Saturday, April 29, 2017

Archive for the ‘Overthinking’ Category

Unraveling a Mystery: Terroir

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 4 - 2010

The Rocks of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (photo: Weimax)The word terroir is an outrageously overused term by wine retailers, sommeliers, wine writers, and knowledgeable amateurs, and it deserves a definition and a bit of deconstruction. We use the term in two distinct ways, and this is a source of trouble insofar as it makes the overall concept difficult to explain. I hope this will ameliorate any confusion for those who are new to the concept and/or are trying to make sense of what terroir (a word which, let's face it, sounds exclusive and snobby) is actually all about, and how it might affect their experience with the wine in their glass at the moment.

The Principal Definition...in Brief
Terroir is the key element underlying the profile of great wines. It is regrettable that it defies succinct AND meaningful definition, but here goes: terroir is the representation in a wine's expression--its flavor and aroma--of the simultaneous effects of soil, microclimate, and human influence from a growing and winemaking season. Some like to limit the definition to just soil and microclimate (nature), but human intervention (nurture) is impossible to prevent: we pollute the air, fertilize the land, and let's not forget that we PLANTED THE GRAPES. We are also--in our own special way--of the land, so human contributions to viticulture and wine making are integral pieces of the picture.

Another Definition and Some Initial Confusion...
So that is the principal definition of terroir, but as I have said, we use it also in a second way, and that is to demarcate a specific place. For instance, one might say of a wine from St.-Estèphe in Bordeaux, "I've never had a wine from that terroir," and be completely understood. I might then respond, "Well, you should try one, perhaps Phélan-Ségur, as it is affordable, delicious, and has a good imprint of its terroir," referring in that case to the primary definition (the specific expression of the vineyard within St.-Estèphe), but you can probably detect the problem.

...Which Leads to the Real Confusion--Minerality
You may have seen or heard someone use the term "minerality" in a description of a wine. Minerality is an aspect of a wine's aroma or flavor that is evocative of minerals and rocks, not necessarily dirt. For example, if a wine seems to have an aroma of wet granite, this is not so foreign: we have all encountered this scent on a hot day after it has rained (unless you live where no granite exists). Minerality is often confused with terroir, thanks to the second definition above. "You can taste the mica in this Pouilly-Fumé." The Pouilly-Fumé region does have some soil rich in mica, but a wine from it is as likely as not to have a "mica" flavor (whatever THAT tastes like...and DON'T go test it--mica would slice up the inside of your mouth!). The silicates in the soil may indeed contribute to the mineral quality of the wine, but the expression of terroir is dependent upon more than just the soil. It is the dual usage of terroir that causes this problem, one which led to a politicized article I read on terroir that belonged on an Op/Ed page. I recall that the writing was compelling, but the tone of the piece was a little too incredulous to be credible, and the author went to great lengths to dispel the notion of terroir--as it had been explained to him, apparently. What he was actually writing about was minerality, not terroir. The premise of the article was based upon a conflation of terroir and "minerality" under the same rubric, which is an understandable if faulty basis (and a disappointment when the piece was at least 2,000 words). When I find the original article, I'll post a link to it, should you care to read it.

The Problem Runs Deep
This conflation of terroir with minerality is far, far too common. I know wine professionals who contend that minerality in wine is an expression of the terroir, referring to the second definition-- though they believe they are applying the first definition. Is this getting confusing? (I voted for it before I voted against it?) Just because your vines are planted on slate-based soil, you are not destined to have a wine that tastes as though you've got a piece of a chalkboard steeping in it. Any detectable mineral-like flavor or aroma is a happy byproduct of the first definition of terroir, the confluence of (at least) the three major factors, plus one not yet mentioned: it is the yeast that ferments the wine. Different yeasts interact with compounds in grape juice in different ways, revealing different flavor qualities.

As you can see, this is getting out of hand! A more specific definition of terroir can lead to endless discussion of the nuances of a concept that has a myriad of them. Starting down that path would lead to a thousand more words, much of which would get into undefinable and unknowable aspects of terroir, or at best adumbrations of the specific causes of certain characteristics in a "wine of terroir" and, well, I can see the finish line here, so I'll skip that.

One Last Thing
Which brings me to the other point worth covering here: why doesn't this apply to all wine? Some wines are "wines of terroir" and others are..."wines of something else" I suppose..."wines of fruit"? Not all wines are made to be agents of the transmutation of terroir to liquid form, as the descriptive terms "fruit-driven" or "fruit bomb" so succinctly illustrate. Such wines are made by choice by a winemaker whose philosophical leanings (or intentions for a particular wine) are not persuaded by notions of terroir. Whatever the reasons for making such wine, and there are many good ones, these wines are generally aiming squarely at a drinker's enjoyment. A good wine of terroir is doing the same thing, but it's just taking the scenic route.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Blog Like Shakespeare Day

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 23 - 2010

Canst there be any greater honor than to don the vestiture of that noble poet, a chronicler of sooth, purveyor of wicked humor, and parabolist of tragedy, on this, the day of his birth? Aye, even better 't would it be to write him right.

So here goes.

At the Sign of The Prancing Pony

Come, come good shepherd of the vine, and drink
Of fruit thou grew to know through sun and moon.
Cast off thy livery upon the brink,
Earth's dear bequest shalt bear our merry tune!
Ah, yon's the lass once mine, ne'er was I so bless'd,
Her thriftless beauty maketh me to nip.
Next bot'le I drain, forsaking my dear guest,
Doleful, obsessed, the host is now a dip!
Oh, now must face the furrow of thy teeth
Or quail beneath the gnashing of thy brow
I'm fey!--nay stow thy bayo in its sheath,
Instead, the young, fair wench's not worth the row:
My lot tis this inexorable funk--
It happens ever only I'm when drunk!

A Righteous Good Entertainment

And because I can't get enough of baseball, Shakespeare performed well, and Abbot and Costello, this is marvelous fun that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with wine.

Popularity: 13% [?]

Biodynamics in Wine Drinking

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 22 - 2010

I just had a weird internal exchange with my bizarro-self about biodynamics. For those of you familiar with biodynamics, this is not, in and of itself, all that weird, because biodynamics is already so full of silly sounding mysticism and hocus pocus that an internal debate on it is barely worth mentioning in comparison. Besides, it's Earth Day...maybe I'm in a particularly close union with the biorhythms that surround me! So the weird thing is that I find my opinions shifting. Or, more accurately, my bizarro-self is gaining influence.

Yikes. Now I can never run for President.

What's Your Sign?
I have been a skeptic of the minutiae of biodynamics for many years, but it is certainly possible to taste the evidence of its worth in the great wines that are the offspring of this method of cultivation. If you don't know much or have never heard about biodynamics, it is a farming approach developed by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher, educator (he's the mind behind Waldorf education), and now that I've just looked him up on the well-intentioned but highly flawed Wikipedia, an esotericist, which would be about right. Biodynamics goes FAR beyond mere organic farming, as it puts a farmer not only into communion with his earth (and the Earth), but also with astrological events. I wish I could say that it was just astronomic influences, especially lunar, but NOOOOOOOOO, it had to include the influences of planets (some of which must always be in retrograde). I can buy into some elements of biodynamics, like the effects of the Moon's gravitational exertions on Earth, especially upon liquids (witness the Spring and Neap Tides), but I'm still having a hard time with it's effects on planting. You should plant your flowers on a Flower day, your potatoes on a Root day, tomatoes on a Fruit day, and trees on a Leaf day.

And how are these days determined, you ask? They are determined by the constellation of the Zodiac through which the Moon is passing at that particular time. Each of the 12 constellations is associated with one of the earth elements (earth, air, fire, water) for some reason (astrology buffs will probably know why, so please help me out). So...when the moon is in the seventh house...it's a Flower day, because Aquarius is associated with air which carries the flower's scent. There are also some days on which you don't want to be doing anything farming wise, or even, apparently, drinking wine, which brings me back to the original direction.

Drinking Biorhythms?
Within biodynamics, there are also days on which wine tastes better than others. Given the opportunity to think about it, you might guess that Fruit and Flower days are the best. Many tasters have noted the day-to-day differences--bottle variation--in some more tensile wines like Pinot Noir and Riesling, and some have used the biodynamic calendar to explain it. I'm not so sure.

Or wasn't.

A few years ago, I started keeping a record of days when I just didn't think wine tasted very good to see if I could discern a pattern. Some of the days were obvious (when I had a cold or some other malady), but others were as random as they could have been. So last week I got hold of the past four years biodynamic calendars, and found that, except for one (1), all of the days (32 total over the past four years) on which I didn't like wine were root or leaf days, or worse (yes, there actually is a "worse"--this is where the other planets come in).

Now What?
I don't give this too much credence, but I'll file it away as non-conclusive evidence. For now, my biodynamic interaction will be limited to drinking some of the great wines. AND, I'll just drink them whenever, and not only on Fruit or Flower days. However, from 8pm tonight until 5pm tomorrow afternoon it's a fruit day, so if you don't want to take your chances, you only have to wait three hours until you can drink some wine! And you'll want to get on that, too, because it's not safe to drink wine again until 8am Sunday morning!!!!

Meanwhile, I'll be drinking a 1993 Bordeaux on Saturday night.

Unless it doesn't taste good, then I'll have to go with a nice bottle of sparkling water.

Popularity: 3% [?]

The Politics of Three Tiers

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 8 - 2010

I'm politically infuriating to partisans because I don't have knee-jerk reactions to most political issues, simply because they are too complicated. For this reason, I do have knee-jerk reactions to partisans of all political persuasions. So here's a knee-jerk reaction for you: what in God's name could Sarah Palin POSSIBLY have to say to the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America? No doubt her message of deregulation at their annual convention was well-received by the Three Tier System advocates at WSWA. If her intention was actually to stir the pot, well, then she deserves some credit.

Three Levels of Bureaucracy to Get You Your Wine
If you don't know what the Three Tier System is: tier one is the supplier (whether winery or importer), tier two is the wholesaler that creates a portfolio of wines to sell to tier three, which is the retailer or restaurant that gets the wine to you. In some states a wholesaler is required to distribute wine to retailers, in others you can buy directly from the supplier, if they are willing to ship it to you. The system is also a flashpoint for many people, in part because there are some very large wholesalers who have been known to abuse their dominant positions within the distribution networks.

An Argument that Would Be Better off Dormant
But that explanation isn't the principal purpose of this missive, really. Nor am I suggesting that Palin's presence at the convention was for no other purpose than to drive attendance (perhaps it was, but I really couldn't care less). All these things do dovetail together, actually, as I am reacting to an old argument I heard again this past Monday: apparently many, many, many people still like to decry the Three Tier System and the way it costs us--wine consumers--more money, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, yeah--the wineries aren't going to sell a wine for any less than it would retail for on the shelf at your local shop. If the argument were that wineries will make more money, and that's good...then I'm with you! Most wineries have a tough time given the costs of not only making wine, but selling it. The old saw goes like this: "How do you make a small fortune making wine? Start with a large one."

It is a fallacy to assume that wineries will sell their wine to consumers for the same price for which they sell it to wholesalers. It is economic common sense: if the wine is selling for $50 on the shelf, why would a winery be satisfied with selling it to a customer already willing to pay full price? If you go to a winery, you'll find that's what they already do. So what incentive do they have to sell it for the price at the next tier down, $33 (which is roughly the retailer's cost)? Of course there's no way they would sell it to the consumer for the $25 (roughly) that the wholesaler pays them. Pricing schemes won't change, with or without the Three Tier System.

Practicality Has No Peer
There are other more cogent issues that surround the Three Tier System, but they are long and boring (for an entertaining look at a Three-Tier Experience, click here.), and as I'm at a loss for a better alternative, here my little practical defense of it. If the regulations on alcohol sales are lifted, wholesalers will become much more vulnerable to the whims of the market and they may lose access to some wines. They are still, I submit, crucial to the business. As a professional with long-time experience as a wine buyer for both retail and restaurants, I was happy to work with as many as 20 wholesalers, because this small group was able to provide me with the selection of over 2,000 wines I carried as a retailer. I would not be happy to work with the over 1,500 sources I'd need in order to provide a similarly broad selection without wholesalers. As someone who has occasionally had difficulty with follow-through, why would I want to do that? Can you imagine the paperwork involved?

No thanks.

My thanks, however, go to Sarah Palin for providing me with a shameless use of her name as a search term. And I'll keep my wholesalers, regardless of whether I can mail order wines or not (I happen to live in a state where this is now legal), I'm only willing to pay for but so much shipping, and wholesalers, especially the good ones, make my job easier, and I hope I return the favor.

Nothing like a friendly, colleagial relationship with your sales rep to help get things done. Perhaps Congress will figure that one out before I cash it in....

Popularity: 5% [?]

Writer Stabs Self with Corkscrew, Staph Follows

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 1 - 2010

Wine writer Burke Morton, jack of all trades, master of two (according to him), narrowly avoided a date with the undertaker after opening a bottle of wine. He stabbed himself with the worm of his corkscrew while trying to remove a stubborn cork from a bottle of '97 Marcel Deiss Engelgarten Riesling. His sixth and final bottle of Engelgarten almost turned out to be his last bottle ever.

"The damn cork on that wine...I've never gotten one out without it breaking. Spongy and brittle from the very beginning--worse than the cork on an old bottle of Chateau Musar!" Morton said from his hospital bed, clearly expecting me to know what he is talking about. "It made me so mad that I stabbed myself when I tried to slam the corkscrew back in to get the rest of the cork, but I missed the bottle and got my left index finger. That's what I get for being so hot-headed."

When Morton struck his finger, the corkscrew didn't go all the way through the skin, but only got the top layers. Apparently that was the problem. "A staph infection got in between the layers of skin, and...well, my wave is now one finger shy of a hand."

Morton, a classically trained musician, was remarkably sanguine about losing a finger, but the percocet may have been helping to dull more than just the pain: "Well, I wasn't a very good pianist anyway, though I sure will miss shredding like Hendrix." Even so, he manages to look at the bright side, "I like to learn, and now I'll have to relearn the home row."

Speaking with Morton's doctor, it becomes clear just how confused Morton has become. "A staph infection? Could be, but what makes him think that, I wonder? Does he think he lost his finger because of Impetigo? I haven't seen an adult with that in ages. He had a Felon infection, which I can tell you is quite painful, but we don't know what caused it. It could have been Staphylococcus aureus, but since we cut the thing off, we didn't bother to culture it--couldn't afford to because of cut backs from his insurance company."

Aside from the snarky doctor's breach of HIPAA laws, perhaps that's the bigger story here.

Popularity: 13% [?]

One Region–Any Style

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Posted by Burke Morton On March - 10 - 2010


Or, Problems with Stereotyping

Wine itself is not terribly complicated. All the variables involved with wine make it a tall mountain to climb, though. The way we deal with it is to try to make it simpler, and this is the right thing to do. But the route to simplicity has been paved with generalizations and stereotypes. This is the easier way to go, I suppose...after all, we're taught to stereotype from a young age--German Barbie anyone? Ooh--I almost missed the obvious one: Malibu Barbie! Anatomical absurdities aside, do all girls from Malibu really look like this? If so, my inner Ken will be moving to California.

If not, as is of course the case, then such painful inaccuracies must exist everywhere we use stereotypes, and within the wine world, these generalizations are increasingly erroneous. For example, it would be insanely short-sighted of us to expect the people of a wine region to make wines in one general style, yet we do that very thing every day when we suggest that there is a specific "style" of California Chardonnay or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Those terms--especially "California Chardonnay"--have been in use for so long that anyone, at least anyone who has some wine experience, will know what you mean. It is certainly easier than saying, "a low-acid, milk and butter-flavored Chardonnay with new oak treatment of some kind and significant residual sugar," or something along those lines, but this stereotype is becoming obsolete. The breadth of variety in style is just too broad to justify this--just ask the people making Chardonnay at Lioco, Ridge, Hanzell, Radio-Coteau, Au Bon Climat, Arcadian, Ancien, to name just a few. The Chardonnays from these producers are as different from each other as they are from the California stereotype, so they are really problematic: they fall under the rubric of "California Chardonnay" but they are perhaps more accurately, if a little too generally, categorized as "French Style" Chardonnay. But neither do they taste like they came from France, and there we've stereotyped another category--two categories, actually: wines from France, and Chardonnays from California that are noted, not for their sense of too-muchness, but for their sense of site specificity.

This stereotyping of wine styles (and countries!) doesn't do much good anymore, and I'm not pursuaded it ever did anything other than make my job selling wine easier. Aussie Shiraz has been assigned a stereotype, but if you have a bottle from Yarra Valley or Margaret River, those wines will bear little resemblance to the stereotypical (oops!) Shiraz from Barossa, McLaren Vale, et al. Oh, but now the salesman in me feels the need to say what they ARE like! Is it easier to say that Yarra Valley is a cooler climate, so the Shiraz is less "ripe" (read: overripe) and sweet and is lower in alcohol than "other" OZ Shiraz? Or what if I said it is a more European-styled Syrah (it's the same grape, just a different name)? I'd argue that the latter is easier.

But that's all it is. It does no justice to the wine in the glass, nor as I have said, to the region in comparison. Besides, it supposes that you are already familiar with European Syrah, and if you are was it an archetypal European Syrah? What the heck would that be like anyway?

I know that we need to have a frame of reference to quickly process our experiences, but it is far more useful to simply describe the wine in question based upon its own merits. This has little to do with justice or fairness to a wine. It is, rather, an acknowledgement of the complexities of wine without oversimplification. Not only that--it also raises the excitement factor, because if you benchmark a particular Australian Shiraz against a counterpart from France, and the person you're talking to doesn't like French Syrah, then they'll lose interest. However, if you describe it on its own merits, the wine stands a better chance of providing enjoyment, which is what it is supposed to do in the first place.

Popularity: 2% [?]

Video Today


You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 64% [?]

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