Terroir – or Terrorist?

Friendly local winemakers in Napa Valley be warned:  if you head to Terroir Wine Bar in San Francisco, feeling adventurous and magnanimous, toting a bottle of your Bordeaux blend to share for pure fun… don’t expect to feel welcome.

Proof that the wine scene in San Francisco is evolving faster than microchips in Silicon Valley, Terroir offers more global varietals and styles than we could find nationwide a few years back.  I had few flavor memories firing as I read the menu sitting at the corner of the bar in this eclectic urban-country saloon complete with upstairs card tables (or so they appeared with a rousing poker game well underway last Saturday evening).

Attitude is held in high esteem behind the bar.  Balanced somewhat by generosity; short glasses of interesting contents sliding toward us as we perused a photocopied/handwritten menu, bartender looking askance as he delivered them–perhaps grimacing.  A fusion of seething contempt –for what?  people over 40?  they didn’t even know yet I was a Napa Valley vintner –combined with a professional desire to serve and inform, well, at least preach.

The place is chock full of local wine pros.  We headed over on advice of the young sommelier at Spruce who had been in the previous night.  Her recommendation a response to my dinner companion from New York noting his preference for European wines.  Soon I was rubbing shoulders with the wine director for Coco500, smiling wickedly I might add, and I never left my barstool.

I enjoyed an Hungarian white sparkler, a Chinon (OK, “enjoyed” not quite accurate here; even the hostile bartender cautioned, “the Chinon is a bit tight tonight”), a splash of Morgon, and a lovely sparkling Gamay created by fermentation in the bottle–NOT secondary fermentation the French bartender explained by holding up two fingers and shaking his head side-to-side to communicate through the din.  “Winemaker’s palate refresher,” I thought.  Like a slightly more layered boysenberry Izze.

In this spirited whirwind of world wine flavors, how could I not say “Hey, you guys wanna try my wine?”  Oh, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore! Send me back to Napa Valley where WE ALL enjoy a splash of each other’s wine.  Sure, we compete; yes, most people think I’m nuts for not producing Cabernet Sauvignon, for selling my wine for less than $100, for running my business like [cough] a business, but we are all addicted to tasting, and even the meanest among us will take a moment to learn the intention of a vintner while tasting their wine.  Like culinary students eating off each other’s plates, we swirl & sniff anything in sight with interest.

Much disdain erupted after I offered my bottle to share.  Impassioned accusations of chemical and inorganic treatments came at me before I could get a word in edgewise.  “Hey, if you need to use SO2 to cover your mistakes and poor choices and you have to load up on wood to flavor your overripe juice and make your big profits…”  Wow.  Clearly, they didn’t observe me arriving in the 2005 Subaru…

What an eye-opener.  A new “category”–the avante-garde millenial wine gen hates Napa Valley, even if you’re a producer that most Napa Valley producers criticize for being different, even if you’re on the edge of Napa in the coolest corner of the appellation, producing an affordable, lower-alcohol, fruit-focused, pure terroir-driven Cabernet Franc blend from hand-picked, sustainably-farmed grapes, fermented by resident yeast and gently housed in only “1/3 new” oak barrels of quite remarkable quality… Even if your 3.2 pH allows you to squeak by with so little SO2, you could almost avoid “Contains Sulfites” on the label of your rosé.  But there was no opportunity to offer these insights.

Isn’t it the American Way that each counter-culture has to start at the polar extreme of the prior trend.  Global organic vs. Big Bad Napa Cab.  I feel like Goldilocks:  Napa too soft, San Francisco too hard.  Thank goodness people like me in Los Angeles and Orange County.

Terroir Wine Bar–I learned in a tongue lashing that would make Ari Gold proud–is dedicated to biodynamic and organic wine.  I did make the mistaken quip, “organic labeling is loaded with bs”  before I could explain I meant the label oversimplified the matter (organic farming gets no recogniztion if one uses a bit of SO2 in the cellar to stabilize a product designed for aging 10+ years in bottle and shipping across the country…)  Well, nonetheless, I’m happy to taste varietals other than Cabernet Sauvignon and be damned as a member of a club I never belonged to anyway.  Talk about a change in perspective… Next visit I’ll sit upstairs.

For a more balanced view of organic winemaking, try this recent LA Times article on the subject.

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About Emily Richer

Investment banker turned right banker.
This entry was posted in One wild ride. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Terroir – or Terrorist?

  1. Greg says:

    SO2 and organic are my biggest pet peeve with the “terroirists” because they simply don’t understand what they mean or do. You know and I know SO2 is vital for microbial stability and scouring byproducts of oxidation. If you can’t assume perfect provenance and aren’t drinking the wine immediately, it is a net good. I suspect “terroirists” often confuse sulfites with sulfides or thiols, i.e. mercaptans. Scientific illiteracy is a dangerous thing in the hands of a ideologically bent idiot.

    As for organic, I’m sure most “terroirists” are unaware that Copper Sulfate (gasp, an inorganic chemical) and elemental Sulfur are permitted as anti-fungal agents in USDA organic as well as European organic and biodynamic viticulture. Yet if you put SO2 in the finished wine, it is a crime. If an ideology lacks internal consistency, it fails. Talk about a failure: organic does not mean pesticide or fungicide free. It only limits the options to a specific list of traditional treatments.

    If you want to find the nexus of this blatant stupidity, do a Google search of Alice Feiring. I actually like a lot of the same wines the “terroirists” do (and many they don’t), but if I hadn’t come across these wines via other channels, I’d be so turned off by the people supporting them I wouldn’t be interested. Much the way I’m turned off by the attitude of many $100+ Napa Cabs. Wine isn’t an ideology or an art installation; it’s an effin’ drink with good flavor, aroma and yes alcohol.

    By the way, which Chinon did you try? I’ve been sampling 2008s and had one hit (it post Wednesday on my blog), one miss, and one that hit the spot relative to price.

  2. Scruff says:

    Good comments Greg on the use and confusion about SO2. I know some winemakers that lament that even the minimal about of SO2 they need to ensure a “stabilized” consistent product that will not become a potential microbiological time bomb prevents them from saying Organic on the label. Biodynamic is another abused term that people attach beliefs to that are not founded to the actual practice… biodynamic grapes doesn’t mean that additional non-organic compounds or mechanical manipulations are not used in the winemaking process for instance.

    I do believe that there will always be people wanting to have the “better than them” stance which will change with the times too. Next hot stance might be the carbon footprint of the bottles (big in England), the ink and wood used on the labels, the corks coming from “fair trade” family growers, vines grown with rain water vs commercial water sources vs dry framed etc. A lot of this has potential for improving the product but there is always going to be the nth degree. 😉

    On a positive note, it sounds like the bar did have some very unusual wines to try.

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