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What Comes First: The Place Or The Winemaker?

By Stephen Eliot

What comes first? Is it the vineyard? Is it the grower, or is it the winemaker?

Frankly, it seems to me that the conversation about just what makes fine wine fine has lately been far too pre-occupied with notions of minimalist, “do-as-little-as-possible” winemaking and a certain bucolic idealism, a “let’s get back to nature” naiveté. Taken together, those twinned themes leave me feeling that I am somehow supposed to see the vineyardists and the winemakers as liabilities who somehow get in the way of what this or that site has to say. That abiding expression of “place”, by some accounts, is the only measure of what a good wine is supposed to be. But what if a single place manages to turn out very different wines of high quality from different makers. Which one is “right”? Are the others therefore “wrong”?

I confess to having a real problem with the argument that a given vineyard has but one “true” voice that is independent of winemaking, that there is no room for artistic interpretation. Experience again and again teaches that that a single site can produce very good wines of widely varying expression, all equally interesting and all eminently satisfying.

That very point was driven home this past weekend during the Anderson Valley Pinot Festival when, as a part of an enlightening, day-long technical conference, Dan Goldfield from Dutton Goldfield, Anne Moller-Racke of Donum and Angel Camp estate-vintner, Brian Zelaznick, presented Pinot Noirs grown in one of the valley’s preeminent sites, Mr. Zelaznick’s Angel Camp Vineyard. Each of the participants talked, as well they should, of their high regard for the site and the vineyard management practiced therein. All of the wines were quite good and are highly recommended to all of those with a passion for fine Pinot, but each spoke with a very distinct voice of their own, and I was struck far more by the essential quality of the wines rather than by some shared and immutable stamp of terroir.

The tasting confirmed my heartfelt belief that talented winemaking and meticulous viticulture are every bit as important as the vineyard itself when discussing the calculus of fine wine. It is true that not every place can grow exceptional Pinot however fastidious and skilled its makers may be, but, at the end of the day, to paraphrase Dan Goldfield’s closing comments, even in those few special sites where greatness is within reach, the wines are ultimately about the people involved, and the notion that there is a singularly perfect paradigm to be pursued is misleading at best and foolish at its extremes.


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No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:5/23/2014 11:53:14 AM

Unquestionably, Stephen, man and Nature have always worked together to produce the great or most interesting wines of the world.  You can't have one without the other, and it's silly to ask, "what comes first?"

What's disappointing, though, is when you taste one winemaker's wines made from multiple vineyards, and they all taste the same -- delineations effectively buried under a winemaker's respective "hands."  If they're still all good wines, one could say that this is pefectly fine.  But you can still make a good argument for the fact that it's a darned shame when that happens.  

Whether you're talking about a Lafite or Steinberger, Fiddlestix or Grandpere, it is very possible for egotistical winemakers to stomp on Mother Nature; and it happens all the time.

Yes, who is to say what is the "correct" paradigm?  Still, in the balance of things, it would seem that it takes more than passion and talent to make truly interesting wine.  It all takes grace, sensitivity, and a gentle hand.

What Comes First
by Bill Crowley
Posted on:5/27/2014 4:30:58 PM

You said very well what I've been trying to say for a long time.  The many, many variables that go into making a wine (what kind of rootstock, what trellising system, how much irrigation, Brix at harvest, how long the maceration, kind of fermenting vessel, kind and age of oak for aging, and on and on) leave an imprint on that wine.  If the Brix or kind of oak weren't significant, why would we talk about them.  And then you can look at the list of allowed "ingredients" during the winemaking process and wonder....hmmm.  I'm a geographer, I love the importance of place.  But it's only part of the equation.  Thanks for a good read.


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