Through the Smithsonian Resident Associates, I had the pleasure of meeting renowned California winemaker Randall Grahm at a tasting event last week. He discussed the idea that some wines uniquely express the place, or terroir, where they were made.
"It's time for us in California to start taking seriously the notion of terroir," Grahm said, defining it as "the precise opposite of nowhereness." A vin de'terroir (wine of place) has distinct characteristics connected to the particular soil, climate, weather, history, farming practices and even the admittedly nebulous "essence" of the vineyard where it was born.
Grahm believes modern American culture suffers from "brand sickness," meaning that names, labels and logos have become more important than the actual products they represent. We've been so distracted by signifiers that we've lost track of real significance.
I see his point; haven't you ever walked into a wine store and grabbed whichever bottle is the right price—or the highest-scored by critics, or adorned with the wittiest pun or cutest animal on its label—without even caring to ask where and how it was made? I admit, I've done it more than once.
Respecting good terroir as a winemaker, Grahm explained, means not manipulating a vineyard or its grapes too much—and not needing to. If a winemaker needs to make "heroic interventions" in order to produce a palatable wine, it probably speaks to a problem with the terroir they have chosen, Grahm said. (Or, to quote an old joke—what did the doctor tell the patient who said he'd broken his leg in three places? "Well, stay out of those three places!")
In recent years Grahm has also become interested in biodynamic farming, which he defines as "agriculture with a very light hand, never making gross changes in soil quality...having an empathy with one's site," and keeping future generations in mind rather than focusing on immediate gain. It includes quirky practices like burying cow horns full of manure in the soil ("Totally mysterious, but it works," he says) and paying attention to lunar cycles and "life forces." (A review of research (pdf) on biodynamic farming concludes that, although the practice doesn't appear to be harmful, it is "a vista of starry eyes and good intentions mixed with quasi-religious hocus-pocus, good salesmanship, and plain scientific illiteracy.") True to his reputation, though, Grahm doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
"I believe technologically speaking, we've reached sort of a glass ceiling in winemaking," he said, explaining that he finds that boring because it means most winemakers can produce essentially flawless, sure-to-score-high wines—and most of them do, preferring stable profit margins over the gamble of inventing something truly unique.
"A technically perfect wine may be likable, but it's hardly lovable," Grahm argued. "A wine of terroir speaks with openness and candor...and an esteem for terroir makes us look at our land, and our custodianship of it, with deep respect and love."
I thought about this as I sipped some of Grahm's 2005 Le Cigare Volant, a rubied blend of mostly Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah whose rather silly name belies its elegance. I wondered whether it tasted particularly of California's Central Coast, where I've never been. To me, instead it evoked places I have been: A pub in the basement of a Salzburg castle. The rooftop of a former apartment. An island campground in the Adirondacks. A commune in rural France. The fireplace of an old Vermont inn. A particular patch of sun-dappled grass.
In other words, places where I have experienced joy and beauty. That's not terroir, exactly, but it is darn good wine.
I ran into Grahm again the next night, as he and other American "Rhone Rangers" poured their wines at a Smithsonian reception celebrating sustainable seafood. I asked if he felt that the Le Cigare Volant was a good example of terroir and/or a biodynamic wine. He said no, because it's made with grapes from several different vineyards that were cultivated with a mix of practices.
Well then, I asked, which of his wines is the best example of those concepts?
Above his owlish eyeglasses, Grahm's brows jumped and then furrowed.
"Dammit! None of them!" he said, laughing at himself. "It's more of an aspirational thing for me right now. I mean, biodynamic farming and terroir are really cool, and you can make some really good wine that way. But it's not the only way to make good wine."