The Question of Land-Focused vs. Hand-Focused Wines

handlandToday, in nearly any thoughtful discussion of fine wine by knowledgeable drinkers, one finds a near universal bias towards Land-Focused or “terroir-driven” wines over “Hand-Focused” or winemaker-driven wines. This land-focused bias—the belief that wines that accurately depict a terroir are “better” wines—is nothing new. Old World wine drinkers and vintners have held this attitude for generations and have codified the bias into appellation laws.

What I’ve been wondering is this: Is a land-focused fine wine bias a more reasonable or legitimate approach to understanding and appreciating fine wine than a hand-focused bias?

What’s interesting about this question is that neither Land nor Hand focused wines can be said to have a monopoly on authenticity. A wine that is made to depict a style sought by the winemaker is no less authentic than a wine that is made to depict a specific terroir. Both are legitimate choices that can and are made by winemakers to create wines of individual personality. So claims of “authenticity” cannot be reasonably used to justify a determination that Land or Hand focused wines are “better” than the other.

Even more interesting however is that hand-focused wines are always more unique than land-focused wines.

Theoretically, five winemakers using the same grapes and dedicated to a land-focused approach to winemaking should produce very similar wines. On the other hand, if five Hand-Focused winemakers are using the same grapes they should only make similar wines by coincidence and most likely they will all five produce wines that depict different styles—making them more unique and in fact more individual.

Whether a land or hand focused wine is a more legitimate or reasonable approach to the production of fine wine is not a question of quality. That is, it’s not really possible to say whether a land-focused or hand focused wine is objectively better than the other. This is a matter of opinion.

If a winemaker chooses to create a 50/50 blend of stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc and ripe, barrel-fermented/full malolactic Chardonnay, you may not like this wine as much as you like the wine made from the same grapes but both fermented in stainless steel. But from an objective perspective, that preference of yours is just about all you can say about the quality or deliciousness of the wines.

And despite this, there still is no question that the vast majority of fine wine devotees profess to prefer land-focused, terroir-driven wines. It’s something about the current day zeitgeist, isn’t it.

We live in a world where nature has been conquered. Discoveries of new places and new lands are behind us. Landscapes are groomed and manicured closely. The vast majority of the foods we eat and prepare are largely pre-prepared for us…even when we cook for ourselves. The mystery of far off lands is no more. Instantaneous communication and real-time images and video are constantly upon us. We live in a very composed, highly organized, very tiny world.

A land-driven wine seems more real and in contradiction to this tiny world in the same way that a backyard-grown, heirloom tomato sliced open and bit into seems real and uncomposed and timely. This bias toward land-focused wines over hand-focused wine is surely a response to the plastic nature of our lives and world.

But it is certainly true that these land-focused wines we seek out and glorify are in fact themselves highly composed. They are made with grapes grown on carefully pruned vines laid out in very straight, man-made rows. The grapes are harvested at a very particular moment, often determined by exact measurements. And the winemaking is also measured and careful and deliberate, almost as though it was hand-focused.

I too am very interested and drawn to land-focused wines. I’m simply curious what a piece of land will produce on my palate. But I have to admit, I’m equally interested in wine that is driven by the mind, the intellect and creativity of the artisan winemaker who goes at a wine the way a painter goes at a canvas or a sculptor goes at his block of clay. From this kind of effort have come monumentally singular wines that depict determined mind.

I understand the bias toward the Land Focused. But in an age where plasticity is everywhere and discovery rare, the unique creation of a single mind can be very compelling and perhaps an even more legitimate way to express an idea than land-focused wine.


26 Responses

  1. Sjteve Hendricks - March 6, 2014

    Very astute Tom. It would be really interesting to put together tastings, using both land driven and hand driven wines.

  2. Rich Reader - March 6, 2014

    When you say that five different winemakers using the same grapes in a land-made wine get similar results, I presume that sameness means that the grapes are all from the same block of the same vineyard, in which the growing conditions were exactly the same, the soil types were exactly the same, and so forth.

  3. Bob Henry - March 6, 2014

    Tom,

    Arguably the most prestigious wine made in Australia is Penfolds Grange — a wine not from a single vineyard, or even a small number of adjacent vineyards.

    The grape variety percentage and vineyard sources change from vintage to vintage depending on the growing season’s strengths.

    The wine defines the “hand-focused” winemaker’s “art.”

    Quote:

    “Unlike most expensive cult wines from the Old World which are from single vineyards or even small plots (called blocks) within vineyards, Grange is made from grapes harvested over a wide area. This means that the precise composition of the wine changes from year to year; it is the expertise of the winemakers which purchasers value, rather than the qualities of the specific places where the grapes are grown, or the particular vines.”

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penfolds_Grange

    Does its enthusiasts — and they are many and global — denigrate it for not being terroir-focused?

    No.

    The “acid test” of a bottle of wine is the pleasure found in the glass.

    Not some doctrinaire adherence to a narrow (even myopic or superstitious) philosophy of winemaking.

    ~~ Bob

  4. fredric koeppel - March 7, 2014

    Even “land-based” winemakers arrange matters differently though. Winemakers who farm or purchase grapes in, say, Chabolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses may use different types of oak barrels and age their wines for different lengths of time, all in the interest, still, of making authentic Les Amoureuses.

  5. Randy Caparoso - March 7, 2014

    I’m presuming your positing a thought on which we can all agree, Tom: that the question of “land” vs. “hand” is a big non-issue.

    Apart from the fact that “hands” are very much a part even the most terroir focused wines (wine grapes aren’t self-cultivating, and commercial wines don’t make themselves), the point is moot because of the intrinsic “authenticity” of all artistically crafted wines. Of course wines sculpted to reflect the artistry of a person are no less valid than wines crafted to maximize vineyard, regional or terroir related charateristics — and vice versa.

    That’s the beauty of the whole thing: wine lovers have their choices. But let’s not forget that the reason many wine lovers gravitate to terroir driven wines is not usually because they are tiring of artistic, “hand” focused wines, but more because they are tiring of mass production, same ol’ same ol’, commercial brand oriented wines. Wines reflecting less vineyard and vintage peculiarities, and ultimately less “soul” — the latter, a term that might defy concrete definition, but which we all still understand (I think it was Louis Armstrong that once said it about music, “if you have to ask what it is you’ll never know”).

  6. Michael DeLoach - March 7, 2014

    Tom,

    Great premise, as usual. Like nature vs. nurture, it’s normally a bit of both with rarely an exception. So, I don’t view the two aspects as opponents, but rather as partners in creating something, ultimately, to be enjoyed.

    I really like your art analogy. If five artists interpreted a famous and beautiful landscape, say Mt. Fuji, the Grand Canyon or Half Dome, for examples, one would expect the results to be almost completely different.

    While one artist might be a photographer, another might be a sculptor, and yet another a composer. Another artist might include all three landscapes in their work.

    While the landscape itself is largely unchanging, each artist chooses their favorite perspective, time of year, narrative interpretation, and artistic approach. In this way, just as with wine, their are infinite choices, and this is what makes wine truly fascinating and compelling.

  7. Charlie Olken - March 7, 2014

    The difference between what my good wife can do with a filet and what Tom Colichio can do is why we pay Colichio to make our steaks.

    No matter how significant “terroir” is, and I am a believer in the notion of terroir, it is the hand of the chef/winemaker that creates greatness of good ingredients.

    We know that to be the case with food. I have never understood why the concept should be so radically different with wine. Yes, we can all agree with the notion that the winemaker, no matter how talented, cannot make great wine from inadequate fruit, but it is still the hand of winemaker that makes the transition from good grapes to great wine possible.

    People who do not understand that simple concept or who deny it simply do not understand wine and have confused process with results.

  8. Clark Smith - March 7, 2014

    I can’t say that this dichotomy is useful. All wine is exceedingly manipulated, starting in the vineyard, as you point out. In the best wine, the hand is invisible, revealing itself only in comparison to the work of other practitioners in comparative tastings. Everything is highly hand-focused. Though the most highly manipulated wine is less so than any beer.

    But everything is also highly land-focused. In Appellation America’s Best of Appellation tastings, when we compare grouping from different regions, the regional characteristics come leaping forward despite who makes the wines and how. The nectarines of Arroyo Seco Chardonnay are in stark contrast to the rum and orange peel of the Santa Lucia Highlands or the simple Golden Delicious apple of the Salinas Valley. If you smell lemons in Petite Sirah, it’s from Livermore, whereas Paso Robles always gives you Tootsie Roll and the Russian River gives black cherry.

    Your distinction does not respect the paradox that it takes an awful lot of effort to be invisible, and even more to do nothing.

    More important (and I think this is your point), the vast energy and attention all winemakers apply is greatly disrespected by the childish myth that the best wine is a product of benign neglect.

  9. Dwight Furrow - March 7, 2014

    I have to come down on the side of their being no sharp distinction between land-focused vs hand-focused wines. Winemakers who seek to preserve terroir nevertheless have interpret what that means and they make countless decisions about when to drop fruit, when to irrigate, sun exposure, when to harvest, not to mention fermentation temps, time to macerate, etc. all in the name of preserving terroir’s signal. Each winemaker will have a different take. In the end, even hand-focused wines are “mind-driven”, a product of the winemaker’s artistic vision.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - March 7, 2014

    Tom:

    You managed to get me to agree with Randy, Charlie and Clark Smith all at once.

    I’m sorry to have to say that this post illuminates more your lack of understanding on the subject of winegrowing and winemaking than it raises as an issue.

    • Clark Smith - March 7, 2014

      I have a different take on Tom’s post. My reading is that he is re-languaging Randall Graham’s Vins de Terroir vs Vins d’Effort, and coming down on the side of defending the work we do. I appreciate that. I don’t see much disagreement within these comments with a careful reading of Tom’s discussion.

      For example, he doesn’t say people actually do like artless wines, but rather that “the vast majority of fine wine devotees profess to prefer land-focused, terroir-driven wines.” I assure you that they only enjoy them if they taste good, and I inferred that Tom knows that. Reminds me of the old adage that the public likes to “buy dry and drink sweet.”

      Where I differ from Tom is that I am skeptical that the distinction even exists. Certainly there are artless wines, like Pinot with megapurple, that are not too hard to spot. But a well-made wine that does not show its winemaker’s influence is in fact highly but skillfully manipulated in order to feature the unique properties of its provenance to best advantage. Dwight expressed it wonderfully. Like all art, winemaking is interpretation.

      • Thomas Pellechia - March 7, 2014

        It’s your last paragraph with which I am in full agreement.

        Putting aside the “artless” wines of the world, the ones that most of us don’t really support, I view the distinction between land and hand as political, not winemaking.

        It would probably serve Tom better, and those who make these opinions known to get serious about pinning down their own focus. What is it that this land-hand dichotomy is supposed to be saying?

        Only a raging ideologue can’t see that land without hand promises banality, or worse, and you cannot apply hand influence without first stewarding the land properly.

  11. Tom Wark - March 7, 2014

    I’m not sure the issue of Hand vs Land driven wines is a non issue.

    Everywhere you look, the contention is that “the wines we make reflect the terroir”. Yet, you don’t often see folks say, “The wines we make reflect the aesthetic inclinations of our winemaker (or house). Again, instead we hear all the time that we just want to “get out of the way of the grapes.”

    There seems to be a near universal agreement that placing focus on how the wine reflections the terroir is the what wine lovers want to hear. I think I understand why that is.

    Yet as we all know, it’s entirely possible to blunt the impact of terroir on a wine in any number of ways and we all know that doing so in pursuit of a style is entirely legitimate—just not politically (or rather, marketing) correct.

    And Thomas, I’m going to disagree that this posts indicates anything about a “lack of understanding” about winegrowing and winemaking. In fact if you reread the post carefully, you’ll see that we are in agreement. I merely posed our mutual point of agreement in a different way than you that reflects what I see as a point of tension in the wine world.

    CLARK” Why is a Pinot made with Mega Purple “artless”?

    • Clark Smith - March 7, 2014

      We really are all saying the same thing. The land vs hand distinction is not a non-issue – it dominates the internet. But it has not reality in practice. There are no hand-centered or land-centered wines, but there certainly is a lot of chatter about the subject. I believe this is an artifact of the fundamental limitations of the internet, of written text to capture the experience of wine.

      A fair question about megapurple and Pinot. Far be it from me to assert categorically that it cannot be done well. I do find Pinot a particularly challenging case – more like the Grand Canyon than Mt. Fuji — because what makes it alluring is the part that isn’t there, like an empty vessel designed to receive your appreciation. When you add to it, you subtract from its allure as you would if you dammed up the Colorado.

      What I should have said was that there is poorly made wine just as there is bad cooking. This does not mean cooks should stop cooking, but that they should improve their technique. It’s odd that winemaking has been singled out for dishonor to the practitioner, and odder still that any of us tolerate it.

    • Thomas Pellechia - March 8, 2014

      Tom:

      OK, perhaps, I misunderstood your post.

      “…just not politically (or rather, marketing) correct.”

      With the above allusion, you’ve answered your own musing on this non-issue.

      Marketing mumbo-jumbo does not necessarily indicate an actual dichotomy, but it does prey on certain lacks in overall consumer knowledge.

      Sometimes, I wish the ATF would regulate marketing on the back label and cut out every reference to bullshit, or at least require some proof of claims made.

      As for Megapurple and artless: maybe it’s like the difference between art and painting by the numbers; each gives you an image, but at what level of effort and at what level of artistry?

  12. John Kinney - March 9, 2014

    Tom,

    The debate about “hand” or “land” reminds me of the wonderful debates between Pauline Kael (film critic for the New Yorker) and Andrew Sarris (film critic for the Village Voice) over the auteur theory of filmmaking: the creative influence of the director over the story. By extension, these arguments demonstrate there is never separation of the hand and the land, just differences in emphasis and interpretation among artists.

    Let us imagine two gifted artists painting the same landscape (terroir). An artist like Constable would create a realistic interpretation of the landscape, while an artist like Monet would emphasize the diffuse interplay between landscape and light. The result is two, remarkably different masterpieces.

    Now, let us imagine two gifted winemakers working off of a single vineyard. One winemaker might choose to emphasize fruit and mouthfeel, while another might seek to bring out more of the subterranean elements of mineral and earth. The result is two, remarkably different wines, each representing different artistic interpretations of the terroir. The “hand” is always present; the hand reveals the artists vision.

    Art critics would recognize the achievement of both paintings, and spend their time analyzing and debating how the artist played with brush strokes and color to express their vision of the scene. A majority of wine critics would rate the wines with an unreferenced number, and spend no time analyzing the vision of the winemakers or their techniques.

    • Clark Smith - March 9, 2014

      This is exceedingly well put.

      The difference between art critics and wine critics is that the former devote years to an education in technique, while the latter know little and often care less. That’s fine – it makes them more like film critics, whose role it is to describe the impact of the finished film on the viewer rather than to delve into the nuances of cinematography. This child’s mind is quite useful and valid.

      The problem arises when wine critics decide to dish out advice on the use of tools they don’t really understanding. They are like backseat drivers who often as not want the car to steer itself.

  13. Tom - March 9, 2014

    Hi Tom,
    It’s an interesting premise you are discussing, but you may like to know that some of the hypotheticals are being explored in the Alpha Crucis Winemakers’ Series (http://www.alphacruciswines.com.au/winemakers-series ) that examines the influence of a winemaker on how a wine may taste.

    Six winemakers each make a wine from the same vineyard, and therefore ‘showing’ the impact of ‘Hand’.

    The winemakers needed to determine several factors; the date of harvest, the technique and method of fermenting and the means of maturing the wine to reflect their individual preferences.

    The goal being to explore how a winemaker would affect a parcel of grapes compared to five of their contemporaries, including whether or not gender may be an identifiable influence. To that end three female and three male winemakers are represented.

    As tempting as it may be to rank these wines in terms of quality, this was not the aim of the initiative. Rather, the winemakers’ objective was to make a wine that reflects their winemaking philosophy in a style they find enjoyable.

    Most recently these wines have been reviewed by Lisa Perotti-Brown MW in the most recent issue of the Wine Advocate.

  14. Bob Henry - March 9, 2014

    To Tom (Wark):

    “Everywhere you look, the contention is that ‘the wines we make reflect the terroir.’ Yet, you don’t often see folks say, ‘The wines we make reflect the aesthetic inclinations of our winemaker (or house).’ Again, instead we hear all the time that we just want to ‘get out of the way of the grapes.’ ”

    The esteemed Joe Heitz fully came down on the side of winemaker intervention. (See his interview with Bob Benson in the seminal book titled “Great Winemakers of California” circa 1977.) Yes, he was a graduate of UC Davis. Yes, he was an enology professor at Fresno State. And yes he famously quipped (and I paraphrase):

    “Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if she had her way, would turn wine into vinegar.”

    And yet he alongside André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (a fellow interventionist who was Heitz’s mentor) turned out the best wines of their generation.

    The “take-away”: less emphasis on dogma . . . more emphasis on the end result.

    To Tom (no given last name):

    The Alpha Crucis Winemakers’ Series has at least one antecedent. In the 1991 vintage (and then again in the 1992 vintage), six winemakers were given access to Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir fruit: Sanford (the vineyard owner), Au Bon Climat, Babcock, Foxen, Gainery and Lane Tanner.

    Ostensibly, each winemaker chose the vinicultural practices lavished on his/her “contract” fruit. (Possibly discreet rows of vines? Richard Sanford would know.). Each winemaker chose the picking date. Each winemaker chose between wild yeast or inoculated yeast fermentation. Each chose the oak barrels (forest source and toast levels). Each chose when to bottle the wine.

    And yet, despite that matrix of “hand”-focused decisions, only one out of of five winemakers assembled for my circa 1994 “single-blind” tasting was able to correctly identify his/her own wine. (Sanford’s Bruno d’Alfonso — who had the longest experience with the fruit from that vineyard.)

    Mother Nature “trumped” the handiwork of the winemakers.

    (Link to “Top 3 preference voting” results for event labeled “California Pinots – 1991 Tasting”: http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/.

    Same link to subsequent retasting event labeled “California Pinots – 1988 to 1997 Sanford Vertical Tasting.”

    And same link to sequel event labeled “California Pinots – 1992 to 1993 Tasting.”)

    “Hand” versus “hand”? “Nature” versus “nurture”?

    More aptly, a little of each.

    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob Henry - March 9, 2014

    Erratum.

    “Hand” versus “LAND”? “Nature” versus “nurture”?

  16. Bob Henry - March 9, 2014

    Second erratum.

    “Gainey” not Gainery winery.

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