Tag Archives: terroir

podcast

Winecast 25: Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vineyard

randall grahmRandall Grahm of Boony Doon Vineyards has done plenty of audacious things during his three-decade winemaking career, whether holding a public funeral for the cork or publicly baiting various members of the Winestream Media. But his new project may be the most audacious yet — creating 10,000 new grape varieties from scratch in a California vineyard, and raising the money to do so through crowdfunding. In this, Grahm once again goes where no winemaker has gone before.

In the podcast, we talk about Grahm’s goal to raise $150,000 for the Popelouchum Vineyards in San Juan Batista, Calif., through crowdfunding — “It has been a learning experience, putting it most charitably” — and why terroir matters. In addition, Graham explains how difficult it is to create new grape varieties, involving as it does a jeweler’s loupe, tweezers, and paper bags. There is also more Yiddish than we should have had, insights into the mission and pinotage grapes, and what it takes to convince people to donate money for something that won’t happen for years.

You can contribute to the Popelouchum project here; several of the premiums, starting at $100, allow you to name one of those new grape varieties after anyone you want, including yourself. Crowdfunding ends next week, and it was almost halfway toward its goal when we recorded the podcast on Wednesday.

Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is almost 16 minutes long and takes up 15 megabytes. The sound quality is good, though there is a pause around the six-minute mark when I had to preempt the Wine Curmudgeon’s dogs from barking at the UPS man.

 

winetrends

Terroir as a brand, and not as something that makes wine taste good

terroir as a brandDoes terroir — the idea that the place where a wine is from makes it taste a certain way and helps determine its quality — exist? This question has generated reams of cyber-ink over the past five or six years, pitting those of us who think terroir matters against those who think we’re bunch of old farts and that technology has made terroir obsolete (if it ever mattered at all).

Now, the second group has an unlikely ally, a French academic who claims terroir is a myth, and that what the wine tastes like doesn’t matter to its success in the marketplace. Rather, says Val ry Michaux, director of research at NEOMA Business School in Rouen, the “best” wines have more to do with their brand and how well producers in the same area work together to market that brand.

In one respect, this is not new. Paul Lukacs, one of the smartest people I know, has argued that terroir is a French marketing ploy dating to the 1920s. What’s different about Michaux’s approach is that it claims that a wine’s brand is more important than terroir, which is about as 21st century, post-modern, and American business an approach as possible. Especially for the French.

Michaux’s theory says that the soil and climate in Bordeaux doesn’t make Bordeaux wine great; rather, it’s the producers in Bordeaux agreeing on what the wine should taste like and presenting a common front to the world. She cites the cluster effect, seen in both sociology and economics, where disparate parts of a whole come together for a common purpose. “The presence of a strategic alliance between professionals contributes significantly to the development of a single territorial umbrella brand and thus its influence,” she writes. “A strong local self-governance is also essential for a territorial brand to exist.”

It’s like saying no one reads what I write here because it’s well-written, offers quality content, or is even especially true. Instead, they like the idea of the Wine Curmudgeon, be it my hat, my attitude, or my writing style, and I should promote the latter to be successful

Michaux’s analysis is both correct and completely off the mark, because she misses the point of terroir. Of course, terroir can be a brand. Look at what Big Wine has done with $10 pinot noir, which doesn’t often taste like pinot noir but is successfully marketed as such, or the idea of grocery store California merlot, made to be smooth and fruity and not particularly merlot-like. But the difference between cheap wine and cheap wine I recommend, the quality that makes the best cheap wine interesting, is often terroir, the traditional idea of the sense of place where the wine is from.

But to argue that Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa makes great wine because the producers agreed to make a certain style of wine and to market it with a common approach is silly. For one thing, my dogs know more about marketing than most wineries do. But what matters more is quality, because the best wines from Bordeaux are incredible in a way that has nothing to do with a strategic alliance but with where the grapes are grown, how the grapes are turned into wine, and the region’s history and tradition. Why does cabernet sauvignon from Napa not taste like cabernet from Bordeaux? Terroir is a much better explanation than a cluster effect.

wine news

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Winebits 328: Scottish wine, wine marketing, lawsuits

Scottish wine for a Scottish dish, haggis

? Talk about terroir: A Scottish winemaker — yes, that’s correct — says climate change has made it possible to make wine in his country. Christopher Trotter, a chef and food writer, wants to grow six acres of grapes in eastern Scotland, and says that the warmest weather in centuries will make it possible. One caveat: It’s still cooler than most of the world’s wine regions, so he has to use grapes that are cold hardy and that don’t necessarily make great wine. The article, from the Bloomberg news service, is also an excellent look at how warmer temperatures around the world will affect the wine business.

? A glass of Chloe, please: The Wine Group, which gave the world Cupcake, is making another marketing play, this time with a brand called Chloe. As Robert Joseph writes, the company’s approach has nothing to do with wine per se, but with how it is sold to the public. Chloe is being marketed like jewelry or perfume, costing about one-third more than the $10 to $12 Cupcake. This is The Wine Group’s particular genius, and which is rarely seen in wine, that it can position its brands as lifestyle products and get a premium for what will almost certainly be a very ordinary bottle of Italian pinot grigio (given the quality of its other wines). But, as many have noted, the people who buy these kinds of wines aren’t buying them for what’s in the bottle.

? Bring out the lawyers: The Wine Curmudgeon has always enjoyed watching companies sue each other over labels and brand names, and this one is particularly enjoyable. Beverage Digest reports that Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, says family-owned Heaven Hill is trampling on its intellectual property in Canada with a product called Admiral Nelson spiced rum, which too closely resembles Diageo’s Captain Morgan spiced rum. How many billable hours will this require? The article discusses — seriously, I suppose — that one issue in the lawsuit will be how similar the character of Nelson, the greatest hero in British naval history, is to Morgan, who was a pirate. Sadly, wigs are no longer worn in Canadian courts, or this would be even more fun to watch.

Big Wine and the search for authenticity

One of the most important changes in the California wine business over the past decade has been the rise of Big Wine and the role it has played in the growth of better quality cheap wine. It ?s a story that has not been told, and why I spent a lot of time writing about it in The Cheap Wine book. Otherwise, many of us, myself included, wouldn ?t be here.

It ?s a subject that David Michalski of the Unversity of California-Davis handles admirably in the spring issue of Boom. It ?s longish and a trifle academic in tone, but stay with it. Michalski reviews four books centered around the idea of authenticity in wine, but to get there he must explain why authenticity has become an issue. Because, before the 1980s, the very nature of wine was authenticity. French wine tasted of France, Italian of Italy, and so forth.

Then, writes Michalski, came California.

This manifesto for a new taste, one in which California figured centrally, resonated with a new generation of wine-drinkers. It was a message tailor-fit for an industry looking to reinvent itself, too, as California positioned itself in opposition to the snobbery of Old World wine. And although many of the so-called new breed wineries had close connections to the older generation, the image of California as an innovator and a challenger forever changed a trade once dominated by European markets and taste regimes. It opened wine to a wider global audience. It gave encouragement to developing wine regions across the globe. And it gave license to winemakers, even those back in Europe, to experiment with craft and science in the service of wine beauty.

This, says Michalski, is the double-edged sword of Big Wine and globalization and a result of what happened in California ? cheaper wines that make wine more accessible and democratic, but by their nature lack authenticity and the terroir that is part of authenticity.

In this, he finds a middle ground that not many others have discovered, though one I share: That globalization does not mean the end of authenticity, and that it ?s possible for Big Wine to co-exist with it. ?A fuller study of the way terroir works in today ?s economy reveals the importance of local branding within the global economy, a phenomenon scholars of consumption call glocalization, ? he writes.

Yes, a crappy word, but a concept that explains a lot. It explains how Sicilian winemakers can use modern techniques developed in California to produce high-quality wine that still tastes of Sicily. It ?s how Gascon wine, barely a consideration outside parts of France a decade ago, can be sold by large U.S. retailers who wouldn ?t carry it unless there was a demand for it. And it helps account for local wine, which wouldn ?t exist without the improvements in viticulture and enology that started in California 40 years ago.

Winebits 289: Terroir, three-tier, Wine.com

? Another view of terroir? Terroir, a French term that has no exact meaning in English, is something wine geeks love to argue about ? does it exist or not? Those of us who believe in terroir believe it lends a sense of place to the best wine, regardless of price. Anti-terroir advocates (yes, just like matter and anti-matter) say we ?re a bunch of old farts and that wine should be made to taste the best it can, regardless of terroir. The eminent Paul Lukacs offers a third view ? that, despite some truth, it ?s mostly a myth perpetuated by French marketers in the first third of the 20th century. That should give us something to discuss the next time Paul and I judge together.

? Another victory for the distributors: It ?s depressing, but someone has to keep track of this stuff. The Illinois legislature, no doubt acting at the behest of some of its biggest campaign contributors, has passed a law that strengthens the state ?s three-tier system. Three-tier are the alcohol regulations left over from Prohibition that prohibit consumers from buying wine almost anywhere but traditional retailers. The legislature passed the law because Anheuser-Busch bought a stake in its biggest Chicago-area distributor. The beer giant will now have to sell its share of the distributor. How silly is this? Like Ford being told by the Michigan legislature that it can ?t own one of its parts suppliers.

? For sale or not? The cyber-ether has been buzzing the past week or so with rumors that Wine.com, the largest Internet wine retailer and a friend of the blog, is for sale. Wine.com ?s boss has denied the rumors, saying the reports exaggerate the company ?s financial woes. Supposedly, Wine.com ?s private equity backer was unhappy with its performance and wanted out. Regular visitors here know the uphill battle legal Internet retailers face, thanks to three-tier, and Wine.com is no exception. It has to become a local retailer in many states in which it does business to comply with state laws, a costly and time-consuming effort. If its financial backers are unhappy, the question is not that they are, but why they expected anything else given the regulatory environment.

The Beard Awards and regional wine

James_beard_foundation_awardsThe Wine Curmudgeon has always had a middle of the country perspective when it comes to the Beard Awards, the food business' version of the Academy Awards. That is, the winners always seem to be from either coast, and especially from the East Coast, and especially from New York City. Right, Sharon Hage?

So it's not surprising that restaurants that usually win a Beard award, wine or otherwise, have very little do with wine that doesn't come from an established region. That logic, if depressing, is understandable. Beard award-winning restaurants cater to people who want big wines that get big scores. Or, as a top-name chef who has a Beard on his resume told me, "my customers expect the Wine Spectator top 100 on my wine list. I lose business if those wines aren't there."

So when a restaurant with regional wine wins a Beard award, I'm practically typeless. Seriously. It has taken me longer to write this four-paragraph post than others that were twice as long.

But there it is: Terroir, a wine bar in Manhattan, winning for best wine professional this year — and Terroir serves New York wine at each of its three locations. Some of it is even featured on the epic wine list. Thank you, Paul Grieco (who won the award). It's a pleasure to find someone who understands that wine is not about what we're told to drink, but about finding something we like — regardless of where it is from.

My lunch with Randall, part I

My lunch with Randall, part IThis is the first of a two-part series detailing my recent chat with Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm. Part II — a look at some of Bonny Doon’s wines — is here.

The last thing Randall Grahm looks like is the California winemaker that he is. Instead, he looks more like the one-time liberal arts major at the University of California that he was.

That contradiction goes a long way toward explaining why Grahm is one of the Wine Curmudgeon ?s favorite winemakers, and why his Bonny Doon wines are some of the most interesting made in California. Grahm understands that not only is the wine business about making enough money to stay in business, but about making wine that people want to drink — and not necessarily wine that they ?re told to drink, More, after the jump.

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