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A wine drawing philosopher with a heart of gold. aka. #firekitten

18 Responses

  1. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    Elaine, thanks for the feature! Always a pleasure to dig into the “whys” and “hows” of wine. I wish we could have gone even further with this conversation. I was just telling a guest here that I find it fascinating how black and white our culture can be. It must be EITHER this OR that. We forget how veiled not only terroir can be, but the wine world in general (we would learn a lot from Kierkegaarde’s Either/Or which coincidentally may be consistent with my post on faith in winemaking. What do you think?).

    Now if only I had remembered to work in the additional idea that terroir is like a child that needs help understanding itself so it can be fully unveiled and know itself, then we would have something for people to chew on! We (winemakers) have the opportunity to act like parents, guiding the process of self discovery based on our observations but being careful not to tell the child what it has to be. Both ends of the ripeness trajectory risk telling the child what it must be. I would rather work to understand what the child is and steer it in a direction where their gifts can be maximized and as a result their joy and place in the world.

  2. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    Oh, and one more thing!

    While the concept of terroir seems to have less share of the wine narrative than it once did. In my opinion it is not dead and it is still part of the truth of any great site!

  3. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    Hmmm, how to respond without just typing “yes!”? I think you have articulated the intent of my analogy quite well. I may add a third type of parenting: no rules. That is parenting from an assumption that the person is not to be molded at all, that this would be an affront to person-hood, and that we should simply stay out of the way as much as possible to allow them room to discover themselves. Like the “rules” style, the risk here is that the child never fully reaches their potential. They may become a great person, but are they truly utilizing the gifts they have in a way to love and improve the world around them? Additionally, the responsibility is passed to the child and not the parent.

    I like how you articulated the idea of responsibility on the parent. As a parent, I have found this very humbling. I have had to admit when I am wrong or when a rule I tried to apply didn’t work. Frankly it is refreshing and helps me discover things about myself that are worth pruning off!

    Wine is similar. In the guideline method you may start out trying something with a new site that has worked at other sites. It may not work and therefore admitting your mistake is the first step toward unveiling that terroir with different techniques than one has used before.

    Of course this entire analogy largely is predicated on 1) terroir truly existing, 2) its existence confers a mark of quality on a wine, and 3) people care (we should after all admit our presuppositions). Sometimes I wonder if the wine dialogue is not shifting away from terroir, perhaps because of its elusiveness and the patience required to see it? But when you do see it, as I have, it really does add an extra dimension of enjoyment to whatever wine you are tasting.

    Be well and thanks for the opportunity to pontificate…

  4. John Kelly
    John Kelly at | | Reply

    Elaine, I thought that John Atkinson’s piece you linked to ( reflected my own thoughts on terroir better than pretty much anything I have read in a decade. My belief is that “terroir” only exists in its unadulterated meaning in Burgundy, where JA appears to me to have defined it as nature divided by culture. It has taken a millennium to do this, and its beginnings occurred under the evolving regional and cultural constraints of the times – constraints that make it impossible to duplicate anywhere else.

    Everywhere else, I view the attempt do “define terroir” through the lens of Hume’s is-ought dichotomy. We believe that terroir ought to exist elsewhere, but we can only make it exist by stripping away almost everything that terroir is. It is not just soil, and weather, nor even soil, weather and vines. Some imperfect reflection of terroir can exist when these elements are tended by a winemaker (like Tyler) whose intention is to express some sense of place.

    And in this intention I find the parenting analogy to be apt. But there are many kinds of parents. There are those that guide and nurture – and for all their naive intention to “let the child be what it will” – actively shape. The parents who would abdicate their responsibility to active involvement are going to end up with a pretty awful child.

    1. Tyler
      Tyler at | | Reply

      John, well said. Certainly goog parenting results in a wine of terroir! ;)

  5. Tyler
    Tyler at | | Reply

    John I’ve been thinking more about the is ought challenge. Ought terroir exist or can we say it does exist? I suppose that depends on your definition of terroir. Too simple: a wine resulting from a plant’s interaction with the environment then harnessed and made by human results in all wines being wines of terroir. Does narrowing of the definition bring too much ought? It is amusing how much “ought” is passionately defended in the industry because that thing (approach or style) “is” what that person is doing. Is that where you are headed?

  6. John Kelly
    John Kelly at | | Reply

    You’re right, too simple: “terroir exists because terroir exists” is a tautology. I argue that the ought-is problem arises when, because terroir IS in Burgundy, people assume terroir OUGHT to be everywhere else, and yes it is a narrowing of definition that allows too much ought.

    Passionate defense alone does not turn ought into is, as Hume noted, and Bentham after him, down through George Cooke and others.

    I reject the simplified redefinition of terroir, because words and ideas, and how we use them, matter. On the scale of good and evil, simplifying and redefining terroir to suit the needs of MARKETING seems evil to me.

    Terroir exists in Burgundy because it’s been farmed to a monoculture for generations, by people intent on divining the differences between parcels, people who built a culture around this pursuit. Your intent is to do much the same at Dierberg, but it’s a big piece of land, and you are ONE MAN, and who is to say that vineyard will be there in 100 years, much less 500 or 1,000? Not to depress you but to give perspective: you are the first step on a thousand-mile journey, and there is no institution such as the Church to assure you will have compatriots and successors.

    It’s a quixotic endeavor. I’m doing the same thing, and you and I know hundreds of other winegrowers who are also. Following my conviction, I have purged the word terroir from all of my marketing.

  7. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    John…or should I call you Zarathustra…your points are well taken. First, completely agree regarding marketing a term that is simply leveraged to hock product. I think this is why we enjoy this platform Elaine has provided: we seek a truer definition and understanding of the words we use. My former professor Mark Matthews is working on a book I believe will be titled “Terroir and other Myths in Viticulture”. He has noted to me personally his findings about how the use of the word terroir exploded after the 1976 Paris tasting’s CA “victory” (a dubious claim when the data is analyzed statistically and it is seen that 4 of the 5 top wines were french and none of those 5 statistically separated from one another). The increased use of terroir was clearly for marketing purposes: our dirt is still different than your dirt. But the concept of terroir came long before that tasting – as you note regarding Burgundy – though its distasteful emphasis was perhaps born out of that tasting? And so yes, defining it solely to meet marketing needs is painful to observe and true of too many wine terms.

    But as with Mark, it is hard for me to hear that perhaps you are saying with Nietzsche about God: “[Terroir] is dead. [Terroir] remains dead. And we have killed [it].” I know you mention its existence in Burgundy, but does that mean you believe terroir’s “shadow still looms” or is the quixotic endeavor a sign of my own illusion of the truth? One unsettling thing for me is that I believe you might be correct and part of me wants to stop my study of plants, of place, of a seemingly ethical obligation to pursue the truth of great places impact on wine so I may rest my mind, quell my inquiry, make things easier and go with the flow. But that is not in me. It is not me. I faithfully (intentionally chosen word) pursue deliciousness and distinction via a plant’s interaction with its place, I follow that conviction as I know you do. I trust in a “way” to unveil, to unmask the terroir; letting my choices and influence fade to a supporting trellis of the glorious rose bush. While necessary to exalt and lift the bloom, as trellis I choose to hope to be in the background and simply enjoy the rose.

    The interesting thing with the trellis and with Burgundy is that even within Burgundy I find producer nearly more important than place. Within producer one sees place defined, across producer one sees producer as the largest variable. What does this mean for the idea of terroir? Is it dead? Following principles of ANOVA we would have to say producer is the most important and defining variable. If not dead, is it important, relevant? For me, I choose to – perhaps naively – say it is important and I will embark on the quixotic path. I like the idea of purging the word from our marketing and focusing on talking about distinction and deliciousness, about Santa Barbara County, and about craftsmanship. Those are the elements of great terroir: pleasure, people, and places.

    The unavoidable intertwining of human choice and climate-to-plant-to-wine expression seems to be what makes terroir at once abused and so attractive. Its indefinable qualities almost lend credence to its greatness when it is observed. Whatever my involvement, the 4 single vineyard Syrah’s we made at Donelan were so distinct, so unique from each other and many other wines and I rest confidently that this was not due to stems, pick timing, oak, etc. Not because we didn’t use those things, but because they were not controlling variables to how the wine ended up tasting. You observed those technique choices influencing specific flavors less. It is not like some recent 100% whole cluster, carbonic maceration, early pick wines I’ve had where the taste is driven by what those choices tend to provide to a wine. The veil becomes a heavy cloth. That is not necessarily bad, nor the wine bad, but it also less likely a wine of terroir. Same with uber ripe choices, heaps of oak, etc. Technical choices shine instead of support the inherent flavors.

    If in the end I am like the Saint and ignorantly say “I make [wines] and [drink] them; and in making [wines] I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise [terroir]. With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the [terroir that] is my [terroir].” Maybe someone in marketing is chuckling and saying with Zarathustra “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that [terroir] is dead.”

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  10. John Kelly
    John Kelly at | | Reply

    Beautifully said, Tyler. It’s thoughts like these that make me happy we met and befriended all these years ago.

    I see what you did there, with the Zarathustra reference. Sadly, I am no longer capable of growing the beard necessary to play the part.

    I’m not sure that it was the ’76 tasting per se that turned terroir into a marketing buzzword. I think the California winegrowers of the era, while they certainly didn’t mind our wines being considered to be in the same league, were loth to identify too closely with the Old World – preferring to stake claim to a unique identity.

    I’ll speculate that the transition went something like this: the wine pundits of the time paid all their attention to the Old World and it’s ideas of terroir. The Paris tasting forced them to turn their attentions west. It was they who said: if California wines are as good as the French, then terroir OUGHT to exist there as well. Our antecedents shrugged a collective “maybe” and went on laughing, weeping and mumbling much as they had before.

    When I started selling wines in the early ’80s Randall Grahm was the lone voice in the wilderness talking about the potential for establishing terroir. in California. It wasn’t until the formation of the Carneros Quality Alliance that I started to see these wines pitched to me on the basis of terroir.

    I have no idea if things actually progressed the way I personally recollect. It seems to me that there is a thesis in this for some MW candidate – it such hasn’t already been written.

    I have always read Nietzsche’s subtext as “you can not kill what does not exist,” and I think it is fascinating that you have framed terroir itself as a belief system that can only be taken on faith. I don’t disagree with this. It takes terroir from a debatable is, past the wishful ought, and to the spiritual must-be. While I remain a firm “a-terrorist” in the world of is, I am not more than a humble agnostinc in the realm of must-be.

    I recognize your points on the ascendency of producer over place in Burgundy. I ascribe this to today’s varied ownership and egos, and the unprecedented range of technique available to the modern winegrower. It was not always thus: when the idea of terroir was crystallized all the land was owned by God and his representative on Earth the Duke of Burgundy, and all the farming and winemaking was done by God’s dedicated servants using a very limited set of methods that changed little from generation to generation.

    I’m not sure that the variation introduced by different producers is inconsistent with the general weltanschauung of terroir, but it will certainly change it. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it was Ray Walker that opened the Burgundians’ eyes to the danger and the errors of their ways?

    Finally, I did notice your emphasis on “faithful” and have always thought you a mensch for it. While perhaps none of us is ready to be cast in the role of Übermensch, we are on the path – so long as each of us retains the will to be faithful to the earth in our own ways.

  11. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    John, you have always been a worthy interlocutor (as has Elaine). This has been a very helpful dialogue for me as I pursue working out a weltanschauung of wine (you had me with that one, had to look it up!).

    I had neglected to consider the subtext of Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” but suppose it works well. I may have unintentionally revealed my growing acceptance that defining terroir may prove so elusive that its existence is indeed suspect. (Is Sarte in here somewhere?) And there, I suppose, we get back to your is-ought problem. However as much as I acquiesce the difficult of knowing it [that word we want to try and stop using], and indeed the difficulty in even showing it has value, I do believe it ought to exist in CA and think we have good reason to suppose it does because it does exist in Burgundy and we’re dealing with plants whose function we understand well.

    Your recollection of how the term terroir came to be used seems plausible and I hope someone does look into it. I know Mark Matthews has started and recall that he traces it as far back to when people believed plant material above ground was indeed derived from organic material below ground. Some memes die hard.

    Ray Walker may do it but I doubt it! How ironic it would be. I suspect there are many Burgundian winemakers incapable of truly grasping terroir. While they seem to think they have a birthright to understanding it, their tradition at times leaves too many unquestioned answers. Perhaps ironically, dogma may be the great barrier to understanding what terroir (if it exists) actually is. And someone coming from the outside may just stir the pot enough to make a difference. Maybe that will give me a leg up on Cabernet: haven’t made it in 5 years and when I did it was in Carneros. I carry no baggage but understanding of how grapevines work and how to manage tannins in a cellar. What more do I need? (“Taransaud” someone shouts from Napa.)

    Be well and look me up when in our area!

  12. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    Well, I have another thought and will continue to use this platform. Thank you Elaine.

    Jeff Connick and I were discussing many of these points earlier today and he sparked a new thought regarding one reason I think I’ve been pursuing terroir all this time: winemaking morality. Now, for the record I don’t think there really is morality in winemaking per se. I’m grabbing attention with the phrase but I do intend to get at John’s “ought,” and to do so through terroir.

    We must start with a presupposition: discovering the “truth” of a site through wine is valuable and a goal. If it is not your goal then 1) don’t say it is by talking about distinction and sense of place and 2) more power to you, this conversation isn’t for you.

    So what I thought about thanks to Jeff was how discovering or unveiling a place through wine might be important. I think it may provide a backdrop, a foundation, ballast to evaluate the veracity of an approach, the quality of a decision, the “rightness” of a technique. If we could begin to unveil what a place might consistently offer a variety/wine, then we could “judge” one another more properly. On the one hand I believe dogma is antithetical to a terroir driven approach, and yet I seek a standard, a guideline to provide a framework for our wine world with the thing I set out to discover. Sure there will be variation, always some sort of veil; but what about consistency of expression?

    It seems in our little coastal world – east and west that is – there is a sense of tension about wine style and the “rightness” of wine. Evidenced by several recent writings, the wine writers symposium fixation on Parker’s keynote, amongst other things. A “New California…” wine has been pointed to and many of those wines are interesting and great and yet words or war and line drawing seem to only continue. How can we do this? What basis do we have to go from saying “I like this wine” to “this is good and you ought to think so too?” What winemaking morality, what foundation does one stand on to call to another, declaring from their tower “you ought to like this” without standing in a tower built with a deck of cards? Can terroir be the answer?

    If I unveil terroir as a standard, if I establish a “truth” even admitting some variance can I then look at your raisins and say: “you’ve moved further from this centering point and as a result (remember the presuppositions) you ought not do that and are wrong to take that approach”. Does it allow us to look at megapurple and say: it makes wine taste the same and is a technique therefore that should be avoided. But look at filtering and say: its impact on wine flavor is minimal and its diminishing of the consistent characters from this site subtle and certainly more subtle than spoilage from Brett (destroyer of unique expression) and therefore is an acceptable technique to apply to preserve terroir in certain cases. I like the goal of nothing in nothing out, but the aforementioned approach might allow for a moral acceptance of the circumstances when certain action is needed (humans are important to preventing it from becoming vinegar after all).

    Could it help us find common ground, avoid the war, allowing room for someone to still say “I don’t like this” but “Nice job, you did it the right way.” Stems and carbonic maceration on an early pick? Nice job for that style, but terroir is diminished, was that your goal? When we find a thing or series of things that extinguish terroir could we then conclude fairly and on moral high ground that someone went too far? Only if they claimed it their goal I suppose.

    Is terroir my idol? The object of my winemaking faith? Maybe. As a result it is also my blindspot. We all have them. But I suspect a bigger blindspot that exists in the industry is people’s inability to reflect on the logical conclusions of their own presuppositions.

    Its just wine people (thank you Stephane for that lesson)! Find what you love and respect other people’s freedom to love something different. I love distinct delicious character where technique fades and the wine induces bliss. I love terroir.

    (This was written while listening to Sisyphus samples:

  13. John Kelly
    John Kelly at | | Reply

    Tyler – I was waiting a while to give others a chance to weigh in. But let’s keep it going so long as you stay interested.

    I’m in complete agreement that it takes a special kind of ego to stand up and tell others what they OUGHT to like. Self-appointed “tastemakers” believe this is their divine right. To paraphrase Monty Python (great philosophers, all) I break wind in their general direction.

    I do believe that each of us is following some internal moral imperative in our approach to winemaking. I am not convinced that one approach is morally superior to another.

    I agree with you that revealing the “truth” of a site is a valuable goal. But I ask you, when you are making a choice to do or not do something, how do you KNOW what you are doing is contributing to that revelation?

    Because it OUGHT to?

  14. Tyler Thomas
    Tyler Thomas at | | Reply

    Ahhhh John, great question.

    But first a reminder that I do basically believe it is just wine. And so for me this is a fun intellectual exercise and I mean what I say but it is just wine so I don’t ultimately think an approach is morally superior to others. Even if sometimes my opinions suggest otherwise .

    Back to your question. It hints at the tautology of my point: you know your contributing to the revelation (or not) once you do something to unearth the revelation. That is unsatisfactory though. You know, because you start with faith that it is there, then you manipulate what you expect to be there (by faith) with the choices that you are comfortable provide predictable results. If it alters in a predictable way then you can have more confidence that what you think is there is really there. If it is not predictable, what you think is there may be different than you thought and you need to alter your expectations and conclusions about that wine or about the technique employed. I’ve worked with stem inclusion across sites and climates now all over CA. On some level they have the same basic impact. But the wines I’m working with don’t have the same expression, The stem impact does, but the wine does not. Some sites have embraced stems better than others and thus, the “terroir” has allowed me to increase pleasure with stems and yet not lose the site’s expression. Other sites just end up tasting stemmy. How do I know stemmy isn’t the end goal…because it tastes too predictably across sites. The differences in the site seems to go beyond the stems. There is a truth beyond my choice of technique, one that I cannot control but only hide.

    So its not that it ought to be there from a priori position, its that it wants to show itself (I realize the risk here) and with the right observation you can see it. I know our personal world views differ widely and we have very different takes on how the world ultimately works. But I’ve often wondered if atheism is not a triumph of reason, but a failure of wonder. Perhaps it is similar here. It is not that this basic profile ought to exist and that’s why I think it does. Its my own wonder of its potential existence that – with pursuit – ends up revealing more than its possibility but rather its down right occurrence. An empirical, albeit unscientific way, of testing the untestable. It takes more than an individual, but maybe it is possible?

    I suppose that is how I would answer. And if it does exist and I presume so with decent reason beyond that it ought to, can I then hold other peoples accountable to their presuppositions based on what we learn particular techniques do to a particular expression in wine?

    I think it may be just you and me at this point, though I’ve doubt we lost Elaine. Be well!

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