People and places make wine alluring. It’s also what distinguishes it from most other beverages. It’s special to visit wine country or have a winemaker come to your area. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery is a unique and iconic winemaker in Santa Cruz, California, home to many fifty-year-old surfers and skateboarders, hence he refers to it as “Neverland.” In a recent philosophical conversation centering on the business of wine, he discussed many things that ail the industry: Critter wines, consolidation, commercialized bland wines and the big dirt(y) word terroir (the French term that wraps soil, climate and culture into one ball to describe why wine tastes like a place).
Randall loves wines with that sense of place. He calls them vin de terroir and is adamant that none exist in the new world. Yikes. I also love vin de terroir but happen to believe there are some new-world wines that express the idea pretty well. The only possible exception Randall gave for a California wine with terroir was Ridge Monte Bello, a blend from a mountain vineyard between the Pacific Ocean and Silicon Valley. Vin de l’effort is what he calls the rest of the wines in the new world, meaning they have been manipulated to taste a certain way. Randall thinks of those as bland and commercial and he has a point, but there are fine examples throughout the so-called new world of vin de terroir.
The most fascinating part of the conversation was Randall’s interest in planting a vineyard from seed and using a product called biochar to enhance the natural terroir of the soil. Biochar is essentially charcoal used as a soil enhancement. It’s usefulness was first discovered in the Amazon where villagers who buried their fires had far better crops that those who didn’t. Biochar has shown three great agricultural benefits. The first is its ability to store water and release it when a plant needs it. The second is the boosting of terroir characteristics. The last benefit is its ability to sequester carbon in soil for hundreds of years without degrading. Randall believes that biochar has the capacity to reduce and combat climate change and help save the planet as well as provide us with better wine. Now that’s a vin de terroir we could all raise a glass to.
New World Wines (some with Old World names) that offer terroir
2007 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles, CA
2008 Domus Aurea, Alto Maipo, Chile
2008 Le Cigare Volant Reserve en Bonbonne, North Coast, CA
2009 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA