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In vino veritas -- Terroir

It's All Just Myths, You See

No data, no good
Photo by: Jon Moe
When scientists assert there's no evidence of terroir, Matt Kramer says the proof is on the palate.

Matt Kramer

Comes now yet another book-length agony letter from the wine science establishment declaring how we in the popular press know nothing about wine, and furthermore, how you (and me) in the wine-drinking public don't know a damned thing either.

This is nothing new. Starting in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s and '80s, wine scientists in California, Australia and Germany regularly inveighed, in interviews, articles and books, about how they, scientists with data, knew what really happened in winemaking and grapegrowing. What they didn't or don't agree with or like was and is invariably dismissed as "mystical," "magical," "folkloric" or "myth."

Mark Matthews, a professor of viticulture at the University of California at Davis, is the latest in a long line of such wine scientists and makes clear his perspective from the titular get-go with his Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing (University of California Press, 2015).

Wine scientists, we're told by professor Matthews, have data. Data! Facts. Scientific verities. They are the real truths, ones with numbers, not the phony hand-me-down poetry put forth by the Frenchies and their credulous followers, the better to flog (and fog) their wines at high prices to an equally credulous, ill-informed, mysticism-loving wine-drinking public.

In 221 pages, professor Matthews (no relation to Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews) puts forth that the Augean stable of myths must be cleansed with Herculean ferocity. "The troubling evidence that runs counter to the myths of winegrowing does not appear in the popular press, where there is essentially no reference to the existing viticultural literature and exceedingly limited engagement with its authors," he declares. Pay attention to us!

Professor Matthews examines the myths, as he sees them, of how low yields are conventionally thought to be better than high yields; about the concept of "vine balance"; about so-called critical ripening and vine stress; and above all, about the sheer fatuity of the concept of terroir.

All of these are not just myths, they are (and I quote) … bullshit. "When I told the winemaker at one of Napa Valley's leading midsize wineries," writes professor Matthews, "that I was working on a book that dealt with bullshit in winegrowing, he responded with a chuckle and asked, 'How are you going to know when to stop?'"

Actually, professor Matthews does not know when to stop and, even more important, why he should. The problem, from this writer's perspective, is not that conventional thinking in grapegrowing (the professor's academic specialty) shouldn't be questioned or challenged. Rather, it's a larger matter of wine scientists' abiding belief—dare one call it faith?—in the ostensible truth of data alone. There's a word for this particular perspective: It's called "scientism."

Allow me to digress briefly, as "scientism" is very much at the root of why so many wine scientists have been so wrong about so many features (and achievements) of fine wine—as opposed to bulk or ordinary wine.

This business of fine wine is a vital distinction, as fine wine, unlike ordinary, is all about shadings and nuances, a word wine scientists abhor as having no metric or verifiable basis. (Professor Matthews, for his part, always places the word "finesse" in quotes to underscore the scientific dubiousness of the term.) Ordinary or bulk wine is simpler and, indeed, more available to credible measurement from which one can reasonably extrapolate.

So what is scientism? It's best explained in the recent book Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, edited by Richard Williams and Daniel Robinson (Bloomsbury, 2015). This is no crank tract, given its illustrious contributors, such as Lawrence Principe who holds two doctorates, one in organic chemistry from Indiana University and another in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University. The other eight contributors, including the well-known philosopher Roger Scruton, hold comparable scholarly credentials.

Scientism: The New Orthodoxy notes emphatically, "It must be made clear at the outset … that to express a concern about, or to criticize over-reliance or overconfidence in science is not to oppose science or to diminish its accomplishments."

Scientism, the authors note, involves a "zealous metaphysical commitment and a requisite orthodoxy in method and in thought regarding the nature of the world and how understanding of the world is to be approached."

Their definition of the term embraces four tenets, two of which are pertinent to the present discussion. The first is: "It is a tenet of scientism that only certifiably scientific knowledge counts as real knowledge. All else is mere opinion or nonsense."

"A second tenet … is that the methods and assumptions underlying the natural sciences are appropriate for all sciences. … A corollary doctrine is that the arts, if they seek to be more than myth and self-expression, must somehow be brought under the umbrella of science."

The four-part definition notes, "Scientism exudes and promotes an exaggerated confidence in science … to produce knowledge and solve the problems of humanity."

With this in mind, it brings into focus the fault line of professor Matthews' assertions about, as he titles his book, terroir and other myths of winegrowing. Are his assertions necessarily wrong-headed? Hardly. Some of them are both fascinating and surely worth pondering, especially those in his specialty of grapegrowing. What's more, the illuminations in that field have hardly been ignored in the past or present, even if they haven't necessarily been widely embraced either, which clearly irks the author.

For example, agronomists and viticulturists have been insisting for decades that low yields do not, in the scientific data, correspond to demonstrably higher quality. And within the confines of what such data can establish, such as sugar content, acidity, color, pH and the like, it's true. The numbers from such experimental tests prove it. This is not news and plenty of winemakers and viticulturists already know it.

Viticulturists such as Richard Smart, who holds two doctorates in the field of grapegrowing and is the author of Sunlight into Wine (1991), have campaigned for decades about changing grape canopies to create higher yields with no loss of measurable grape or wine quality.

So why, to the evident frustration of professor Matthews, has the wine establishment not embraced what to him are proven truths?

The answer involves not a gullibility for myths, as professor Matthews repeatedly insists, but rather what might be called the more finely detailed demands of the fine-wine ambition. Here the data frequently fail to prove to the satisfaction of many practitioners the truths proclaimed as proven and universal. I wish I had a dollar for every winemaker and grapegrower I've met in Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere in the world of fine wine who have told me that they had to unlearn everything they were taught by their wine science professors in order to gain traction in their fine-wine ambition.

Too often the nuances sought for fine wine are not necessarily captured by the "facts" established in one or another often-narrow scientific experiment.

Sometimes the narrowly rational and scientifically provable has to give way to the seemingly irrational or to beliefs not easily proved by conventional scientific methods. How else can you explain why so many otherwise rational, educated and intelligent fine-wine producers have embraced low yields even though it means seriously reducing their income?

One of the features of professor Matthews' book—and virtually all of the others of its sort penned by his fellow academic wine scientists—is that it never reports actually tasting wines, let alone trying to correlate tasting experience with academic knowledge. Nowhere in Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing does the author refer to a tasting experience. Such a thing is too subjective and thus inherently suspect.

Knowing this helps explain astonishing statements such as: "It is generally true that grapevines do well in calcareous soils, but it is probably more clear empirically that chalk deposits are good for holding oil reserves, than for flavors imparted to Chardonnay or other grapes."

Does that sound like someone who knows anything about fine wine? Does that sound like someone who has experienced—and accepted as real—the singular sensation of a great Chablis?

Such declarations pepper Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, nowhere more so than in the chapter "The Terroir Explanation," which is the epicenter of the book's provocative title. Professor Matthews reserves a special scorn for the concept of terroir, which scorn, I might note from my experience, is very nearly a prerequisite for employment in his academic world.

Having written at length about terroir over the decades, I was not surprised to see my work cited, although I have to say that the citations used are both brief and factual; I was hardly in the crosshairs, so to speak. So I have no axe to grind on that account.

Where I do feel free to sharpen such an instrument lies with a substantial difference of opinion about the legitimacy of the concept of terroir and of its essential reality. Simply put, professor Matthews dismisses the idea of terroir as a modern invention, and a cynical one at that.

Noting that the word once denoted an unpleasant taste (which historically was true, at least in the French phrase "goût de terroir"), professor Matthews notes the sharp increase and transformation of the word terroir as a consequence of new French appellation regulations in the mid-20th century: "All concerned capitalized on the value of having an attractive story that included the regional terroir explanation for distinctive wines."

"The second situation that correlates in time with the dramatic uptick in the use of terroir," writes professor Matthews, "is the increase in international competition in the world of wine." The author then elaborates how difficult it has become for many tasters to distinguish between wines of similar types grown in various parts of the world, citing among other examples, the famous confusion between French and American Chardonnays and Cabernets by judges in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.

At root lies a disdain for the influence of soil in wine distinction: "Unfortunately, the 'discovery' of terroir in the popular press was not preceded by scientific discoveries of soil-derived flavors, or other validations of putative characteristic flavors from a more broadly defined terroir."

Bottom line: There are no data proving that soil informs wine. Therefore it's a shuck. Terroir is a fake. Distinctions among wines are mere public relations for which the ambiguous word terroir is conveniently invoked. Terroir is a myth promulgated by romanticists such as wine writers and cynical marketing sorts seeking to distinguish their wines from those of the competition.

All I can say is this: Taste some wine. Is a good Chablis really the same as any other Chardonnay grown in a comparably cool climate, never mind whether the soil is chalk or clay or sand? Really?

Does Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Stags Leap District taste the same as that grown on Howell Mountain? Of course it doesn't. Anyone can taste the difference if presented with two well-made examples. Or 10 such examples for that matter. Of course there are reasons: climate, microclimate, elevation, sunlight intensity, wine, rain and yes, soil. Believers in the existence of terroir are the first to mention all of these and more.

Such differences are collectively called terroir. What's so hard to accept about that? What's so difficult in accepting such a notion as both real and legitimate?

Is terroir necessarily ambiguous? Sure it is. Everything about fine wine is ambiguous. That's what makes it so difficult to pinpoint precisely why La Tâche tastes different from neighboring Richebourg. No scientific evidence exists, to the best of my knowledge, that definitively identifies and proves the causes of the difference. Therefore, as wine scientists would have it, any differences we find are invalid as they're not verifiable. So we're seen as dupes. Myth lovers. Irrational fools.

But we're not. Those of us who credit the existence of terroir, of its legitimacy as a metaphor for understanding the natural world know that recognizing terroir is no more—and no less—than a way of being alert. We know that the differences we apprehend with our senses are real and far from illusory—or mythical. We know also that soil plays an informing role, in some sites more strongly and clearly than in others.

Scientism says that such conclusions are inadmissible. No data, no good. ("It is a tenet of scientism that only certifiably scientific knowledge counts as real knowledge. All else is mere opinion or nonsense.") Our collective and profound experience in apprehending and distinguishing such very real differences among fine wines is dismissed as, well … you know what.

It's all myths, you see. You do see that, don't you?

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