Monday, August 8, 2011

Holy Terroir

"Does terroir exist everywhere?"

It's the one question I desperately wanted to lob at America's truest terroirist (with all due respect to the Terroirists and the Terroirist Blog), Randall Grahm. Figured the profound-yet-often-abstruse owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards would have an interesting, if not perplexing, response.

Alas, as so often happens at a wine tasting attended by a wine celebrity, said guest of honor can be difficult to corner. By the time I awkwardly weaseled into the featured circle of conversation, my eager line of questioning was hijacked by a more assertive (and perhaps over-served) guest, wanting to blab on and on about [something forgettable] to Mr. Grahm, prompting his evasive maneuver: a polite but terse, "Excuse me. I have to go eat some dinner now."

Not that I've ever been that person... ...



Fortunately, the evening- featuring a lineup of Bonny Doon wines (disclosure: I was invited by the local distributor- Empire Distributing- as a 'member of the press'... figure that one out)-was not a total loss, despite my pouting. Grahm opened the tasting with a synopsis of his- and Bonny Doon's- philosophy: to create vins du terroir rather than vins d'effort. That is to say, wine that ultimately expresses the place from where the grapes are grown, much more so than "wines of effort", or manipulated concoctions of a winemaker's hand. As Grahm- quite bluntly- put it [paraphrased]:

"A 'wine of effort' is only as good as a winemaker... that is to say, not very good. However, a 'wine of terroir' has the potential to mirror nature... and that's quite staggering to imagine."

For this reason, a deep respect for the dirt that coddles those vines, Randall Grahm has been a loud voice in the promotion of Biodynamics: practice that goes beyond the stringent requirements of organic farming. Biodynamics essentially think of the vineyard as an organism that is part of a harmonious universe. Astronomy guides planting and harvesting days. Soil preparations can seem... well, unusual to the non-believers. But the supporters of Biodynamics swear by its results. Then again, so do Scientologists.

Ultimately, Bonny Doon's magnum opus is to create California wines that offer "quiet pleasure", not blockbuster fruit-bombs that have become the standard-bearer of the New World. And based on what I tasted, they're on the straight-and-narrow. For most of the night, balance and subtlety filled my glass more than "wow". These wines are certainly not for everyone. Many might find them underwhelming. But for those tired of stereotypical California wine (high-alcohol, heavily-extracted, oak-blasted powerhouses), the wines of Bonny Doon may scratch what itches.

Yet, I'm still not convinced. Just because I'm not tasting big fruit and big alcohol, am I truly tasting the terroir; the "sense of place", of California's North-Central Coast? For anyone who has yet to visit there, to stick their hands in the soil, to breath in the air, and really, REALLY understand where these wines come from, then they are no more than elegant, food-friendly bottles of tasty alcohol...

A crude way to view these wines? Perhaps. But if creating "wines of terroir" means stripping away the pomp & circumstance, the mad food science, and getting back to simplicity, then perhaps that's exactly what Randall Grahm is really asking of us.

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