Thursday, July 28, 2005

War on Terroir

OK, so I've been stealing a lot lately... I couldn't resist this one. This article comes from Steve at Check out the site for wine reviews, wine news from around the world, and other goodies (yes, Kellie, I've decided to embrace the Oxford comma after much deliberation). The writers (Alder and Steve) seem to know a good deal about wine and its goings on.

Good Things From The Garden (The Terroir Blues)
Filed under: Ramblings and Rants @

CK Mondavi used to have a slogan: "Every year's a Vintage year in California!" Like most marketing slogans, it seemed to say quite a bit without really saying anything at all. The thought behind the slogan became the cornerstone of California's first real efforts to authenticate itself, as a producer of high-quality wine, in the minds of a mostly non-wine-drinking culture.
Although the great French wine regions could boast, for the most part without much argument, that they produced the world's greatest red and white table wines, they had to contend with inconsistent weather from one year to the next, which meant they produced their best wines only 2 or 3 years out of 10. Mindful of this, California producers began to trumpet, ever louder, their contention that the most important factor in the production of the best wine is the climate. And since California grapes get ripe virtually every year, that meant California had an advantage the French surely had to envy.

You see how this goes. Marketing is like Judo; it's about finding leverage, getting your foot in the door of the consumer's mind. After Prohibition, California's wine producers had such a big hill to climb, they needed all the help they could get, and this new approach seemed to create some traction.

There can, of course, be too much of a good thing, and for quite a long time after the famous tasting in Paris in 1976, in which a couple of Napa Valley wines fooled a group of French wine professionals, and gave California an almost undreamed-of sense of legitimacy in the world of wine, the mantra remained: It's the weather! But as time passed a word began echoing more and more emphatically in the California wine ether. The word was "Terroir," spoken in a very distinct accent.

Each of the French regions, despite the substantial differences from one to the next, shares considerable pride in the wines that come from its own little corner of the country, and points to its unique soils, and sites as the source of its vinous success. Of their distant, would-be counterparts in California the French vignerons were very often heard to say "their wines are pleasant enough, but you don't taste the terroir." Zut, alors...

So— what the heck is terroir, anyway? Ah, good question! In a nutshell, if such an accommodation is imaginable, it is the signature of a place, a "somewhereness" that informs anything that originates in that place. In the French wine tradition, almost nothing matters as much; a wine without terroir would be the equivalent of a man without a country. (Not, these days, a predicament that intrudes much on our thoughts, I'd guess) For some, too, terroir would seem to be the soul of a wine.

I'm reminded of one of the central themes in the book African Genesis, which I read when I was 20, or so, what the author, Robert Ardrey, called "the territorial imperative," by which, he suggested, both animals and humans operate. The territorial imperative says, in essence, that, by the nature of our relationship to it, one's territory is so closely connected to one's own self, that it's not just an "extension" of oneself, it is oneself, and any intrusion inside the boundaries of one's territory is the equivalent of an intrusion into one's body, and is nothing less than a matter of life and death. There is no separation between oneself and where one comes from. Terroir is who we are; it's not just an impassioned way of looking at things, it's survival gear, hard-wired in us.

Well, you see practically every winery in the state talking up their terroir these days, though, for the most part, their wines aren't really all that different than they were before the talk started; to some, terroir has become another tool to gain an edge in the market. Over the past couple of years I've spent a little (probably too much) time reading conversations on the internet about terroir, what's become known as the "terroir debate." I think the Tower of Babel couldn't have been any more confusing.

The issue that seems to galvanize the most consternation is whether the way a wine tastes can be attributed to the place where the grapes grow (the terroir), or whether it's determined by the machinations of the person responsible for guiding the process by which the grapes become the liquid that fills the bottle (the winemaking). There are plenty of conversants who argue for a combination of the two. Seems reasonable enough.

This conversation keeps flaring up, like some underground guano firestorm, as the question is raised, again and again, about whether the winemaking is being tailored just to please the critics, (and by extension, the market) and in being thus "sculpted," whether wine's more "natural" character (the terroir) is being compromised, or lost altogether. I've raised some of those questions myself, and have been surprised by the vehemence of some of the responses.

A couple of other things have struck me amid all this hue and cry:

  • How convinced people seem to be that the only approach to understanding these questions is analytical, linear, rational.
  • The absence of a different approach.

Since it seems to be a natural inclination of mine to come at things from a slightly different angle, I'd like to share some thoughts about all this stuff. (The rest of this is going to look a bit different, and that's really the point; no further adjustment of your screen will be necessary.)

There are things you can take apart, and in doing so you can learn how they work. The best of these you can also put back together and they'll still work. There are things you can take apart to learn how they work, and, once taken apart they can't be put back together. There are things you can take apart to learn how they work that will blow up in your face. There are things you can take apart only to discover that it's yourself that has been taken apart. There are things you may take apart hoping to find yourself. There are things you can't take apart. Terroir may just be one of those.

* * *

When I encounter something new, without my consciously thinking about it, my nervous system begins to scan its database for information that might enable me to adapt to this new situation appropriately. For example, if the something new is a person I haven't met before, I may notice, in listening to this person speak, that they sound like a doctor I used to see who was from Chicago. Or a banjo picker I knew from the Blue Ridge in southwestern Virginia. And those people sound the way they do because they adapted to their environments by learning to make their own speech sound like what they heard from the mouths of the people in their own little corner of the world. They carried that "somewhereness" in their bodies, so they could be known. When they left their own regions and went elsewhere, the "somewhereness" they encountered there was, of course, very different. And chances are the "somewhereness" they brought with them seemed downright odd to the locals. Can we apply this perspective to terroir? (The terroir wants to be known. There is survival value in the familiarity, in being known.) Is there some reason we cannot?

* * *

There are things we notice, and things we don't notice. We seem to notice what we need to notice (or think we need) and since we are self-described "creatures of habit," our patterns and modes of observation can be awfully difficult to alter. (Or even to notice.) I think noticing something like terroir can be a bit like playing "Where's Waldo?" It's not hiding. It wants to be known. Still, if you don't notice it, does it exist? If it doesn't notice us, do we exist?

* * *

There's a wonderful poem from Rilke about the "archaic torso of Apollo;" this translation is from Stephen Mitchell ( © 1982)

Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise the stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulder

sand would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The poem draws and focuses our attention, (and, at the same time, notices our attention) in an increasingly intense manner, and then, quite abruptly, makes it plain that what we may have been thinking of as the object of our attention is, in fact, also a subject, one whose attention is, in fact, intensely focused on us. We are not alone, even inside our own skin. Even without eyes, here is a living presence whose gaze holds us in its sights.

* * *

Mythically, wine is charged (as are Art, Music, and Poetry—am I forgetting anything?) with keeping and transmitting sacred energy, and providing entree to the "Other" world. My intuition leads me to think of this "Other" world as the eternal one, the one before "The Fall," the one where we know, in each cell of our being, that we are all connected to each and every cell of each and every other being in the Universe, and that we are dependent on each other, for the survival of the whole.

* * *

I remember, as a child, not quite understanding how non-human creatures (the dog, the cat, the lion and the rhinoceros in the zoo) were different from human creatures, nor how, or even if, those differences might be reconciled or bridged. (When someone added plants to the list of non-human creatures that required this same sort of consideration, things started to get interesting. By the time I got to the point where I could add terroir to the list, I must have crossed some important threshold. Then again, they say Apollo is a god of, among other things, thresholds.) Yet sometimes it feels as though we've come no closer to an insight than a few cartoons I've seen in the New Yorker (the saber tooth tigers, hidden in the savanna, and discussing the possibility of eating the cave-dwellers gathering tubers in the distance, one of the beasts saying "I've heard they taste like chicken.").

* * *

We drink the wine; it's white wine, Vermentino from Corsica, grown in limestone, on vines that lean away from a sea wind, year after year, slow dancers in Eternity (though you might call it Paradise). It speaks in such a distinct accent. There's no mistaking it, I tell myself. Hugh Johnson was right. I knew what this wine would taste like before I even pulled the cork. At the next table, someone drinking the same wine says: "I'd rather have Chardonnay." The terroir wants to meet you. It takes two to Tango.

* * *

Electricity. (Dzzzt!!! We now return you to your regularly scheduled program...)

* * *

I believe the apprehension of terroir is something that begins in the nervous system, and to which one responds, first and foremost, in what might be accurately described as an instinctive way. In light of which the "nature vs. nurture" argument responsible for the kicking up of so much dust seems a little beside the point. The terroir, for better or worse, is in the grapes; the winemaking is the way we dance with the terroir, and it requires all our attention; indeed it requires devotion. Any other approach feels like a renunciation of one's own body by one's mind. Hmmm.... didn't we try that already?

"Who am I, California?

Son of the redwood coast, and the chaparral?

Is it just a name, California?

Will I be the son of no place at all?"

(Son Of The Redwood Coast copyright © 2001) Steve Edmunds

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Very Exciting . . .

[from MSN News]
Why Roberts looks likely to win:
Solid conservative vetting, slim paper trail, Mr. Establishment demeanor

WASHINGTON - Some say that President Bush’s nomination of appeal court judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court will trigger a brutal, blood-soaked confirmation battle that will tie up Washington for months.

Here’s why the odds are very much against that and here is why he is likely to be confirmed: Roberts is Mr. Establishment. When he was nominated for the appeals court for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2003, he was praised by Walter Dellinger and Seth Waxman — two former solicitors general in the Clinton administration. And, Roberts is respected by the Washington legal establishment as one of the very best Supreme Court advocates of the present day.
I specifically asked Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. about John Roberts and Judge Michael McConnell last Wednesday.

Were they, in Lieberman’s view, mainstream conservatives who could be confirmed?
Here is what Lieberman said: “They’d be in the ballpark…. Obviously if they were nominated for the Supreme Court you’d go into their records in a lot more detail, but those are two good examples.”

No Janice Rogers Brown
Unlike recently confirmed appeal court judge Janice Rogers Brown, Roberts has not delivered provocative and incendiary speeches and articles.

His record as an appeal court judge is quite slim, since he has only served on the bench since June of 2003.

But even though Roberts has not much of a paper trail to attack, his vetting as conservative is clear and certified.

One does not become law clerk to Associate Justice William Rehnquist; special assistant to Ronald Reagan’s attorney general William French Smith; associate White House counsel to Reagan and a top practitioner in the solicitor general’s office under the first President Bush without being a solid conservative.

Plenty of veterans of the Reagan and first Bush administrations can vouch for him.
Yet he is not like Justice Antonin Scalia in temperament.

Scalia often browbeats and mocks lawyers who argue a case before the high court.

Courtroom demeanor
I have seen Judge Roberts only once in a courtroom and that was in April when, as part of a three-judge panel, he heard oral arguments in the case of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s one-time driver now being held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Roberts struck me as restrained, careful, and extremely alert. He rarely interrupted the lawyers’ arguments and when he asked questions they were brief.

If he is a man impressed with himself, it certainly does not show. Unlike Scalia he did not seem to enjoy hearing himself hold forth.

At the moment — unless there is some smoking gun hidden in his years of private law practice — the only avenue of attack for Democrats to block his confirmation would seem to be an attempt to get the memos he wrote while in the solicitor general’s office from 1989 to 1992.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee can argue that they need to know more about how Roberts thinks and therefore they must see those memos from the late 1980s.

The Bush administration will refuse to turn over the memos, saying the confidentiality of solicitor general’s office in preparing arguments must be held sacrosanct.

This is the very same issue Democrats used to justify their filibuster of Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada in 2003.

Views of the advocacy groups The outside liberal advocacy groups were quick to issue statements expressing worry about Roberts: People for the American Way brought up the legal brief Roberts prepared while serving in the solicitor general's office arguing a case called Rust v. Sullivan.

The brief said that the president and other members of the Bush I administration “continue to believe that Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled” and that the Court’s ruling that a woman has a right to get an abortion has “no support in the text, structure or history of the Constitution.”

There are some Republicans who’d be happy to fight out a battle on the Senate floor on that quote, but their defense of Roberts will be that he was simply representing his client, not voicing his own views.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights warned against accepting the appearance that Roberts presents.

The group conceded that Roberts “may not have been on the (Christian conservative) Rev. James Dobson’s short list of pre-approved nominees” and “at first blush, John Roberts may not appear to be an ultra right judicial activist.”

But in reality, the group said, he “may be a hard-nosed extremist with a soft conservative facade. In short, the president may have nominated a stealth candidate: a Justice Scalia or Thomas in O’Connor’s robes.”

And Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis set the nomination in the larger landscape: “The president made a choice that he knows will raise the ire of most Democrats, progressives, and moderates. He and the right-wing got exactly what they wanted: a right-wing judge and weeks of the American public and media focused on the nomination battle instead of a growing quagmire in Iraq, a Social Security debacle, and a Karl Rove scandal that had — until today — no end in sight.”

My judgment is that, in the end, Lieberman and other conservative and centrist Democrats will vote for Roberts and he’ll be on the high court come October.

BIO: Judge John G. Roberts Jr.

Currently: U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia

Born: Jan. 27, 1955

Education: Harvard University undergraduate degree, B.A., 1976; Harvard Law School, JD, 1979.

Career: Law clerk, Judge Henry J. Friendly, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1979-1980; law clerk, Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, 1980-81; special assistant to U.S. Attorney William French Smith, 1981; associate counsel to President Reagan, 1982-86; member of Hogan & Hartson's Appellate Practice Group, 1986-1989; principal deputy solicitor general, 1989-1993; head of Hogan & Hartson Appellate Practice Group, 1973-2004; U.S. Court of Appeals 2003-present

Noteworthy: Roberts had been in line to join the appeals court in 1992, but his nomination during the first Bush administration died in a Democratic-controlled Senate. He has generally avoided weighing in on disputed social issues. Abortion rights groups, however, have maintained that he tried during his days as a lawyer in the first Bush administration to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Source: MSNBC researc