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The debate over terroir vs. winemaking heats up

The debate over terroir vs. winemaking heats up
in the board rooms and dining rooms of America

Napa Valley (AVA)

Goldfarb's Pressing Matters:
Debating Terroir Around the Dinner Table

"...we’ve stopped helping people see what the differences might be. It’s time to do it, because if we don’t, the critical ideas of what Napa Valley Cabernets are, are going to get more muddled and the industry will suffer for it.”

~ Bob Long

by Alan Goldfarb
January 24, 2006

A full moon was high in the luminescent night sky over the Napa Valley last week. On top of Pritchard Hill, one of the best wine addresses on the planet (with such neighbors as Chappellet, Bryant, and Colgin), it was cold outside with a frost developing in the fallow vineyards. But around the dinner table at Bob and Pat Long’s house there was a hot discussion going on about the exigencies of terroir.

At the oval table with the Longs -- owners of the highly respected Long Vineyards -- was Naoko Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards and George Calayonnidise, an architect and wine collector from Los Angeles.

When Pat Long asked me about my position at Appellation America, I began to tell her that the focus of the website was terroir and its mission was to foster debate about the subject. It’s a topic, I told the group, that is much mentioned and talked about. But hell, do we really know what it is in this country; and can we taste it?

Calayonnidise, who also lives part time on top of Diamond Mountain in the Napa Valley, voiced a concern that he was to repeat on several occasions during the discussion, which at times took on the tone of a debate.

“The winemaker mitigates the terroir,” he began. “What the winemaker does, takes away the terroir, so how are you going to understand terroir?”

Calayonnidise was referring of course, to the winemaker’s regimen and philosophy, and the myriad of tools he or she might have at their disposal in the cellar. The latter of which, seems to be proliferating faster than what a chemist might have in his lab.

On any given day, at any winery, there are instruments to reduce alcohol and there are implements to add color, add acid, add oak, and add anything else one can imagine -- or not. All this, without even mentioning the innovations one can do with a vine or grapes in the field.

It was Calayonnidise’s point that the winemaker can dictate the style of the wine and that his machinations can and do cover up, mask, or even eliminate all traces of place of origin of the grapes in the bottle.

But Bob Long, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man in his mid-60s, whose father is trying to sell the winery that Bob and his then-wife Zelma Long founded almost 30 years ago, had a rejoinder for his guest.

“Being in the marketplace as much as I am, there is an abundance of claims about the characteristics of place of origin (of grapes),” he said. “But they’re very vague and they’re almost un-testable.”

“…There’s no reason why wine professionals can’t do a better job to help their sales forces describe their wines … (But) we’ve stopped helping people see what the differences might be. It’s time to do it, because if we don’t, the critical ideas of what Napa Valley Cabernets are, are going to get more muddled and the industry will suffer for it.”

Continued Long, “People are increasingly asking why they should pay $100, $150, $200 for a bottle of wine. The industry has to have answers for that. It’s beyond the standard answer.”

With that, and after a few sips of Naoko Dalla Valle’s wonderful, but very young 2002 Maya, I asked her if she could describe the terroir of what was in her bottle.

She paused a long while, closed her eyes, and answered that she couldn’t describe in words the properties of the vineyard that she’s owned in the hills above Oakville since the early 80s.

“It’s so hard to put into words what are the terroir characteristics of my wine from my vineyard,” she answered candidly. “But I’ve lived with that vineyard for more than 25 years. I know it. I know it in my heart and in my mind, but I can’t put it into words.”

She then tried to tease out an example of terroir from another place of origin. But alas, she admitted that her explanation had fallen short there, too.

“I tasted recently a flight of La Tâche,” she said of the Burgundian holy grail from Domaine de la Romanée Conti. “There was a common thread running through the wines that made that wine special. But I can’t tell you what it was.”

“You see, you see,” Calayonnidise interjected. “It’s the winemaker. How can we tell terroir? The winemaker has the final say.”

To which Long added a rhetorical note: “By terroir, do we mean the characteristics of the wine that are attributable to the ground the grapes are grown in, or do we mean the environment?”

“Terroir as a phenomenon and as an expression of the ground has been debated for a long time. … So, do we think there’s an attainable characteristic in grapes from that ground?”

Thus, he concludes, “You can get to this if you have a single vineyard and are not blending (grapes from other vineyards).”

But there was Calayonnidise again. “Because California is so young, it’s way, way too early to start talking about terroir,” he said emphatically. “We have to learn the terroir first, and it’s nearly impossible now to talk about it or to know it.”

Said Long after taking a sip of his 2000 Cabernet, “George, you’re both knowledgeable about European wine and wines from here. (But) California is sort of the Emeril Lagasse of winemaking -- we really pump it up and make it aggressive.”

“Also, we’re buying a lot of vineyard land and doing a lot of blending and terroir gets blended out, whereas European winemaking tends to want to show off the vineyard.”

“If you accept terroir in the purest sense, it is the characteristics that come into the wine that are directly attributable to the ground where it’s growing.”

He cautioned, “I agree in many instances, you’re not going to get to terroir in the purest sense -- you’re going to have to go to the broader definition.”

But Long, never one to mince words had this startling observation: “California has a certain amount of winning back to do (in the aftermath of 9/11).”

“If it’s true that we have a $30-$40 billion wine industry, it’s going to be necessary to sort through the resources, and terroir is one of those because we all use it.”

“We all talk about the uniqueness of our place. It’s true there’s no other spot on the earth exactly where your wine comes from,” he said with a laugh. “(But) the question is: What do we mean?”

~ Alan Goldfarb, Napa Editor

To comment on Alan Goldfarb’s writings and thoughts, contact him at a.goldfarb@appellationamerica.com

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