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Which Came First: The Dirt or The Winemaker?

By Charles Olken

I am tired of hearing about terroir. It’s really not much more than a bunch of dirt for goodness sake. Things grow in it, and sometimes they reflect where they are grown. I’m not tired of tasting terroir. I just don’t want to hear yet another winery public relations piece or smitten writer tell me that the difference between greatness they perceive and everything is solely a reflection of place.

This is not denial of terroir, mind you. I believe strongly that it exists. It is a key reason why things do taste different, and even why some wines taste better than other wines. But, for goodness sake, the very first and most important determinant of greatness is, in my humble opinion, the hand of the winemaker. Sure, you cannot make great wine out of lousy grapes. I get that. We all get that.

But the corollary of that precious piece of wisdom is not true. Having great grapes does not insure that you will make great wine. Only the hand of winemaker can turn fruit into wine. It does not happen spontaneously, and if left to its own devices, crushed grapes will ferment into wine and then into vinegar. Even the most natural of wines requires the winemaker’s intervention.

That is why, as important to my wine cellar as is the West Rutherford Bench and Westside Road and the Santa Rita Hills, it is not the dirt by itself that I worship, it is the wine. It is tempting to say that it is the winery, not just the dirt, but the reality is that two wineries, making wine from the same vineyard, do not make the same wine. Sure, there is an identifiable house style. Ravenswood Zinfandel is different from Ridge Zinfandel. If you put five of each in a blind tasting and asked me to pick out the Ridge wines from the Ravenswood, I could do it more often than not. Tom Dehlinger’s brilliant Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs are different from Gary Farrell’s brilliant Russian River Pinot Noirs.

Now, before I go too far down this road and cannot get back gracefully, I need to point out again, if I did not say it above, I love Westside Road Pinot Noir. I love West Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignon. Those wines are reflective of the places they are grown. Terroir does exist, and it is important. But, it comes second to winemaking to me. Sure, we can argue chicken and egg. I have more than once in my life—both stone cold sober and not—but even today, I don’t know which came first.

I do know that terroir comes first in winemaking, but I also know, after all these years of tasting, that the hand of the winemaker trumps all. So, hats off to Celia Welsh and Jeff Cohn and Ed Kurtzman and Aaron Pott and Bob Cabral and Cathy Corison and Paul Hobbs and Sashi Moorman and Gary Farrell and David Ramey and Tim Mondavi and Kent Rosenblum and Genevieve Janssens and Bill Brosseau and Joel Peterson and so many more men and women whose hard work and individual brilliance have filled my cellar with great wine. Yes, you know your dirt, but more than that, you know your onions.


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by Terry Rooney
Posted on:11/6/2014 12:49:41 PM

Charlie, I am with you completely. If terroir is so important why can some winemakers make such great stuff and another one just a mile away makes much less impressive stuff.

Not exactly old wives tales but not hard science for sure.

Terry Rooney





Old Wives and Dirt
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/6/2014 3:38:14 PM

It is certainly true that location does matter, but you have identifed the single strongest reason why the hand of the winemaker comes first. Wines from  the same site can vary greatly based solely on the winemaker's handling.

Chicken and Egg
by Don Huffman
Posted on:11/11/2014 10:43:47 AM

Please don't kid yourself, without great soil, great rootstock, the right varietal, and great weather the wine maker would have nothing to work with. Yes, you can ruin a great grape, but you can't make something from nothing. Terroir matters.

Charlie Olken
by Eggs, I Got Eggs
Posted on:11/11/2014 12:20:05 PM


Of course terroir matters. No one here disputes that. I don't care how good the winemaker is, without the right grapes (meaning all the items you mention), there is no great wine.

But there is also no great wine without the hand of the winemaker. And even with the finest sites in the world, the winemaker can screw it up. 

To put it more simply, if I were ever a winery owner, the first thing I would do is to find a brilliant winemaker, and then I would have that winemaker search out the finest sites.

I happen to like the wines of Paul Draper and Cathy Corison, of Tim Mondavi and David Ramey, of Jeff Cohn and Sashi Moorman. All of those folks has proven that they know how to choose sites and to make wine that suits both the site and their individual styles. 

I like ToKalon Cabs, but they range all over the place from near over the top in ripeness to restrained and elegant. It is ultimately the winemaker who creates the wine. That is why I follow winemakers first and look for their work with great sites.

But, I would not argue with someone who puts it the other way around. Find the great sites and then look for those folks who really get it right.

Ultimately, both the grapes and the winemaking has to be top notch in order to produce great wine.

Agree, agree, agree
by Don HUffman
Posted on:11/11/2014 1:12:32 PM


All great winemakers. I'm sure they would be the first to tell you that they have had their share of failures from those same vineyards they covet.

As I'm sure you seen, as you enter the wiencaves at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars you'll find the "Hands of Time". It's a program I helped put together years ago for Warren Wynarski. A tribute to the many winemakers that have had some envolvement there at SLWC. There's a great quote from John Williams – Frog's Leap"

“Any contribution I may have made is humbled by comparison to the contribution this place made to my own life and my own sense of how to make wine. This is where I learned about the deep connection between the wine and the vineyards.”

– John Williams, Alumnus and
Proprietor of Frog’s Leap Winery"

BTW, I love this debate. :]

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