I was looking out the window the other day at our vineyards growing lushly in the late Spring. The vines were trellised and the vineyard was uniform and the riotous odor of bloom was carried on the breezes. We work hard to make sure our vineyards provide the best fruit possible for as long as possible, and their planting was well conceived and well executed about 15 years ago. This manicured imagining is duplicated all over wine country and the fruit from these many thousands of acres of vines is worth billions to their owners.

A day or two later as I was walking up to my office, I noticed a rogue vine creeping along through the landscaping. It was probably the product of a seed that had passed out the ass of a Starling and it was doing what its many millions of grandfathers had done over millions of years, programmed to spread copies of itself across space.

What struck me in the juxtaposition of the vineyard and the vine is the constantly evolving attitudes of man to nature. Hawthorne saw chaos and uncivility and Godlessness in the forests of Massachusetts in The Scarlet Letter. Contemporaneously, Thoreau saw the immanence of the Creator in the very same woods; his Walden Pond relationship was a reconciliation of man to the original Garden.

Today there is a healthy debate going on between “conventional” growers and those “natural” winemakers and grape growers who

Wild grapevine overtakes path

preach (sometimes with a shrill timbre) a minimalist philosophy about their crafts. These latter would

Ghielmetti Vineyard Rows

contend that the natural energies of a vineyard site become misaligned and depredated by the use of chemicals to ward off infestations of malign insects, mold, and fungi. Perhaps rightly, they believe that the farmer’s vigilance in the vines is the greatest prophylactic and vitiates the need for chemicals. These biodynamists are convinced that the addition of esoteric teas derived from natural products and applied at times corresponding to the cycles of the moon are the only sprays a vineyard needs to produce healthy vines and grapes and wines of unique energy and liveliness. There’s no real way of telling whether these wines, which are then generally made without or with very little sulfur, are in any way superior to wines made from conventionally grown fruit. The religious implications inherent in the “natural wine” philosophy along with the purely subjective and individualistic nature of tasting and evaluating preclude a non-subjective, non-emotional conclusion.

Despite the lightest touch of man in the vineyard and the cellar, the vineyard and the wine are man-made objects. The vine I saw creeping along the ground searching for some vertical guide to bring it Sunward has no chance to produce fruit that will be made into wine. Modern wine is a product of rational thought, experience, specialized equipment, chemistry; the vine is pruned and leaf-pulled, and shoot-thinned, hedged and sprayed, harvested by hand and machine.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Jurassic Park when the Jeff Goldblum character, weary of the hubris shown by the scientists who switch off the sex of some of the dinosaurs they have created so only one gender remains, says that no matter how advanced the science, no matter how thoroughly these scientists have assumed the role of God, nature finds a way to endure. It was true in the movie, but not true in the vineyard. No number of monkeys banging on keyboards can ever create a First Growth. This takes intention and the guiding hand of man.

Ultimately, the natural world deserves our concern and protection. The vineyard and the winery, though, are not truly part of that world. No matter how careful the farmer and non-interventionist the winemaker, the relationship of the man to the material is a benignly exploitative one.

Terroir as Excuse

April 5, 2012

There are special wine places. These sites are situated more favorably to wind and sun, the dirt is better, the variety is perfect, the winemaker has a vision that is in accord with the natural conditions.  This combination of place, dirt, wind, sun, winemaker is the terroir of the site, the whyness of place.

There’s been a lot of chatter on the web recently about natural winemaking.  There is no real definition of what is  “natural” about those wines or the process, nor what makes some winemaking unnatural. Because of a lack of specificity there is every chance that the term will soon devolve into a meaningless marketing slogan, saying nothing in its commodiousness.

There is generally one aspect about which most producers agree and that is the desire to let the terroir of the vineyard show through the wine as purely as possible by manipulating the wine as little as possible. For these producers, purity of wine – underscoring of terroir – comes about by strictly minimizing the use of additives of any kind – including sulfur – throughout the production process. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, but they are not present generally in high enough concentration to protect a wine from spoilage yeasts or the ravages of time over the long term.

And while I can understand the holistic desire to let Nature takes its course, to reduce the human footprint, in other words; I can’t understand the idea that one would allow a potentially flawed product to be sold when the means for producing a sound one have been proven and are easily reproducible. These kind of wines are worse than the clotheslessness of the Emperor…in the latter case, the dude was just naked, in the former the choice to leave the wines open to all manner of microbial spunk is being dressed up as some kind of virtue.

Ironically, the net effect of runaway Brett contamination and other microbiologic challenges, so easily eliminated with the judicious use of natural additives, is the obviation of the supposed rationale for making these kinds of wines in the first place. For what shows through in the end – in fact overwhelms all that is pure and of the place – is that flaw.

Terroir is about balance as much as it is about anything else. When dogma gets in the way of pragmatism and results in unbalanced, de-terroired wines, it is the consumer that ends up paying for the mistake.