Kerry Howley’s essay on the documentary Mondovino at Reason is a very enjoyable read that captures some of both the economics and culture of winemaking. I also like its witty title!
Howley discusses the main contrast in the film, between anti-globalism winemaker Aimé Guibert and global entrepreneur Robert Mondavi. Howley’s conclusion piques my interest in the film:
Mondovino starts as a mournful elegy for fine wine, but it’s too smart, or perhaps too honest, a film to end that way. Instead, wine emerges as an experience open to invention and reinvention, a nebulous pleasure that can be captured only fleetingly in the strained metaphor of a critic or the romance of an Italian estate before it is reconceived as something wholly different. Connoisseur Lawrence Osborne claims wine is “99 percent psychological, a creation of where you are and with whom.” That’s a profoundly empowering concept for a beverage once thought to be the province of elites, whether they be crass American businessmen or cranky European farmers.
I like the idea of “experience open to invention and reinvention.”
I would only quibble with the characterization of terroir:
Terroir, a central tenet of wine’s mystique, dictates that a great wine expresses its place of origin. Napa is too new for even the pretense of terroir. Its wines are the product of technology and experimentation, not centuries of careful cultivation. Its techniques aren’t family secrets or lessons culled from the land, but scientific innovations pumped out of UC Davis in the 1960s. So Napa had to create its own mythology—one of person, not of place.
I don’t think that’s right at all. Even within Napa Valley you can get variation according to vineyard, although Howley is correct to say that in general, New World wines rely more on scientific and technological innovation. I don’t think terroir is a pretense, although I do think the French mysticize and romanticize it excessively, and I don’t think that the New World is too new for terroir. The ways you can influence the taste of a wine fall into three general categories: the grapes you use, the soil/climate you plant them in, and the winemaking technique. One of the reasons why wine is so complex and fascinating is that the interaction of these three variables can produce such a wide and changing variety of experiences. And that doesn’t even incorporate the experience of the consumer enjoying the wine with friends and food!
If, for example, you drink an Italian Sangiovese next to the Bonny Doon Sangiovese, you can taste the varietal characteristics of blackberry, black cherry, and dried currant. But I tend to taste more juniper/eucalyptus in the California Sangiovese than in the Italian, even though there is some juniper in both. Some of that is probably terrior, I would bet.
Sorry, didn’t mean to rant about terroir … just meant to convey that where you grow the grapes can matter, but that the interaction of that with the grape itself and with the winemaking technique leads to a very subtle and complex, and enjoyable, outcome.