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Monday Manifestos
In Praise Of Winemakers

By Stephen Eliot

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no argument with idea that terroir is a significant aspect of fine wine, but it is, to my thinking, only one of the factors in what makes a great bottle great, and all the huffing and puffing on the topic of late generally seems to ignore the role of artful winemaking. “Authenticity”, we are told, is everything, and unless the winemaker’s hand is wholly transparent, then the proper mark has been missed. It is easy enough to walk away from such discussions thinking that anything but the most minimal winemaking is wrong, and that winemakers, and those in California and Australia are the most routinely indicted lot, have broken some covenant with nature as evidenced in their manipulated and grotesque distortions of what the land might be trying to tell us. Too ripe, too oaky, too high in alcohol are the familiar refrains, and, while there are cases enough where such criticisms apply, their incessant invocation winds up damning entire winemaking cultures by implication. We have addressed these issues before and no doubt will again, but today I would like to offer, early in the new year, a few words of appreciation of winemakers and their craft.

Great wine is no more solely defined by material than is fine cuisine, and the finest examples of both are the result of superior ingredients artfully rendered. I will often liken winemakers to chefs when teaching student chefs at the California Culinary Academy, and, just as there is more to a great dish than the ingredients involved, so too is there more to great wine than getting the best fruit. I do not mean to say that my fellow journalists are unaware of the winemaker’s role, it is simply that, when mentioned, winemaking typically seems to be cast in a villainous light. It is never the maker but the terroir that is praised, and I would simply remind that, while to some extent wine can make itself, the most memorable bottles from the finest estates and producers are born of real craft and commitment.

When I go to a great restaurant, I go to see what new doors a chef might open. It is the joy of finding new perspective, of hitherto undiscovered combinations of flavors and textures on the plate, and of seeing the familiar through entirely new lenses. When trying new wines, I am as often as not looking for the same...not to see how well a winemaker adheres to a pre-conceived notion of what a wine of a given locale should be, but something involving, a new variation on a theme that takes me to new places. Yes, when I a pour a Chablis, I expect it to taste like Chablis, and when I feel the need for a fine Rutherford Cabernet, I do have certain expectations, but I do not have an absolute template in mind nor a mindset that I will only enjoy the wine to the degree that it stays within narrow lines. That I find those moments of real discovery and joy is in no small part the result of the winemaker’s art, and, I for one would like to offer to them all a tip of the Connoisseurs’ Guide hat.


No Subject
by Sherman
Posted on:1/10/2011 11:41:58 AM

I find it useful to remember that while grapes occur in nature and grow without the intervention of man, wine is a wholly man-made endeavor. Terroir is part of the equation but the techniques, materials and mindful application of them to the grape by the winemaker is what makes wine. It thus takes insightful application, experience and inspiration of these things to make great wine.


As you've pointed out, the same thing happens over and over, day in and day out, in kitchens across the world. Take the same ingredients from the same area and give them to two different people; thrown in a spice rack, some condiments and you will likely have two different results.


Also, if I bite into a nicely grilled T-bone, I do have a certain frame of reference for how it should taste -- as my grandma put it, I've "got my taste buds set" for a particular range of flavors and textures. While the example being consumed should fall within that range, if the T-bone tastes like meatloaf, then I feel that something has gone amiss.

No Subject
by Manuella Witt
Posted on:1/11/2011 7:45:48 AM

I like this quote:

"Great wine is no more solely defined by material than is fine cuisine, and the finest examples of both are the result of superior ingredients artfully rendered"




sense of place
by John
Posted on:1/12/2011 9:14:50 AM

Stephen - you have toched one of my raw nerves here. There are far too many out there who have been intent on demeaning the art of winemaking. Even the most "natural" producer is working his or her can off to make the best wine possible, using the tools of their choice.

Many insist - incorrectly - that terroir is only what the grapes draw from soil and weather. The French understand that terroir includes the action of the vigneron, the character of the place where the wine is made, raised and refined, and even the history and cultural context of the place of origin.

I'm a compulsive, detail-oriented kind of guy. This improper use of a word that has such rich meaning offends my sensibilities. Consequently I have expunged the word terroir from all our marketing, since using the word in the context of California wine conveys and incomplete understanding.

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