The Dirt on Terroir

In the San Francisco Chronicle today I was reading about the trio of gentleman who have started “Terroir”, a wine bar and wine shop in a warehouse on Folsom Street in San Francisco. “Terroir” is focused on “Natural wines” that are described by writer Wolfgang Weber as “a sort of catchall term for organic, biodynamic and minimal intervention” wines.

You have to love a trio of guys like this, with so much passion for wine that they’d invest in opening a bar and shop that reflected that passion for “natural wines”.

However…(sorry boys), I think it a little unfortunate that in the course of positioning their new venture they denigrate American wines so forthrightly:

“Q. You don’t carry much domestic wine. Why?

Gerard: There’s just not such history in the States yet. I mean, yea, we feel overwhelmed by the commercialization of California wine, but it takes time, it’s a cultural thing to have wine be such a part of life, to spend centuries working a piece of ground. There hasn’t been the evolution,’

Ertoran: On top of expressing terror, our palate is not geared toward domestic wines.”

Take time for what? Is it really necessary to “spend centuries working a piece of ground” to make a “natural wine” or to produce a collection of wines from, say, California, that are clearly every bit as good as the “natural” wines that come out of France? Please! There are hundreds of wines in California alone that are produced with organic grapes, that are certified organic, that are made in a biodynamic fashion and that are produced with minimal intervention. But more importantly, these wines are every bit as good as the French and European wines in every respect.

I tire of this old refrain that “America must put a few centuries under its belt before it can claim parity of seriousness that the French and European producers naturally have.” It’s an absurd claim that derives from nothing more than fear and a well developed sense of marketing and brand positioning.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though the partners at the new “Terroir” are the first to make this kind of dismissive claim about American wines. There is a long tradition of it.

The fact is, it’s a cultural thing to be willing to open your eyes and make the wines of the New World a part of your life; to spend time gearing one’s palate toward an appreciation of all wines. There hasn’t been an evolution among Old Worlders toward this reality.

I sure am looking forward to visiting Terroir. It seem like a very cool place to hang out, browse, sip and talk. But I think I might bring a bottle of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfnadel with me under my coat and slip it across the counter for Gerard to try. Maybe I’ll bring him some Quivera wines. It would be nice to introduce him to the various vintages that Randall Grahm has produced too.

66 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - November 7, 2008

    I agree. That “it takes centuries” stuff is complete nonsense. And I’d bet that most of the people issuing the nonsense have no clue that wine was produced on this continent as early as the 17th century–on the west, south, and east coasts and has been successfully commercially produced for just short of two centuries.

  2. Oenophilus - November 7, 2008

    Thank you, Tom. While I loved Terroir the two times I have been in, there is something very disingenuous about categorically dismissing hundreds of wines that are as “natural” as any coming from the “Old World”. Time to lubricate those creaky gears in your palate, boys! While our natural wines can be just as oxidized and skanky as any on your shelves, we have some lovelies as
    BTW – my ancestors in the Andes were fermenting some mighty good stuff way back in the recesses time as well.

  3. Joe Dressner - November 7, 2008

    I don’t understand the argument in this blog.
    I was introduced to a delicious California wine from Mike Dashe the last time I was at Terror. Someone at the counter also had a 1974 Cabernet from Napa that was tasting great.
    The three owners of Terroir might have a different notion of wine than Tom Wank but isn’t it nice that the Bay Area has an alternate outlet? It is certainly no problem finding Californian wine there.

  4. Lab Advocatus Diaboli - November 7, 2008

    Just for the sake of argument, I’ll take the Terroir Boys side on this. I’m a big fan of the magic mud and my cellar definitely slants more to the old world than the new. Although there are certainly a number of American producers focused on site-expressive wines (you mention a few, although Randall is hit and miss — though I’m anxious to try his line of Washington state Rieslings) and some of them are brilliant (Josh Jenson, Ted Lemon), it would still be hard to argue their approach as a mainstream force in US winemaking. A small Sonoma grower/producer told me recently about the very real challenges in finding a winemaker who would champion a minimal interventionist approach. Harder than you think to find someone who will make wine that way, she said.
    As a parlor game, we could list the American producers for whom terroir is an A-list priority and then list the American producers with cult status. I bet the cult list is longer by far and the overlap not as extensive as I, for one, would like.
    That said, there’s no reason for anyone to be snooty about it. Unless, like the Terroir Bar Boys, you’re selling a certain attitude.
    cheers, JD

  5. Tom Wark - November 7, 2008

    Tom “Wank” is much easier to wrap your tongue around than Tom “Wark”. Maybe I’ll stick with “Wank”.
    That said, I agree that having a wine bar and shop that focuses entirely on imports and natural ones at that is a brilliant idea and a benefit to all wine lovers.
    I only take issue with the statements made by the three, brave entrepreneurs that opened “Terroir”.
    Afterall, no one can seriously make the argument that America doesn’t produce wines every bit as natural and wed to the terroir as Europe does.

  6. Fredric Koeppel - November 7, 2008

    Great post, Tom. How easy it is to overlook, when faced with this fashionable attitude — and I’m a believer in the influence of terroir on wine — that LOTS of French wine is industrial and commercial and that the French, with all their centuries of wine culture and heritage, can turn out swill with the best of them.

  7. Joe Dressner - November 7, 2008

    Dear Tom:
    Sorry for the typo.
    Of course, someone can make the argument that “America doesn’t produce wines every bit as natural and wed to the terroir as Europe does.” I make it daily.
    The reasons I think this is the case are long and probably not resolvable. We have different tastes in wine and I’m happy you like so much from California and wish you lots of luck and prosperity drinking those wines and promoting them.
    Of course, only very few European wines reach the level of being “natural” and true to terroir. But the fact that the mass of European wine is every bit as mediocre as the mass of New World wine is not an argument that the two are at the same level.
    Show me the American Marcel Lapierre or American Pierre Breton or Guy American Bossard or American Jean Thevenet or American Antoine Arena or American Thierry Allemand or…..
    and I will admit I’m wrong.
    I agree, it is important to be open minded.

  8. Adam - November 7, 2008

    Frederick,how about Frog’s Leap and John Williams?

  9. Tom Wark - November 7, 2008

    Now you seem to be talking about personal taste and that’s one area I’d never confront you, or anyone, on. If you like the traditional “Old World” style of wines more than “New World” styles that’s great. Who could argue.
    However, to suggest that America just doesn’t have enough time under its belt to craft “natural” wines that are true to their terroir is just silly.

  10. Adam - November 7, 2008

    I think the biggest issue in this argument would be alcohol levels. I am currently searching for the greatest expressions of terrior in the U.S. on my blog with a focus right now on California and I have to say that thus far I am striking out.
    I am a fan of natural winemaking, but I am not a hardliner on some issues. The main difference to me with the whole old-world new-world debate has to be the sugar levels in which the grapes are being picked. I do not care the reason for picking late, the one thing that is not arguable is that elevated levels of alcohol diminish the elegance and food-friendliness of the wine. I think this is the main focus of the natural wine movement.
    Yes ethically the wines are truer to the earth, but when it comes down to taste they are more elegant, unique, and more often complex. These qualities can not be duplicated at high alcohol levels no matter what the method of farming or of winemaking. I, unlike most in the natural wine movement, am not giving up on the domestic wine scene to produce elegant and balanced wines, but I have to tell you it is tough work.
    BTW Tom…All the wines you mentioned except for some of Grahms and a Gewürztraminer are in the 14.5 15.9 Alcohol range.

  11. Director of Lab Random Promotions - November 7, 2008

    Try one from this vineyard: (Calera’s Mills if the link doesn’t work).
    cheers, J David

  12. Tom Wark - November 7, 2008

    “BTW Tom…All the wines you mentioned except for some of Grahms and a Gewürztraminer are in the 14.5 15.9 Alcohol range.”
    What is the Brix at Harvest level that is “natural?”
    Why is it “natural” to pick at 23.5 but not “natural” to pick at 27?
    I won’t argue with anyone who likes lower alcohol, more minerally wines with more hints of green and citrus. Not me.
    But no one can tell me that proper natural wine making equates to this kind of wine until they can convince me that “natural” is really a synonym for “the style of wine I like”.

  13. Paolo B - November 7, 2008

    Terroir guys want to have “pure natural” wines in their place; and for what I can tell and tasted they do a great job. My question is: WHEN a wine is “pure expression of the terroir where is coming from”. When a wine is natural? Here the battle begins and is not just a matter of personal taste anymore. Back label with NOP approval and / or the correspondent agency (Italian French Australian whatever country is coming from) helps you just to certain extent. I have seen producers that do not add anything in their vineyards (with a benefit for the vines as well to the point that those vines are alive and kicking when they are a century year old!) and don’t bother to claim themselves organic; and I know some that show themselves as the “pure noble ones” and then they buy pesticides under the table and spray them on…
    For sure there are certain practices that are commonly used in certain countries that others don’t like. For example here they stress not to use sulfites; people pay a lot of attention to that in wines (but not in orange juice for example which has 10 times more)… Indeed sulfites have been used too much in many cases. But the use of copper instead of sulfites can be a problem as decay 5 times less quickly than sulfites.
    I have certain personal rules regarding wines. I am convinced that a family owned and run winery needs to own their own vineyards (or at least rent them over a long period of time) and they cannot physically take care of more than 60 acres 75 thousands bottle of wine. If the yield is over half ton per hectare you need to use “advanced techniques” to keep the wine together (like stopping the malo, the use of selected yeasts, use of micro filtration…). So I don’t buy the bs that certain winemakers – with their piano players girly hands and perfectly trimmed nails – say that they are able to deal with huge amount of vineyards and production. I don’t believe that a mechanical harvest (by vibration or by gentle (?) vacuum systems – there is a quite famous winemaker from Europe who stress how gentle this system is and people believe him) is possible if you are making organic natural wines. The reason? By doing that you pick up everything there is on the vines good and bad bunches, bird nests, bugs, webs, spiders, lizards (shall I continue?) that will ferment all together…. then to cover up the mess (not the mass) anti oxidants need to be added. I believe that in order to have a soil cleaned up from pesticides etc. you need to work on clean by at least 10 / 15 years; that is coming from my limited experience as attempted vine grower and wine maker in Italy. And mostly important I don’t touch wines that have 15% of alcohol or more (I am actually tipped off when I see 14.5). Why? Because the s. cervisiae gets drilled/perforated by the alcohol at 15% so if a wine has that alcohol level means they used baianus and other “selected ones” but not the natural indigenous strains . When you push that level the resultant product is something thick and flat that to me is not wine anymore. And so far when I force myself to taste them I have never been impressed. Just my opinion of course…

  14. Joe Dressner - November 7, 2008

    It is apparent that developing a wine culture takes decades if not centuries. It is silly to imagine otherwise!
    The same is true for finding what to plant where, having old vines, letting the vines mutate into something original (an impossibility giving the newness of the American vineyard and the dominance of clones). It then takes decades and generations of trial-and-error. I don’t find anything silly about this.
    As I asked earlier though: who are the American Marcel Lapierres or American Pierre Bretons or the American Guy Bossards or the American Jean Thevenets or the American Antoine Arenas or American Thierry Allemands or…..
    I could easily rattle off another 30 or 40 names.
    Where are the equivalents in America?

  15. Tom Wark - November 7, 2008

    What exactly is a “wine culture”? Does it encompass the production of utter swill? Because there’s a great deal of that in France, just as there is in any wine producing country? Does it include Fascistic regulations that stifle creativity for the sake of marketing tradition? Because most wine producing countries possess such things? Does it include a real reverence among a relatively small number of people for unique wines and their history and stories? Because most wine drinking countries have such a collective. Does it include a passion for pairing wines of a region with foods of a region? Because most wine producing countries have these efforts.
    Joe, we have perfectly clear evidence that it doesn’t take decades to determine what grows well where. Take the outer reaches of the Sonoma Coast on the bluffs above the shoreline of the Pacific. We’ve been planting Pinot and Chard there for no more than 20 years and they are producing tremendous wines. Are those wines mistakes? Aberrations? I don’t think they are. I think they are the result of simple commonsense, research and science.
    Consider the area now known as the “Petaluma Gap” or “Anderson Valley” or “Green Valley”. Tremendous wines are being produced in these areas and they haven’t decades or generations of trial and error.
    Your examples of French winemakers are, I’m sure, outstanding examples…of something. But what exactly are you claiming they are or possess or know that altogether escapes any American winemaker?

  16. Joe Dressner - November 7, 2008

    Working specific terroir for centuries.
    It is really quite simple.
    The rest of your argument is beating straw men. The quality of California jug wine is not an argument against everything made in California.
    I have not had Pinot Noir or Chardconnay from the bluffs of the Sonoma Coast that I would consider great wines. I think there are remarkably well made show wines.
    But young clonal selections of two grape varieties does not make for great viticultural or wines. You mistake your enthusiasm for those type of wine for proof that great terroir has been found conquered.
    The very phrasing of your question — “what execate are you claiming they are or possess or know that altogether escapes any American winemaker” — shows the confusion. It is not the winemaker, it is the earth and type of vine planted in that earth which makes all the difference.
    Guy Bossard makes great Muscadet not because he knows something that a guy in Anderson Valley doesn’t know (although I suspect he does, but it is beside the point.) What he does have is a grape variety which no one would really want in America, the Melon de Bourgogne, that creates wines of searing minerality in gneiss, schist and granite. He works the yields insanely low and works vineyards that were constituted centuries ago. His vines are selection massale, not clonal selections, and in a sense each vine is different. This level of diversity leads to a complexity that can’t be rushed by time or because a winemaker is smart individual. Its nature and nature moves slow.

  17. Tom Wark - November 7, 2008

    Now we are talking about simple preference. As I said before, I’d never question your particular preference in wine. But by the same token, I’d never mistake it for the last word in what is great wine.
    You have a preference for wines that speak to historical tradition. Fine. But again, this is not the definition of quality, greatness or even “natural”.
    There are numerous winemakers in California who work with very old vines, who put up and encourage insanely small yields, who don’t give in to additives. And many of these wines are very good in my opinion. Others not.
    I think the difference you and I have is that you believe the following and I don’t:
    “But young clonal selections of two grape varieties does not make for great viticultural or wines.”
    Of course it makes for great wine. And do you know how we know this? Because I say so.
    You see, we are again talking about preference here, and nothing more.
    With all due respect to the longevity of the French viticultural traditions, this notion that they make better wines because they have been at it longer is really just marketing. How exactly are the Europeans going to differentiate themselves from the New World? By simply saying their wine is better. Anyone with a palate and an opinion knows that’s a lame argument. They only thing the French really have that New World regions don’t have is history. And history is never proof of anything except what was.
    But to move back to the the “Terroir” wine bar. I’m sure their selections are inspiring and delicious. But when its owners imply that the same “natural” wines aren’t available in America, they are really saying they aren’t familiar with them. A much more compelling story would have been, “we are taken by the naturally made wines of Europe and want to introduce our clients to these wines that the traditions that went into creating them.”

  18. Thomas Pellechia - November 8, 2008

    Maybe American teroir is found outside of California, where wines have an older history in the USA.
    Me, I’m as happy as a clam with the terroir from where I reside on the East Coast, but I also realize that there is a Midwest and even a South and Southwest.
    To tweak the discussion even more, if you want American terroir, taste some wines produced from Native American grapes.
    The trouble with discussions of terroir is that there’s way too much hype over an issue that has no scientific certainty; there’s way too much subjectivity that is confused as objectivity; and there’s way too much emphasis on two places where wine is produced: France and California.
    The last trouble with discussions about terroir is that someone needs to read a little history before making claims about decades, centuries, and all that…

  19. Joe Dressner - November 8, 2008

    Tom W:
    You are right. Wine is all about subjectivity. That’s not really a new discovery.
    As I mentioned early, give me a list of the great natural winemakers of California. Show me the American Marcel Lapierre or American Pierre Breton or American Guy Bossard or American Jean Thevenet or American Antoine Arena or American Thierry Allemand or…..
    I haven’t found them and I’ve looked. Which means we’re not talking about the same thing when we talk about natural wine. Yes, there is organic production in California, yes there is some wild yeast production, yes there are low yields.
    Are recently grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones the best vehicle to transmit terroir? I don’t think so. Perhaps they are even the wrong choice of grape variety. It is useful to have some limestone and cool weather for those two grapes.
    Lets not be silly. California talks about “dry farming” like it is an option for making good wine. But all the great viticultural regions were planted in areas at the limits of maturation where the vine suffers. That is what make greats wines. The choice of grape variety should ideally be transparent because the point of the chosen variety if that should be the best choice for expressing a place and time. The Cisterian monks did not plant Pinot Noir in Burgundy because there had recently been a hit movie where some guy poured a spit bucket over his head.
    We’re all speaking about “wine” but actually speaking about entirely different earth, vines and worlds.
    Sorry to interrupt. I usually leave your world alone, show the same politeness to the guys at Terroir.

  20. Joe Dressner - November 8, 2008

    Tom P:
    I recently attended a Fingers Lake tasting in New York City. There is certainly terroir here as there is terroir everywhere. But is the great terroir for making wine?
    One grower after another told me they pick Riesling at about 8.5% alcohol, chaptalize about 4 to 5 degrees and then de-alcoholize.

  21. Joe Dressner - November 8, 2008

    Lack of an Edit function — by the way, I’m sorry there is not an edit function and would like to apologize for all my horrible typographical errors in this discussion.

  22. Thomas Pellechia - November 8, 2008

    Don’t inflate the conversation with bs. The figures you use are not universal and likely are for a particularly bad vintage.
    In fact, tonight I am hosting a German/Finger Lakes Riesling tasting for 20 Internet wine geeks and wine writers. It’s at Glenora Wine Cellars.
    You use the word “great.” The tasting tonight is aimed at some sort of definition for that word, since geeks use it thinking they are talking objectively, but when you question individual geeks about “great” they give a list of wines they individually like, which hardly is proof of “greatness.”
    Read the Riesling tasting report on my blog–you are still reading my blog, I hope. Never know, since I have been deemed a security risk by some of your associates 😉

  23. Thomas Pellechia - November 8, 2008

    Yeah, I’d love an edit function, too. De-alcoholize? Why would anyone de-alcohol a wine that he or she brought to 12%?
    I am certain you are mistaken.

  24. Joe Dressner - November 8, 2008

    I meant deacidify, not dealcoholize.
    Thanks for the correction. They chaptalize to add alcohol but since picking was so young unrip, they need to deacidify to make the wine drinkable.
    Thomas….I will look at your blog. I haven’t looked in some time. What’s the URL?

  25. Thomas Pellechia - November 8, 2008

    Only a true fool would de-acidify Finger Lakes Riesling during a regular to good vintage. I produced eight Riesling vintages here, and even in a bad vintage, I never saw the need to de-acidify.
    Are you telling me that all French producers who are not technology laden also never Chaptalize after a summer of rain and unusually cool weather?

  26. Lisa - November 8, 2008

    Since when did terrior and organic become linked?
    The expression of the soil is what makes the same clone, on the same rootstock in Atlas Peak versus Spring Moutain versus Stags Leap Ditrict, etc taste, smell and present itself differently…
    And as far as history goes – there’s tons of it all over the state of California and the rest of the United States. The largest diference is that in the US we haven’t been governed by old laws that make it impossible to plant what the soil and climate dictates would show the most unique and developed expression of a particular varietal.
    Step up into the New World boys. There are plenty of single vineyard designates that really show something special about the terroir (admittedly there are others that just put money in somebody’s pocket). Take a tour through the wines of Nickel & Nickel, Williams Selyem, Peter Michael, or for the more budget weiry Ravenswood, Rosenblum, or Renwood. For all the mechanics of modern winemaking you can’t take away the true quailities of the fruit from an exceptional vineyard…then again who would want to?

  27. Uzi - November 8, 2008

    I am certain the wines at Terior are just fine, I am a big fan of French wines myself but mostly drink and make all California wines.
    However, since these ‘Teriorists’ are talking about history and mistakenly believe that ‘purity’ and ‘naturalness’ can only come from France, I’d like to go back to history a bit and suggest they read the Botanist and the Vintner. It was an American root stock, from Texas of all places, that save the French vineyards during the Phyloxera disaster of the late late 1800s. Look up Thomas Munson, he received the French Legion d’Honneur for this. Come to think of it, the teriorits sounds a bit like the hords of ‘patriotic’ Frenchman that resisted the idea of grafting their pure, delicate French vines on the ‘foxey’, ‘barbaric’ American root stock, only to delay replanting dying vineyards by many years costing France billions of Francs.
    So, there is a little bit of Texan blood in each one of them French wines 😉 as far as I am concerned and believe me when I say I am no big fan of Mustang Wines.

  28. East Coast winemaker - November 8, 2008

    Keep in mind that the French are the all-time world heavyweight champions of saying one thing, and doing another. If you are in the production end of the business you are well aware that most of your “unnatural” wine additives are of French origin. Loire reds, for example, are grown in a very cool environment, but are also some the the darkest red wines in the world. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  29. Jerry Murray - November 8, 2008

    Someone will have to be the one to note, so I will do it, that there are plenty of natural wines that show as much terrior as a 15.5%, 100% new american, new world fruit bomb. Volatile acidity, Brett, oxidation and old ‘manky’ wood cover up ‘place’ every bit as much as enzymes, new wood and over extraction. Balance is Balance, period.
    Joe keeps wanting to know where the american equivalents of this french producer or that producer is. Why would I try to be like somone from a completely unrelated region? As an american winemaker I feel absolutely no pressure to make wines like or in a way like anyone outside the region I work in. Place drives all descions, vineyard and winemaking alike. To pretend that I am ‘old world’ would be disingenuous to my sight. Come to america and see what families from the old world are doing here in america when they are unencumbered by out dated laws. They employ irrigation, synthetic chemistries and new wold winemaking techniques. They understand, as wine growers and makers, that each place dictates its own approach.

  30. Dylan - November 8, 2008

    I would really appreciate a follow-up post on your success with Gerard and the crew at Terroir. I think one of the best ways you can open someone’s mind up is to invite them, and I would say bringing some of your own bottles to share is a warm invitation.
    Of course, there’s one thing to be said which is as business owners they have the right to craft and brand their business around the idea of “Old World Natural Wines.” If they want to own that, that’s what their customers can come to expect and be loyal for. However, if they decide to maintain a more general, “Natural Wines,” your invitation may prove an eye-opening lesson, and expansion to their business.

  31. adam - November 8, 2008

    I love Calera’s wines although I have not had one in a couple years. They have always struck me as pure, honest, and unique.
    The reason picking at 23.5 as is more natural than picking at 24,25,26, or higher is because of the natural makeup of the grape. As sugar levels increase acid decreases. Acid is one of the most overlooked components of the grape. A great wine and one that really expresses terrior is one that has a balance of alcohol, tannin, and acidity. These are the big three and to have one in excess of the others is to be out of balance.
    Wine must have balance not only to better express the nuances of the land, but also to better age and to better pair with food. Picking at levels that lead to additions of water and acid are not natural. To leave these unchecked lead to a hot overly alcoholic wine. That is why it is natural.

  32. Joe Dressner - November 9, 2008

    My thanks to Jerry Murray who expressed the differences well:
    They employ irrigation, synthetic chemistries and new wold winemaking techniques. They understand, as wine growers and makers, that each place dictates its own approach.
    That’s right, if you plant in spots where you cannot make wine “naturally,” you have to correct the vines and wine to make something palatable.
    This is a very popular style and I don’t see anything wrong in someone having a wine bar in San Francisco featuring these type of wines. If they want to call them the penultimate expression of terroir than all power to them.
    What I don’t understand is why you guys, who so dominate the American wine market, get so upset when a place like Terroir comes along which doesn’t present the party line and which doesn’t praise Californian wine.

  33. mydailywine - November 9, 2008

    This is one of the most interesting comment streams I have read recently.
    I visited Terroir many months ago and was mostly charmed by the single mindedness of the young, passionate owners.
    While I am intrigued by the natural wine movement, I am certainly not the dogmatic type so could never be a hardliner.
    I also pointed out the fact that there were some domestic winemakers who were producing natural, even old world ‘style’ wines( Clos Saron, hello?).
    They grudgingly admitted this was true and do indeed carry a few domestic wines in the shop.
    The more interesting angle to me is that ‘true’ natural wines (i.e. little to no sulfites added) do not have a history of traveling or aging well.
    Ironically, if we are going to get a widespread natural wine movement happening in the U.S., it will spring from domestic producers.
    I focus on biodynamic, organic and natural wine on my blog (most days anyway but like I said not dogmatically).

  34. Thomas Pellechia - November 9, 2008

    Applying dogma is like wearing blinders to limit vision. But dogma does work as a marketing and pr vehicle.

  35. Paolo B - November 9, 2008

    Dogma? I don’t think so. This is a difference between applied vine growing and wine making shools.
    To me, Joe Dressner, Adam there is the policy of minimal intervention. Adam in one of his posts sharply said that wine-maker is a wrong word we should talk more of wine helper. That is real wine. There are few areas that because of a chain of events are not just good but exceptional. Can you make something decent in other ways? Yes and legally that can be called wine but technically is much closer to a beverage like a soda. To make good wine you start from the vineyards with minimal intervention and then in the winery you are required to use also minimal intervention. There is no rush in having the wine ready. To say that clonal selection is making superior wines than selection massale is not just a matter of preference ; if you analyze two grapes from a vine from a nursery and one that is coming from selection massale you find more to extract (antocyanins phenols etc) in the one grown thru selection massale. Can you make a shitty wine out of that? Sure!
    I won’t say that there aren’t American wineries that aren’t making great wines; but the way generally they are making wines here follows Davis dogma pardon school which is way distant from the old world and mostly of all the organic biodynamic way. I am also convinced that many of the domestic wines particularly from Napa are just overrated c__p and that is not just my opinion, (J.Robinson for example think the same). And citing the ones who came over here from Europe to make wines and adapted to the new world way sorry, they weren’t great example of good winemaking over there also.

  36. Alice Feiring - November 9, 2008

    Tom Wark–We clearly have to go drinking. Trust me. This is something you can’t debate without having glasses in your hand and I’m looking forward to it.
    First of all, no one is saying FRENCH WINE IS ALL FABULOUS. God knows there’s plenty of dreck there. There are also more knee trembling, lips quivering, ephiphanic wines over THERE than here because, thank goodness, some people still are driven to make great wines because it is their metier. Here people are (mostly) driven to make wines they think people want to drink, get a job or have their picture in the Spectator or Food & Wine.
    And, yes, you cannot do (because you are way too smart) confuse biodynamic or organic viticulture with naturally made wines.
    From my POV, California was on their way, and lost their way. But my POV is an old story that I won’t rehash here.
    I think , however, if there is ever a rise of the vigneron model in the States the wine profile will change.
    But who do you know who actually works the soil they make wine from?
    It would serve the American winemaker (and me the wine drinker) to work the dirt and do the whole process, to live the vine the way Thierry Allemand does, Didier Barouillet does, Pierre-Larmandier Bernier, Pierre de Benoist, Theirry and Jean-Marie Puzelat, Jacky Landron, Marc Ollivier, hell, even American Amy Lillard in the Rhone– does before they can understand what it is to express the soil. I really don’t think if they toiled the earth they would put all of the s*** in the wine most winemakers I meet do. It would be unthinkable to put so much sweat into a grape only to coax it into something unnatural.
    Now, California has expensive land. This is why some great winemakers like Steve Edmunds purchase grapes, but Steve has what a lot of people don’t have in this game: talent. And it’s undeniable. So, there are some exceptions. And I know this. But still, how many winemakers in that huge state of California (can think of a teensie few in Oregon, one in Washington and one in the Fingerlakes) can you think of who toil the earth?
    I’ve had a terroir post in the making which I’ve taken down and put up and taken down and thinking about til I get it right. I’ve been spending a bit of time out your way since June, and this is one of those stupidly obvious revelations but you know what? Hardly any winemaker talks about their soil unless it’s for a press release. Shocking? To me yes. Frankly, that blind spot enough for me to take a show me position, and I am going to have to be won over.
    The good news? Of late I’ve met some (okay, one or two but it’s a start) young west coast winemakers who have the fever, and I am cautiously encouraged.

  37. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    Just to be sure that my position is understood: dogma at either extreme remains just that.
    I suggest everyone get out the history books–read about how wine was made in ancient times and on up to today across the globe. Look deep and you might even find the same arguments in Latin and Greek that we are having today in English.
    With the exception of the nature and make-up of technological tools (and that includes the use of chemistry and chemicals), there really aren’t that many new ideas in viticulture and winemaking, but there sure are a lot of opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong–and even that isn’t a new idea.

  38. Alice Feiting - November 10, 2008

    Tom P. And the point being? That there has always been exploration and corruption in the world? People can be delighted with pocketbooks from Canal Street, but should they believe it is the same thing as hand-stitched from Italy? Does that mean that the questioning should stop?
    Many of the issues are the same, but many are different. The point is for those who care about making extraordinary wine (and I’m not talking commercial, that is another story) to look to the past to see what worked. If there’s no answer there, look to the future, adapt to now. But to ignore the wisdom of yes–those who have spent centuries of figuring this out before us–is to be condemned to dull wine.
    And then apply the same philosophy to politics.

  39. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    No Alice, it does not mean that the questioning should stop–in fact, it means the exact opposite. It means the questioning has been and is ongoing, which is why dogmatic approaches often prove less about the subject and more about individual philosophy.
    Instead of arguing positions and philosophy over terroir, the question we should be asking is, “can we see the evidence?”
    I believe in the influence of place on wine. I think I can even feel it when I taste wine.
    But IU also know that every step of the grape growing and winemaking process requires human intervention. I have no idea which of those steps inflicts pain on the expression of terroir because the concept lacks evidence.
    Answering the question rather than issuing dogma is the way toward proving the concept.

  40. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    That’s of course not IU but the simple I 😉

  41. Tom Wark - November 10, 2008

    Thanks for the comments. And I agree. We need to drink.
    I wanted to try to answer at least one of your questions that you pose in you comment. Specifically, this one:
    “But who do you know who actually works the soil they make wine from?”
    Sticking just with Sonoma Valley, you’ve got:
    Mayo Family Winery
    Gundlach Bunschu
    Kunde Winery
    BR Cohn
    These are just the ones that come to the top of my head in a moment’s notice. The point of course is that a huge number of winemakers work the lands the yeild the grapes from which they make wine.
    I have nothing against the idea of making (and drinking) natural wines. My criteria for a wine is pretty basic: make me smile.
    However, the idea of “natural” is a pretty fascinating idea. Is a wine “natural” if it is aged in oak for 20 months? I don’t think it is. I think it becomes “traditional”. This may seem like nitpicking but think about this: Is it natural if a wine is made from a vineyard where the vines are planted in great density? It a wine natural if it comes from a vineyard in which a little crop thinning occurred.
    Clearly there is MANipulation all along the way.
    The idea of defining what is “natural” was not the point of my original post. I’m willing to grant the notion that “natural” can include organic and biodynamic wines as well as wines with minimal intervention. But if we do want to talk about the nature of “Natural”, if you will, then we have to admit we are talking about a fairly heady subject that requires we put our philosopher’s hat on. It also requires we consider the notion of cultural bias that I think we all carry with us.
    No one doubts that terroir (and that means both soil and climate if we really do want to get it right) is critical to the creation of a fine wine.
    But let me ask you this question:
    Can a wine that, for many experienced as well as inexperienced palates, tastes superb and gives tremendous pleasure—both intellectual and aesthetic—be considered “great” if very few of those who taste it can recognize what about the wine reflects the terroir in which its grapes were grown?

  42. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    Throwing around such words as “natural” advances neither the discussion nor the concept of terroir.
    After having grown grapes and made wine I can tell you that the moment you allow grapes to grow and mature “naturally” is the moment you’ll have to start thinking about taking another job. Organic and biodynamic grape growing steps beyond the “natural” boundaries, but they do it without help from synthetic petrochemicals.
    before speaking about “natural” you need to know what grapes look like that grow wild, and what they become if left to grow that way? And you need to know what happens to a completely spontaneous, natural fermentation?

  43. Joe Dressner - November 10, 2008

    Dear Toms:
    Everyone is biased. Who would argue otherwise?
    Quite simply, the wine world is divided into many different niches. I don’t expect the TOMS to like the wines I enjoy. I’m delighted you’ve found wines which I don’t like which put a smile on your face.
    Why do you expect the boys from Terroir to like what you like? Why can’t you accept that what puts a smile on your face makes us grimace with disgust? Nothing philosophical going on here, just gut reactions.
    Honestly, I found you guys horribly dogmatic!

  44. Joe Dressner - November 10, 2008

    Dear Toms:
    Everyone is biased. Who would argue otherwise?
    Quite simply, the wine world is divided into many different niches which seem to overlap but really do not. I don’t expect the TOMS to like the wines I enjoy. I’m delighted you’ve found wines which I don’t like which put smiles on your faces. Everybody should be happy.
    Why do you expect the boys from Terroir to like what you like? Why can’t you accept that what puts a smile on your face makes us grimace with disgust? Nothing philosophical going on here, just gut reactions.
    Honestly, I find you guys horribly dogmatic!

  45. Joe Dressner - November 10, 2008

    I’m repeating myself!

  46. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    Can you learn to read before you post??? 😉
    I never said I expect anyone to like what I like–you are more likely the one to say that.
    In fact, if you really read the posts from outside your own ideology, you’d find that I love the kinds of wines that, to me, show place or terroir. I simply am not dogmatically stating that I know exactly what that is. And I don’t much care for dogma because it is as blinding to the truth as any other means of shielding out “others” information.
    If we were just talking about preferences, then there is no argument at all.
    And when someone gives me scientific proof that I can use to prove the concept of terroir, I will gladly stick that not the face of every technocrat winemaker. You obviously hadn’t read my take on a particularly over technology winery in Napa that I visited recently, and truly disliked for its soullessness.

  47. Evan Elliot - November 10, 2008

    This debate reminds me of an article I read, about four years ago, in a popular magazine devoted to food and wine. In the article, the author identified many wines, at $15 and less, from various parts of the world, that she said were especially true to their terroir. That sounded OK to me, but I really had to wonder if the author had worked the soil and had drunk the wines in every vineyard in every village in every state in every country that she mentioned in her article. And had she also conducted a deep study of the cultural and viticultural history of each vineyard and village and region? If she hadn’t, how could she identify the wines that were most faithful to their respective regions?
    I’m not bashing the author. Come to think of it, I’m not bashing anyone on any side of this debate. But I think that, in much of the world, terroir might have more value as a marketing term than anything else. As for “natural,” who knows what that means? Finally, I think that Steve Edmunds makes delicious wines from his purchased, New World grapes. Does that mean he’s “talented”? Does this make him a terroirist? I don’t know.

  48. Evan Elliot - November 10, 2008

    This debate reminds me of an article I read, about four years ago, in a popular magazine devoted to food and wine. In the article, the author identified many wines, at $15 and less, from various parts of the world, that she said were especially true to their terroir. That sounded OK to me, but I really had to wonder if the author had worked the soil and had drunk the wines in every vineyard in every village in every state in every country that she mentioned in her article. And had she also conducted a deep study of the cultural and viticultural history of each vineyard and village and region? If she hadn’t, how could she identify the wines that were most faithful to their respective regions?
    I’m not bashing the author. Come to think of it, I’m not bashing anyone on any side of this debate. But I think that, in much of the world, terroir might have more value as a marketing term than anything else. As for “natural,” who knows what that means? Finally, I think that Steve Edmunds makes delicious wines from his purchased, New World grapes. Does that mean he’s “talented”? Does this make him a terroirist? I don’t know.

  49. alice feiring - November 10, 2008

    Hey, can we have a conference call?
    Tom W. Your response illustrated what I consider a New World point of view. When I said a winemaker who works the soil from which he makes the wine, I meant just that. I was not referring to estate bottled and grown. The same winemaker who works the soil. I think it is very telling that you assumed it meant estate grown and bottled, because the vigneron model barely exists in California.
    Now, come on. Help me. There’s got to be someone who works the vines, and makes the wines. The same hands that prune, the same hands that till, are the same hands that press off. But none on that list fit the bill.

  50. Tom Wark - November 10, 2008

    I suspect there are a number of such folks in CA that do this. But just off the top of my head I’d call out Will Bucklin of Bucklin in Glen Ellen
    But besides the last question I asked, I also have another:
    If I’m a winery owner, and if I also make the wine, and if I understand the qualities of my soils and if I understand what vines are in the ground and why they are there and if I understand the impact of different pruning regimes, why is it important or meaningful, for me to do the pruning myself, rather than direct someone in the pruning and while they are doing that catch some lunch down at the local bistro?

  51. Tom Wark - November 10, 2008

    You probably SHOULD expect the TOMS to appreciate the wines you appreciate. In fact, there’s no reason not to unless you presume that one’s palate is necessarily one-dimensional and/or you presume that a person can only attach or extract a singular meaning from the act of drinking wine.
    And no one expects the boys from Terroir to like what we like. We only expect them to try to make a business out of sharing wine with wine lovers. Their taste was never the point, nor do I think I ever suggested it was (but I’ll go back and look to be sure). My point was that to suggest there is no culture of making “natural” wine in America demonstrates something that can’t possibly be interpreted as good.
    And I could be wrong about this, but I think at least one thing it suggest is a very old and unfortunately not forgotten notion Old World wines are better than New World wines because they are Old World Wines. Even typing that to make a point made me cringe.

  52. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    Hey, working the soil is not exactly the most tender thing one can do for his or her back. As soon as I learned what I needed to know about my soil and vines, I hired someone to work it for me…
    But no one ever made my wine for me; none of the labels read vinted or cellared and bottled by–maybe that’s why I lost all my money at it 😉

  53. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    You know Alice, after thinking about it, I realized that your question to Tom can be turned against you.
    Can you name a wine writer who works the soil? What gives the writer who doesn’t work the soil the expertise to understand the process and the right to tell others how to work their soil?
    I’m not asking those questions of you, just pointing out the apparent, to me, weakness in your argument on that score.

  54. East Coast winemaker - November 10, 2008

    Thomas, you’re not suggesting that wine bloggers suffer from armchair quarterbackism are you? I thought that was an unwritten no-no between wine bloggers 😉

  55. Thomas Pellechia - November 10, 2008

    East coast,
    I break all the rules; that’s why I get barred from important wine Web sites where people express personal opinions as if they are facts. 😉

  56. Alice Feiring - November 10, 2008

    It’s just a different kind of wine. If you don’t know it, if you don’t live it. if what is in the soil is not as important as your lifestyle, your house or your working the market, you are just going to make a different kind of wine. As so few people in California live this life, as few people who work the soil in California own the land they work, as there is such a division of labor, it impacts the kind of wine that is made. That’s all. Right? Wrong? Whatever, but is seeps into the gestalt. I wish I could hire someone to clean my apartment. One day I will. I’m a terrible cleaner. But I don’t think I’d ever hire someone to cook for me. The people who buy ready chopped garlic are fated to cook differently than those who live for the good stuff.

  57. Thomas Pellechia - November 11, 2008

    Idealism is a marvelous thing, until you do the thing and then face the realities.
    Do you mean to say that you never eat at a restaurant?

  58. Kathy - November 11, 2008

    I’m in France, was in Napa. I drink a wide variety of French wines (89 cents to $500). Some are Parkerized, some are Californized, some are great, some are not.
    What you don’t find is the same wine every year.
    Take 2008, frost, rain, rain, rain, rain (did I say mildew?) and then three weeks of beautiful weather. There will be some great wines, some great natural wines, and wines that had to really suck it in to get to 12%.
    Last year it was different, next year it will be different. That is one of the reasons it is called “terroir.” And, because most California weather is the same every year (well, and getting hotter) even when frost wipes out a lot of the crop (as in 2008) neither the taste nor the alcohol level will be dramatically different.
    Clones do make a difference and clones are different here (Europe) and there (west coast). But do please forget this idea that all the vines in Europe are old. Just like everywhere else, vineyards are replanted.
    (The AOC system doesn’t guarantee great wine, it protects against fraud. People do tend to denounce each other [today, Nov 11, is a reason why]. But that’s a different thread of thought.)
    As to natural, a friend who has a biodynamic vineyard in Bordeaux suffered through the rain and mildew etc. tended the vineyard like it was his baby, hand picked, hand crushed; what grapes he got were beautiful. He decided not to add any sulfur.
    Would Terroir like to buy some nice biodynamic Bordeaux Merlot vinegar?

  59. Thomas Pellechia - November 11, 2008

    Yes, Kathy: that Bordeaux story (plus the old vine stuff) is the reality of which I speak.
    Just as it should be with a fine wine, our philosophy about the world of wine should be balanced.
    Too many see that old cliche of black or white, and that especially goes for those who haven’t been in the trenches–literally!!!

  60. Iris - November 15, 2008

    I read my way all through this interesting discussion. It seemed right funny to me, to see Americans battle around this terroir argument and especially the old/new world struggle.
    My problem is, that I haven’t had the opportunity to taste great American wines – whether they are organic, natural, or conventional – you just find some Gallo stuff in French supermarkets and the rest doesn’t exist in the French countryside (I’m not talking about Paris and some selected tasting circles).
    But I well placed to taste French wines – and I agree with Tom: there is a lot of industrial crap and there are the others, like everywhere. There are places with great tradition in winemaking, but most of the people who take part in the terroir/organic/natural/without sulfides movement are more often newcomers to the winemaking than traditional vintners. And especially here in the South of France, which is perhaps the region you could more easily compare with California, the tradition of terroirs and quality wines is not a century old one. The French appellation system started around 1935 at Châteauneuf du Pape – but most classifications were just born during the last 20, 30 or 40 years. That there are often better wines coming from stony hillsides than from wet, flat valleys, where you could and should grow potatoes or cereals instead (and what was done normally before the 19th century phyloxera and the mass production orientated replantations after that period) is probably true everywhere too. That there are special climates, more beneficial for quality production (not too wet, not too dry, nothing to stress the wines during summer) is true everywhere – and that in the end the main difference between a conventional winemaker and an organically farming, non interfering one is the millésime or vintage factor – nature doesn’t allow you to make the same identical wine every year. It may be good or very good nearly every year – but if you don’t drug it, treat it technically or with the whole panoply of modern oenology, it will be different every year. You can’t compare a average climat low alcohol 2002, all fruity, elegant and therefore drinkable already right now with a fully ripened, concentrated 2003, year of the famous heat-wave in France. Conventional winemakers used lots of acidification that year, non conventionalists didn’t – in more northern regions like Loire et Burgundy, this was one of the rare years when they didn’t have to chaptalise – perhaps climate changes will bring us more of that – but so far it was exceptional.
    So far just some arguments against that old/new world gap – the conditions can be the same everywhere, we all depend on climat, soil and healthy plants, rain and sun, it’s what man (or woman) does, to correct those influences, which makes the difference – and that is a decision, which can be taken by everybody everywhere. It’s more intelligent, to do it by considering the special conditions of a place, but you can learn a lot about that and rather quickly, without being sixth generation in the place and never gone away…
    If I had followed the tradition of my place, I would still be growing mass production grapes in the fertile river banks, because for centuries, wines from this region were sold as every day beverages to workers in coal-mines or whatsoever, who were used to drinking 5 to 7 L a day of low alcohol wine to be able to keep on working. But that only started, when they build the railway line to transport it. Before that, they put wines on the highest and driest terraces, because they needed the others to plant cereals to nourish a population, which was ten times bigger than now, because there was no locomotion to leave and see elsewhere, how live could be. History is various – Bordeaux produced “clarets”, light, pale wines like rosés for the exportation to England at that time, 1855 came later, with the French World exposition and was fixed by the export wine traders according to their price list. It was their luck, that they had already good marketing specialists and an export orientated production.
    Why do most of the names cited by Joe Dressner come from the Loire valley? Because they had to struggle, to create a new reputation, they didn’t have a 1855… And they found their “niche”, but they are still exceptions, perhaps copied more and more since they started to be successful, especially on the export market…
    Well I, could go on and on, but I think, it’s already a thread, which has longer commentaries than the original entry.
    It comes all down to the point that history in this context is not the right argument, if you have a closer look – it has become marketing, like terroir (which I appreciate as a concept) should not become a pure commercial term. Neither “natural” or authentic.
    There is no exclusiveness pour all that – but it apparently works well in publicity.

  61. Iris - November 15, 2008

    Oh, and I forgot to say: I do work my soil and my wine in the vineyard with my own hands (and only my hands, no tractor on the hill slope possible), I’m happy, when I can harvest at 13,5 to 14 or more degrees, because normally it means, that it has been a good, sunny summer, so I didn’t have to be afraid of thunderstorms and wet climate, which could endanger my precious beloved naturally treated grapes, I do collect them one by one, I crush them tenderly, let them start their fermentation as they like and when they like, don’t heaten or refrigerate, wait for natural malolactic fermentation, sometimes till after winter, use gravity, not pumps, to transfer them into my barrels, new oak only if they deserve it, use homeopathic doses of sulfur, non if possible, don’t fine or filter and bottle nearly by hand…So it was really not an argument against “natural” wines – but I don’t like chauvinism and false marketing arguments, whether they come from New or Old World sources:-)

  62. Tim Price - January 6, 2009

    Good grief. Tom is brilliant at this blog stuff. What great entertainment.

  63. Google - February 21, 2009
    If you do not wish to receive similar messages please inform us on it by mail[dog]

  64. Google - February 21, 2009
    If you do not wish to receive similar messages please inform us on it by mail[dog]

  65. guilhaume - July 12, 2009

    great post!

  66. Corin Fairchild - January 26, 2012

    Hi Tom
    As a British (sustainable) winemaker I recommend NOT using “Wank” as a replacement for your surname… in English (UK) it is NOT good.
    Also, I think Herr Weber needs to check his definition of “natural wine”… my neighbour in France makes “natural” wine in the winery but organic wine in the vineyard, that is to say that he produces an organic wine which he then adds minimal sulphur to in the winery, lets the indigenous yeasts do their own thing and neither heats, nor cools the must during fermentation. No gum arabic, ascorbic acid, acid corrections, DAP, etc. either. It is what it is. I’m not saying the end product is fantastic, but I understand his definition better than others, after all a wine certified as EcoCert or Demeter does not have the same strict guidelines for fermentation/maturing as it does for the grapegrowing

Leave a Reply