble opinion, be very tied up with the future of our plane for many, many reasons.5

Bio-char is essentially activated charcoal, the product of pyrolysis, or the combustion of organic matter in the relative absence of oxygen. The material that you derive looks pretty much like charcoal—crumbly, light, particulate. If you mix bio-char with some good compost and incorporate it into the soil, some wonderful things happen: at high rates of application,6 the soil now has up to 30% greater water holding capacity.

terra-pretaSecondly, partially because of the physical shape of the bio-char, and partially because of the number of interesting, reactive organic chemical groupings sticking out from its matrix, there is profound stimulation to the beneficial microflora, the aforementioned mycorrhizae that live in the soil.

So, you end up with produce that is naturally more disease resistant, and with much greater nutritional value. (Note, minerals found in a natural biological form are far more available to us than minerals that come out of a supplement bottle.) Lastly, and not at all trivially, the incorporation of bio-char into the soil sequesters atmospheric carbon for approximately 10,000 years; the production of it is non-polluting and it is profoundly carbon negative. (You can think of it as reverse coal-mining.)

So I put the question to Peter: “Obviously, the use of bio-char in vineyards is quite interesting, especially for those of us in California where there is no summer rain, and of course for those of us unregenerate seekers after terroir, lovers of wines with a strong mineral character or what you might call qi or ‘life-force.’ And, Peter, while I’d like to think of bio-char as a kind of amplifier of terroir—that suits my own personal agenda—could it not also be argued that bio-char is in some way a deformation of terroir?

“Yes, you could say that,” said Peter, “but it is less of a deformation than say, plowing your vineyard with a disc.” At that comment, I fell into a slight swoon.

hans-vydIt seems that we sometimes draw the line a bit arbitrarily at what is a “natural” wine and what is not, what is a vin de terroir and what is a vin d’effort. But we terroiristes are a very earnest bunch. Certainly there is something like a continuum; some of us favor wines that are absolutely “natural,” made with no additives, no maquillage at all, including SO2; others generally favor wines made with its very discreet use, to perhaps retain a little more digital clarity, if you will. But, it is my belief that with experience, most wine consumers gradually do migrate to a deeper appreciation of those wines reflective of nature’s vast intelligence and complexity, and at the same time become more in touch with their own bodies’ imperatives, naturally seeking wines easier to digest and to assimilate.

Terroir, you could say, represents a deep paradox. In a certain sense, it is that which is eternal, beyond the stylistic aims of one generation of vigneron or another. And yet in a very real sense, terroir cannot exist without human beings to discover it, express it, and in the end, to appreciate it. We can think of terroir as a region between the human and the natural world, a zone we can cohabit with the natural world in a gentle, minimally perturbative way. Perhaps Peter’s use of bio-char and the massing of so many species in his vineyards is a kind of manipulation of the “natural” terroir, but with his efforts, he reports the appearance of 60 different species of butterfly, multiple species of honey-bees and with every passing year, a deeper entrenchment of biological diversity and a greater independence from vineyard treatments, even in very humid Switzerland. This has to be some sort of criterion for success, and for perhaps the supposition that the land has returned to a more pristine state.

butterfliesAnd, oh yes, the wine. He makes his wines without any sulfur dioxide whatsoever. I tasted his Pinot noir; it tasted more “Swiss,” if that makes any sense, than Burgundian, and maybe more Swiss than Pinot noirish. It is not a simple wine; it changes dramatically with time in the glass and time in the bottle. But what is interesting is that the wine does not oxidize, even without SO2. You can leave it open for weeks. This mystery—why do some wines live and some wines die young?—should haunt every serious winemaker in the New World; I sincerely believe that if you are not obsessing about that issue, you are not really taking your job seriously.

I believe that the notion of terroir began in France at a particular moment in time, when there was enough cognitive bandwidth or at least more of a connection to the natural world—people were not distracted by the internet or by 400 television channels, and a certain culture, the monastic one, was able to focus on the identification of viticultural sites that could produce wines of a certain consistent quality and organoleptic signature year after year. I believe that as a wine-consuming culture, we have perhaps lost the ability to make the finest discriminations between subtly different terroirs. Nevertheless, there remains a deep thirst for the real, for the authentic, and for the wholesome. A great vin de terroir can provide an occasion to experience all of those things, and therefore nourishes us so deeply and on so many levels.

  1. This  speech was originally delivered at the Wineries Unlimited Conference in Richmond, Virginia, on March 30, 2011. []
  2. In San Juan Bautista, we are not so preoccupied with the water table, as it is at a depth (600+ feet) that is most likely unattainable by the vines in their lifetime. But the world, at least the world of wine, is quite mysterious, so one never knows. []
  3. To some extent, this little detail appended in a footnote may well slightly invalidate the premise of the radical notion of diversity at all costs being the greatest good, at least viticulturally. The Mission grape was most likely brought over from Spain to the New World—Peru, initially, if I’m not mistaken, and then up through Mexico into California—as a seed of Listan negro, genetically very close but not exactly identical to the Mission grape. (Seeds are undoubtedly far more sea travel-worthy than grape cuttings or actual potted vines.) And seedlings of course don’t necessarily share all of the favorable characteristics of the plant. So, perhaps against my stated aversion to make selections for perhaps indeterminate quality factors in a field of seedlings, it may well be necessary. []
  4. In planting a vineyard de novo, even if one is not taking the radical step of planting grapes from seed, one does wonder how much complexity of varietal mix is appropriate. []
  5. Human beings are particularly unskilled in imagining the future, especially futures that are radically different from their presents; hence, as a group, we tend to wait until the very last minute, when the prospect of change/disaster is nothing short of imminent. For obvious reasons, this makes it particularly difficult to address the very real question of global climate change, which still to many (amazingly) seems a bit tenuous. The widespread adoption of bio-char will likely only happen when there is something like a political commitment to take real concrete action, i.e. there will be a strong economic incentive to produce the material. It is also possible that someday people will wake up to realize that the food that they are consuming, even that which is called “organic,” may largely be devoid of real nutritive value; food that actually nourishes us might become demanded. []
  6. To really enhance water-holding capacity, rates of approximately 20 tons/ha are required, but to effect enhancement of the microbial life of the soil, substantially less might be used. []

    62 Responses to “Why Terroir Matters: Can Its Pursuit Also Help Us Save the Planet?”

    1. Adam Lee says:

      Randall,

      I love the essay, but disagree with it from the very start. As someone who grew up without wine, in Texas, I first learned of “terroir” from a Southern Baptist mother, who told me that she could tell, as a child growing up on a farm outside of Dime Box, Texas, which field the cow had been grazing in based on how the milk tasted. Terroir, as much as it seems to be a “unique quality of this magical beverage (wine)”, is in fact a quality of other wonderful things as well. We seemingly have been so sheltered from it we have forgotten.

      The idea that a great terroir is unique in some way to Europe, or that it is a place that allow the grapes to ripen without human intervention (witness the history of short pruning in Burgundy, or of the Champagne region itself – a region and wine defined by human involvement in the winemaking process), is not only historically inaccurate…but representative of the sadly “small dick” mentality we have in the United States when it comes to wine history….not realizing that we have different, but equally unique terroirs and their expressions in our wines.

      Adam Lee
      Siduri Wines

      • Adam, Thank you very much for your comment. Indeed it was a misstatement on my part to suggest that grapes and wine were the only potential vehicles for the transmission of terroir. Eric Bordelet’s brilliant pear cider, Granite, is a great example of the transmission of what one might call “poiroir.” And then there are Maui onions, the brilliant asparagus from Spain and the like. I am certainly in agreement that great terroirs do not exist without a significant amount of human effort, and indeed, it is really only our thoughtful cultivation of a given site that allows for this possibility. But as I did point out in the speech, our practices in the New World generally do not conduce to the expression of terroir; even the character of minerality (whatever the heck that is) is generally not a quality that many influential New World wine critics either recognize or esteem.

      • Randall I enjoyed the Article immensely. This is one of those subjects that will always spark a debate. I’m going to keep my comment brief. Terroir is not a concept that can be reduced to a list of attributes – terroir is greater than the sum of its parts and embodies a sense of place, i.e. the ineffable feeling of belonging to somewhere. A lot of wine on the market today comes from newly developed, or recently redeveloped wine regions – and that is why it doesn’t exhibit terroir. Discovering terroir takes time. Not a few years, not a few decades. Centuries. It takes time because it is part of culture, and takes time to understand. The French AOC system did not develop overnight. It is the formal recognition of things ancient. Most of us will probably not live to see the day when true terroir is understood in new world areas. Only endless comparison and reflection will reveal it. This was a reply left by a reader of my recent terroir blog entry, and I tend to agree with the statement. Adam makes good wine. And if you put his wine up against Burgundy in a blind tasting, you would be able to pick it out of the bunch, but not because of his Vineyard’s unique terroir.

      • This is in reply to Scott’s thoughtful note. I am essentially in agreement with you on the great need for historical perspective for terroir to come into focus. It is a bit like hearing a new radio signal for the first time, coming from far away and fiddling with the dials so that you can apprehend the message more clearly. So, well understood, it may be utterly impossible for an individual to produce a distinctive signal in a relatively short lifetime or to apprehend the signal that may be arising from one’s very special site. But following the example of the quixotic individuals who use radio telescopes to look for signs of intelligent life in other worlds, if we don’t take the time to look and listen, it is rather doubtful that we will hear much of anything.

    2. Morten Hallgren says:

      As a winemaker having both in the “Old World” and the “New World” I feel compelled to comment on several parts of this essay.
      There seems to be a contradiction between the notion that “terroir wines” exhibit more elegance and complexity and the statement that terroir ripens grapes more completely. If the idea was to talk of a different type of ripeness that the raisining of Cabernet Sauvignon going on in California with resulting sameness, then I would agree.
      Second, I have a problem with terroir being able to adapt to climatic challenges. The climate is an integral part of the terroir; if you change the climate or dramatically change Harvest timing, then you have changed or destroyed the terroir. You only need to look at Bordeaux or Burgundy over the last vintages to see the severe distortions of their terroir expressions.

      I very much agree that the more interesting and complex wines are found in the limiting wine regions for a given grape variety. We experience this every year in the Finger Lakes region.
      Sadly, caving in to the “more is better” model,wines with the balance and elegance many of us are looking for are threatened.
      As far as the clones are concerned, let us not forget that the most important place of selecting and propagating clones is the ENTAV station outside of Montpellier, France.

      Morten Hallgren
      Ravines Wine Cellars

      • Thanks for your comment. The confusion as to whether great terroirs exhibit more elegance and complexity or rather ripen more completely is due to the imprecision of my language. I would suggest that because so many vineyards in Europe are on sites that struggle to ripen, (at least until the arrival of global climate change), great terroirs were ones that generally allowed for more consistent ripening. I would also suggest that they were the sites that also allowed for more elegance and finesse in years that were excessively dry or hot (witness 2003), (but we may well have already stretched to the breaking point the capability of these great sites.) In other words, these are sites that tend to drive the vines toward the Golden Mean, if you will, an optimal expression of their genetic potential.

        Having said that, I agree completely that a brilliant terroir will not necessarily solve the problem of significant climate change. I totally agree that even in recent years we have seen the disappearance of a lot of the unique character of the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux. (I think that with the exception of a few sites, ’03 was largely a disaster.) Don’t wish to get on the soapbox here, but if we as a planet do not seriously address the issue of climate change, we will likely see all current conceptions of terroir go out the window.

    3. I think that it is tempting to look at the root of the word terroir in terre (earth), and then to oversimplify it into soil/vine/climatic interactions. To say that someone has a good terroir implies that there is a harmony of many factors: soil, vine, climatic, environmental and human. It is how these factors inter-relate that create the resonance that we find in great wines. Our brutish, deconstructionist Anglo-Saxon imperative is to deny that there is just a little bit of magic at work when all of this comes together. We feel that there must be some technological secret at work that we will be able to discover, emulate and employ. We trample on the Latin cultures that created the great wines of the world, convincing them to abandon their winemaking history in favour of our analytically correct wines. We cannot imagine that a few flaws can produce something infinitely more beautiful than something regarded as perfect in every way.

      It is why these vins de terroir defy decontructionist analysis to explain their greatness. When the facets of terroir are not in harmony we are not able to produce vins de terroir. Over-ripening in Bordeaux/Burgundy/wherever is a perfect example.

      Terroir is not unique to Europe, but they have certainly had time to find some harmony in their relationships with their vines and wines. Is the need for us to try so hard the reason that it eludes us in the New World? I think as well that we confuse ‘great wines’ with ‘expensive wines’. Isn’t an honest wine, honest in the way that it is grown and made, not inherently great? It is the challenge of the New World to be honest about itself and what it can produce, and to start finding some joy the intricate relationships that begin to weave the great vins de terroir. Just maybe not in our lifetime. But we’ve got to be down with that if we are going to get there.

      John Seccombe
      Domaine des Dieux Cellar and Vineyards

      • I am in complete agreement with you that there will always be a fundamental mystery as far as the “mechanism” of terroir. Indeed, it is likely senseless to even talk about mechanism, but rather suggest that there may well be some common factors that seem to conduce to the expression of an articulate terroir. Certainly, the presence (and availability) of minerals in a soil seem to be a strong element, as well as having a soil that is microbially active, would appear to be some of the most important factors. But finding true harmony between a site and the culture that occurs on it is not something that happens entirely accidentally or overnight. B/t/w, in total agreement that great need not = expensive. Expensive tends to mean “important,” as in blustery and self-important.

    4. Anon says:

      As I biologist, I was reduced to tears by the hilarity of the claims in this article, from the statement that drip irrigation can’t be made to resemble the rain patterns of any place on earth, to the concept that fruits grown in rock taste of rock (clearly, all other plants taste like dirt).

      • Colman Stephenson says:

        I don’t see the concept that “fruits grown on rock taste of rock” anywhere in this article. To which paragraph are you referring?

        Though I do frequently see the term ‘mineral’ widely abused to imply that we can taste certain minerals in the wine directly. This is clearly not true.

        But mineral elements in soil certainly have an impact on the flavour of the wine. I think you’d enjoy “The Science of Wine” by Jamie Goode (an actual scientist). He devotes a chapter to this topic and relates how the author of this blog took to crushing rocks in water to see how they tasted: the answer was ‘nothing like any wine’.

        http://books.google.com/books?id=9hCk1J_5ozIC&lpg=PP1&dq=wine%20science%20jamie%20goode&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

      • Colman Stephenson says:

        Update:
        my description of the experiment was somewhat inaccurate.
        The rocks were crushed in wine, not water and the outcome was more complex.
        See page 30 of the book I link to.

      • I’m glad to have been the occasion of such hilarity and glee. May I direct you to the comments of Cameron, infra, who addresses your concerns more eloquently than I could. I don’t believe that any but the most naive terroirsts would suggest that one literally tastes the flavor of such and such a rock in a wine, and yet we are stuck with the undeniable reality that certain kinds of soils very reliably produce wines with very consistent organoleptic characteristics. The fact that there is not yet a cogent mechanism posited for this does not invalidate what is empirically observable.

    5. Bill Easton says:

      Hi Randall –

      You are wa-ay over thinking this thing. Time to become a peasant. Put on you work clothes, get on your tractor, and embrace Mother Earth with a few callouses. When you are out there with the vines ten hours a day in the heat, they start talking to you.
      Believe me (the little fuckers – love/hate).

      Bill Easton

      • You raise an important point, my friend; your advice is perhaps a reasonable reformulation of the words of the immortal Frank Z., “Shut up and play yer guitar.” Perhaps I do tend to overthink things a bit much, and it is important that I don’t end up like Steinbeck’s boatbuilder in Cannery Row, infinitely planning the construction of the boat, but never getting in the water. Indeed, I am all to aware of the need to keep an eye on the “shot clock,” as it were and to try to get something on the board before the game is over. But listen, just two days ago, I had the opportunity to chat for several hours with Lucie Morton in Virginia, and to discuss with her what really were the salient criteria for defining drought tolerance in rootstocks. We talked about the relative merits of growing riperia (or perhaps another) rootstock from seeds versus growing something like 1103P (with superior stomatal regulation) from vegetative cutting. (How would you even begin to work out which would be a better choice for planting a vineyard one was ideologically committed to dry farming?) It is very useful to have these sorts of discussions before making a grave faux pas and planting the wrong stuff. But, yes. I do need to spend more time out on the tractor. Or ATV. Or whatever.

    6. ITH says:

      Terroir is vital to wine, food and culture generally, whatever particulars any one of us imagines go into it: at its root, it is little more than the recognition that there is an interplay between man and nature. Like anything worth appreciating, terroir is impossible to discuss as if it were a cogent argument anticipating the rebuttals and niggling of naysayers. Moreover, it is complex and contradictory precisely because nature and man are complex and contradictory. So, while it is true that the claims made on behalf of terroir are often kooky or unsupportable by science or reason, nevertheless when I taste European wines I am, by and large, reminded of places and climates, whereas when I taste New World wines, esp. those of the Antipodes and various US producers, I sense only processes. Perhaps if the discussion of terroir were redirected away from proving its existence toward its obliteration by the heavy handed expression of process instead, the issue might seem more clear. Chablis is hard to recreate just anywhere, but an overblown, buttery chard, such as from CA, has been made just about everywhere.

      • Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. We often pay too little attention to our deeper needs; wine is (or can be) so much more than a beverage to consume with food (or on its own). It can link us to a culture as well as to a sense of nature itself, as I attempted to express. As human beings, we need to nourish our aesthetic, psychic and spiritual needs, and as I’ve intimated, confected wines are very much like aesthetic empty calories. They fill you up but they don’t really feed you.

    7. Cameron S. says:

      Randall – a very interesting speech.I learned a few things this morning.

      To the anonymous “biologist” who was reduced to tears of hilarity:

      I am not sure what kind of biologist you are. That would be helpful in understanding what you are trying to say. There are many kinds of biologists afterall. Biology is a part of many disciplines – and specifically have some portion in related areas of agronomy, biochemistry, and good ol’ viticulture to name a few.

      In your tears of hilarity, you appear to have missed Randall’s point on drip irrigation and how it appears to create hydroponic conditions for the growth of the plant. Nowhere does he say it can’t be made to resemble rain patterns, in fact, you are solely making that statement.

      What I got out of his point is perhaps best conveyed with a simple comparison: A Dry farming tomato vs a hydroponic tomato grown in some vast greenhouse.

      Thinking through this comparison raises several other questions

      Perhaps more natural moisture cycles help create a better flavour?

      Maybe the struggle for moisture helps things become more flavourful and avoiding the gargantuan mega tomato that is both flavourless and devoid of texture?

      A tomato that always receives the maximum amount of moisture every day seems to suffer greatly from this success.

      Yes, you can simulate natural rainfall with drip irrigations and modern control systems, complex site soil/moisture monitoring systems, and careful management and analysis of data, but this is not quite the same as growing things in the best possible natural conditions.

      He specifically states this with regards to the wine industry:

      “We subject our vines to drip irrigation; on the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but it has the effect of growing the plants hydroponically—looks good on the outside, but not much happening on the inside.”

      You also lack specificity in your second statement:

      “to the concept that fruits grown in rock taste of rock (clearly, all other plants taste like dirt).”

      You don’t really go into great detail on this second statement. Biologically speaking, “Dirt” and “Rock” do not sound like a very scientific way to describe soil and minerals in the field of biology or agronomy. Rocks are a complex combination of minerals and can greatly influence how the soil works in many ways. The soil can greatly influence the taste of what is grown there. This is widely known.

      I doubt anyone is growing grapes, or “fruits” in some sort of rockwool hydroponic system, or purely in “rocks”. This is an over simplification of an important point.

    8. David Graves says:

      I envy you for having been able to spend time with Herr Schmidt. So perhaps you could share with us 1) material used to make the biochar 2) the rate (kg/ha or whatever) and his method of application?
      Warning–bad pirate joke (redundancy?) ahead:
      q: What is a pirate’s favorite form of carbon sequestration?
      a.biocharrr!

      • So nice to hear from you, my friend. Excuse my execrable manners in not being in better touch. Indeed, being able to hang out with Peter was a rare treat – my head was on fire. Biochar can be made from all sorts of material – anything with biomass – but some materials seem to work out better for certain applications. (A lot of this is still in its infancy of research.) Obviously biomass with a lot of heavy metals would probably not be my first choice. Not all biochar is created equal, and much of it has to do with how it is made; there is a fast process and a slow process. The fast process tends to be more suitable for the production of synfuel, through the gassification of biomass; the slower process more suitable for agronomic biochar. Peter teasingly mentioned that there were certain kinds of wood (bamboo and china grass) that seemed to produce a particularly interesting kind of biochar with a slightly more favorable cellular structure. I guess what would seem to be most useful is having material that was relatively uniform in its properties. You don’t want to simply incorporate the material into the soil; it is best mixed with good compost at a ratio of 50/50 and then incorporated with a gentle implement like a harrow. (Best yet is to mix a little biochar into the compost itself when it is being prepared.) You do need to gently incorporate the material into the soil, or it would otherwise blow away. To get the benefits of enhanced water holding capacity, you will probably want to apply at a fairly high rate (20 tonnes/ha), but you should see beneficial effects at much lower rates (3-5). It would seem that it is fairly difficult to overdose on biochar (you will run out of money first) – it doesn’t really affect the alkalinity of the soil so much – but there is probably a point of diminishing returns at some point where there is not a discernible agronomic benefit.

    9. Isabelle says:

      I completely agree with this post regarding the notion of terroir. To me (I am french), it is like an old house, that has been furnished and extended over the years according to the possibilities, the needs and the available resources (otfen small) of those living in it. These old houses are not pretty but they have a life of their own. In contrast, a brand new place, designed and furnished by professionals, will look gorgeous but not have the same warmth and personality. The french “vignerons” didn’t know they had “terroir”, they just worked over many years, with limited means and resources, to make the best possible wine in the place they had (Champagne is of course the most obvious example, since the white wine over there was undrinkable until they found a way to soften it ). This accumulation of knowledge, of practices over many years, in one place, to improve the wine, is a treasure, and fortunately the french have understood it, given it a name (terroir) and protected it (the appellation controlee system may look very constraining and even silly but it aims at protecting these traditional practices).
      Viticulture and winemaking in the US indeed looks like “the new house”, beautifully designed in various styles (choice is a key value here). Will “terroir” knowledge and practices build up over the years ? Randall and a few others do it, look at the places, the climate, the varietals, try to understand and express the personality of each vineyard, to respect the grapes and make the best use of the land. Will the consumer make a similar effort on their side ? it is a lot easier to drink (and recognize) something produced to look and feel like a “standard” Cab Sauv or Merlot than it is to taste something a bit different.
      In a sense, the technology now allows winemakers to bypass the efforts required by the Terroir. For example, in the Loire Valley, in the old days, they had to wait until spring for the malolactic fermentation to take place; as soon as the temperature was getting a bit warm, they would open wide the cellar doors to try and start it. And maybe this was part of the style and specific taste of a Bourgueil or a Chinon … but in a new winery, here, it would be tempting to use moderm methods instead of waiting… (and by the way, maybe waiting would not work in that case). The problem is that terroir for a specific area will take many years and lots of efforts to be properly defined and successful !

      • Thank you for your very lovely comments, Isabelle, and for your particularly striking metaphor of the old house, gradually accreting elements that ultimately give it a true uniqueness and soul. This is exactly the point that I was wishing to make about the true beauty of terroir; it gives voice to something that was seemingly silent and deeply enriches our experience of being human. Heidegger in his later work wrote about the deep meaning of “dwelling” – certainly, the idea of making a home, where everything is in its proper place, is perhaps the most quintessential human activity.

        I also despair sometimes of the rather rampant philistinism of a wine-drinking public that doesn’t seem to get or esteem vins de terroir at all, and would be happiest consuming a confected beverage. But the flip side of it is that original wines expressive of a place shine all the more brightly.

    10. […] the Wineries Unlimited Conference, Randall Graham discusses his pursuit of terroir and the universal thirst “for the real, for the authentic, and for the […]

    11. David Rossi says:

      I don’t believe that a tartaric acid adjustment eliminates terroir per se. Nor do enzymes, commercial yeasts or other techniques in the winery. I think improperly applied techniques can leave a wine without character, but properly applied use of the available tools of winemaking can enhance the quality and individuality of a wine.

      Conversely winemaking that is less involved can cause results that mask terroir and lower quality.

      Essentially I think what happens in the winery is a separate issue from the individuality of the fruit. The issues shouldn’t be conflated.

      • Thank you very much for your comment, but feel that I must respectfully disagree with you. Any one small “correction” to a wine in and of itself may not obliterate the expression of terroir, but I do believe tends to slightly muddle it. Enough of these small corrections or emendations (enzymes, cultured yeast, alcohol adjustment, etc.), and terroir just disappears – you have a vin d’effort. One aspect of terroir that I failed to mention is its fidelity to the vintage year. This is a double-edged sword; by correcting the so-called “defects” in a wine – a low acid vintage, or an overly ripe vintage with a spin in the spinning cone – we may well be making a wine that is more correct or palatable, not necessarily a bad thing, but we are certainly erasing the individuality of the vintage, which is an important expression of terroir.

      • I must respectfully disagree on the matter of the additions that you proposed. Maybe the most discreet addition of acid will bring terroir into greater focus in an anomalous year (like 2003 in Europe for example), but it is one thing to say that you are improving the wine, another to say that you are preserving terroir. At Bonny Doon, we are still unfortunately obliged to use tartaric acid in a few of our wines, (to my great chagrin), but I am absolutely certain that if I could find vineyard sources were this was not necessary, I could produce wines that were somehow more true, elegant and resonant. I do agree with you that an utter laissez-faire attitude to winemaking generally occludes the expression of terroir. One may be making an interesting philosophical point in a total hands-off approach, but often the resulting wine just does not give much pleasure to the consumer, and therefore is a bit counterproductive.

    12. David Rossi says:

      Think we agree that overmanipulation will reduce the individuality of a given wine. I just do not think there is a clear line where when no effort is put into the winemaking the wine is somehow pure and when some craftsmanship is applied the wine is now an adulterated drone.

      Hopefully there is still a role in this world for craftsmen. I think we continue to disagree on this topic. I still appreciate your unique thoughts and approach.

    13. Don Pullum says:

      I appreciate your thoughtful essay because I am immersed in the discovery of terroir for wine in Mason County, Texas. Will it be a great terroir? I’ll be long gone before that is determined, but we are having some success.

      When I first planted one acre of old vine Grenache thirteen years ago, I attempted, without any success, to farm organically. It’s a challenge to introduce something foreign, vinifera, into an ecosystem and expect nature’s open armed acceptance. While working to rebalance the ecosystem with the vineyard included, I realized that there will have to be greater inputs (drip irrigation, fertilizer, etc.)

      However, even with these inputs, the Grenache expresses typicity. We have wines with complex bouquets, distinct fruit, and minerality. Syrah from one of the county’s vineyard always delivers, year after year, a “coffee character” to the bouquet. The Touriga Nacional a neighbor grows year after year delivers mulberry flavor and cola in the bouquet.

      I’m not convinced the absence of a farmer’s input is an essential component of great terroir. I take your point that great terroir is a place where few inputs are required, but that would eliminate a great many wines with great expression of terroir from the list of “great.” Even Tony Coturri, whose brother farms biodynamically, must manipulate their vineyards’ ecosystems, albeit in a more friendly fashion than I can farm.

      Turning stones in search of Mason terroir.

      Best,

      Don

    14. Jason says:

      Great thoughts and comments. I do wonder, however, if eloquent dissertations on “terroir” and its vague connotations serve to obscure rational and objective wine critique. A veil of “does it have terroir?” can easily be used disingenuously to obscure what is nothing more than pompous and subjective evaluation of wine.

      • Good point, but I would gently suggest that there is absolutely no such thing as rational and objective wine criticism. We are thoroughly immersed in (and generally blind to) our preconceptions, prejudices and the myriad unseen factors that tend to cloud our judgment. I agree that we should be careful about using alleged “presence” or “absence” of terroir as a criterion of quality, or even an explanatory mechanism of questionable wine quality. (Brettanomyces character has often been misattributed to terroir, by less than forthright winemakers and salespeople.) I do believe that a sincere effort to apprehend the terroir that underlies a wine is fundamental to grasping the real essence of what one is experiencing.

    15. David Rapoport says:

      Mr Grahm,
      As always, your writing delivers on the key thing I ask from a piece of writing: to get me thinking!
      However, there I some ideas that I, respectfully, find problematic
      1) You set up a dialectic: vins de terroir vs vins d’effort. To my mind, discussing wines in dialectical terms over simplifies the situation and starts to miss the point. Is this really an either/or situation? Can you effectively define the parameters and thresholds where wines transitions from terroir based to vins d’effort? I would suspect “no” in all cases.
      Moreover, what are the margins of a terroir? Should a wine reflect a region? Commune? Parcel? Country? If you feel a Charmes Chambertin, for example, doesn’t reflect your idea of Charmes, but it does reflect your idea of Chambertin or Burgundy, is that still a vin de terroir? Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating, by ANY stretch homogeneity in wine. NOT in the least. I just think that you risk both missing the beauty and, wahay, the difference by setting up a binary structure and sticking to it. I would think, as someone attached to French thought, you would be a bit weary of the dialectic

      2) Even in such a dialectic, why are vins de terroir, unshakably, the privileged term. Putting a side gross flaws, will a vin de terroir always be more complex and beguiling than a vin d’effort? I would think the answer would be a resounding “NO!”. Moreover, would you be comfortable always picking out a wine blended from regions over one from a specific site? Additionally, if that blended wine, tasted, to your mind, like the broad region it came from, would that be a vin de terroir or vin d’effort?

      3) The term minerality has to be one of the most frustratingly useless terms in wine tasting. What minerals are we talking about? Does the wine smell of “flint” if it does, is that terroir or reduction? Does it smell ferrous? Salinity? Is it just a catch all term for a wine that is not necessarily, fruity or gamey? Is earthy mineraly? Do minerals have a generic smell/flavor?? Is there an implication of the translocation of mineral qualities directly from the soil to the grape (e.g. the limestone itself makes it into the juice)? I certainly agree that there are flavors and aromas that make it into wine. Moreover, I absolutely agree that their presence can add loads to the profile of a wine. But when I hear/see things like “great minerality” thrown about, I have involuntary eye rolls.

      4) We’ve debated this in the past, but I think that the idea that California lacks great terroirs, is just false. Like any other winegrowing region, it has great, fair and poor places. There is no place like Monte Bello in the world. B.A Theriot in the Sonoma Coast (in the Littorai portfolio), the Cerise vineyard in the deep end of Anderson Valley, etc etc. There may be practices that suppress uniqueness (thick gobs of oak, for example); but these are not limited to California or the new world

      I certainly do agree that there is much to be discussed around wine styles, regional characteristics and vineyard and cellar practices. However, I have to imagine that the true interest and insight lay in subtleties and not in the black and white

      • David,

        You certainly bring up some very valid points, and I would not disagree with you at all in suggesting that the distinction between a vin de terroir and a vin d’effort is more of a continuum than a true dichotomy, and certainly there may well be exceptional cases that may impose some qualifications to my argument.
        1) Agreed that it is not always clear at all where one might draw terroir’s boundaries. But I would suggest that any wine that is somehow able to evoke a perception of recognition as to its unique character is likely a vin de terroir. The fact that not all Musigny’s taste like Musigny doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a Platonic ideal of Musigny. As one moves further away from the vineyard designation to the boundaries of the appellation itself, the distinctive qualities of the terroir become more muted and presumably more difficult to identify.

        2) The hypothetical case you cite of a vin d’effort being more inspiring and awesome than a vin de terroir reminds me of the Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” where the fictional author attempts to rewrite the Quixote, line by line, by a complete identification with Cervantes’ life and immersion in the text. Thus the re-cast Quixote, identical in every way with the original, is somehow deeper and more awe-inspiring. In some way you could almost say the same thing about efforts to produce “Burgundian” pinot noir in the New World.

        3) I share your frustration with the imprecision of the term minerality, and I always attempt to offer some degree of qualification in my remarks about it. I would be the very last person to claim that there is a simple relationship between particular minerals in a soil and particular minerals detected in a wine. I don’t think anyone has been able to make that correlation, though there seems to be some interesting research coming out lately on the presence of calcium in wine as a detectable element. And yet, there is clearly something up with soils that are cation rich, with old vines with deep roots. I would argue that there is something that all wines with a “mineral” character share, and that is a strong tendency to resist oxidation, and a certain aromatic persistence as well as a unique depth of flavor. Are redox couples involved? In my mind, undoubtedly so. Is the phenomenon complex? No doubt. Certainly the ability of certain wines to resist oxidation in the absence of what are thought to be the primary antioxidative elements – tannins and anthocyanins, is intriguing. Why are certain pinot noirs that have very little tannin capable of resisting oxidation for weeks on end? Claude Bourguignon has made some hypotheses about the mechanism of the expression of terroir, involving various enzymes activated by the presence of minerals that trigger certain biosyntheses. It’s more complicated than I can understand, but whether you call a class of wines “mineral wines” or “wines with life-force,” or simply “mysteriously antioxidative,” there is definitely a phenomenon that needs to be noted.

        4) Completely agree with you on the uniqueness of Montebello as a site for growing grapes, and I’m likewise certain that there are great terroirs still to be discovered in the New World.

        I am all for subtlety; that is what it’s about.

    16. Yo, Randy, obsessing about terroir can never be “unseemly.” Think about it, mon mec.

    17. Peteontweet says:

      Thanks, very interesting, so pleased the wines of Lanzarote got a shout out, we visit the Island often and very much enjoy its many unique vinos. They offer great interest and some bizarre flavours.
      Regards,
      Pete.

    18. Slight correction, Randall: No, the Canary Islands’ listán negro is not the mission grape. Mission (país in Chile, criolla in Argentina) is the same as a different Spanish listán, listán prieto, a.k.a. moscatel negro. You can get a good idea of mission/listán prieto’s ability to convey terroir with Frenchman Louis-Antoine Luyt’s Clos Ouvert País, made in southern Chile. (BTW – the cheeky ‘Clos Ouvert’ name is almost worthy of a Randall Grahm wine…)

      • Thank you for the correction. I have heard some conflicting reports, one being that Mission was the seedling of Listan negro, and as such would be genetically similar but not identical. Does this sound plausible?

    19. Peteontweet says:

      Mission = Palomino = Listan Negro (AKA Negro Comun).

    20. David says:

      Mr Grahm,
      I really enjoy these interactions. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree, I appreciate the time and effort in engaging with consumers. I wish more winemakers would do it. Oh and you’re wine is really good too!
      dr

      • Thank you for your kind words. I do worry sometimes (actually quite often), that I am spending too much time thinking and writing and not enough time doing. I do hope to soon have more balance in that equation.

    21. vinesnob says:

      I have many thoughts…but to make one small point…Time, the unsung hero of terroir. Its not that the new world doesn’t have terroir, its that terroir takes time to discover. You can’t buy it or just declare it because that’s what & where you first decided to plant (a whopping 30 years ago). This is an alien thought to a society that thinks it can have it all, now.

      • I am completely with you on that. We just have to be certain that we are acting in such a way that we can allow terroir to ultimately show itself in the fullness of time. Modern, high production vineyards with life-spans of 30 years never have the opportunity to show what they might be capable of. Now, know that I have a great ambivalence toward Antioch, CA. Bloody hot and the growers there, at least historically, have often been very difficult to work with. (I still have nightmares sometimes of sinking into the sand there.) But, many of these vines are 100+ years old and therefore speak with a very special authority, making the attendant foolishness somewhat more palatable. And thank you for your very kind comment.

    22. vinesnob says:

      One other thought, nice writing Randall. As always, thought provoking, interesting and heartfelt.

    23. I cannot take on all of this, as my mind is smallish in these matters.

      “Terroir is all about “difference.”

      Let’s start with the obvious: we are cheeseburger eating, Budweiser drinking, NASCAR watching, American(idol)’s. We left the polluted cites in droves to the countryside, the suburbs, not to get back in touch with the earth, but to plow it under, build cities in the paint by number approach, and construct Walmarts that would have made the Babylonians wet their pants in awe of the sheer size and audacity. WE LIKE THINGS THAT ARE COMFORTABLE. We were raised on brand names, chain stores, and top 40 hits.

      The idea that one should stand out from his or her chosen “group” (indie, hip-hop, liberal, conservative), is terrifying to the average American. But real terroir is just that, anti-average, and so it appeals to those who by their very nature are themselves anti-average, at least in the US where terroir is still debated.

      Quickly, without preaching, why terroir matters to me. I don’t frequent chain food establishments (exceptions of course like Starbucks and others, I am no purist). A meal at Applebees is about as much fun as a horse kick to the head. Sure, it fills you up, sure it is reasonably priced, but it is the same generic thing that is being eaten in Bakersfield, Tulsa, Spokane, and Boise. No thank you.

      I frequent locally owned establishments because there is one unique story behind the venue and more importantly the food. It generally tastes better, and it is always more interesting (good or bad). It is the difference that does make a difference.

      And so terroir matters to keep us genuine.

      “Vins d’effort, especially those of the New World, attempt to hit the stylistic parameters of “great” wine—concentration, check; new wood, check; soft tannins, check. And yet the net result is like a picture of a composite, computer-generated “beautiful” person; it is never as compelling as the picture of an aesthetically “flawed” but unambiguously real person.”

      This is the Richard Avedon effect, the albino with bees, the weathered oil worker. Even his beautiful people were in someways flawed, real. This is why his images are so captivating and will remain icons along side images like those of Ansel Adams. Think about that, it’s crazy. Half Dome and a pale man covered in bees, both genuine and real, both captivating. Contrast that with the glowing, fake, manipulated, adjusted, unrealistic images the media pushes on us. They are uninspiring and forgettable, here today…wait, what was I saying?

      Wines of terroir force you to recall, for good or bad, to remember them, like a haunting or breathtaking image does. Wines of mass production and manipulation force you to forget, to blend them into your sensory memory with all that other processed stuff we shouldn’t consume but we do.

      And so terroir matter to keep us engaged.

      A pair of very smart winemakers named James Ontiveros and Paul Wilkins told me, “the best vineyards in California have not been planted yet.” They said this (and they are right) because winegrowers like them are only now learning what the right spots are for particular varietals. My hope is that we will see more American terroir developed in coming generations.

      Maybe what you encourage Randall is more interesting though, seek the right site, the spectacular site, and then see what it can do. Maybe we hinder terroir by imposing on it what we think it likes, instead of watching what it can do.

      • Thanks so much for your comment. As usual, Wayne, you have illustrated your thinking with good, vivid writing. I am hopeful that there are still some great terroirs out there to be discovered that have not yet been plowed up for a housing development of ranchettes. It is odd and sad that there are currently potentially great sites for terroir, currently producing anonymous wines, the hidden genius of the site cloaked in anonymity – kind of like Superman, Batman or Green Hornet living peaceably in our midst. But terroir is, at least in theory, immortal, and unless it is paved over – always a real possibility here in California – it may someday re-emerge to assert its distinctiveness.

    24. bunt marker says:

      RG
      WOW I like the new “old man” RG. You made it for a third of the article before the BS started. It is a tough philosophical pursuit, what with nature and reality and crappy wine and, oh yeah, you got to sell the shit, mixed in. I don’t move in your circles, but I’d love to hoist a glass with you and cut to the chase. Clark knows me. Good luck in SJB- I love that town. Biker bars, chickens in the street, a crumbling church, and a German restaurant. So New World. But the conquistadores rode though- so old world. Funny how you ended up in the same place as the original star-crossed California cannibal gold diggers. They were looking for a different terroir. That’s a tough place to dry farm- but at least you got some topsoil to work with. But I salute you. An admirer, though I did drop out of your wine club after that disastrous Pinot Gris Rose. It takes balls to sell a wine like that. I salute your balls,amigo. Hey, you can always switch to grass-fed beef. You wouldn’t have to change the marketing, just pull up some vines. Hell, the steers would probly do that for you. Bunt

    25. bunt marker says:

      RG
      I forgot to tell you, after bitching about the Pinot gris Rose or Vin Gris, that your Albarino is absolutely stellar. It’s a weakness of the blog idiom that it brings out the idiot in all of us. Well, it brings out the idiot in me. In the world of commercial wine, you are a pillar of nonconformity. That means sometimes iconoclasm for the sake of it, but also a lot of freshness of perspective. Biodynamics, charcoal from heaven, whatever- at least it’s not the same old BS. Fresh BS is invigorating. I have a lot of respect for your opinion, and you are one of the few people in this biz I”‘d like to meet. Whatever the outcome. You have been around the block, and unlike most, you’re not figuring how much that’s worth to some corporation. Viva la raza que hacer vino puro. Sorry, my Spanish is bad, but my Latin is worse. Bunt

      • Bunt, thanks for your very outspoken comments. Yeah, that pink vin gris was a little bit out there, though comparatively conservative effort in comparison to some of the jaw-dropping efforts coming from say, Frank Cornelessin on Mt. Etna. We did see an instantaneous loss of about 35% of our membership base with that release; I’d really like to see those people come back, but oh well. What’s doon is doon. I rationalized the decision to sell the Vin Gris with the thought that the wine was actually interesting – not necessarily enjoyable, but thought provoking. I still intend to take big chances, and the results will not necessarily be for everyone. I am really now just trying to please myself, to make the wines that I would most like to see exist in this world. What could possibly go wrong? Thanks again for your encouragement.

    26. bunt marker says:

      Randall
      Ok i’ll join back up. Like I said, there’s no one like you. Just don’t challenge me quite so much, at my expense. if that wine had been free… “OK”! But there IS a bottom line.
      You can experiment on us like monkeys, but don’t treat us like monkeys. Yer monkey, MB

      • Thanks for your comment, Bunt. May I gently point out to you that if I indeed I end up planting some, most, or all of the vineyard to grape seedlings, it is really I who will be bearing the major risk as far as their ultimate success or failure. Further, it is not as if my own aesthetic sense will have utterly departed with this initiative; it is still incumbent upon me to make wines that people will enjoy drinking. You’re only in for the price of a bottle, and of course, if that’s too steep, you can, in the words of our former First Lady, just say no.

    27. […] have spent an unseemly amount of time in the last several years obsessing about terroir.1 The notion that a wine can also in some sense be an embodiment of a place strikes me as the most […]

    28. bunt marker says:

      RG
      the seedling idea is ballsy i like it can’t wait to taste the wine it could well be rose, right? or are red to white phenotype shifts not common? a friend has a white Norton sport and is working with it deep waters indeed bunt

      • It won’t be a total surprise – we can elect to include/exclude pink/white variants, but yes, indeed there will be grapes of all colors. It may or may not be an opportunity for using one’s best judgment; at the very least, Nature will be handing one a great pallete to work with.

    29. Mike Tesarek says:

      Randall,

      My interest in the subject is intense and it brings a tear to my eye to taste much of what has been happening due to technological advances, laziness, and greed in the past decade. Once most consumers palates are within such a small window of mediocrity we create an uphill battle for those like yourself fighting the #terroir fight. I shall also continue to shout with rage about the defintion of place.

      Mike
      @pnrieslingfan

      • Thank you, Mike, for your comment. Indeed I sometimes do really gnash my teeth at the state of the wine industry not just in the New World but in the Old World as well. Winemaking tricks and certain stylized special effects are often more greatly esteemed than restrained, elegant expressions of a given terroir. This is perhaps a grotesque example, but not without a bit of truth: Young children, after being exposed to McDonald’s hamburgers will tend to favor them over much more honest renditions of the same dish. They are taken in by the salt, sugar and other savory elements which mask the basic mediocrity of the product. As grown-up wine tasters, we often are taken in by rather analogous tricks.

    30. Dan says:

      Excellent read. I’ve been visiting for a while and this is my first post. I am not a religious person, but I do have what can only be described as having a religious experience when I travel throughout wine country. There’s a true sense of place, time and beauty. It’s a bit of a sensory overload and everything seems right. It’s a really beautiful thing and I hope more people have similar experiences!

      • Thanks so much for joining in the commentary. Indeed, I share your sense of wonder at the beauty of vineyards, especially older, head-trained ones. I would especially like to see vineyards exist as a part of a greater polyculture, alongside other crops and other diverse flora. That creates a far more sustainable model.

    31. […] for a wine region. A favourite of mine, the garrulous  and quintessential Californian vintner, Randall Grahm, while trying to establish the old World notion of terroir in California postulates that it is a […]

    32. […] If you can’t make head or tail of it, think about terroir as the difference that seems to make a difference. Winemaker and blogger Randall Grahm hits the bull’s-eye again. Can we then go further and […]

    Leave a Reply

    * Required
    * Required, Private