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Tuesday Trials and Tribulations
Riffing On Hugh Johnson and Steve Heimoff

By Charles Olken

Hugh Johnson wrote a wonderfully thought-provoking piece about the notions of individual place, producer and large area place, especially for blended wines. For my money, Mr. Johnson’s wisdom on the subject ought to bring about the kind of back and forth discourse among the chattering class that such importance topics as the 100-point system, natural wines, alcohol level, authenticity, biodynamic wine, to name the first few shop-worn topics that come to mind, have generated. So far, not so much, but it is early days yet, and the blogosphere has barely awoken from its holiday-induced lethargy.

I mention Steve Heimoff because he was the first, and beat me to the punch. Steve is like that. Quick on draw. Alive to the topics of interest. And a good writer, to boot. So when he wrote the following in his Monday blog (see, it should have generated an outpouring of commentary. That it did not comes as a surprise to me, but, as you will see below, I am not discouraged and have willingly added my two cents.

Heimoff writes: I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?

Johnson goes on the suggest that certain winewriters, names not mentioned, have made a fetish about “place” and “terroir” as being the be all and end all in wine quality. He might have just stopped with the quotation that Heimoff pulled out because there is no mistaking the disdain that Mr. Johnson feels and has expressed in that simple phrase, “Not balance. Not harmony. Not typicity” and the rest of the standards listed.

It is a simple enough argument. And while some writers like to talk about place versus variety in some kind of convoluted “chicken and egg” convolution, it is pretty clear that the classic wine places in this world, read that as Europe, may well be defined geographically according to what they bring to wine. Yet, at the heart of all those definitions of place lies one simple truth. Each of those places has earned its stripes for what it does well with one or more grapes. It is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Burgundy, for example. It is Chenin Blanc in Vouvray. And the list goes on. It is the combination of place and grape that creates greatness. It is not the place by itself, and it is not the grape in other places.

So, when folks argue for the primacy of place, they ignore the fact that you cannot put other grapes in that place and get results of equal quality. Or to be more exact, you could not back in the distant past when the regulations of place and grape were laid down.

Perhaps it is local bias that has me thinking of the great advantage California and the rest of the New World enjoy in being free from forced marriages of grape and place. True that many parts of the Napa Valley are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon and its Bordelais running mates. But, that truth and the economic consequences of it, have driven out a lot of very good grapes from the Valley. If you have ever tasted Zinfandel from To Kalon, easily one of the best and most expensive Cabernet patches around these parts, you will know what I mean. And the last remaining stand of Sauvignon Blanc in To Kalon also makes incredibly wines, arguably among the very best of its breed.

It is not that we need to grow everything everywhere as much as the ability to do it that interests me. If one wants to grow Ribolla Gialla in the middle of the Napa Valley floor, one can. If one wants to grow Trousseau Noir in Zinfandel country one can. If one wants to grow Syrah in the cold of the Russian River Valley or in the warmth of Paso Robles, one can. Ultimately, as we gain experience with those marriages of place and grape, we will get to know what the possibilities are and to recognize the similarities. And yes, that is then all about “place”.

Let me not beg the question, however. Yes, “place” will out, but “place” is not greatness. We need only look back to the vegetal reds of Monterey County to realize that “place” in that circumstance produced grimaces of displeasure.

Mr. Johnson has reiterated the standards of quality that ought to apply, and I like to think that they are what guides us here at CGCW. He has put “place” in its place; it is an important place in the final analysis, but it is not the be all and end all. That is in the pleasure of the wine, not in one narrow measure.


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HughJohnson Article
by TomHill
Posted on:1/7/2014 11:11:37 AM


I, too, was a bit surprised at the lack of response on Steve's blog. Maybe it's just too intellectual a subject for most blogosphere readers to put some thought into. Maybe it's the post-holiday blahs. Who knows.

   It's clear that Johnson is seeming to minimize or marginelize  the importance of "terroir" in wine. There are people, winemakers included, who "worship at the altar of terroir". I happen to think they are worshiping a false God. It's nice when you can recognize a wine's terroir, but the tedious/endless discussion on LaTache vs. Richebourg's terroir is pretty boring to me.

   As for Johnson's third category: '3.   Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree” ', I'm not at all sure what he's talking about there. I would replace that w/ the category of "varietal typicity" myself. There was a very good thread over on WineBerserkers, initiated by AdamLee, on this very issue of the important of varietal typicity.

   You & I have pprobably tasted a ton of Ridge Lytton Springs or Geyserville over the yrs. Yet I know that I (and probably, you) could not describe the "terroir"  in those wines to someone that would enable them to identify it in a set of wines tasted blind. Probably we would not recognize the "terroir" in those two wines...but we'd recognize the "house style" (Johnson's 2'nd category) (the DraperPerfume as it's termed)  and then, using that clue, accurately pick out the LyttonSprings from the Geyserville. And sometimes, maybe not.

   But like you, and HughJohnson, I, too, believe that the be all/end all is not the "terroir" in a wine. At the end of the day, it should be the pleasure that the wine offers up. "Terroir", house style, varietal character are a part of it, to be sure, but the bottom line is the pleasure the wine offers up. Which is why I'll take a NapaVlly Refosco over a ToKalon Cabernet any day!!! :-)



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/7/2014 12:23:21 PM

All I can say is that I was right with you up to your last point, smells like a Monterey Cab from the 70s.

To Kalon Zinfandel
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:1/8/2014 12:12:33 PM

Hey Charlie, zin from To Kalon? No, haven't tasted one but am very curious? Who makes/made one? Tell me more....

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/8/2014 1:01:53 PM

Hi Chuck--

I do not believe it exists anymore, but it was made by Robert Mondavi from a patch relative high up on the bench. It was old, low-yielding and in the way of much more lucrative, as to yield and price, Cab Sauv.

But, it was also a pure expression of Zinfandel. In fact, many Napa Zins, of which there are too few and now mostly in the hills or in related valleys that should never have had the Napa Valley name attached to them, are still a pretty interesting lot and generally more refined than Zins from elsewhere.

As zin fades....
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:1/8/2014 1:07:36 PM

Thanks. Interesting that zin suffered so much as cabernet vines gained dominance on the valley floor (can't think of too many zins on the flats off the top of my head) but that plots of petite sirah still stand. Who would have thought that would happen....

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