Walking the Terroir Walk


They all talk the talk. Nothing in the wine biz gets more lip service today than the blesséd and elusive terroir, a zealotry which begins with the notion that every place has a unique flavor signature, and (depending on whom you speak to) embraces aspects of living soil and even cultural tradition.

The film Mondovino argued strongly, if shrilly, that distinctive terroir expression is the highest goal of viniculture. And I agree. Wine is one of those unusual commodities which delight most when they surprise. Like a book, you don’t want the same one you had last week. But I see little evidence in the wine trade that a unique, distinctive experience has any real commercial traction.

Wines that explore new or unusual avenues are not thick on the shelves, and reviewers tend to be far more rigid than they’d like their readers to think.

In the hotly competitive environment of today's wine industry, the whole game is to conform in order to sell into a pre-existing market awaiting the standard article that's a little bit better or a little bit cheaper -- just enough to impress some buyer or writer. The vast majority of products find prearranged homes on wine lists and shop shelves. The dedicated wine artisan's enthusiasm gets quickly blunted when the unique wine is rejected because it "doesn't fit our program."

What I’m asking ain’t easy. Judging wines, like judging movies, requires a framework for judgment. But as Henry Drummond puts it in Inherit the Wind“It is a peculiar imbecility of our times to judge every action against a latitude of right and a longitude of wrong in exact minutes, degrees and seconds.”

Wine merchants don’t take a lot of chances. Why else do you suppose that the alcohol-toast-butter bomb style of California Chardonnay persists? Consumers can help tremendously by walking into the wine shop with an adventurous mindset, as if the most positive outcome is simply to see something special and different.

The goal of Postmodern Winemaking is “connecting the human soul with the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music.” A winemaker can’t survive doing that if all wines must conform within a narrow window of expectation.

Hold your advisors to it! Be they published critics or knowledgeable merchants, let them praise wines for surprising them. Let’s see some disappointment when a wine merely hits their preset mark.