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Tag Archives: wine terms

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

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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 Valéry 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 335: Cheap wine, wine terms, and lots of wineries

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Winebits 335: Cheap wine, wine terms, and lots of wineriesHead to Target: The Wine Curmudgeon is always encouraged when the non-wine media does a cheap wine story, since that’s another step in the right direction — helping Americans figure out wine. If the Los Angeles Times’ recent story recommending wine to buy at Target included too much boring Big Wine (Clos du Bois chardonnay, really?), the story’s heart was in the right place. How can I be unhappy with anything that recommends Beaujolais? Though, and I mention this as a cranky ex-newspaperman who wants to help someone who apparently doesn’t do a lot of wine writing, mentioning Robert Parker in the blurb for Sterling cabernet sauvignon was counterproductive. Anyone who cares about Parker scores probably isn’t going to buy $10 cabernet at Target.

Stoned wine: Beppi Crosariol at the Toronto Globe & Mail answers a reader question about the wine term stony, complete with bad jokes. It’s actually a decent explanation, and includes a good description of minerality: “Flint, wet stone, chalk, limestone, slate, graphite – various rocky words get trotted out with increasing frequency today…” and he notes recent scientific findings that the grapes probably didn’t pick up these qualities from the soil.

How many wineries? The state of Texas, with 266,874 square miles, has about 300 wineries. Napa County, with 748 square miles, recently celebrated its 500th winery. This is a mind-boggling figure — there are more wineries in Napa than in all but two or three states (depending on whose figures you use). Is it any wonder that it’s the center of the U.S. wine universe, even for people who don’t know much about wine? Will we start hearing phrases like “carrying grapes to Napa?”

Wine term: Post-modern

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Wine term Post-modernNo, the wine term post-modern is not something that usually shows up in the Winestream Media or on most of the websites with winespeak dictionaries. But post-modern is a crucial term in understanding the evolution of the wine business over the past couple of decades.

I adapted it from literature, where post-modern defines a style of writing that rejects the idea that narrative is the most important thing in the novel. In post-modernism, it’s not necessary for the plot to go from beginning to end, or to even make sense. Things just happen, and that’s what writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Martin Amis explored.

An astute visitor has noted that winemaker Clark Smith wrote a book, published last year, called Postmodern Winemaking, and wanted to make sure that I gave credit where credit was due. I wasn’t aware of the book, or certainly would have. We apparently cover much the same ground with the term post-modern, though Smith focuses on the winemaking aspects, while I’m concerned less with the technical aspects and more about what it means for consumers (and Smith drops the hyphen, like a true post-modernist).

My view? In wine, post-modernism rejects traditional methods and benchmarks, just as post-modern literature rejects traditional narrative. That means terroir doesn’t matter, that varietal character isn’t important, and that alcohol levels are for old ladies. In this world, the only thing wrong with a 15.5% chardonnay without green apple fruit is that no one had thought of doing it before. The idea is to make wine the way the winemaker wants, free of the constraints that hampered the process for the past 500 years. Or, as one leading post-modernist wrote so memorably: “California promotes wines that don’t suck.”

The International style of winemaking, where winemakers in Italy or Argentina consciously try to make wine taste like it came from Paso Robles, is part of post-modernism, but it’s not the only part. What’s more important, and what’s often overlooked, is how Big Wine has adapted post-modernism to its purposes — to sell more wine without having to educate consumers.

Hence, dry red wines with sweet fruit that don’t taste dry; wines without tannins, because the casual wine drinker doesn’t like them — even though tannins are an integral part of red wine; and wave after wave of sweetish white wines, like moscato and Prosecco, where the wine is made to a taste profile and not necessarily to what the grapes give it.

The other thing that matters is that post-modernism is neither good nor bad. It just is. Martin Amis is a fine writer, but he makes me crazy. You don’t have to like those wines; rather, you need to know they exist and that they are in stark contrast to wines made in the traditional manner. I’m not going to tell you what to drink. Instead, I’m going to describe what the wine is like and let you make up your mind. And using the wine term post-modern is one more way I can do that.

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