Wine Words

Digging Deep on Terroir

Book review by Derrick Schneider

Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader
By Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein
UC Press, January 2018

People who have pursued fine wine are probably conversant in terroir, the French word that connects a food’s flavors to a place of origin, even if only to notice the richer, lusher fruit from a California Sauvignon Blanc as compared to a French one from the Loire Valley. But most people who have ever looked at a wine’s label have encountered the concept whether they recognized it
or not.

Marketers tie wine to the land with trite blurbs akin to: “We believe great wine is made in the vineyard.” Such phrases show up on both premier bottles and supermarket bargains, the latter of which almost certainly were made from many vineyards and, as wine industry wags like to counter, “then remade in the winery.” The notion of terroir underlies that marketing, as do the billboards showing an idealized pastoral life in wine country.

But ask ten wine enthusiasts to define terroir, and you might get 20 different answers. Perhaps the most succinct is writer Matt Kramer’s both useful and useless term “somewhereness.”

To create a useful dialog about the term, the late writer Tim Patterson (profiled as a Berkeley amateur winemaker in Edible East Bay’s Spring 2006 issue) and winemaker John Buechsenstein have published Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader. This book is the most comprehensive collection of writing about terroir I’ve seen, assembling a large number of other writings—framed by commentary from the authors—into a single package.

The book’s curation is shaped around a handful of premises: terroir is real but skepticism about it is nonetheless useful, wine is never actually made in the vineyard but in a winery, rigorous sensory studies should be able to prove terroir’s existence, science by itself may not be sufficient but it’s a good start, and others. Their aim, as they say, is to give the term “a good housecleaning in order to defend it.”

From there, the book’s authors offer a flight of writing on the subject, moving from the lyrical aspects of terroir to its history; then to the nitty-gritty of soil and climate and vine physiology; onward to the human side of terroir—making wine, tasting it, and marketing it—and, finally, a look at the future of the topic.

Within that arc, the authors offer fascinating asides, such as a description of how Napa Valley’s reputation is much more a product of marketing than soil science. I knew Patterson when he was alive and always enjoyed his eager desire to learn and peer closely at unfounded claims. He was realistic about the business side of the wine industry, the part that doesn’t show up on labels, while also loving wine dearly. That same attention is evident in this book, a project he was passionate about until his last moments.

The writing is drawn from a wide range of sources. You’ll find a snarky blog post, feature articles from some of the great consumer-facing writers, talks given to wine professionals, and deeply technical scientific papers.

What you won’t find is hand-holding about wine knowledge. If you’re looking for a book to advise you on what to drink with dinner or to give you basic information about the world’s wine regions, you’ll need to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking to read a wide and diverse body of text about what terroir is and where it comes from, you’ll find few books on par with this one. ♦

Derrick Schneider is a computer programmer and freelance writer.