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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
10/04/2010
Monday Manifestos
In Defense of California terroir
          — Strongly . . . and Mostly

By Stephen Eliot

For more than a few years now, whenever conversations about California wine turns to “terroir”, I feel my muscles tense, my stomach tighten, and I start looking for the fastest escape route from the room. One little word and a good day turns to gloom because I know that debate is about to displace discussion. Lines are drawn and sides are chosen, and what seemingly began as an exchange of ideas and perspectives among wine lovers is about to become a battle of dyed-in-the-wool true believers that reminds me a little too much of present political bouts between tea-party types and liberal democrats. What is funny is that few can even agree on what the word means let alone whether California wines may or may not reflect it.

Traditionally, the word “terroir” refers to a wine’s ability to display a sense of place, that the varied influences of a growing site from geology to topography to micro-climate will, when “faithfully” interpreted by a sympathetic winemaker, provide a wine with a unique and predictable voice that may remind of what a given variety can produce in other locals but is its own identity. The “rub”, of course, is the role of the winemaker/grower. There are many who see the winemaker as irrelevant in the equation, that the one true terroir is fixed and eternal and independent of human influence; that terroir will show through regardless of who makes the wine. Others will argue that nurture is as important as nature in the expression of terroir. Now, I have no argument with either view, and I find real intrigue in the philosophical implications of each. I do not cringe at the efforts to define what terroir is.

I do, however, object to the seemingly inevitable drift in the discussion to the suggestions that California wines do not and perhaps cannot have a sense of place. And, equally bothersome is the corollary argument that California wines have been high-jacked by manipulative, insensitive winemakers who pander to critics and cynically sacrifice true terroir in their pursuit 90-point endorsements. I have lost count of the times when I had to endure one more silly complaint that all California wines taste alike and that none tasted of place. My first response is that any attentive tasting of the State’s better bottlings makes such a stance ill-informed at best. As just one case in point, we recently finished our October review of new Pinots Noirs, and not only are there clear character changes from appellation to appellation, it would be hard to miss the undisguised differences in the single-vineyard bottlings of Kosta Browne, Lynmar and Roar to name but a few.

Would the same nay-sayers find no difference among Joel Peterson’s brilliant Ravenswood Zinfandels from Old Hill Ranch, Teldeschi and Big River? Does such logic place Ridge’s marvelous Montebello Cabernets in the same tiny box as those of Paul Hobbs, Staglin and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars? Those wines deliver clear statements of their respective provenances and are not simple reflections of winemaking imperative. There is clearly a real sense of “place” to such wines that becomes plain to those who would look. Perceiving and defining a vineyard’s true character is not easily done, of course. As has been the case with France’s finer sites, the land’s voice will become clear only after many winemakers have made many wines from the same place in many vintage conditions. In many ways, California is still a young winemaking culture, and, while we are still learning what the land has to tell us, we have ample evidence from locales like the West Rutherford Bench, the Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and many others that great wines are not just enjoyable because they are good, but that they also will often share a commonality character with other wines from the same location.

To be sure, there are times when the winemaker’s hand or an excess of ripeness is sufficient to overcome anything that might smack of terroir. One can find plenty of remarkable, complex, deeply flavored and oh-so-satisfying wines whose lack of keen geographic identity is no liability. The naysayers who demand that all wines first have a sense of place miss the obvious truth. Wine first must taste good. That great wines can and very often do come with expressed terroir is a bonus, and it can be found in California wines as readily as in wines from other places in the world.

Comments

Terroir
by Mark J. Frost
Posted on:10/4/2010 8:43:33 PM

Excellent rebuke of the "terroir" hounds. Many are francophile's and the snobbery seems to be all they have left to trash new world wines.

terroir or not terroir
by John Kelly
Posted on:10/7/2010 2:39:04 PM

Terroir has a specific meaning that encompasses more than soil and weather. The history, continuity of community and relative uniformity of place that are part of terroir don't really obtain outside of a few spots in the world. I have expunged the use of the word in all of our marketing. I do use and believe that our wines exhibit a "sense of place." I just refuse to sanction the use of the word terroir as a shorthand.

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