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A Sense of Place
    --The True Be-All And End-All In Fine Wine?

By Stephen Eliot

These days it seems that every discussion regarding the attributes of fine wine and of just what it is that separates the serious stuff from homogenous mass-market versions is that the former must, without exception, display an indelible and articulate sense of place. Without that elusive expression of terroir, we too often hear, the winemaker’s art is failed, and it is the rare conversation with vintners that does not quickly include a heartfelt avowal that their fundamental aim is to make wines that reflect where they are grown.

Now, I do not mean to endorse or defend industrial winemaking where sanitary and forgettable plonk made by the numbers is churned out by the thousands of gallons, but the absolute notion of place as a consistent and clearly recognizable character that must be found in every attentively crafted effort sourced from a given site leaves me a little uneasy. There are simply too many variables in the farming and vinification of artfully made wines that go into what winds up in the glass, and where winemaking ends and incontrovertible terroir starts is, to my mind, all but impossible to assess. Moreover, given what is an increasing number of very good bottlings born of the same single vineyard but sporting different labels and individual personalities of their own, who is the arbiter of what the true and proper expression of any site should be?

The proliferation of single-site Pinot Noirs over the last decade in particular has me wondering more and more on this question with each passing vintage, but names of storied vineyards are becoming more commonplace on varietal offerings of everything from Syrah to Grenache to Chardonnay as time goes by, and some hold that a discriminating drinker should be able to see the specifics of site reflected in any truly fine wine regardless of the name on the label. I would argue that is far from the case and, more worrisome, the belief that a single-site designation necessarily means that a wine is of higher quality than one that does not has begun to take hold in the mind of many consumers.

Vineyard names may be and usually are important in discerning one wine from another from an individual producer, but any belief that all wines from all winemakers claiming to have come from a particular site taste essentially the same is a notion quickly dispelled by pulling a few corks. Generally speaking, there are vineyards that are meticulously tended and from which I expect wines that will excel irrespective of vintner. Those bearing names such as Hyde, To Kalon, Bien Nacido and Pisoni, to name but a few, rarely disappoint, yet for as many times as those names appear on a label, there are as many unique expressions to be had…sometimes slightly different, sometimes dramatically so.

The point of this morning’s musing is that for all of the attention now given to vineyard identification on the part of winery after winery, it still comes down to what is in the bottle, not what is on the label. I have just returned from a week in Santa Barbara County and spent a fair share of time traipsing through many highly regarded sites. Some were so varied in aspect, soils, trellising and clonal selection that no one could reasonably proclaim them as having a singular and predictable sense of place, and, when the further wild-card of winemaking intent and talent is played…well, I think you get the point.

One of the most capable and respected authorities on the many faces of Santa Barbara viticulture offered the thought over breakfast on the last day of my visit that we are still generations away from fully understanding the imperatives of place and that we should simply enjoy great wine for what it is. I admit to being an unrepentant wine geek that loves to dwell on the details, but I cannot argue with the wisdom in that simple thought.


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by TomHill
Posted on:3/31/2017 9:25:05 AM

Gasp...Steve....are you saying that the Emperor (winemaker) wears no clothes?? But we've been told time & time again by winemakers (and their PR folks) that their highest calling is to express the teroir from which the grapes were sourced. Your heresy is gonna get you kicked out of the wine-writing fraternity!!

   What you say is precisely what I've long thought..that maybe/just maybe this terroir thing is a false God....highly overrated.

   I've probably tasted as many Pagani and LyttonSprings and Geyserville Zins as anyone. But being able (like many of the GrandCru Burgundy lovers claim to be able to do) say this is Pagani..this is Geyserville and, moreover, characterize it in words, is damnably tough. On a good day, given a bunch of RidgeZins, blind, I might/just might be able to pick out Pagani from Lytton from Geyserville from  Nervo...if I'm in my top game. Picking out the Dusi...that'd be a tad easier.

   We recently did a tasting of Evanghlo/Bedrock/Carlisle vnyd Zins, across 3 different winemakers. The wines were all distinctly and distinctively  good. But identifing the common character of those vnyds across winemakers..forget it. I'm no closer to knowing the singular identifying character of Bedrock than I have ever been. And such a tasting shoulda given me the data to do that.

   There are people who worship at the altar of terroir. Others who worship at the altar of varietal correctness. Other worship at the altar of "natural" wine. Some worship at the altar of a winemaker's style. Maybe would should have a bit less theology in our wine drinking and just enjoy what's in the glass in fron of us. Just like you assert.

   Glad to see you & Charlie back here on your blog. I was beginning to worry a bit.



Do late picked grapes mask terroir?
by Bob Henry
Posted on:4/2/2017 1:43:02 AM


Back in 1993, I organized a horizontal tasting of every 1991 vintage Pinot Noir made from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.

Specifically, these wines served single blind:

Do late picked grapes mask terroir?
by Bob Henry
Posted on:4/2/2017 1:56:57 AM

[Continuing the comment, which was cut off.]

Specifically, these wines served single blind:

I guess it must be April Fools' Day
by Bob Henry
Posted on:4/2/2017 1:59:41 AM

Well, I guess it must be April Fools' Day -- as my repeated attempts to post my comment have failed.

Send Me An Email
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/2/2017 2:17:38 AM


No idea what has gone wrong but I wouild like more details. If you would send me an email with a further explanation of what was happening and also the content you want posted, I will put it up even if I have to type it myself.


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