The Romance of Terroir is Most Important…Not the Truth
A recent article in Spirits Business concerning the trend among Vodka producers to sell their drink based on provenance (where it came from) should remind the wine trade of something important to their own marketing efforts: The importance of the concept of “terroir” is not in the connection between the taste of wine and its terroir, but in the imagery, romance and meaning of place to the consumer.
In the Spirits Business article, Claire Smith, head of spirit creation at Moët Hennessy-owned Belvedere, says: “Vodka today is globally distilled and variously defined, perceived as neutral and lacking character…Provenance is one way to describe why our vodka tastes the way it does.”
Anyone who can blind taste a vodka and tell me where in the world its raw ingredients were grown is a pretty impressive palate. However, lots of people can taste a vodka they know is made in Russia or France or Poland or the United States and describe exactly what this means to them. And it’s quite likely that this meaning will coincide with what a marketer of Russian, French, Polish or American Vodka has told them it ought to mean.
In the wine industry and among those with a passion for the details of wine, the concept of “terroir” is taken literally. That is, the word is used to describe the process of a piece of dirt and a specific climate lending something important to the character of the wine. Whether this is valuable organizing and descriptive concept for winos is something we shall discuss among ourselves and we’ll even tell a one-sided, pro-terroir to those who are willing to be romanced.
But for the average wine drinker, the person who might splurge on a $50 bottle now and them, who might take his fiance to wine country for the weekend, who might look forward to taking a swing through Burgundy when they visit France, who might download, “The Wines of America” from Amazon, the concept of “terroir” is really no more than a romantic idea.
“What is this wine?”
Why, it’s Napa Valley. where we went last summer and strolled among the vines on the eastern hills then had a remarkable dinner at the French Laundry one evening?
“What is that wine?”
Oh, why that is a Russian River Valley! It’s cooler there with all the fog. We drove through the vines out past the Russian River to the beach where the fog was still thick at noon, then spent the rest of the day wine tasting on the way back. The redwoods were beautiful and the wine, especially the Pinot Noir, was terrific. Russian River is all about Pinot Noir.
Like many of the Vodka makers and vodka cognoscenti, we wine folks are willing to explore the intimate connection between land, air, grape and wine. But like the Vodka marketers who now are rummaging through the idea of “place” to sell their hot water, we wine marketers ought to understand even better than they that the idea of terroir or “place” is something extraordinarily powerful. And most of us would be in dereliction of duty if we did not allow the romance of place to pave the way for consumers to understand our wines.
The power of terroir is not in how it makes wine taste the way it tastes. The power of terroir is derived from the willingness of consumers to be transported to a better place.