Pleasure Vs. Intellectual Stimulation in Wine

I’ve been thinking a bit about the nature of "terroir" and how wine drinkers interact with the idea. There are some of us, myself included, that often give the impression that when terroir is evident in a wine that’s always a good thing.

Let me be clear about what I think is, or should be, self evident:

1. Characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir are NOT ALWAYS GOOD.

As St. Vini points out in an earlier comment: "if an Anderson Valley cab exhibits its terroir, but tastes
terrible will it receive a better review in Appellation America’s brave
new world than an Anderson Valley cab that tastes good? Personally, I
want the wine that tastes good!"

That said, I think we can say:

2. Characteristics in wine that are demonstrably derived from the terroir equate to "natural authenticity".

The question might be asked is what does "natural authenticity" bring to the wine drinking experience? This question goes to the heart of the importance of terroir to wine drinkers. It seems to me that we there are three things a person is looking for when they sip any wine:

-An aesthetic accompaniment to a meal
-Intellectual stimulation

I think we can say that it is self evident that the existence of characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir do not necessarily deliver pleasure or a pleasing accompaniment to a meal. They CAN do this. But they don’t necessarily do this as part of their nature.

However, I’d argue that whether or not the characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir are pleasant or off putting, they always provide intellectual stimulation. Always. They do this because they deliver information to the drinker.

As an  aside, I’d note that the very same set of statements can be made about oak characteristics in wine, the characteristics derived from malolactic fermentation, the characteristics of high alcohol or any other characteristic that can be identified by its source.

The question I’m interested in concerning the utility of recognizing the characteristics of terroir in a wine is this: are the characteristics derived from terroir any more intellectually stimulating than oak, alcohol or malolactic fermentation characteristics?

I believe the answer is YES.

Characteristics derived from terroir are more intellectually stimulating because:

1. They provide the wine lover with infinite possibilities
2. They are a pathway to understanding who wine can be more enjoyable
3. They connect us to the history of man’s endeavor to understand and control nature
4. They give us a natural way of categorizing the experience of wine
5. They give us a place to go to further connect to the wines we love
6. They give us a near unlimited way of comparing wines

Of course when someone suggests that none of this interests a person who’s only concern is a tasty, satisfying drink they are correct. It is quite easy today to know nothing of terroir, appellations or history to enjoy a class of red wine.

Given this, should a reviewer of wine take into account what is admittedly an arcane knowledge base? Not if the audience is reading them only to discover a tasty wine. Why it’s tasty is really of no concern to the person who just wants "tasty". It’s the reviewer’s job to discern if their audience is mainly of the "tasty" sort…or, if they are of the sort that seeks intellectual stimulation with their pleasure.

I’d argue that the readers of The Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Wine News, Quarterly Review of Wine, Vinography, Connoisseurs Guide to CA wine, Decanter, The International Wine Report and nearly any other specialty publication and website is made up of readers who likely would not be reading this material if they did not want to use wine to stimulate their intellect as well as their palate.

This of course leads to what I was talking about yesterday: Should a wine reviewer evaluate a wine, in part, based on the degree to which it exhibits characteristics that have been identified with the terroir in which its grapes were grown? I think the answer is yes, to the extent that the reviewer is capable of doing so.

There is a natural push back to this claim. I think it derives from the fact that many people who do review wines simply are not capable of identifying what the common characteristics are of Green Valley Chardonnay vs. Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay vs. Anderson Valley Chardonnay. To quote St. Vini from his comment in another post, "the campaign to define and highlight regional terroir seems premature
as I don’t think California wines are ready to be defined by a single
terroir for each region/varietal yet. To me, that’s much of their charm!"

I would note that Vini could only make this claim if Terroir is in fact an intellectually stimulating facet of wine. If it were not, Vini’s comment would be unintelligible.

Vini’s comment begs the question, under what circumstances would California wines be ready to be defined (or at least evaluated) based on their terroir? It seems to me that the most enthusiastic conversations about CA wine today and the most enthusiastic work being done by winemakers across California and the United States is on the issue of understanding what makes wines taste different when they are from different regions or terroirs.

Now is the time for for us to begin considering the characteristics of California’s varied terroirs. Certainly the marketing folks know this. The winemakers are pursuing this. There is also a band of enthusiastic wine lovers who are excited about learning about how wines differentiate themselves from one another. The question is should wine reviewers engage in this project.

The best of them, I think, must.

Posted In: Terroir


13 Responses

  1. George Wallace - January 3, 2007

    This theme is implicit in a pretty-good article by Patrick Comiskey in today’s Los Angeles Times, which asks (and attempts to answer) the question “Where Have All the Honest Cabs Gone?”
    It provides a nice survey of the differences between terroir-centric cabernets and those made in the Internationsl Style of the Hour — which even Robert Parker is quoted dismissaing as “vapid, overly-oaked, devoid of any real charm, texture or fruit.”
    Better yet, it distinguishes among the wines that show terroir-driven characteristics, suggesting why it is — yes, intellectually — worthwhile to contrast say a Monte Rosso and a Monte Bello. Worth a look at this link:,1,2343245.story?coll=la-headlines-food [registration may be required]

  2. winehiker - January 3, 2007

    Tom, since this is such a rich and stimulating topic you’ve highlighted, I knew you’d be following up. Funny, though, that we should view traits and perceptions diametrically (pleasure vs. intellectual stimulation, value vs. terroir), when those attributes are not necessarily opposites.
    Granted, there will always be disparate audiences for wine reviewers to address. I’m certainly behind educating the consumer who, when possessed of knowledge, will continue to seek further knowledge where that knowledge is available. We as writers about wine cannot push consumers where they don’t want to go; we can only gently coax them to follow along. Upon determining a shifting critical mass, I’ll agree that the good wine writers will choose to educate themselves further toward retaining their leadership (and their readership), if not also promote their love of wines more fully.
    But though wine writers can be considered de facto leaders to their readers, and while winemakers will tinker with regional distinctions, the consumer will still vote with his or her pocketbook. Therefore, there will always be a market for value-driven wine purchases, and there will always be wine reviewers who will cater to them. Terroir is important. So is pleasure. Yet both are only part of the value set.

  3. Saint_Vini - January 3, 2007

    Tom: I don’t drink wine for intellectual stimulation, I drink it because good wine should bring pleasure and emotional response. Drinking wine should make you feel, not think. When I want intellectual stimulation, I’ll do a Sunday NYT crossword or a Sudoku. If we are going to move wine drinking to the realm of the rational and out of the sensual, we are only going to further alienate the hedonist in all of us. Certainly wine, with its myriad complexities of origin, varietal and blends can provide sufficient intellectual stimulation while learning about it, but let’s leave the drinking to our hedonistic, emotional sides.

  4. tom - January 3, 2007

    I don’t think that appreciating the intellectual stimulation a wine gives excludes experiencing any pleasure it might deliver. In fact, I’m sure of this.
    Further, I’d argue that for many folks, though not a majority of drinkers, investigating the factors that deliver the intellectual stimulation they get from wine is the only way to feed their interest in wine.
    Intellectual stimulation is the natural partner of choosing between regions when deciding on what wine to buy.

  5. Jerry Murray - January 3, 2007

    Ladies and gentleman, perhaps we can learn something from our favorite beverage here. In regard to whether of not wine should be emotionally or intellectually enjoyed I would point out the characteristic of wine I seek most…balance! I think it is the goal of most wine geeks to find wines that have both guts and brains. The problem is we are all moved by different attributes in a wine. As long as there is diversity in wine drinkers there will be diversity in wine styles. It isn’t about right or wrong but that we each have the opportunity to continue finding and enjoying the wines that move us, regardless of thier style or authenticity. The question is; will globalization and homogenazation leaves us with the options we need to find the thrill in wine?

  6. ken - January 3, 2007

    Tom, brilliant post. This is why we read your blog.
    The emotional/intellectual divide is a bit threadbare, I would argue. Who would argue that passages of the philosopher Hegel are not both intellectually thrilling and logically beautiful, or that the painful mathmatical rigor of Bach did not also result in emotionally powerful music? More quotidian examples might include salmon, whether farmed or wild caught. Who revels for the first time in the mysterious flavor of truffles without wanting to know what they are, where are they grown? The culinary world offers abundant examples of the strong and obvious coextention of intellectual and emotional. Who eats a meal of just flavors? I want to know the precise combination of ingredients. Green or black olive? Parsley, garlic, rosemary: just how was this great meal done? How can wine possibly be different? Terroir is a component that ought be sought out by the palate. Jeez, even pizza parlours, chilli dog greasy spoons, the lowly donut vendor, they all have their champions.
    Wine is a heady substance, historically dense, demanding. It deserves to be given the greatest possible consideration. Terroir is not a quaint, exotic element, purely intellectual. It is a gustatory dimension just waiting to be discovered by the public.

  7. Al - January 4, 2007

    What ever happened to the more “zen” approach to wine? Duuuudes…turn off the brain, let the senses tell you what’s going on.
    BTW, Tom, WTF is “natural authenticity” other than a semantic redundancy?
    It’s as bad as “terroir” in that it really is meaningless until you’ve defined how you’re using it. And I’d think that terroir doesn’t nescessarily connect us with Mankind’s struggle to control Nature unless it is then contrasted with wines form the same vintage/block/etc, which havehad other techniques applied to them to alter what Nature’s handing out that year.
    Some decent points though in the post, as many people can geek out to the terroir issue and that may increase the wine drinking base. I’d be somewhat concerned that this sort of thing is what led to wine snobbiness in the first place though.
    Let the Geeks geek-out, and I’ll be over in the corner reveling in the pleasure w/o the analysis.

  8. ken - January 4, 2007

    ‘A more zen approach to wine’? I have friends who study zen. All they do is read and contemplate, and seek instruction from teachers. The discipline required of them is life long, and is of a purely intellectual character. To ‘turn off the brain’ requires years of reflective labor. Wine might actually, thankfully, interfere with such an odd ambition, in my humble opinion.

  9. Saint_Vini - January 4, 2007

    I’m kind of lost and I don’t really follow where you’re going with this, Tom. I think you’re inching out on a limb to make a point, but I can’t figure out what it is…?
    I have a post up that expresses my thoughts more clearly than I have here.

  10. Mike - January 4, 2007

    I just read an article on Campbell Mattinson’s WINE FRONT that brought sharply into focus the idea that some winemakers do make wine simply for the sake of intensity – all else be damned! A successful approach? Well the less expensive bottling of 25,000 cases sold out in 19 days and the 5,000 cases of the more expensive wines, selling at around $50-70USD/bottle, sold out in 5 days. The wine? Mollydooker made by Sarah and Sparky Marquis. The Marquis’ made their names turning out wines for Shirvington, Parson’s Flat, Henry’s Drive and, of course, Marquis-Philips. Before the split with Dan Philips the Marquis-Philips label was turning out 120,000 cases per vintage.
    Sarah and Sparky Marquis don’t strive for complexity, or elegance or specific flavors. Its all about intensity. And yes, that means big alcohol content, 16% is not uncommon in these wines. So do you lay them down and wait for the elegance and terroir to struggle through so that your little grey cells can be stumulated? Well one critic gave one of the wines 99 points and wrote “should drink well for a decade”. What does the winemaker say? “People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?”….. “And you know what I say to them? I’m making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we’re going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!”
    I don’t know about anyone else, but Sparky’s comments seem like a pretty good explanation as to why someone would make the style of wine that Sarah and Sparky Marquis do, year after year. In the world of wine there is more than enough room for wines with weight, richness, and hedonistic appeal. Terroir? Be damned!
    (Note: Yes, I do believe that wine should show an identity with place of origin. But not all wine should and there is no reason or law that says that winemakers should be made to do so. And why should they when they can be successful without it?)

  11. ken - January 4, 2007

    The barbarians are at the gate.

  12. Alcohol Rehab Info - January 5, 2007

    With the multitude of alcohol-related horror stories in the news these days it seems to me that you and other wine lovers (and wine tasters) need to get your message out to more people. In 2007, let people know that drinking wine in moderation has been shown to have many health benefits. Spread the news about the fun and good times you have experienced with wine drinking and wine tasting 🙂

  13. al - January 6, 2007

    Zen essentially doesn’t even exist – as nothing does.
    The years of rigorous study are designed to overload the brain’s capacity to analyze, and present it with so many contradictions that it eventually shuts down and allows the individual to experience life without having to analyze everything.
    That path of study may be required if people are entrenched in the Western society’s world of information & technology.
    Thankfully, my path has been a shorter one than that, and I wish them luck with theirs.
    Zen and wine tasting go together much like Zen and the Art of Archery, where one doesn’t separate themselves from the target. I usually relax and stop anticipating what the wine should be, and allow it to instead make an impression upon me.

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