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Thursday Thorns
Loam Baby: The Most Brilliant Piece of New Writing To Come Along In Some Time

By Stephen Eliot, with Charles Olken

I have no question that a special place, a unique patch of dirt, will leave its indelible mark on a fine wine. The role of terroir is for me a simple, yet very palpable, truth. Not every vineyard or grape-growing region speaks with a distinct and identifiable voice, and sometimes the voice that is heard is less than attractive, but from Rutherford to Coombsville, from the communes of Barolo and the slatey slopes of the Saar to the hillsides of Côte Rotie and the gravelly flats of Pessac-Leognan, terroir is arguably the single most significant contributor to any great wine’s personality. It is not, however, the only one, and my patience is exhausted with those who claim that terroir’s legitmate expression is necessarily found through minimalist, non-interventionist, do-nothing winemaking.

Among those French winemakers with whom I have spoken over the years, most, if not all, have included the winemaker, a critical human element, in the complete calculus of terroir, and I have come to do the same. Grapes might grow unattended on their own, but attentive farming is the foundation for fine wine, and, as has been proven by more than a few dyed-in-wool “naturalists”, good wine most assuredly does not make itself. The people in the vineyard and the cellar count mightily. There has always been a unique cast of characters, some decidedly more unique than others, driving the engine of fine California wine; names like Tschelicheff, Martini, Sebastiani and Wente, then Mondavi, Winiarski, Grgich, Swan and Draper. Many more names yet in the generation that followed such as Edwards, Peterson, Graham, Pisoni, Ramey and Tolmach to name but a few, and, it should not be surprising to learn that there is a new generation now picking up the baton. Righteous revolutionaries on a quest to erase a reactionary past as some have suggested? A small handful, perhaps, but most I have known are a rather more thoughtful lot and feel very much a part of a continuum, a link in the chain rather than someone on mission to break it. The best and brightest love to talk about what they want to do, not what they believe others do wrong.

The recently released Napa Valley issue of Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal earns a big tip of the CGCW hat this morning for introducing some of those new and lesser-known faces in Napa that are now taking the reins. Write/publisher, R.H.Drexel was raised in Napa Valley and knows the place well. The issue features five comparatively lengthy and thought-provoking interviews with the highly influential Philippe Melka, mountain-top philosopher/winemaker Ketan Mody, the unassuming Vincent Arroyo, the anything-but-modest Jayson Woodbridge and rising star, Steve Mathiasson, and then follows with brief vignettes written by and about a dozen or so young winemakers, viticulturalists and wine professionals who have interesting things to say. They may not all become household names, but know that there is a smart bunch beginning to carve out their niche and make their own contributions to California’s ever-evolving wine culture. There is a good deal of passion and insight and common sense in what a good many of them have to say, such as Christina Turley’s comment that “It’s been really important for me to study Napa Valley’s past and be aware of what people have done before my generation. I want to honor the past but also move forward.” And, her confession that she is “so over the whole low-alcohol trend and the non-interventionist thing,” sounds like the sensible voice of someone who is ready to get down to business. Suffice it to say, the new Loam Baby is well worth a read.

Indeed, if truth be known, it is far more than that. It is must reading for anyone who cares about where the California industry is going. There are no polemics here. No weird justifications for hating most everything about California wine, because author Drexel does not, even as the author looks forward with an eager eye and unbridled yet incredibly intelligent enthusiasm for the future. Yes, read it online if you care to (see below), but take our word for it and buy it. These thoughts belong in your wine library so that they can be taken out and examined over and over again. They are the most intelligent, even handed take on the various forces influencing the wines of today and of tomorrow.

You can read Loam Baby’s thoughts on Napa Valley for free at, or you can contact R.H. Drexel at or 4225 Solano Ave, #643, Napa, CA 94558, to get one of the limited hard-copy editions while they remain.

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terroir and the winemaker
by Steve Matthiasson
Posted on:11/12/2013 8:53:21 PM

Thanks for including the winemaker in the definition of terroir. One of the many pleasures of wine is deciphering the winemaker's personality--the winemaker is the lens through which the site is translated, and unless the wine is mass produced they pretty much always leave their mark. I was lucky enough to taste Burgundies with Aubert De Villaine, and we tasted two from the same vineyard, totally different, one open and one closed, and he explained that one winemaker was outgoing and the other was very private. And this is Burgundy, where terroir is everything. The site comes through too, of course, but the entire process is the magic--soil and (wo)man. So I don't really care what processes or tools etc. the winemaker uses or doesn't use, as long as they are making the wine they like to drink. That's the key. Hopefully we get to experience both the terroir and the person. How cool is that? We can love the land, love people, and love to drink, all at the same time. 

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