Monday, April 11, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ Dreams of Terroir

Terroir came to me in a dream. Like most of you here, before I had my epiphany I never believed in Terroir. I was of the opinion that only the ignorant believed in It, only the desperate and the delusional—wine writers and marketing people, for example. And delusional is putting it mildly. These people dream dollar signs, and those dreams are wet. What’s the old saying? “If Terroir did not exist, it would be necessary to invent It.” Which, if you’d asked me then, I would have told you was just a lot of hot air; or as the French call it, voltaire. The French have stupid words for everything, like pommes frites. They can’t even name their own potatoes right.

Terroir is just another one of those stupid French words. That’s what I believed at the time. Wherever I traveled, wherever I tasted the finest wines, I ran into folks who blindly and faithfully believed in Terroir. They would smell and taste a wine and declare that it was filled with Terroir, as though wine were a Twinkie and Terroir its luscious creamy filling. Far too often, they would try fervently to convince you of the existence of Terroir. They would ask if you could sense Terroir in a wine. They would insist that, if you knew where to look, if you just opened your heart to the wonder of wine, wherever you traveled in the wine world you would sense the loving embrace of Terroir. “Accept Terroir,” they would say, “and Terroir will be the Answer to all of your wine questions.” Many wore shirts that read:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, which is a subappellation of Napa, I shall fear no evil, for Terroir art with me; your rod and your tasting room staff, they comfort me.”

This they believed. Before my conversion, I often asked the true Terroir believers to define Terroir.  For every forty believers I asked, I received forty different definitions. These are truly stupid people. Every one of them thought that they knew the true definition of Terroir, though no such definition exists. Terroir is unknowable, like minerality or how “Wine Folly” has any readers at all. Terroir encompasses everything that makes up the finished wine, from the soil and climate to the winemaker and the winery, and, one supposes, to the spinning cones and micro-oxygenation. Oh, yes, Terroir keeps up with all the latest technology. It can be said that without Terroir, there is no need for that new winemaking technology. Or, perhaps, that Terroir transcends technology. Though I always believed that technology, man’s hand, created Terroir. We create wine, and therefore we create Terroir. Does Terroir exist without man? No. It cannot. Terroir is the 100 Point Scale of yesteryear. We moved on. We don’t need Terroir anymore, we assign points. One fantasy always replaces another.

You see, discussing Terroir is like practicing biodynamics—both demand endless bullshit.

I was the Richard Dawkins of Terroir. I believed that other people believe Terroir exists, but I knew that it did not. When Terroir encompasses everything, how can you smell it? How do you know you smell Terroir and not the finger you just pulled from your ass? There are dozens of compounds to smell in wine, yet a human can only smell four at a time—how do you know those four are the wine’s Terroir? It’s like licking a dirty plate in the French Laundry and declaring it the finest gourmet meal of your lifetime. (Which I highly recommend, by the way, if simply for how much money you save for essentially the same experience.) Claiming to understand a wine’s Terroir based on your indisputably pathetic sense of smell is simple hubris. A way to claim superior knowledge and skills. A way to pass “Go” and Collect $200. A cocky “Checkmate.” A macho “Yeah, I did her.” No one believes you, and everyone hates you.

Yes, friends, I was a skeptic. I found pleasure in denying the existence of Terroir. To be truthful, I felt superior because I knew that Terroir was a manmade conceit and, therefore, by its own definition, not real. I looked down upon those who believed in Terroir, who believed Terroir had meaning, that Terroir existed. Terroir, I believed, was a sad illusion, the refuge of wine hucksters and wine writers with no discernible knowledge or talent. Saying a wine expressed its Terroir was like saying your Doberman had just silently expressed his poor diet via his GI tract. You call it Terroir, I call it He Who Smelt it Dealt it.

But I was wrong. Yes, fellow converts, I admit it. I was wrong. Terroir doesn’t have to be definable to exist. Terroir, I know now, is about Faith. And as we get older, we long for Faith. The young want certainty, they yearn for control. With age, we find a place where we can let the illusions of certainty and control vanish. The young cannot understand Terroir. For them, it is a word they can use as a crutch. But, for the most part, they cannot sense Terroir. Terroir does not live in their heart. They need more time, they need to walk the wine road a while longer. Terroir is not a quality, my friends, Terroir is destiny. Why am I talking like fucking Alfonso Cevola?

Terroir finally came to me in a dream. In my dream, I was wandering around a beautiful vineyard near harvest. I was naked and had an enormous penis, so I knew I was dreaming. Or I was a Percheron, I don’t remember. The vineyard was talking to me. “Get the fuck out of here,” it said. That was the Syrah, with its shitty attitude. I think it was drunk. It was also singing, “The Cornas is high/as an elephant’s eye…” Syrah loves the theater, and especially musicals, I remembered in my dream, and I felt it was suspiciously eyeing my gigantic junk.

And then I felt a powerful energy surround me in my dream. I felt embraced by something much larger than me, like I’d been swallowed by Robert Parker. I realized I was no longer naked sporting a gigantic magic dong, though for some reason it had been replaced by Georg Riedel. I was slowly sinking into the soil, becoming part of the vineyard. I felt the caress of the Syrah’s roots. Actually, they were more like groping my engorged Riedel stem. I sensed the life-giving moisture in the soil coursing through my body, upward into the grapevines, reaching toward the Heavens. I became one with the vineyard. And a voice, a disembodied voice, like Stephen Hawking ejaculating into Siri’s throat, said, “I am Terroir. And you are Terroir. I live in You.”

Terroir had come to me. As a wine professional, I had never known such certainty and such peace. I knew Terroir. And now, friends, whenever I inhale the fragrance of a new bottle of wine, Terroir fills my lungs, and my heart. I am home. I am a man of Faith. Terroir is my Faith. When I smell Terroir, I am joyous to be home, naked, in a vineyard, gently touching my throbbing Georg.


Charlie Olken said...

I never met a terroir I didn't like--because I was supposed to. Of course, what was supposed to the "shitty" terroir of Burgundy turned out to be dirty winemaking, and either Burgundian reds have lost their terroir and don't know where to find it or they have suddenly found their terroir, and it is a lot cleaner and easier to like now that I am freed from liking their poopy wines.

Of course, I am no longer intimidated by the terroirist terrorists with their "you don't know shit if you don't like poop" mentalities because I have become one of them in my own quiet way. Not that I have become a fan of baby diaper smells, but I do like the differences that place can bring to wine and do not have to like or dislike Pinot from Westside Road at the expense of Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands or, god forbid, from Burgundy.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Charlie,
This piece was a result of reading common taters on Wark's Sermontation blog. I realized how much I hate discussions of terroir. How ultimately useless and uninformative those discussions are. Naturally, I thought I'd contribute to a useless and uninformative discussion because that's my specialty.

So I just rambled on and on about the church of Terroir, in an almost Cevola-esque fashion. It's not a very good piece, but it's such a stupid subject. And wine people seem compelled to endlessly argue it. Everyone wants wine to be less snooty, then they spend hours arguing about a concept that is indefinable and a character of wine that is nonexistent. Idiots.

I drank a Gigondas last night that was fabulous. Did it have Gigondas terroir? Who the fuck cares? Pretend sommeliers and foolish wine writers, maybe. Me, I just thought it was delicious.

Charlie Olken said...

On the other hand, it was not CDP despite having essentially the same cepage.

Is terroir like pornograpy? You cannot define it but you know it when you smell it--terroir, that is.

There is this to be said for most "wine appreciation". It does not exist without a lot of utter nonsense, bullshit and one-upsmanship.

And thank goodness for that or neither you nor I would ever have made a living.

Thomas said...

Terroir, natural,
SO2 not invited.
Come to the party.

Unknown said...

Here's a link to that Wark blog.
Once the terroir debate is finished (probably never) how about a debate that proves God does not exist?

The Everyday Horse said...

I should know better than to read this blog at work. Laughing in my little corporate cube. The snorty kind.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'm not going to sucked into a terroir debate here. I've loved CdP all my wine life, and, no, I wouldn't swear that tasted blind I would know that lovely Gigondas didn't have CdP terroir. I'd know it wasn't Rayas, but Rayas is Rayas. And, yes, terroir is like pornography, but more in the sense that it's mostly about jerking off.

It's probably obvious, but I'm not a party guy. Especially this election.

I was hinting at Terroir=God in this piece. At least from the standpoint of how the concept is discussed. Wine is so complex and difficult to genuinely grasp for a species with such poor senses of smell and taste that we resort to mystical concepts like terroir to explain what, truthfully, needs no explanation. Maybe terroir is actually love. Yeah, let's go with that.

Of course, it's much easier to tell it's an Oregon Pinot Noir by its terroir if you use a Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass! Right?

Well, thanks for laughing. Or whinnying. Whichever.

Unknown said...

Ron--permit me to make a few functional definitions relating to "terroir"

1. If you drink a wine and really like terroir is irrelevant
2. If you taste a wine and it seems a little odd but you like it-that terroir!
3. If you taste a wine and it is a littl wierd and you don;t like, that's the fault of the barrels or the wine maker..
Does that clar things up? Works for me. Bob Millman

Unknown said...

sorry about the typos> I am currently under the influence of an aggressive attack of terroir-phobia. bob Millman

Unknown said...

Ron....Now I am stuck with the image of you being hung like a Percheron......

John Lahart said...

I can tell any CdP from the flavor of pudding stones in the wine!
Not to be confused with "pudding" wines, of course!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

There you go! A wise wine critic never defines what he means by terroir, he just tosses it into the description in order to affirm the wine's quality, and, more importantly, to affirm his unquestionable wine knowledge. I sort of see "terroir" as the wine experts version of "bitey."

Only in my dreams. Where's Catherine the Great when I need her?

Thomas said...


Aww. I wasted a
haiku on you, but hold on
Let me try again.

Terroir, natural
SO2 not invited.
And neither are you.

Unknown said...

Thanks Ron for sending the good humor. Your humor has all the three elements I heard once from a comedy-movie director - language, story and lessons behind/beyond a story. Cheers to the truly talented HoseMaster.

Unknown said...

Hey Ron...
"I drank a Gigondas last night that was fabulous. Did it have Gigondas terroir? Who the fuck cares? Pretend sommeliers and foolish wine writers, maybe. Me, I just thought it was delicious."

I frequently have conversations with guests that go something like this...
"Ya know you don't have to identify specific smells in wine to enjoy can be a fun game if you are good at it...but it's just a game, and it doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you, the consumer, have permission to enjoy, or reject, a wine. Ya know why "wine people" play that game? They are under the impression that it justifies their existance"
In fact, I tell them, that Pinot Noir in particular, and wine in general does not magically become wine only if it is analyzed first. I suggest that they hold the wine in their mouths, close their eyes and feel the texture as they roll it around, breathing through their nose, (they love learning why retro nasal breathing is an added dimension to intensify aromas) and just let the wine speak to them. You should see the relief that comes across their faces, as if someone is finally telling them that it's ok to just like a wine without having to analyze it first.

Oh, and btw...we are no longer supposed to call it the Oregon Pinot Noir Glass (which is really just a smaller, much less expensive version of the Riedel $90/stem hand blown lead crystal "Burgundy" Glass) ...the kids down south got their panties in a bunch that Oregon had their own special glass and complained to now we are supposed to call it the "New World Pinot Glass". SMH...

Alfonso Cevola said...

just so we're clear, Ron. I ramble on and on.. it's just not about terroir (I hope)'s a good thing I still have a dose of anesthetics ( and morphine) in my system, or I might take all of this stuff too seriously (considering I already take EVERYTHING way too seriously)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

What is this, a poetry blog now? Haiku? Nice. Maybe all comments should be in haiku from now on. Or iambic pentameter at the very least. Maybe dirty limericks. And doubling down the haikus? Man, you're out there today!

Long time no see! Where have you been, Love? Thanks for the sweet words.

Thanks for the insights. I agree with most everything you say. I was never a terroir guy, though I think I get the concept. I've always said that the one thing great wines have in common, be it Rayas or Lafite or Monte Bello or DRC, is that they are always themselves. No matter what the vintage, or even when a winemaker changes, somehow a great vineyard manages to shine through it all. Does an entire region, made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vineyards and wineries have some commonality that is easy to smell and taste, that is unmistakably, say, Lodi? That strains credulity, and is inherently foolish.

Oh, I was writing that particular paragraph and I suddenly had this feeling that I was channeling one of your recent posts, which are fueled by your wine withdrawal hallucinations, I guess. And the morphine. Glad you took it in the fond satiric sense it was meant.

I love the way you take things seriously, my friend. Considering your long and distinguished career in wine, you've earned it. That you're taking wine a bit less seriously speaks well of your continued sanity.

Unknown said...

I prefer terroir of the lab. It smells like..... money. And soda pop.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Smells like money and soda pop? Your lab smells like Donald Trump? Cool.

Unknown said...

Ron, I live up here in the Great White North with two official languages and this "terroir " wine speak is associated with fields of cow "patties "' methinks.

Paul in St. Augustine said...

Off topic, I apologize. I came across this. Do you know them? Is it what they claim, or is it simply a Circle Jerk?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yes. It's always best to avoid stepping in a pile of Burgundy.

I know of them. They've been around a long while, but are centered around writers in the UK and Canada. Interesting group of names, from Jancis to Nat MacLean. Must be interesting meetings. I'd join, but they insisted I wear lederhosen and a dunce cap.

Charlie Olken said...

" I'd join, but they insisted I wear lederhosen and a dunce cap. "

In that order?

What, no shit-kicker boots to avoid stepping in the terroir? (with thanks to Neil, for the line).

Man About Wine said...

Try this: take 5 bottles of New Zealand Sauv blanc and five from Sancerre, do a blind taste with about 15 people, and see if all y'all can group them together right. Or try it with Gevrey Chambertin and Vosne Romanee. Don't knock it til you try it.

Jus sayin,

Arabicspkr said...

Most people who say they love terroir have no idea what they're actually talking about.

"Oh, this wine is such a wonderful expression of this single vineyard site"

---Or maybe that's a fuckton of hydrogren sulfide you're smelling.

I believe in terroir, but I believe that the vast majority of winemakers can't even bring it out. How can one sit there and talk about how wonderful terroir is when tons and tons of wines have disulfide issues, h2s problems, are aldehydic on the nose, massively high pH (compromising the palate), etc etc?

They go on about "not manipulating" a wine, but, fuck, I want an interventionist winemaker. I want someone who is going to be sure that the wine doesnt throw all the aforementioned problems into the mix, thus, RUINING "terroir."

Professor Merlot said...

Thank you, Ron.

Unknown said...

While I wouldn't deny the existance of terroir, tasting terroir in a wine always reminds me of 'The Emperor's New Clothes". Only the finest palates can detect it, and if you don't taste terroir in this wine, then your palate must not be as refined as mine. As always, Ron, I appreciate you pointing and laughing at the naked emperor

Don Clemens said...

Ron, for years, my good friend Joseph Spellman used to tell me: Terroir is French for "I don't know what that means". I think he was on to something.

Ziggy said...

Maybe we should consult these guys for a definition of "terroir"?
I bet the Bull's can really be a big help.

Airedale Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Australian Terrier, Bedlington Terrier
Bull Terrier, Miniature Bull Terrier, Norfolk Terrier, Rat Terrier, Russell Terrier, Scottish Terrier, West Highland White Terrier.

Now I know why our Westy loves to sniff the wine cellar.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My personal feeling is that I don't care if terroir exists. It's a vacuous concept that's been bastardized by its misuse and marketability. I start to yawn when someone begins to lecture about terroir. I've never read or heard a discussion of it that clarified it, or decisively defined it. I've often said that talking about terroir is like talking about whether humans have souls. Let's just say humans have souls and wines have terroir and move on to talking about shit that matters.

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh boy, am I glad I came late to this one....