Digital Wine Communications Conference Speech, Izmir, Turkey

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to a group of wine bloggers in Portland, OR recently – some of you may have been there – in which I reflected somewhat pensively on the state of the wine business in the U.S., mostly lamenting a certain palpable loss of innocence and idealism. The gist of my remarks was that the recent great success of the wine business has at the same time sowed the seeds of its spiritual demise. Partially, it has been a function of people entering the business with more strictly business motives – every single orthodontist, plastic surgeon, former athlete, television star, musician or reasonably successful plumber with some disposable income has simultaneously decided that the wine business is the most appropriate vehicle for the expression of their “artistic side.”2_slide_blog3_vinferno

Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, we are now observing some of the well-known dynamics of an extremely overcrowded ecosystem; this does not bring out the most meritorious behavior in individuals, whether in rats, cellar rats or winery owners.

Because of the tremendous level of competition, you can see a sort of tragic level of self-consciousness on every level; one begins to consider the economic consequences of every winemaking decision that one makes. Do you dare to produce an “elegant” wine that speaks in a quiet voice? How will it be heard over the deafening din of the agora? If you are a winery owner blessed with significant means, you are sorely tempted to hire the best consultants that money can buy, ones who have the capability to reverse engineer the Robert Parker/Wine Spectator palate and instruct you on how you might make a wine guaranteed to get a high point score rating. 4_rollandmichel

Not express originality, mind you, but rather land squarely in the stylistic range of what passes among some tastemakers at least as real “quality.” It is not surprising that some successful winemakers, at least in the New World, are experiencing something like a sense of malaise; they’re bored and perhaps even vaguely ashamed of the decadent state of affairs. Or perhaps they’re not. The mere public mention of the word malaise, by the way, in a speech thirty some odd years ago, led to the undoing of the hapless American President, Jimmy Carter. 5_Jimmy_Carter

It is good for all of you to understand that there is a ubiquitous American allergy – nowhere better expressed than in the American wine business – to acknowledging that all might not be exquisite sweetness and light within our perfect world. This neurosis carries through to our wine criticism, and our most influential critics seem to embrace wines that have no dark side at all and cast not a shadow. Not a sustainable proposition, which we ignore at our own peril.6_stepford

I don’t wish today to speak entirely of the Gloom and Doon scenario that besets the New World. But, before I dare to imagine with you an alternate reality for the improved trajectory of New World wines, allow me to express a sincere moment of heartfelt longing from the far side of the existential abyss – that gap that separates what might be called “vins de terroir,” original wines that truly matter, from vins d’effort, or wines of effort, that voodoo that we do in the New World so well. I won’t belabor the point but wines of terroir, wines that express a sense of place, deeply satisfy both our more refined aesthetic sensibilities and offer something like a visceral, emotional connection to the earth, to Nature’s Order, and by extension to ourselves. 7_sacred-geometryYou just feel differently when you taste a wine that comes from a place rather than one that comes from the laboratory of Dr. Faustus.

In the Old World, at least in many sectors (with some conspicuous exceptions that will remain nameless),1 terroir is taken more seriously than ever, especially by many younger vintners. This is very good news indeed. These winemakers are looking backwards to older techniques and varieties, to gentler practices, more respectful of their terroirs, excavating their patrimony for depth and meaning. The notion of terroir is no longer mere marketing legerdemain fueled by Gallic cynicism, but seems at least to me to be mostly the real deal. 8_drfaustus

Allow me a parenthetical meta-message here, which may come off as a little New Agey. First, you should know that I am not in fact a New Agey kind of guy – more of an Old Agey kind of guy, if anything, truth be told. But, my sense is that we are living in a strange and magical time, where a style of wine or a grape variety that has languished for years can suddenly become popular due to a mention in a hip-hop tune or by being featured in a popular film.

Obvious causal relationships like the one between high quality, fair price and respectable sales volume no longer seem to obtain. Nevertheless, there seems to be something like an alchemical transformation taking place, a winnowing, if you will, in virtue of strong but highly erratic evolutionary pressures; we are living in our own vinous Ice Age with the craziest kind of extreme weather. 9_Drake-MoscatoVery disparate sorts of species appear to be prospering, both the very pure and the very impure exemplars, you might say; maybe we tend to embrace the former as we recoil in horror to the latter? It’s enough to turn one to the extreme Manichean world-view. I can’t explain why cynical, spoofulated wines are ascendant, nor can I explain the presence of evil (or oenvil) in the world.
I don’t wish to prognosticate on the future of the fake and banal, I can only offer my own thoughts on how we in the New World, absent pedigree, provenance, warrant or credential, might proceed to find our way to sit at the same table with the grownups – that is, with wines expressive of a sense of place. Let’s meditate a bit on how one might begin to approach what would appear to be an impossibly quixotic project, one that would seem to take literally multiple lifetimes – and we all know how mindful we Americans have been about taking pains to insure a sustainable future. 11_humveefleet

So, I will only talk about the wines that we might call “real,” in the sense of possessing unique characteristics that differentiate them from everything else. This class of wines will not resemble the current crop of “great” monster wines of the New World, few possessing real distinctiveness and many of which are already essentially caricatures of themselves – impressive in their own way, but at the same time, grotesqueries.
In broad terms, I envision that in the future the model for great wines in the New World will embody a major paradigm shift from wines of effort to wines of terroir. To that end, the methodology of their production will have to significantly change. What we have done so well in the New World is to control things – from the clonal selection of our vineyards to the way the vines are irrigated, to the designer yeasts and enzymes, to the cosmetic “enhancements” that impart “improved” texture, color, etc. But, while the wines are “impressive” (at least to some), they do tend to all look and taste alike. Perhaps this is a little unfair but many of the “great” New World wines possess as much natural beauty as, say, a Las Vegas showgirl. 13_showgirl_megapurple

Real wines of the future will derive their beauty and complexity from the genius (if it exists) of the site where the grapes are grown, and to achieve this I believe there has to be a fundamental shift in approach, which, as luck would have it, aligns with the new reality of limited resources, as these resources begin to approach their real costs. Maybe it will not be the right solution for every vineyard, but for me, I envision the return of dry-farmed, head-trained vines – no wire, trellis or drip system, an elegant low-tech solution.14_vinesYou won’t get the preternatural yields of an irrigated vineyard, but the wines will likely have far more depth and personality. Which brings me seamlessly to another topic that I believe will have enormous relevance in the future, indeed if there is to be anything like a future for us.15_hans

This subject is the material called biochar; the most extraordinary research on its application to vineyards is being done by a fellow called Hans-Peter Schmidt, studying its effects in the vineyards of the Valais in Switzerland as well as in southern France.

Biochar is essentially activated charcoal, which when mixed with high quality compost takes on some extremely interesting agronomic properties. First, at high rates of application, i.e. 20 tons/ha, it can greatly enhance the water holding capacity of soils – by as much as 30-35%.16_biochar In dry areas, this can really make the difference between being able to farm without supplemental irrigation or not. It also greatly enhances the fertility of the soil, building more organic matter, further enhancing the water holding capacity. The other aspect of biochar is that it seems to greatly stimulate beneficial microbial activity in the soil, specifically the mycorrhizae, or symbiotic fungi that actively transport minerals into the root hairs of the plant.2
While the subject of minerality is certainly fraught, there is no question in my mind that wines made from grapes grown in mineral rich soils, as well as those possessing a healthy soil ecology, whether farmed organically or biodynamically, will exhibit what might be called a greater life-force, or ability to tolerate oxidative challenge.18_decanter

Put another way, I would suggest that it is impossible to think about greatness in wines absent the ability of those wines to age and gain in complexity. So, if the presence of biochar and higher levels of organic matter in vineyards support mycorrhizae and the uptake of minerals in the soil, we can perhaps think of them as terroir amplifiers.


Another way of thinking about terroir, specifically the criteria for a great terroir, is to understand that this site is one that has managed to educe a greater degree of finesse and articulation from its grapes in comparison to its neighbors, and so much of this finesse is a function of buffering against extreme conditions – drought or excessive moisture.3


Biochar has the capacity to in some sense make soils “smarter,” i.e. not only to enhance nutritional availability and disease resistance, but also to create a greater sense of homeostasis for the plant, i.e. more moderate growth, and a buffering against stress; this is especially valuable in light of global climate change, and the dry conditions that we already experience during the growing season in California. 21_master

Now, here is a very interesting point that we might all meditate on. As I was learning more about biochar, I asked Peter Schmidt, “So, Peter, by the addition of biochar, aren’t you in fact deforming the expression of terroir?” Of course you are,” he said, “but actually no more than if you were, say, plowing a field, which is itself a deformation.4

While in some sense terroir may be thought of as a collection of the inhering qualities of a site transcending the stylistic imprint of the winemaker, at the same time it is inextricably linked to the human beings who are there to discover and express it. 22_plow

So, we can’t help but meddle a bit; if we are clever and elegant, our meddling and muddling seem to fade seamlessly to the edges in the vins de terroir that we might produce. But, again, in the New World, absent hundreds of years of iteration and observation, how might one shine the light on the uniqueness of a given site, to allow its voice to be heard and not get drowned out by other voices? I think that it is ultimately a question of the signal to noise ratio, i.e. how much information is transmitted against the background of irrelevency. What are the practices that amplify the signal of terroir, but do not create excessive noise?523_SNR

I have a theory, which may or may not be right and that is: If you can identify a place to grow grapes where there is a strong and articulate terroir – one with appropriate water holding and fertility characteristics, and an expressive mineral profile – perhaps it is not absolutely necessary that you be supremely clever or preternaturally lucky enough to identify the “perfect,” most ideally matched grape variety to that site; maybe it is really just the gross phenology you need to get right – ripening time, Brix/acid balance, etc.24_jeanmichel

To go even further, perhaps the presence of strong varietal characteristics may actually work against the expression of soil characteristics. I would cite the wines of Jean-Michel Deiss, whose mixed field blends of varieties that ripen at approximately the same time with an appropriate balance, support the idea that a great terroir trumps the precision of the articulation of a single variety.

Further, witness the wines of Los Bermejos in the Canary Islands, grown on pure basalt rock, made from the somewhat ignominious Listan negro variety; the wines are brilliant and complex, certainly not because of the inherent genius of their constituent grapes. Further, it is a basic tenet that multicépage wines are just the way to go in warmer, Mediterranean climates. A single varietal wine cannot create the complexity and balance of a well-conceived blend in warmer, dryer sites, (and I will argue in a moment that we human beings cannot conceive of blends quite as complex as Mother Nature can potentially create for us.)
So, if you take the idea to its logical conclusion of reordering the Gestalt of the experience of a wine such that its varietal aspect is in the background and its soil characteristics are in the foreground, you will want to maximize the practices that reinforce that soil expression. My very radical (in the original sense of the word) idea is that perhaps by growing grapes from seed, you might end up with a much greater expression of soil characteristics than if you were to grow the grapes from conventionally grown rootings or grafts. This has not been studied in grapevines, as no one apart from breeders grow from seeds, but in fact, seedlings of virtually every woody plant exhibit different rooting behavior compared to plants grown from cuttings, i.e. they exhibit a greater degree of geotropism, or the ability to root straight down to China.


But, I think that greatest advantage of growing grapes from seeds is in the creation of both minute and gross diversity in the resultant seedlings, thus leveraging the raw combinative power of Nature to iterate enormously over a relatively short period of time. As an aside, you don’t really want to collect seeds created from self-pollinating vines, as the seedlings will express deleterious recessive alleles, resulting in inferior progeny.
One will likely do much better to cross varieties with one another, which will lead to healthier plants, and, when viewed as a population, potentially allow the emergence of certain individual plants with unique characteristics, or simply ones that clearly are a lot happier growing where they are than their confrères.

So, you try to be as thoughtful as possible about the qualities you are looking for and the suitability of certain varieties for your site. How you do this is perhaps a little tricky.6 How you do this is perhaps a little tricky. I think that you need to start with something like a baseline value, beginning with “standard varieties” – it could even be something as recherché as say, Ruchè – on your site and seeing how they perform, imagining how they might perhaps be nudged one way or another to become more felicitously matched to your unique conditions.
It is the female part of the cross that largely transmits the varietal characteristics to the progeny, so you want to make sure that this is a variety that seems to express well on your site. The male part of the cross is the one that carries the growth characteristics, the form of the vine to the progeny. In my own case, growing grapes in a slightly warm, fairly dry climate, I’m looking for an extremely vigorous male parent, one that has good drought tolerance.
The bet, in a nutshell, is really this: If you begin with a variety that performs particularly well on your site, by creating minute variations between the diverse genotypes that are the offspring of that parent, might you have the wit to discern a particular individual or group of individuals that seem to be better suited to the site than the others – ripening a little earlier, or later, or being more drought tolerant or disease resistant, through whatever criteria seem to be important in growing grapes on your site?

The other part of the bet is that even if you do not live long enough or have the wit to discern real genius ensconced in your midst, will the sheer number of variations on a theme as it were, (after you’ve culled out the too early or too late ripening or too sickly individuals that are clearly not with the program), 31_oldmancreate something like complex polyphony or something more like cacophony? Put another way, in a genetically diverse vineyard is there something like the collective wisdom of a crowd?7

I honestly don’t know if my idea for growing grapes from seeds is the world’s best idea or the world’s worst idea, but if it were to work, i.e. the soil characteristics coming through in the wine itself, it would seem, at the very least, that this would be a wine that came from the closest thing to a bespoke vineyard, and would not taste like anything else around. It seems, especially in light of global climate change, and the incidence of new disease pressures on vines, that creating a rich, diverse planting stock for one’s unique vineyard would be both a reasonable strategy for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future. Thank you very much.

Keynote Address delivered to European Wine Bloggers Conference, Nov. 9, 2012

  1. Bordeaux []
  2. I should add that the incorporation of biochar into the soil, has also the salutary effect of sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide for approximately 5-10,000 years, depending on the various estimates that you read, essentially being the only probable realistic solution to the problem of global climate change. []
  3. The other more obvious aspect of a great terroir is its ability to express the unique characteristics of its soil type; some soils (calcareous, granitic, volcanic, and schistous for example) seem to be uniquely gifted in transmitting this secondary dimension of a wine. []
  4. Cultivation by discing disrupts the topmost soil layer, killing off the beneficial microflora. []
  5. The use of new oak, drip irrigation or use of over-ripe grapes would be good examples of extraneous noise. []
  6. This, I believe, lands squarely in the realm of art (or perhaps mysticism) and not science. Certainly some sort of deep intuition or inspiration is here required; my experience has been that when you know, you just seem to know. []
  7. You can argue that new, “modern” varieties bred within the last one hundred years (with the possible exception of Scheurebe, which has recently been shown to have an “unknown” maternal parent – itself exceptionally strange), are generally far less interesting than their parents. This may be due to the fact that in general, modern grape breeding has selected for very utilitarian criteria – in many instances, enhanced yield – rather than for excellence of wine quality. The success of my project may well be contingent on what is still just a belief – as yet a far from confirmed fact – that the multiplicity of voices will yield great complexity and nuance and not just noise, or worse, flavors that are unpleasant. My greatest nightmare is that after all of this heroic effort, I may well end up with essentially the equivalent of Pinotage (which undoubtedly seemed like a great idea at the time, at least to someone). []

22 Responses to “Digital Wine Communications Conference Speech, Izmir, Turkey”

  1. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Plants merely try to reproduce. They care not a whit about our ideas of balance, taste, complexity, etc. Seeds are totally random as far as favorable human desires. So are mutations. But selecting from vines that do what we like, that is natural selection. Our nature, not the plant’s.

    • Indeed, you are totally correct. But the question is, can we capture the power of Nature’s combinative aspect to our own ends, i.e. in the one instance to build complexity, in the other, to identify individual or individuals genotypes that are perhaps better suited to a given site than others, or simply, produce far more interesting wine. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Josepherio says:

    I *love* the idea of distinctive wine expressing its source. However, I don’t see the difference between adding biochar and irrigation. Besides, the French have a long history of very aggressive “site preparation” for their vineyards. So, let’s champion the idea of *distinctive* vineyards and wines, and not pick certain techniques that are OK and designate others as not OK.

    Plus, it would be nice if Mr. Grahm would identify specific wines that meet his criteria, whether New World or Old.

    • The practice of irrigation (esp. drip) and the addition of biochar are two very different practices, with two extremely different outcomes. Drip irrigation, especially frequent irrigation, creates an extremely limited root system, thus inhibiting the plant’s ability to take up nutrients from the entire soil profile. The use of biochar on the other hand, may enable a grower to eschew the practice of irrigation, thus creating a more far-reaching root system, drawing minerals from a wider area, as well as drawing those minerals more efficiently, thanks the active transport property of mycorrhizae. There are many great examples of wines that are expressive of place, and one need not look much further than (proper) Chablis for a fairly well known one. All of the Grand Cru Burgundies, both red and white, can be said to be highly expressive of place.

  3. Josepherio says:

    Thanks for the additional information, but I apologize for being unclear. I understand that irrigation and biochar serve different purposes, but my point is that it doesn’t seem fair to champion some types of “terroir engineering” (e.g. adding biochar) and criticize others (e.g. drip irrigation). Which terroir modifications are “good” and which are “bad”? I don’t think there is a way, aside from having two categories: (1) 100% natural (i.e. no man-made changes) and (2) everything else.

    Mr. Grahm, are there any New World wines you can provide as examples of expressing place? Thank you.

    • As I mentioned in the speech, one can’t help but engaging in certain kinds of terroir “interventions” or manipulations. The issue is to decide which ones of these are mostly benign and which less so. I would argue that the addition of biochar is a benign intervention, as it serves to essentially amplify the signal, as it were, of the terroir that is already there; it’s not adding new nutrients or oligo-elements to the soil, but rather allowing the plants to more efficiently take up the existing elements. Drip irrigation, on the other hand, effectively restricts the rooting zone, so, apart from effacement of vintage variation (a feature of terroir) due to rainfall variability, there is less efficient mining of the existing minerals, thus attenuating terroir’s voice. There are but a few New World vineyards I’ve come across that seem to eloquently express terroir. One is Ridge’s Montebello Vyd, which is, ironically enough, irrigated. (I would argue that it would be even more distinctive if it were not.) The other that comes to mind is Bindi “Quartz” in the Macedon Range of Australia. I don’t know if it is irrigated or not, but there is a most distinctive character that seems to come from unique outcroppings of quartz that dominate the vyd.

  4. James Dicey says:

    If you are really true to vines best expressing their heritage why not go back to grass roots? Move out of an essentially monoculture farming system and farm them like they naturally grow – climbing trees in a forest. Surely that’s the most “natural” expression of Terroir?

    • I’m completely with you on that. In fact, Peter Schmidt through his work at the Delinat Institut has worked on formalizing certain rules for successful polyculture, where his vyds. really look nothing at all like what we think of as vineyards (more like gardens). The one rub in the New World is our lack of summer rain, and this rather limits our ability to support as much diversity of plantation as we might prefer, as the amount of moisture needed for say an individual crop, like the grape vine, is very very limited.

  5. […] for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future.” Randall Grahm shares his remarks to the European Wine Bloggers […]

  6. […] for true sustainability as well as a wonderful gift to give to the future.” Randall Grahm shares his remarks to the European Wine Bloggers […]

  7. David says:

    I always read your posts with great interest. In addition, I really admire the adventurous and experimental spirit in pursuing your ideas around grapes from seeds. I hope I live long enough to taste what comes from it.
    Moreover many of your arguments present a good case for careful farming techniques. All good things
    Then you get your fundamentalist and dogmatic notion of “terroir” and I get concerned about the un-scientific and anti-scientific direction. A few things strike me, and I would be thrilled to get some refutation based on facts and *causal* relationships, not poetic speculation based on perceived correlations
    1) You isolate the impact of soil makeup on a finished wine from all of the other variables in the vine to glass process without any rigor. You are certainly not the only person to do this; most vehement proponents of terroir fundamentalism isolate this variable with no rigor (or at least none presented). How do you make this case? How do you effectively control for picking decision, exposure, yeasts, ambient non s.cervesiae yeast that might compete early on, bacteria, etc, etc, etc. Are there controlled studies? I would love to read them

    2) Introducing concepts such as “life force” contribute little to the argument. The give about as much information as positing a creator in discussing nature, human behavior, politics etc. Such arguments that posit super or extra-natural forces strike me as fraught with the problems of confirmation bias and epistemological laziness

    3) The the artificial dialectic of “vins d’effort” and “vins d’terroir”, in this day and age, seems to introduce a political element that is more deleterious to the open discussion of wine styles and aesthetics than productive. Are we really to think that there is a sharp rift and each wine must fit into one or the other? Even more, are we to really believe that there are only two sites outside of europe that produce this ill defined concept of wines of terroir? If we are to accept that plant adaption to site is a strong catalyst in producing wines that reflect place (and I’m being agnostic to that argument for the moment), that 100+ year old vines of mixed blacks are only capable of producing manipulated wines of little interest or consequence. I expect many producers, whose wines I find personally quite compelling, might be rather insulted, or at the least, taken back by that stance.

    3) That the environment that a life form grows is key to the health of that life form, I think goes without saying. That climate, soil health, exposure are highly relevant in growing plants, is also, I think patently obvious. That certain plants are better suited to different conditions, I think has been pretty well proven in the scientific canon.
    However, the amount of specificity and weight given to this poorly defined concept – particularly insofar as it often seems given as fact or science – is troubling and possible counterproductive: counterproductive in that so many accept these “truths” as self evident, and this prevents people from engaging in real scientific inquiry of the subject. And I think history shows that the truth around phenomenon is ALWAYS more beautiful and fecund than the myths that proceeded it

  8. David says:

    The “new world” does not lack for summer rain. Just look to the grape growing regions of NY and VA for evidence of this. Moreover, Israel, well within its rights to be called “Old world” (regardless of where one may stand on the complexities of the Israel Palestine issue), is quite dry
    Perhaps the opposition that you are really looking for looks something like “Mediterranean vs Continental regions”

    • Please forgive my momentary lapse of concentration. Of course, in speaking about New World I was (pace Dr. Freud) thinking of the irrigated vineyards of the West Coast. But to your point, certainly, modern, “efficient” that is to say irrigated plantations whether in California, New Mexico or in Israel have a lot in common. The Mediterranean/continental distinction is an extremely important one to make and one over which I have greatly anguished vis-a-vis the expression of terroir. I think that a case can be made that you might require something like a continental climate to achieve the most sublime expression of terroir, with Burgundy being the most relevant example. In a Mediterranean or warm and dry climate, you may be either obliged to irrigate, or if not, the grapes will often tend to achieve a very high degree of ripeness or super-concentration, which may well occlude the expression of terroir. Fine. One can posit Collioure as a counter-example. Absurdly low yields, very distinctive, marked soil types (schist), and the wine has a strong terroir. An elegant terroir – maybe not so much. In California, we have a Mediterranean climate; whether we can achieve something like vins de terroir, much less elegant vins de terroir remains to be seen. But the attempt to do so is still the best game in town.

  9. As a winegrower, I would like to add a couple points, I have been observing. The subsoil climate is also important to have a right population numbers of bacterias. We observe 30-60-90 and 120 cm subsoil temperatures and humidity levels throughout season. My personal observation is that the best fruit is always coming from the hottest subsoil with highest but balanced subsoil humidity vineyard (no irrigation at all).

    • Thanks for your comment. That sounds utterly right to me. One of the things that I anguish about is how we will conserve enough moisture in the soil for the grape vines while still practicing no-till. Eschewing tillage will keep the soil temperature cooler at the surface layer, preserving the vital soil microflora in the top few centimeters of soil, but you still have the problem of the capillarity of moisture escaping from deeper layers to the top. This is not to mention the ultimate issue of Pierce’s Disease (undoubtedly due for a repeat performance in California), which is best addressed by clean cultivation. If grape growing were easy, then everyone would be doing it. Wait, everyone is doing it!.

  10. David, Thank you for your excellent questions; each and every one of them would be worthy of a MW thesis. First question: I’m not sure exactly how to rigorously make the scientific case for terroir (I don’t know that it can be done, but would need to be done by someone with far more philosophical rigor than I possess). For one thing, the qualities that we imagine we perceive in vins de terroir do not seem to be easily explicable through a facile, physical mechanism, i.e. lotsa calcium in the soil does not seem to equate with lotsa calcium in the wine. (Nevertheless, I am confident that reasonably soon there will emerge a plausible mechanism that at least addresses the phenomenon of “minerality,” the phenomenon of a sort of persistence of flavor in a wine, correlated with the wine’s discernible ability to resist oxidative challenge.) As I have stated here and elsewhere, “terroir” is a fragile, delicate quality; it is not a physical thing. It is at on some level, a collection of taste characteristics that are discernible at least to some very small number of particularly astute tasters some of the time. (It can be argued that because we human beings are limited in our ability to detect a certain range of audible frequencies, it does not necessarily follow that these are the only frequencies that exist.) Further complicating matters, perhaps to the point of utter confusion, is that there can be, at least theoretically, multiple, equally valid interpretations of terroir by different producers – this leads to a very complicated discussion of epistemology and perhaps also of metaphysics, that we needn’t address here. The expression of terroir is utterly endangered or impacted at least by so many variables, some that are controllable, others that are not. A random appearance of an unwanted spoilage yeast – Kloeckera, for example (as we tragically observed in at least one of our lots this year) or noxious bacteria (pediococcus) will largely occlude any potential expression of terroir. And there is the winemaker’s clumsiness or bad luck – he’s picked too late or too early, or got screwed over by his otherwise reliable cooper, who this time sent him a particularly bad batch of barrels, or cork supplier who gave him a tainted supply. So, any number of variables, controllable or not, will impact the expression of terroir, making it something that cannot simply, reliably be produced on demand. I’m afraid that the argument for terroir may ultimately be one that is made by the aesthete; if a taster can reliably identify certain unique characteristics of a wine related to the site, year after year, independent of the enormous vagaries of vintage, that would seem to make the case. (I can’t do this, but I think that Allen Meadows can.)

    Second question: Life-force is just a descriptive term, mostly independent of metaphysical baggage, that simply connotes a wine’s ability to tolerate oxidative challenge, which is life’s general struggle. The elements present in the wine that work to combat oxidation- enzymes, phenols, various redox couples, perhaps – represent the elaboration of a very complex biological system. But, tell me again, why is it wrong to introduce poetic language into a discussion about a product that is so complex that it is itself capable of inspiring poetry?

    Third question: I cannot agree with you more. As an aside, I certainly am not the most astute observer of natural phenomena in the world – I likely am in the bottom 25 percentile – but the aim of my project is to more or less force myself (and maybe others) to see things more closely, to begin to tune in to the minute differences between plants. Biodynamics as a practice is sometimes taken to task, and it is claimed by some that the only reason it seems to work is that the farmer is spending more time in his field, and maybe paying more attention. If I can, through whatever harebrained strategy, compel myself to pay more attention, there is certainly a far greater likelihood of a salutary outcome in the resultant wine, independent of whatever explanations I might proffer as to why that should be the case.

    • DR says:

      First off, I think you probably give yourself too little credit – not sure how you come up with “bottom 25 percentile” seems a bit specific to me; but I understand the impulse for self deprivation to inspire humility

      It still have considerable skepticism to the amount of specificity that is given to the location-invarient definition of terroir that you seem to have (please correct me if I’m misrepresenting you).
      It would seem to me that *if* there is a thing called “terroir” that it is tightly coupled to historical (largely pre-industrial), social constructs, which have become embedded in the cultures. For example, how different regions came to solve problems. It is *this* part of the so called “terroir” equation that I think we miss in younger cultures. And it’s a bit janus headed: on the one can it spawns innovation, on the other it can inhibit consensus, which I think is a key part of “terroir”. As with many things, it’s a bit of the pharmakon

  11. DR says:

    I have to say, I think your observations are off, not to mention I still get the sense there is a bit of confirmation bias going on.
    One only need, for example, taste the full line up of all of Littorai’s single site wines, in a given vintage, to find wonderfully expressive, subtle wines, each showing their own unique expression

    I write this without snark, so please don’t take it as snarky: Given that you seem so pessimistic that CA can ever produce unique, subtle and thrilling wines, why not just pick up and try in an area that you believe in. I can’t imagine your lack of confidence in the area in which you produce wines, comes across in a way that is good for your companies sales

  12. Very interesting speech/article Randall!! Wish I had been in Turkey to hear the live rendition :-)

    It reminded me a little of the philosophical discussion we had this summer about terroir and growing grapes from seed to find “the one” for your the terroir.

    As you may remember I firmly believe that the vigneron is a part of the terroir – just as much as the weather, soil composition, exposition and grape variety. In fact the vigneron is often key as it is he who decides the manner in which to plant (or replant) the vineyard, what varieties are planted, the farming methods, use of irrigation or biochar, whether he sprays chemicals, sulphur, copper or biodynamic tisanes, tills the soils or uses cover crops, how to prune and train, bud rub, green harvest and when to pick. He even decides on the rootstock or in a very singular case whether to plant from seed :-)

    So I believe that this particular vin de terroir will be your expression of the terroir and together with the specific soil and variatal characteristics there will be a little Randall flavour in the grapes before they even are vinified. The vinification can further chance the expression as you proved so well with he Cigar Volant project vinified in different containers and with different ways of lees contact. Vin de terroir are so appealing and beautiful – at least to me – because they are unique – they are an expression of a particular place in time by a specific person in time – a little like the series of pictures Monet painted of the Cathedral of Rouen.

    I will be following from across the pond in the continental climate of Champagne (which has awesome terroir as well btw :-) ) how your seedlings develop and can’t wait to taste Randal’s seedling’s expression of a specific piece of dirt – with a soil which retains just enough water (with or without the help of biochar) – close to Monterey!!

  13. David says:

    I get the sense that most observers definition of “terroir” is “ptolemaic” (used as a metaphor), I’m waiting for the Copernicus of “terroir” to emerge and bring truth to the concept, not conventional wisdom

  14. […] keynote van Randall Grahm moet ik nog eens nalezen. Zoals op Twitter en elders werd opgemerkt: Grahm heeft een vocabulaire […]

Leave a Reply

* Required
* Required, Private




Where Art Meets Science

If you are an artisan vintner who wants to reach new customers, the solution is a simple as C, B, E.

At CBExpo, you’ll take a scientific approach to reaching new customers and converting them to ambassadors for your label. That approach begins with learning proven business strategies and post-production secrets from industry luminaries…

Including Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm, who will be a closing speaker at the Expo’s General Session on May 20th, 2016.

Date: May 18-20th, 2016

Location: The Oakland Convention Center

For more information about this event, click here.



CIA Sommelier Summit

Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit! Building upon the momentum of last year’s inaugural summit, this three-day conference once again brings together the most dynamic group of wine professionals in one place. Don’t miss this great chance to network with peers and industry leaders all while deeply expanding your knowledge of the fast-paced and ever-changing beverage industry

Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.) Breakout Session:

Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)

Moderator: Christie Dufault, Associate Professor – Wine & Beverage Studies, CIA at Greystone

Presenters: Randall Grahm, Winemaker & Owner, Bonny Doon Vineyard and Abe Schoener, Winemaker & Owner, The Scholium Project

Is it in the yeast or the ideology? Organic, biodynamic, vegan, no added/low sulfite, foottrodden or simply wine made with minimal intervention by a brave, well-meaning purist? What does it all mean and what do we think about it? Are natural wines good for the earth, good for you, and good tasting? Join Vintner Hall of Fame member Randall Grahm, who seeks to make “naturally soulful, original wine,” as we determine if this current movement is new hype or new hope.

Date: April 24-26

Time:  CIA at Greystone, 2555 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574

For the complete summit schedule and to register, please visit the CIA Sommelier website here.




Our crowdfunding campaign "Popelouchum Vineyard: 10,000 Grapes for a New Vine" is now over, but you can still buy perks, or donate to the cause.