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Who needs terroir?

It's time to focus more on winemaking and less on place, say rebel California vintners.

January 28, 2004|Stett Holbrook | Special to The Times

Anyone who cares about wine knows that the very best wines in the world are distinguished by their terroir. Though no single word in English suffices to translate the French word, terroir is, roughly, a particular wine's sense of place -- the soil in which the vines grow, the vineyard's orientation (how much sun it gets, whether it's situated on a hillside or flat land), topography and both the microclimate and macroclimate of the region. All of these add up to a wine's personality, that which makes it unique. And desirable.

In France, terroir is taken as gospel. Over the last two decades California winemakers have also embraced the notion, and it's become more and more common for wines to be marketed with a "single vineyard" designation. Winemakers have been talking less about winemaking and more about soil and microclimate and the uniqueness of vineyard character. You don't often find the word on a wine label, but when the label touts a particular vineyard, that's code for terroir.

But a tiny yet burgeoning movement in California -- call it counter-terroirism -- is rejecting all that.

"I'm not saying terroir doesn't exist," says Sean Thackrey, owner and winemaker of an eponymous winery, producer of Pleiades, a nonvintage blend of Zinfandel, Barbera, Grenache and other warm-weather grapes from various vineyards in Lodi. "There are just a lot of other things going on."

Thackrey calls France's Appellation d'Origine Controlee (or A.O.C.) system, which is based in large part on the notion of terroir, "viticultural racism," arguing that it perpetuates what he calls the myth that "wine is made in the vineyard."

The counter-terroirist philosophy is also being espoused at Geyser Peak, as well as at Talomas, Robert Mondavi Winery's joint venture with Australia's Rosemount Estate.

Not coincidentally, there's an Australian thread connecting California's counter-terroirists. To reinvent Sonoma County's Geyser Peak Winery as a producer of premium wine instead of plonk, head winemaker Daryl Groom has applied the lessons he learned in the 1980s when he was senior red wine maker at Penfold's, in charge of the winery's revered Grange Hermitage (now called Penfold's Grange). At Geyser Peak, he seeks out better-quality grapes and focuses on blending wines from a number of sources to make his best stuff.

"You can always create a better wine by blending," he says. "That was part of my wine upbringing."

Grange is Australia's most prestigious -- and most expensive -- wine, an intense, heavily extracted wine made from shiraz and a touch of cabernet sauvignon. Penfold's has long thumbed its nose at the idea of terroir, sourcing the grapes for Grange from vineyards -- and even across appellations -- across South Australia. The reason Grange is so consistently great, says Groom, is because it's blended from the best fruit available each year. When Groom took over top winemaking duties at Geyser Peak, there was plenty of room for improvement. The Alexander Valley winery was known for producing great quantities of low-quality wine.

Instead of rebuilding the winery's reputation with terroir-focused estate and single vineyard designated wines like so many other top California wineries, Groom expanded the winery's grape sources dramatically to ensure he could consistently produce high-quality blended wine year after year.

Although the winery does make several vineyard-specific wines, under Groom's leadership Geyser Peak's top wines are now blends. Those are the Reserve Alexander Meritage ($45) and the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), which is made of grapes from 10 vineyards. The 1999 Meritage received 93 points from the Wine Enthusiast, and the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon earned a 91 rating from the magazine.

"Year in and year out, our highest quality wines will be a blend," he says.

The new buzzword

AMONG the counter-terroirists, blending has become the buzzword. Sean Thackrey blends not only grape varieties, but even vintages. Talomas is producing blended wines made from vineyards from Monterey to Mendocino. And San Francisco-based wine negociant Cameron Hughes has staked his business on the claim that "blending is better," buying wines on the wholesale market and blending varieties and appellations to his liking.

There are historical precedents for blending. In Champagne, for instance, the mainstay of every marque is its nonvintage Champagne, which is a blend of different vintages (and usually grape varieties); the idea is maintaining a house style that consumers come to know and recognize.

At Thackrey's winery, the exact blend of Pleiades varies from year to year. Still, he says, the wines all have a "family resemblance," giving credence to his winemaker-over-terroir argument. His wines are as off the beaten path as his open-air winery is -- it's in the quirky Marin County enclave of Bolinas. But Pleiades has earned a dedicated following. "It's intended to break every rule out there," he says.

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