Friday, November 07, 2008

American Terroir ~ Open Your Heart, and Shine it On

Yesterday, at an event for the local farmers and winemakers, there were a few Texas wines at the tables. One particularly appealed, insofar as it corresponded with what I have been thinking about in terms of what American terroir is.

First the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon from the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle. High acid. Very High. Almost to the point of being volatile. Naturally. Tender tannins. Harry Waugh of Latour would have loooved it. A creamy, almost uncanny, balance. I talked to the winemaker about the wine and related an earlier tasting of grapes from the same vineyard, but made by a different winemaker. The earlier wine had been taken through Reverse Osmosis almost to the point of stripping certain fleshy parts of the wine out, making the acidity factor even more stark. The earlier winemaker told me he had done that (R.O.) because the wine naturally had this aspect of what some folks would recognize as volatile acidity and he tried to “work it out.” It didn’t work for him and in the process he removed some of the buttresses that held the wine up, resulting in a wine that tasted as if it had had plastic surgery that had gone bad. Fortunately the second winemaker knew what the characteristic of the vineyard was and didn’t fight it, but rather let nature be. I don’t even like Cabernet for the most part, but this was a lovely drink.

Which is a very long introduction to something I have been talking about to wine folks across the country lately. This idea of American terroir.

It started with thoughts about California terroir (where I lived for half my life, growing up there) and feeling something in my environment before I knew the terms. In those many trips from Southern to Northern California going back to school and stopping in Templeton or Paso Robles, Gilroy or the many little vineyard plots along the way, I would taste a Zinfandel or a Charbono and note something that seemed oddly familiar. Something I couldn’t quite pinpoint. But it was concrete. Real.

I know there are critics who think "California wine" is big and bold and ripe and, well, immense. And other than those creeping levels of alcohol, I really am having a hard time understanding what their frame of reference is. Certainly not from growing up drinking the wines of Italy. Or France. Or Virginia, for that matter.

Yesterday, I also went into a natural foods cafĂ© and ordered a glass of carrot and celery juice. As I was drinking it, I was really enjoying the earthiness of the carrots, the nervous edge of the celery. It was a perfect drink, and it had tons of terroir from the organically grown produce. A chap behind the counter said I should try it next time with a little apple juice. As I was walking outside in what seemed like a perfect California day (in Texas) I thought to myself, “That would make it fruity.” I didn’t want more fruit. I enjoyed the balance of the fruit with the muddiness of the carrots and the salty-spicy green quality of the celery. It didn’t need to be manipulated with sugar from the apples to make it more pleasurable.

Take a handsome woman. Or man. Lets say someone from Croatia. Or Louisiana. In their natural state, some of us prefer that to a more enhanced look. Some like breasts that aren’t enormously out of proportion. Or lips that don’t look like that got into a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. Muscles that look healthy, but not menacing. Many of us like wine like that.

A few weeks ago, while in the Maremma, I tasted fresh Merlot grape juice before it started fermenting. It was direct, fresh. The fruit was there but it wasn’t hulky. Maybe that it was pre-oak, pre-malolactic and pre-spinning cones, that attracted me to the promise of the wine to come. Just like the carrot-celery juice. It was standing there in front of you, pure and natural. Senza manovra.

I think California gets a bad rap. From folks who think they know what California wine is. And from winemakers who have mistaken their winemaking hats with their deity hats. I know when I talk to some of my winemaker friends like Robert Pellegrini, how they seethe when people try to reinvent "California wine", as if with one swipe of the sword it can all be commandeered. In the meantime, folks like him have their wines downgraded by the critics in favor of more voluptuous wines with a hedonistic bent. Pave paradise to put up a parking lot. And a tram.

I hear you, Bob. I too, remember the promise of California. And that seems to be a forgotten promise in today’s menagerie of players along the coast, from the numb and number corporate-crunching wine machines to the post-mid-life crisis wine lifestyle gazillionares.

Last February I went up to Stony Hill at the invitation of Peter McCrea. It was the Napa of my childhood, still as I remembered it in the beginning. The wines were a pleasant 12 ½%. There was no overpowering weight of wood. Acidity was healthy, bracing. The taste of the earth was present. That is how I see terroir in America.

And as America seems to be at a turning point, wouldn’t it be a great time for all of us to put down our preconceptions about what we think California wine is, or should be, and just “let the sunshine in?”


Marco said...

I loves me some mud on my carrots too. I'm not a Cali Cabernet fan either, but I do like some Zinfandel, Syrah (not overly Port-ified), blends, Pinot not so much. You're right about the California wine image being somewhat ambiguous. Maybe it says something about California itself. There are many good straight forward terroir driven wines coming out of California. It's a shame that these are not the wines that people think of when they hear the word California.

Kevin Hamel said...

California is a bleeping big state. Isn't saying simply "California wine" a bit like saying "French wine"?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Yep. Just like saying Italian wine, K-man.

Russ said...

Just like saying Texas wine....It is the same size as France.


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