Good Things From The Garden (The Terroir Blues)

CK Mondavi used to have a slogan: “Every year’s a Vintage year in California!” Like most marketing slogans, it seemed to say quite a bit without really saying anything at all. The thought behind the slogan became the cornerstone of California’s first real efforts to authenticate itself, as a producer of high-quality wine, in the minds of a mostly non-wine-drinking culture.

Although the great French wine regions could boast, for the most part without much argument, that they produced the world’s greatest red and white table wines, they had to contend with inconsistent weather from one year to the next, which meant they produced their best wines only 2 or 3 years out of 10. Mindful of this, California producers began to trumpet, ever louder, their contention that the most important factor in the production of the best wine is the climate. And since California grapes get ripe virtually every year, that meant California had an advantage the French surely had to envy.

You see how this goes. Marketing is like Judo; it’s about finding leverage, getting your foot in the door of the consumer’s mind. After Prohibition, California’s wine producers had such a big hill to climb, they needed all the help they could get, and this new approach seemed to create some traction.

There can, of course, be too much of a good thing, and for quite a long time after the famous tasting in Paris in 1976, in which a couple of Napa Valley wines fooled a group of French wine professionals, and gave California an almost undreamed-of sense of legitimacy in the world of wine, the mantra remained: It’s the weather! But as time passed a word began echoing more and more emphatically in the California wine ether. The word was “Terroir,” spoken in a very distinct accent.

Each of the French regions, despite the substantial differences from one to the next, shares considerable pride in the wines that come from its own little corner of the country, and points to its unique soils, and sites as the source of its vinous success. Of their distant, would-be counterparts in California the French vignerons were very often heard to say “their wines are pleasant enough, but you don’t taste the terroir.” Zut, alors…

So— what the heck is terroir, anyway? Ah, good question! In a nutshell, if such an accommodation is imaginable, it is the signature of a place, a “somewhereness” that informs anything that originates in that place. In the French wine tradition, almost nothing matters as much; a wine without terroir would be the equivalent of a man without a country. (Not, these days, a predicament that intrudes much on our thoughts, I’d guess) For some, too, terroir would seem to be the soul of a wine.

I’m reminded of one of the central themes in the book African Genesis, which I read when I was 20, or so, what the author, Robert Ardrey, called “the territorial imperative,” by which, he suggested, both animals and humans operate. The territorial imperative says, in essence, that, by the nature of our relationship to it, one’s territory is so closely connected to one’s own self, that it’s not just an “extension” of oneself, it is oneself, and any intrusion inside the boundaries of one’s territory is the equivalent of an intrusion into one’s body, and is nothing less than a matter of life and death. There is no separation between oneself and where one comes from. Terroir is who we are; it’s not just an impassioned way of looking at things, it’s survival gear, hard-wired in us.

Well, you see practically every winery in the state talking up their terroir these days, though, for the most part, their wines aren’t really all that different than they were before the talk started; to some, terroir has become another tool to gain an edge in the market. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a little (probably too much) time reading conversations on the internet about terroir, what’s become known as the “terroir debate.” I think the Tower of Babel couldn’t have been any more confusing.

The issue that seems to galvanize the most consternation is whether the way a wine tastes can be attributed to the place where the grapes grow (the terroir), or whether it’s determined by the machinations of the person responsible for guiding the process by which the grapes become the liquid that fills the bottle (the winemaking). There are plenty of conversants who argue for a combination of the two. Seems reasonable enough.

This conversation keeps flaring up, like some underground guano firestorm, as the question is raised, again and again, about whether the winemaking is being tailored just to please the critics, (and by extension, the market) and in being thus “sculpted,” whether wine’s more “natural” character (the terroir) is being compromised, or lost altogether. I’ve raised some of those questions myself, and have been surprised by the vehemence of some of the responses.

A couple of other things have struck me amid all this hue and cry:

  1. How convinced people seem to be that the only approach to understanding these questions is analytical, linear, rational.
  2. The absence of a different approach.

Since it seems to be a natural inclination of mine to come at things from a slightly different angle, I’d like to share some thoughts about all this stuff. (The rest of this is going to look a bit different, and that’s really the point; no further adjustment of your screen will be necessary.)

There are things you can take apart, and in doing so you can learn how they work. The best of these you can also put back together and they’ll still work. There are things you can take apart to learn how they work, and, once taken apart they can’t be put back together. There are things you can take apart to learn how they work that will blow up in your face. There are things you can take apart only to discover that it’s yourself that has been taken apart. There are things you may take apart hoping to find yourself. There are things you can’t take apart. Terroir may just be one of those.

* * *

When I encounter something new, without my consciously thinking about it, my nervous system begins to scan its database for information that might enable me to adapt to this new situation appropriately. For example, if the something new is a person I haven’t met before, I may notice, in listening to this person speak, that they sound like a doctor I used to see who was from Chicago. Or a banjo picker I knew from the Blue Ridge in southwestern Virginia. And those people sound the way they do because they adapted to their environments by learning to make their own speech sound like what they heard from the mouths of the people in their own little corner of the world. They carried that “somewhereness” in their bodies, so they could be known. When they left their own regions and went elsewhere, the “somewhereness” they encountered there was, of course, very different. And chances are the “somewhereness” they brought with them seemed downright odd to the locals. Can we apply this perspective to terroir? (The terroir wants to be known. There is survival value in the familiarity, in being known.) Is there some reason we cannot?

* * *

There are things we notice, and things we don’t notice. We seem to notice what we need to notice (or think we need) and since we are self-described “creatures of habit,” our patterns and modes of observation can be awfully difficult to alter. (Or even to notice.) I think noticing something like terroir can be a bit like playing “Where’s Waldo?” It’s not hiding. It wants to be known. Still, if you don’t notice it, does it exist? If it doesn’t notice us, do we exist?

* * *

There’s a wonderful poem from Rilke about the “archaic torso of Apollo;” this translation is from Stephen Mitchell ( © 1982)

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise the stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The poem draws and focuses our attention, (and, at the same time, notices our attention) in an increasingly intense manner, and then, quite abruptly, makes it plain that what we may have been thinking of as the object of our attention is, in fact, also a subject, one whose attention is, in fact, intensely focused on us. We are not alone, even inside our own skin. Even without eyes, here is a living presence whose gaze holds us in its sights.

* * *

Mythically, wine is charged (as are Art, Music, and Poetry—am I forgetting anything?) with keeping and transmitting sacred energy, and providing entree to the “Other” world. My intuition leads me to think of this “Other” world as the eternal one, the one before “The Fall,” the one where we know, in each cell of our being, that we are all connected to each and every cell of each and every other being in the Universe, and that we are dependent on each other, for the survival of the whole.

* * *

I remember, as a child, not quite understanding how non-human creatures (the dog, the cat, the lion and the rhinoceros in the zoo) were different from human creatures, nor how, or even if, those differences might be reconciled or bridged. (When someone added plants to the list of non-human creatures that required this same sort of consideration, things started to get interesting. By the time I got to the point where I could add terroir to the list, I must have crossed some important threshold. Then again, they say Apollo is a god of, among other things, thresholds.) Yet sometimes it feels as though we’ve come no closer to an insight than a few cartoons I’ve seen in the New Yorker (the saber tooth tigers, hidden in the savanna, and discussing the possibility of eating the cave-dwellers gathering tubers in the distance, one of the beasts saying “I’ve heard they taste like chicken.”).

* * *

We drink the wine; it’s white wine, Vermentino from Corsica, grown in limestone, on vines that lean away from a sea wind, year after year, slow dancers in Eternity (though you might call it Paradise). It speaks in such a distinct accent. There’s no mistaking it, I tell myself. Hugh Johnson was right. I knew what this wine would taste like before I even pulled the cork. At the next table, someone drinking the same wine says: “I’d rather have Chardonnay.” The terroir wants to meet you. It takes two to Tango.

* * *

Electricity. (Dzzzt!!! We now return you to your regularly scheduled program…)

* * *

I believe the apprehension of terroir is something that begins in the nervous system, and to which one responds, first and foremost, in what might be accurately described as an instinctive way. In light of which the “nature vs. nurture” argument responsible for the kicking up of so much dust seems a little beside the point. The terroir, for better or worse, is in the grapes; the winemaking is the way we dance with the terroir, and it requires all our attention; indeed it requires devotion. Any other approach feels like a renunciation of one’s own body by one’s mind. Hmmm…. didn’t we try that already?

“Who am I, California?
Son of the redwood coast, and the chaparral?
Is it just a name, California?
Will I be the son of no place at all?”

(Son Of The Redwood Coast copyright © 2001) Steve Edmunds

“I’ve been waiting, just to smell a rose…
Waiting with a secret nobody knows…
I’ve been waiting, till I could finally come in right on cue;
And I’m waiting for you…”

(Waiting For You copyright © 2001) Steve Edmunds

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John Winery is a regular contributor to Vinography.