Yet what is the point of revealing terroir if even experts on the wines can't recognize it?
I'm still chewing on this concept more than a week after seeing "Wine From Here," a 60-minute documentary about the natural wine movement.
It's a good film, one of the most balanced I've seen on wine, and that's what makes the terroir observation so provocative.
In my day job, I interviewed director Martin Carel to preview the film and, honestly, wasn't expecting his work to be so good. He had no directing experience and had only been aware of the topic for a short time. And his only outside-the-industry perspective on California wine came from Alice Feiring, who tells everyone who will listen how much she hates it. At the after-party Feiring told Courtney Cochran, “I never dreamed two years ago that I would spend an entire night drinking California wine.” Such a sacrifice! But I digress.
I expected a polemic, but instead Carel delivered a thought-provoking piece that both explored most of the important issues in natural wine (with the lamentable exception of costs) and subversively undermined the concept.
I'm not sure how many of the 150 or so people in attendance at the initial public screening realized this. Most were connected to the wine industry in some way, but there were a few civilians, and from their statements at the Q&A that followed, I got the impression they were folks who like to know the source of their food and were glad to have their consciousness raised about the number of additives allowed in industrial wines.
So if you come to the film with little wine knowledge, you exit perhaps looking for wines with less oak, no overripeness and a connection to the land.
The highlight of the film is set up by interviews with winemakers who keep telling us that natural wine is all about terroir: how they want to make a wine representative of a specific place.
It's striking that none of these specific places are in Napa Valley: instead, we get expressions of terroir from unknown parts of the Sierra Foothills. But that's fine: one would think that would make the wines that much more distinctive.
Towards the end, Carel convenes a panel of buyers and makers of natural wine for a blind tasting of some of the wines we've been hearing about, from diverse regions, some coastal, some inland and hot.
And they get none of them right!
They also don't seem to like some of the wines very much, even though they know their allies made them.
I laughed aloud in the theater. Carel doesn't hammer on this in the film, so I'm not sure every viewer understood the implication:
How important is terroir if even experts who have had those same wines can't recognize it?
I've written this before, and I'll restate it here. Terroir isn't the most important factor in wine quality; the producer is.
If Paul Draper, the only well-known wine producer interviewed in "Wine From Here," were to make a Zinfandel from Montana, I would rather drink it than something made by home winemakers from his Monte Bello vineyard. Sure, I'd rather have Ridge Monte Bello. But if it's Ridge or Monte Bello, I'll take Ridge every time. Wouldn't you?
I'll be rooting for Carel to get "Wine From Here" into distribution, either at film festivals or on television. It might make a star of Tony Coturri, who steals the film not only with his passion and eloquence, but also because his position is so purist (no sulfites, no additives, no nothin') that it's easiest to understand. (Not that I agree with it.)
But this is not "Sideways," a crossover film that will introduce millions to the natural-wine movement. Just as it did at its first public screening, it will preach almost exclusively to the converted. The film may draw organic food consumers, but the only way to get deep-pocketed Napa Cab buyers to watch it would be with a shotgun and handcuffs.
That makes its subtle undermining of terroir all the more interesting. Most people who attended the screening traipsed to the after-party at a San Francisco wine bar that serves wine in mason jars to be hip. But I internalized the true message: I went to Commonwealth, sat at the bar, and tasted the by-the-glass wines to see which I liked best. I thought I'd order the Willamette Valley Muscat -- love the terroir, like the variety -- but a Garganega and a Chenin Blanc tasted better, so I had those. What regions were they from? I know, but I'm not going to tell you because it just doesn't matter.