California Terroir

Paul Blow

The wine world is, once again, gripped by debate. The exciting new topic? Well, it’s actually the same old topic: the French idea of terroir and the notion held by many that California can’t make wines that express it. To view some of the debate, read the salvo “California Wine? Down the Drain,” by Alice Feiring in the Los Angeles Times, and a response by Matthew DeBord the next week, “Terroir-izing California Wine,” which was subtitled: “East Coast snobs with Old World sympathies take cheap shots at a great product.”

DeBord is right about one thing: The wine world is loaded with people who look down on California wines and worship, as he puts it, “various backwater French bottlings.” I see these people, drink with them all the time. Many of them, in fact, are California winemakers.

But the heart of this debate is not just about wine. Terroir, the French term that means the sum total of the environmental forces acting on a vine (sun, soil, rain, wind), has come to mean something much more: soul. And the question is not whether a wine shows terroir to Feiring or fruit to DeBord. Rather, it’s whether the wine was conceived and fabricated as a commercial product to pander to critics (or consumers) or if it is more of an agricultural product, plucked from the land as you might pull a carrot from your backyard.

Instead of the word terroir, which has become so loaded and confusing, I prefer to use the term coined by the brilliant wine writer Matt Kramer: somewhereness. Does the wine taste like it could have come from anywhere, or from somewhere specific? It is a quality that is hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it. In this age of media manipulation for crass political and commercial purposes, most people I know would like to be talked to truthfully and directly. And they’d like to drink wines with somewhereness.

Feiring is right that most California wines taste like they could have come from anywhere. Making wines with somewhereness is not as easy here as it is in France. For one, the French have thousands of years of winemaking experience on us. They didn’t have to pay the price of prime California acreage, not to mention the immense start-up costs of planting a vineyard. For another, most of Feiring’s favorite winemakers inherited their property from parents, grandparents, and beyond. Newer winemakers—in California, say—can rely on technological tools like dealcoholizers, wood chips, and instant tannin to make up for the lack of years and years of planting and replanting. The downside is that these wines are always missing something.

However, to denigrate the entire state of California is unfair. It’s full of winemakers trying to make wines with somewhereness, and many are succeeding. Here are three.

2005 Ridge Lytton Springs—Wines don’t have to be made of a single variety to show somewhereness. From 111-year-old and 48-year-old Zinfandel, plus Grenache, Carignane, and Petite Syrah vines, the definitive California Zinfandel field blend.

2006 Qupé Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley—Wines don’t have to be from a single vineyard to exhibit somewhereness. While this one is made up of disparate components from mostly the same region, it still has “it.”

2004 Calera Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir —But of course single-vineyard, single-varieties work just fine. Pinot Noir vines planted in 1975 make a silky, mineral-driven wine with characteristic spice and flowers.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.