Tag Archives: terroir

Ask the WC 13: California chardonnay, grip, affordable wine

California chardonnayThis edition of Ask the WC: Why does so much California chardonnay taste the same?

Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. Ask the Wine Curmudgeon wine-related question by clicking here.

Hi, WC:
Is it just me or does much of California chardonnay taste distressingly the same? I feel somewhat out of step with the wine world on this one. Going to a store in California that offers a vast expanse of chardonnay, but much of it I find boring. Maybe even in the dreaded plonk category.
What’s up with chardonnay?

Dear What’s up:
Welcome to the world of Big Wine. My guess, and especially if you buy wine for less than $20, is that the chardonnays are made by the same handful of producers (which is almost impossible to tell from the label). These wines aim at the flavor profile as practiced by Kendall Jackson for $15 or so and Rombauer for $35. That’s a certain sweetness in the green apple fruit, lots of oak (shown as either vanilla or caramel) and muted acidity. Or, as the focus groups like to say, smooth. This is not to say all California is boring; you just have to look for it and spend more than $25. Stag’s Leap, though now a part of Big Wine, still does a nice job, as does HdV.

Dear Wine Curmudgeon:
What are the exact French winemaking decisions that result in the notable grip — the sense of firmness in your mouth — of French wine over other styles? I was trying to explain the style to a friend, but was at a loss for explaining how the grip is created even with grapes not known for their tannin content.
I like French wine

Dear French:
Grip is one of the wonderful things about French wine, where even grapes that don’t have a lot of tannins produce wine that isn’t soft or flabby. The simple answer is tannin management; that is, how the winemakers work with the tannic acid in the wine. But, as the esteemed Randall Grahm explained when I asked for more detail, “trying to answer it completely and accurately brings up many, many issues, some of which are not well understood at all.” It’s part tannin management, plus how ripe the grapes are at harvest and how one determines ripeness. That’s because there are several methods to do this, and what is ripe to a French winemaker may not be to one elsewhere in the world. Finally, it’s our old pal terroir, and the soils the grapes are grown in.

Wine Curmudgeon:
Why do you think anything that costs more than $10 or $15 isn’t “affordable?” This is the 21st century. Get with the times.
Prefers nice wine

Dear Nice:
Because it isn’t affordable, and it doesn’t make any difference what century this is. The average new car payment in the U.S. is more than $400 a month. If I drink a $20 wine with dinner, I could buy a new car. If I drink $10 wine with dinner, I can drink wine and buy a new car. And, as I have noted more than once, the difference between quality $10 wine and too much $20 wine is practically non-existent.

Image courtesy of Wine Folly, using a Creative Commons license

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
Ask the WC 12: $5 wine, varietal character, negative reviews
Ask the WC 11: Arsenic lawsuit, marijuana, wine competitions
Ask the WC 10: Spanish wine, wine prices, oak

Winebits 487: Big Wine and Meomi, terroir, blue wine

meomiThis week’s wine news: Big Wine scores with Meomi, plus the terroir debate and – shudder– blue wine

Meomi success: Many of my colleagues continue to wonder what the fuss is about with Big Wine, since they don’t drink any of its products. So perhaps this item, from the Shanken News Service (subscription required) will help them understand. Sales of Meomi, which is the pinot noir that they love to hate, grew almost 40 percent last year to 1.1 million cases. Not coincidentally, Constellation Brands, the second-biggest wine company in the country, bought Meomi in 2015. Since then, sales have almost doubled, attesting to Big Wine’s clout in the marketplace and why we need to know what it does and how it does it. Because its brands are the ones that may displace the brands that we’re drinking.

.• Whither terroir? Bianca Bosker in Food & Wine offers an intelligent, balanced view of whether terroir – the idea that wine depends on a sense of place – exists. This debate has been going on for as long as I have been writing about wine, and each side is more entrenched than ever. The Wine Curmudgeon believes in terroir, because wine from Rioja in Spain should taste like it comes from there, just as wine from Napa Valley should taste like it comes from Napa. But technology has made the anti-terroir argument more tenable – no one pretends that Meomi, for instance, is terroir driven. It’s made to taste a certain way, using the most advanced winemaking techniques, and to appeal to the broadest swath of the marketplace. All I ask is that we know the difference, and judge the wines accordingly.

Orange wine wasn’t enough: How about blue wine, from Spain’s Gik? It’s supposed to be a combination of red and white grapes, “sweeter and easier to drink.” The Wine Curmudgeon hates to rain on Gik’s parade, but we already have something like that. It’s called white zinfandel, and save for the shade of blue, it’s sweeter and easier to drink — and sales are from what they used to be. But what do I know? I just drink wine; I don’t market it.


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.


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.

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.