Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Wine From Here" documentary proves terroir doesn't matter

Terroir is exalted by the natural wine movement. Everyone who prefers native yeast and eschews excess ripeness and new oak says they do so to reveal the terroir of their vineyard sites.

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.

Martin Carel
But I walked away marveling at how subtly Carel showed that none of that stuff seems to matter.

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.


John M. Kelly said...

Interesting. I foresee a collective "hrummmpf" in response to this post from some quarters. In my experience, how a wine turns out is 50% place, 50% clone, 50% winemaker and 50% vintage. Except when it is not.

Beau said...

I want to see this movie now. As interesting and intellectually appealing as the "natural wine" concept is, like it or not the winemaker is the one who can turn a good wine bad, or a bad wine good.

Anonymous said...

Without a doubt the winemaker is the one who dictates the wine. Often winemakers are the individuals who breathe life into the "terroir." Without that individual crafting the wine, wine is plain and often not very delicious.

edanch said...

I think it's less about being able to identify the exact geography of Terroir and more about that "this" wine can only come from "this" given place. I love reading about how a Somm can take a blind sip and tell you it's from a 5 x 5 square foot of land in Burgundy. Who cares. I just want a distinct wine that represents a unique growing season and vinification that doesn't follow a predisposed recipe.

W. Blake Gray said...

Edanch: To clarify, in the film it wasn't that the experts couldn't tell one vineyard from another. They couldn't a wine from Mendocino County from a wine from Paso Robles from a wine from the Sierra Foothills.

SUAMW said...

"Experts" eh? Self appointed? There is a practiced, systematic way to discern varieties and regions. The obvious exception here is when a wine is made in a way that fails to show any of these distinctions.
Most of these "experts" have not trained themselves in that method. A few of them are untrainable.

Rémy Charest said...

To ask the question a little differently: if you have to choose between two wines from Paul Draper, one from Montana, one from Monte Bello, which one would you pick?

I'll guess the latter, which would mean that both do matter, to a certain extent.

Another aspect as well is that if these winemakers are seeking to express the grapes and the terroirs differently from the mainstream, it may be that the usual guidelines that would allow someone to distinguish Paso from Sonoma (or Pauillac from Pomerol) are less clearly identifiable. Our ability to distinguish provenance, in blind tasting, is linked to accumulated experience in tasting wines in various categories/provenance/variety, etc. And wines from La Clarine, A Donkey and Goat and Coturri don't really taste like the common California wines on which most tasters' experience would be based. So it may be, in part, that they are laying down different tracks.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Hi, I believe in the concept of expressing the teroir in a wine, but I think that a lot of poeple forget that the grapegrower and winemaker has a huge impact on the final wine, much much more than the climate, soil type, or any other component that makes up the 'terroir'. Maybe that's why natural winemakers try to intervene or manipulate as little as possible, ie that way there's less things that could go wrong.

Another thing: I don't see why it's important or relevant to anything that experts should be able to identify different terroirs/wines while tasting blind! Apart from being physically humanly impossible, what's the point?

Anonymous said...

Title of your post:

"Wine From Here" documentary proves terroir doesn't matter


This is completely ludicrous. If I grew Merlot in Alaska they will taste different then grapes in CA. That is a fact.

Sorry, but change your title if you want to invoke more interesting conversations.

Christophe Hedges

W. Blake Gray said...

Christophe: Is it a fact? Have you tried growing grapes in Alaska (in a hothouse)?

But that's not my point. My point is: if nobody could tell which was the Alaska Merlot and which was the California Merlot, how important could the terroir be?

And seriously man, you have absolutely no standing to chide me not to be provocative, not after you plastered one of your bumper stickers on me and videoed it the last time we met.

To others: It looks like I need to re-emphasize that the people tasting the wines blind were natural wine folks who had tasted the wines before. They should have, in theory, been able to say, "Oh yes, that's the Paso Robles terroir." And that should be even MORE true if these wines are so representative of their terroir, regardless of whether it's the usual style made in Paso Robles.

Blind tasting strips away a lot of beliefs, even some firmly held ones.

Anonymous said...

Andy here...

2 main points from this --- first, it ALL matters in terms of the finished product --> varietal, vineyard, trellis, weather, farming, yeast, method of crush (whole cluster, whole berry etc), yeast, additions, cold soak / maceration, elevage, bottle closure etc. Thats what makes wine so endlessly fascinating to me (I make 200-300 gallons per year)

2nd -- part of what makes "natural" winemaking BS is that it is all interventions. Here is a non-complete list of "interventions" an "non-interventionalist wine maker does: trellising grape vines (they climb trees), monoculture (grapes grow in forests), picking the grapes and crushing them (that certainly does not happen in nature) etc...

WHen does an "intervention" become bad...well, I am not sure but I certainly prefer interventions that make the iwne taste better!

Great post!

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Andy, in response to your 2nd point on interventions: I think everybody knows that some interventions are obviously necessary (eg, planting vines in rows, pruning, crushing, etc). But this is just a pointless strict semantic dictionary-definition of the word "non-intervention". I think that I speak for most (if not all) natural wine-makers when I say that we are against "unnecessary" and "excessive" interventions. To be utterly correct (semantically) I suppose one should say 'minimal intervention' or some such phrase. This linguistic confusion doesn't make natural wine BS!

Randy Caparoso: said...

"Experts" have trouble telling the difference between grand crus grown in parts of the Medoc, the Cote d'Or, the Mosel and Saar, et al. Does that mean "terroir" is not important, or that it doesn't "exist?" That's a silly notion, so why entertain it?

The movement on the West Coast towards making wines more expressive of where they come from is undoubtedly very significant and welcome. It will take just as long, probably longer, for folks to recognize differences among regions in the New World. Then again, that's the point: how can people -- consumers and professionals alike -- begin to comprehend nuances associated with terroir when there is so little chance to?

Christophe Hedges said...


Blind tasting destroys wines context. One should know what they drink before drinking.

To approach wine from a blind tasting standpoint is to strip the education one can receive about terroir's influence in the finished product.

Alaska "hot house". Hmm. I would argue that the wine will still be different. Never done it, but experience says different. A hot house would be cheating and would not necessarily reflect the terroir of Alaska. Not a fair statement on your part.

Terroir is real. To understand the differences is surreal. Why: Because it lies in the subjective realm of understanding. So, conclusion would be that, yes, terroir exists as a fact, but it is fact that we all perceive it differently.

Perhaps you should sign the manifesto my dear Blake. muuuhahahahahahahah!

Unknown said...

Blake, thanks for this. In a crowded field, differentiation becomes a key element of marketing. Process ("Natural") becomes a way of separating one producer from others, and location ("terroir") becomes the ultimate point of differentiation since it is unique. But, if tasters can't tell the differences between the wines when tasted blind, what is the point? Here at U.C. Davis, I co-teach a class on wine economics and I have my students read some studies that indicate that "expert" judges don't agree with each other as to wine quality and often can't replicate their own sense of quality (Hodgson, 2008 and 2010 in the Journal of American Wine Economists). There are lots of other studies. If people could reliably tell where a wine was from, California wines would not have come out on top in the Paris tasting of 1976. But what the above really argues for is that individuals consume the entire package--the story of the wine if you will--and that the story is as, or more, important than what the wine actually tastes like.

Jeff said...

Yes, what Randy said....

Blake, would be curious to know if you've had any of the wines from the winemakers in the film?

David Ramey said...

I think Henri Jayer had the best take on this at a conference on terroir in Burgundy in 2000: "It's half the grapes and half what you do with them." Both halves are important--although since the winemaking comes second it leaves a more evident imprint.

Rémy Charest said...

Big distinction to be made, here. It is not that the wines were not different - in fact, in the movie, the tasters comment that the wines are very particular and different from one another. They just can't point to this wine being this terroir and this one being this other terroir. Very different idea.

Saying "I can't tell if wine A is from region B or region C" is not the same as saying "all merlot tastes the same". And Blake, if you're using the former to say the latter, your reasoning is faulty.

The wines were also not from the same varieties, which makes regional comparison all the more difficult.

Alana said...

Thanks for the heads up re: the documentary.

My 2 cents is perhaps the obvious - presently marketing matters to the bottom line more than all the other factors put together. Bad wine sells as well as good wine with enough buzz. I bet more market share will go to "natural wines" in the next few years. Single Vineyard Designation is still all the rage while blends usually taste better.

Peter O'Connor said...

It is pretty widely accepted in the scientific community that irrigation (especially after veraison) has a particular detrimental effect on the grape’s capacity to express a sense of place. Late season (mild) water stress induces the vine to direct most of its nutrients to the berry as a form of genetic survival.
Another consequence of dry-farming, besides the obvious reduction of yields, is that root-systems go deeper in search of the water table and available nutrients, making the vine less susceptible to seasonal weather variance and other hazards. This process, however, can take decades…
Still, this idea can be corroborated in California by the distinctive character and stupendous quality of grapes from its (historical) dry-farmed/head-trained/old-vine vineyards.
Regarding the natural wine imbroglio, I believe it is not dialectically viable to come up with a complete and consistent definition of what a “natural” wine is. A much easier task would be to establish a threshold for what constitutes a “non-natural wine”.
IMHO, a “non-natural wine” is the product of grapes (and/or grape must) that have been treated with methods involving “non-normal temperatures and pressures”. By “non-normal”, I mean temperatures and pressures that do not naturally occur on the surface of the earth (e.g., reverse osmosis, thermo-vinification/pasteurization; spinning cones; roto-fermentation; cross-flow filtration, etc.): plus, the unpredictable effects that these methods might have on the physical properties of the wine and, consequently, the long term effects on consumers' health.

W. Blake Gray said...

So many intelligent, thoughtful comments. Geez, I wish you guys would visit me at my day job.

Remy: You've got it right. Geez, if I thought all Merlot tastes the same, I'd save a lot of money on wine.

Randy: I think terroir matters, sure. I think producer matters more, but terroir matters. But I also believe I'll live long enough to see the Baltimore Orioles win the World Series again. If you can't taste and identify its effects, is terroir more than intangible hope?

One of the big issues with the natural wine movement is that, to my knowledge, there are no converts in what are considered California's premium areas. You could make a case for Coturri in Glen Ellen or some of the places Natural Process Alliance sources from in Sonoma County. But I don't know of any followers in Napa Valley. It's a significant issue and it's not broached at all by the film, nor usually by the media (including me) who cover natural wine.

Jeff: I've had wines from almost all of them. I'm a big fan of A Donkey and Goat and the Natural Process Alliance. Mike Dashe knows what he's doing. There are other natural wine folks not in the film I really like, notably Lioco. If I left somebody out it might not be on purpose.

David: Henry Jayer was right, as he often was.

Peter: It's a very interesting idea -- I can't define what natural wines ARE, but I can define what they're not.

Alana: You're right, in a sense the natural wine movement has become a loose trade association. And why not? It's a competitive industry; small wineries with niche markets need to do what they can.

Unknown: The Paris tasting was the single biggest proof that terroir is not easily identified by experts in the history of the wine world.

Andy: I almost completely agree, except I'm with Fabio that the natural wine movement isn't BS. If I wasn't interested in it I wouldn't write about it at all, or I'd use my mocking shoes. These people care about wine, and while I'm sorry to say that I find the hit percentage for the entire movement to be lower than it could be, the wines I really like tend to be among my very favorites.

Christophe: I give your manifesto 85 points. I only sign manifestos rated 90 or above.

Anonymous said...

do you know if the movie is going to be exhibited somewhere?

Anonymous said...

Andy here..

Sorry, did not mean to imply the "natural wine" movement is BS...rather the BS is calling it "non-interventional". And Fabio -- as you note, my point is correct. Despite your admission in this blog, the natural wine press generally spits out the word "intervention" like it is something invented from the bowels of Voldermort. And maybe in the case of spinning cones or reverse osmosis it is but also an intervention can be something as simple as how to control the temperature of fermentation or the use sulfites.
Semantics aside, as I see it, the goal of "natural wine" is to harvest grapes with lower Brix and higher TA, which reduces the risk of VA, stuck fermentations, high ETOH, RS etc and thus reduces the need to "intervene" for these issues. And one can argue that wines so produced are truer to the varietal and site. The downside -- astringency and other underripe characteristics and spoilage yeasts (esp when sulfites are not used). Is the "natural style" better than the "intervened" style...well only your palate can decide. Personally, I prefer wines made with a balanced approach rather than using some preconceived dogma

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: I don't know about future screenings, but hopefully Martin Carel will let me know, and if so I will tell you.

Larry Brooks said...

A documentary film about a fringe movement in winemaking hardly proves anything. Last time I checked it was scientific evidence that offered proof of validity. While there's not tons of good wine science on terroir, there's enough to know that it exists, and that the effect is most evident in aroma.
I'd also echo many other commentators with a quote from Raymond Bernard who developed many of the so called Dijon clones in Burgundy. He said "the three most important things for wine quality were, location, location and location". Last time I checked terroir was defined as the taste of a specific location so it seems at minimum disingenuous to claim that it is doesn't matter. While I understand the desire to be inflammatory for its own sake, I also care enough about this subject in particular to have some actual facts brought to bear.

mark said...

I thought that was amusing, as well- the failure to identify a wine's origin, even approximately. If you try it, it's very difficult to do. A lot of people, maybe all, understand the word terroir as some kind of code for a genuine wine. The people who know the taste of places are negociants and the makers of mass-produced blended wines who in the course of their daily routine taste hundreds of wines from all over. I did this for two years, and I have some sense of place, in California wines, but to give me a wine and ask where it's from-!? Very hard. To be fair, I don't think the winemakers put on the spot had the thousands of experiences it would take to have any idea where a particular wine is from. Dan Berger could maybe do it. Mark

Joel Brüt said...

In Germany, don't winemakers use clean modern winemaking practices in order to highlight terroir? I have always felt that it is difficult to get a sense of the terroir if the wine is aldehydic. In this regard, I think natural wines fail in the concept. That is not saying that I don't like those wines, I actually love them and drink them quite often.