Wine and Place is best described by its sub-title: A Terroir Reader. It is a reference par excellence. Every library and serious wine aficionado should have a copy of this lively book on the shelves. And, of course, this includes the libraries of wine economists
even though most of the pages are devoted to topics not directly related to our field.
This reviewer appreciates that Wine and Place does not shy away from controver- sies. For example, anyone who has much experience tasting wine is familiar with minerality. But there is an open question about exactly what that descriptive term means. After all, basalt—which is associated with minerality—has no aroma or flavor. Some go so far as to say that minerality is so vague a description as to be meaningless. The authors devote 26 pages (pp. 197–222) to teasing apart this controversy.
A Browsable Book but with a Linear Narrative
Patterson and Buechsenstein have divided their subject into nine chapters, each devoted to a particular topic. Then they add excerpts, often lengthy excerpts, from various writings on the subject. In the book’s “Introduction,” the authors advise the reader, “We do not expect many people to sit down and read through this book cover to cover in rapt concentration. More likely, the self-contained chapters should provide food for thought, a chance to meditate on discrete aspects of terroir, whether the minutiae of soil composition or the perils of promotional hyper- bole” (p. 4). In other words, the reader is invited to treat this book as a volume of short stories or as a reference book, dipping in where interested and bypassing other topics. The authors make a point of selecting material reflecting a variety of opposing viewpoints. After adding their own opinions and critiques of an expert, they add narrative which smoothly segues to the next excerpt and the next chapter.
The Book’s Ten Theses Framework—Does Terroir Even Exist?
In addition to the nine chapters, the “Introduction” is essential reading. Think of it as Chapter 0. There the authors explain in some depth the “framework” motivating their chapter narratives—“Ten Theses on Terroir.” The ten are numbered using Roman numerals, in order to stress their importance no doubt. Let’s examine a few of the ten theses, starting with:
“I. We believe the effects of terroir are real and undeniable. … This is true for both macro- climate regions—Alsatian Riesling is different from Austrian, from German, from Finger Lakesian—and for specific vineyards and sites.”
II. We believe that many if not most of the standard depictions of this phenomenon, however, are worthy of skepticism. …” (pp. 4–5)
It’s hard for this reviewer to argue with those sentiments. And the book’s first chapter, “The Lure and Promise of Terroir,” presents a balanced historical perspec- tive on both sides of the controversy over whether the independent effects of terroir are real or imaginary. The opening excerpt is a passage from Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Burgundy (1990). Kramer develops the idea of “somewhereness”—the word
Kramer coined to describe how terroir expresses itself in wine.
“The ideal is to amplify terroir without distorting it. Terroir should be transmitted as free as possible of extraneous elements or style or taste. Ideally, one should not be able to find the hand of the winemaker. …” (p. 12)
That “ideal” terroir purity may be expecting too much. But it is consistent with state- ments made to this reviewer by a number of winemakers: “We try to get the best fruit we can, then not screw it up.”
Let’s jump to Thesis VI.
“VI. A pair of observations that aren’t strictly speaking, thesis statements, but need to be included in our [the authors’] initial salvo.”
First, we note that two critical dimensions are almost entirely missing from standard dis- cussions of terroir. First, … precious few rigorous sensory studies have been conducted …
Second, … almost no attention has been paid to what the vines do, to the photosynthetic and physiological mechanisms that actually create the chemical behind the distinctive flavors and aromas of terroir-driven wines. …” (pp. 5–6)
Their second point is well-taken. As far as this reviewer knows there has been little, if any, terroir research into wine grape plant biology. How do the vines translate terroir into fruit? Attention researchers: additional work is needed.
But their first point seems overstated. There has been recent work on the relation- ship between terroir and the chemical makeup of the underlying sensory flavors of grape juice. Significant research progress has been made in the science of the taste of terroir since the book was written. This is, of course, one of the hazards faced by authors writing about selectively about prior research—previously unstudied topics eventually get studied. This reviewer will mention such research below.
The Book’s Chapters—A Wide Spectrum of Disciplines
There are nine chapters in the book: “The Lure and Promise of Terroir,” “History and Definitions,” “Soil: The Terre in Terroir,” “Climate: Limits and Variations,” “Grapevines: Bringing Terroir to Life,” “Winemaking: The Human Element of Terroir,” “Sensory: Validating Terroir,” “Marketing: Terroir for Sale,” and “The Future of Terroir.” Let’s dip into a couple of the chapters – “Soil” and then “Marketing.”
Chapter 3, “Soil: The Terre in Terroir”
This is the first of several chapters featuring some hard science technical discussion. (The “Climate” and “Grapevines” chapters are also quite technical.) In the “Soil” chapter, there are several scientific studies excerpted beginning with Kevin Pogue (2010) who was interested in the effect of basalt on wines. Basalt has high iron content. Iron is important for wines, with higher concentrations creating longer wine aging potential. Working in the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington, Pogue measured available iron in soil depths accessible to roots. He found that more access to basalt meant more available iron. But he did not directly test the grapes or the wine.
In the late 1960s, Gerard Seguin (University of Bordeaux) took a different approach. He looked for similarities in the soils of great winegrowing regions. He dis- covered that the physical structure of the soil mattered more than its chemical compo- sition contents. Good drainage, access to an aquifer early in the growing season, and rainfall after the grape harvest to replenish the aquifer during the winter are important factors. This optimal, seasonal water availability explains the importance of gravel, slate, and other loosely packed soil structures in making great wine.
But here are three instances where the march of research progress overtakes the authors’ manuscript.
1. Their manuscript was completed before Dr. Kathryn Nora Barnard (2016) actu- ally studied the chemical composition of the taste of the wine produced from grapes grown at various terroir sites in the Willamette Valley (Oregon). (Earlier she performed a similar terroir and taste analysis for Missouri wine (2009).) Although the Willamette Valley wines were tasted, the analyzed results are not yet public.1 Yet this reviewer feels including Dr. Barnard’s Missouri 2009 results in this book would have been useful.
2. In the commercial sector, James Cahill (2018) manager of the Soter Vineyard’s new North Valley label, has recently done considerable work on the relation between the terroir—physical soil composition, exposure, and climate—of diverse Soter fields and the resulting distinct pinot noir taste profiles.
3. Orley Ashenfelter and Karl Storchmann (2010) have studied terroir effects in the Mosel Valley. They rely on data from a detailed survey of the altitude and angle of all of the vineyards in Mosel. Using well-known results from physics they calculate the quantity and quality of sunlight on each vineyard. They add other explanatory variables such as soil composition and use the data as predictors of land prices. Ashenfelter and Storchmann then use their model to predict the impact of global warming on vineyard prices in that region.
And let us not overlook that the book mixes in dashes of wry humor. For example, the authors note that although terroir has a significant effect on human efforts to make wine, humans in turn can have a significant effect on the terroir.
“Tom Burgess remembers planting his vineyard on the steep slopes of Howell Mountain by cracking the bedrock with dynamite to make room for vine roots. … When Jan Krupp devel- oped the 650 acres of Stagecoach Vineyards in the region of Atlas Peak, he ripped an esti- mated half million tons of boulders …” (pp. 66–68)
Chapter 8: “Marketing: Terroir for Sale”
As economists we are interested in certain aspects of marketing including pricing. This chapter on marketing includes valuable information as well as many entertain- ing anecdotes. One example is the history of Bordeaux which, as it happens, was largely invented in the late 1800s by the vineyard owners in the region. A more illu- minating tale is the story of Chalk Hill California chardonnay. Today that label is one of the top premium chardonnays in the United States. But in 1996 their wines were relegated to American grocery store shelves at very low prices. As a consumer of those wines back then, this reviewer remembers that the wine was a true bargain. The owners decided to make a commitment to change the marketing of their brand. Note that they did not improve the wine itself very much. Instead they worked with consultants and focus groups to identify the unique elements their chardonnay offered. And, sure enough, those elements were partially the result of terroir in the form of the chalky soil in which the grapes were grown. They achieved what every business owner dreams of: higher price, higher revenue, and very little change in cost.
How to Know If You Need This Book
This book is essential for your library if you are at all serious about wine. As the authors advise, use it as a reference book when you need information about a topic or just a few pithy quotes. The authors have performed a real service cataloging and connecting a well-selected multitude of writings and presentations about terroir.