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Third place

Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.

No fun allowed

[wine snob]If you ever want to suck all the fun out of wine, get together with a bunch of wine lovers.

Let me back up…

I’ve made a lot of terrific friends through wine. All over the world, in fact. Almost to a fault, they have been kind, generous, hospitable, and generally wonderful to be around. And I say that even though I’ve seen most of them at their potential worst (that is, with a hefty load of alcohol in ’em). Lord knows they’ve seen me that way. It’s not always pretty.

In fact, one of the things I miss most about the breakup of the old wine forum paradigm is the loss of a central meeting place for the world’s wine geeks to connect. Some of my best experiences ever have been via meetings facilitated by the online wine universe, and I cherish and nurture those relationships even more now that the virtual vinosphere has splintered into hundreds of different, special-interest and single-language sub-fora.

One form of these social interactions is called the “offline,” wherein online wine folk congregate, usually over dinner, at a venue that allows (or even encourages) BYO. People bring bottles — usually far too many — they open them, they taste, they drink, they spit, they eat, and they chat. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun. (Of course, there are other forms of interaction as well. There’s the dinner, which isn’t unlike any other dinner except for the fact that it usually involves more food and wine than any reasonable human being should consume in a single sitting. And there’s the structured (or semi-structured) tasting, in which the bottles are brought with a purpose, often a thematic one.

So how do offlines go wrong? By including the “wrong” people. Despite the deluge of wine, what makes these events fun is the crowd itself. Why sit at a table with people you don’t like, whether over wine or a profound debate on Kant and aesthetics? It’s pretty simple, and the general rule of inviting people you’d like to drink wine with and letting Bacchus take his course has, for many years, fed the engine of the offline without incident. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, fun. How could it not be?

And yet, to read this, you’d think that not only everyone was wrong at offlines, you’d think that the entire institution was broken for a lack of constitutions and bylaws. Except that…damned few of these whiners and anal-retentive snobs actually get it. It’s not about the wine. (A formal tasting; that’s about the wine. If you want to have one of those, go right ahead. But don’t call it something it’s not.) It’s about the people, the camaraderie, the fun. It’s not about the size of your bottle or the girth of your wallet. It’s not about sucking every last bit of enjoyment from what is, after all, the ultimate social beverage. And it’s certainly not about living your wine life like some pointy-headed dictator, whining and bitching and crying when everything doesn’t turn out to your organoleptic and economic advantage.

Why would anyone drink with these people?