On this week’s episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe take a look at the emphasis on terroir in the winemaking industry and how the importance of person and place come into play. They also break down some of the best drinks and moments from last week’s Bar Convent Brooklyn.
Geballe kickstarts the conversation by musing on a new Napa Valley winemaking project that departs from the emphasis on place, focusing instead on the prestigious winemakers behind them. The three discuss what makes the project unique and how the industry has shifted away from highlighting winemakers in favor of focusing on grapes and regions from which wines are produced. Plus, Teeter considers whether this is a good thing, and how the focus on terroir might be representative of a more general move away from higher education and expertise in America.
If you have thoughts about how terroir stacks up against winemakers and whether the trend is part of a larger societal shift, please send your ideas to email@example.com.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, we missed you at Bar Convent Brooklyn. And since we got to drink fun stuff, why don’t you tell us what you drank first?
Z: Bar Convent Brooklyn looked like a lot of fun. Maybe next year. There’s an ever-growing number of very cool cocktail and bar festivals that I’ve never been to. I’ve got to work on that and get out of my northwest corner of the U.S. I haven’t made it up to Tales of the Cocktail in Vancouver either, which is obviously very close to me. What have I been drinking? I’ve had two interesting things in the last week or so. I had a really interesting white wine from a winery that was pretty far northern in California, in the North Yuba mountains area from a winery called Frenchtown Farms. It was a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Roussanne, which are not two varieties I’ve seen blended together very often. It’s very cool. It’s one of those wineries that makes you think, California is enormous and has so many different agricultural and viticultural areas. This is not completely different from other places I’ve been, but it’s just very remote. I lost cell phone service out in the vineyard. I think you’re technically in the state of Jefferson, the proposed breakaway republic up in the north part of California. It was a world away from the glitz and glamor of a little further down, in Napa and Sonoma. It’s an interesting wine. It’s a natural wine. It’s definitely on the funkier side, but not overwhelmingly so. It had a bit of partially fermented apples to it. Maybe that’s just because we have an apple tree in our yard and it’s dropping apples like crazy, so I’m constantly surrounded by the smell of, like, partially fermented apples, but it had that sense to it. I dig that in a white wine from time to time. It was good. Did you guys have any standout things at BCB or anything else that’s been a highlight?
A: I’ll let Joanna talk about BCB.
J: I think I had more gin and tonics yesterday than I’ve had in my entire life. Gin was a really big focus.
A: There was a lot of gin there.
J: A lot of gin, right?
J: Yeah. Outside of BCB, we stopped by Torch and Crown Brewery in Manhattan, in SoHo, this weekend. Adam, you had chatted with John Dantzler last year when they opened up, right?
Z: I’ve noticed that, as I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for very sour things has decreased for sure. I’m sorry, we’re not reaching a younger demographic. I love really sour things.
A: This podcast is brought to you by AARP.
Z: Soon enough, man.
J: And Tums.
A: I love Tums. There was a lot of gin and tonic, though, at BCB. I also agree with you, Joanna. For me, it’s always been sour beers that I’ve always felt like I can’t do. I can have one, then I feel like I’m not enjoying them. I don’t want to fight with my beverage. I thought BCB was a good time. There were definitely less big brands that have been there in the past. It was missing some of the larger brands. It was actually kind of nice. There were more mid-tier and emerging brands, which was cool. They got more of the spotlight, which I think is always great for those brands. More people will then stop and see them. It still has a really great amount of talent in terms of the bartender community that was making drinks. You could tell everyone was just really happy to be there. They did it as safely as they could. There were multiple vaccine checks, so it felt safe. Everyone had their masks on for the most part, besides when they were tasting. A lot of people spent a lot of time outside. It was cool. Also, my parents were in town this past weekend.
A: Yeah. We had some fun drinks. I made some cocktails. I made my parents the Last Word, which they had never had before, so it was fun to share it with them. We went out for dinner one night to Lorina Pastificio, which was just a great meal with really cool wine. My parents had COS for the first time.
Z: Oh, cool.
A: We had their orange wine, which was delicious.
J: I’ve never had that.
A: It was really great. Then, we just hung out at home and had some fun times. It was all BCB yesterday. The one thing that I had never had before was RumChata.
A: I had never had RumChata before. It was actually pretty good. I was a little suspect. Myself and Aaron Goldfarb both walked over together.
Z: This is right up Aaron’s alley. It’s basically just eggnog.
A: Aaron loves eggnog. Aaron also loves a spirit that none of us in New York are talking about. We walked over, and we were talking to the team. They asked us if we wanted to try a RumChata. It was pretty delicious. They brought out fresh nutmeg. They said that RumChata is apparently one of the largest purchasers of cream in America, or milk in Wisconsin. I don’t know. I didn’t get the full facts, so no one quote me on this.
Z: You might have had some RumChata before they told you the facts, so the recollections might be fuzzy.
A: That was cool. There was so much good stuff, just stuff that made me go, wow. I spent some time with my bingo card at the Sazerac table. They had a pretty fun ploy that turned out to be a ruse. It was, apparently if you tried 10 different things, you would get a taste of Pappy. Josh and I were like, we’re going to do this. For just a little taste, come on.
A: We get to the end and they tell us, “Oh, there’s no Pappy. We messed up. We actually don’t have Pappy today.” They said, we do have George T. Stagg, and I was like, that’s fine.
Z: I’ll take it.
A: It was actually pretty humorous. I did get to try a lot of really interesting things in that portfolio, including an Indian whisky, which I had never had before.
Z: Oh, interesting. So it wasn’t Amrut? It was another one?
A: It was another one. Now, the name escapes me. They’re starting to bring it to the U.S. I guess Sazerac has part ownership of it.
Z: OK, cool.
A: It was a really interesting whisky. They had one that was super aged and they’ll sell it in the U.S. for around $300 a bottle. It was really interesting stuff. That’s what I’ve been up to. Zach, you’ve got today’s topic for us. What are we going to chat about?
Z: This topic has been prompted by a couple of things. I think it’s been prompted by some press releases. Those are sometimes good fodder for podcast topics. Adam, you and I were talking about this a little before we recorded, by travels and what we see in the wine space in particular. The thing I wanted to get both of your perspectives on, is that I recently got a press release about a new Napa Valley wine project. It’s keeping in a lot of what you might historically associate with Napa Valley. It’s Cabernet Sauvignon-focused. It’s got three very high-profile, well-established winemaking consultants attached to it. There’s an eye-popping price tag, etc., etc. What’s interesting to me in this, is it’s the first thing I’ve seen in a while where its whole marketing pitch is that, we’re not going to tell you what vineyard it comes from. We’re not going to extoll the quality of the grapes. What we’re going to focus on is that we’re paying these very well-known winemakers a lot of money, presumably, to make this wine. We think that you, the audience for these wines, which granted is very small and elite, are going to be more interested in that in a recitation of the specific values of the sites where the grapes came from. Granted, it’s still Napa Valley wine. It’s not like they’re making it in the middle of North Yuba, Calif., say. What’s interesting to me, and what I wanted to get your take on, is that we have been in a certain period of time in wine for the last decade or so, if not longer. Everyone, from producers in the most established regions to some of the most new or obscure, have focused so much in their communications to the public, the press, and the trade about the nuances of their site, their terroir, and of the value of this specific plot of land where their grapes come from. They’ve really diminished the importance of their winemaker and the winemaking in a lot of cases. I’m wondering, do you think that pendulum’s swung too far? Are we at the point now where the conversation is tipped towards the discussion about the place or vineyard where the grapes come from, and so little is said about the winemaking and the winemaker? That’s a little bit how I felt. I’m not ponying up $8,000 for these wines, but there was something about that that resonated with me. It’s interesting. Maybe there is an audience for, not necessarily anti-terroir, but a non-terroir focused wine.
A: I do think that there is a move towards the idea that everything starts in the vineyard, and it’s less about who makes it. I definitely think there is somewhat of a tension there. We’re going to really get into it. I might piss some people off. Let’s go. I think there is a tension here that exists among trained winemakers. These are people who have either gone and gotten a degree, so they’ve really worked their their asses off. They’ve gone and gotten their master’s, some have Ph.D.s, and they’ve really learned a lot in terms of winemaking at one of the great enology schools. The other group is those that have apprenticed for a really long time under other winemakers to really learn. You can always sense a little bit of annoyance in their voices when they talk about this topic, because they care about the site, too. They also believe that skill is the best steward of that site. I think that the site has become so much more talked about than it used to be. That has then fed the movement where anyone feels like they can just buy that fruit crusher, and it’s going to be just as good as if someone who actually trained had made it. I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s pretty much crap. We’ve seen that reflected in a lot of wines that get made by novices. Like, I can bake bread. I learned how to do it in the pandemic, but it’s nowhere near as good as bread that’s been baked by a world-renowned baker, even if I use the same ingredients. I think that a lot of what we’re seeing is that discussion of sites because we are seeing so many amateurs who are making wine and then selling it at the same price as people who have really perfected their craft. That’s a little bit ridiculous.
J: Do you think that these amateurs are using the land, the terroir, to sell it?
A: Yeah, they use that story. The fruit comes from this amazing site. For example, I can go to the farmer’s market and buy the same caliber fruits, vegetables, etc., on Saturday in Fort Greene that the chefs in Brooklyn go and buy. I like to think of myself as a pretty decent home chef. I like to cook and play around, but I would never charge you $30 a plate for it.
A: I’ll charge you by having to deal with my company.
Z: You’ve got to help clean up.
A: Yeah. Besides that, though, I’m not charging. What’s been so crazy in wine is that there’s a lot of people who have gotten into it who are able to have access. At the end of the day, the person selling the fruit just wants to sell the fruit. You can get access to some of these, except for the really renowned vineyards. But, there’s some great sites where you can be a “hobbyist” and get access. You can have a graphic designer friend who can make you a label. You can go buy bottles. You can then be on the market at the same price. There’s some distributors who, I would argue, have made a career in representing hobbyists. There’s a thirst for hobbyists.
J: Craft winemakers.
A: Craft winemakers. Exactly. I think that you can’t tell the story of the winemaker as much. We all love wine, but you can’t tell the same story that a winemaker with decades of experience, or even a winemaker straight out of school who has gone through the ropes of learning how to make wine and has done the work, can. That has shifted there. That’s my thought process. I think I’ve talked a lot. Joanna, what do you think?
J: I have a question. Zach, you said that you got this press release about this. I’m wondering if we know of other instances of this happening. It feels kind of gimmicky to me, a little bit, like you’re using these names. Now, after hearing Adam chat, I’m wondering if we’re swinging towards both. You need both things, right? For really good wine.
Z: Oh, for sure.
J: Grapes, the fruit, and then the winemaker as well — unless we think we can make the case for a winemaker turning bad grapes into really good wine.
Z: No, I don’t think you would necessarily say that. Including these specific winemakers who are named in this in this project: Their reputation was built in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s because they were a cadre of sorts, flying winemakers. They had projects all over the world. They would make the wine or at least consult on the winemaking. The thing you were, frankly, paying them for, if you were a proprietor, was just the reputation that they lent to your project. Their specific know-how and technique mattered, along with the cachet that it gave you. That isn’t gone. We certainly have seen plenty of examples of winemakers now who launch multiple projects and move from wine to wine. Take someone like Dave Phinney, who founded The Prisoner. When The Prisoner was founded, he was lauded as a person who understood the winemaking side of it to some extent, plus the marketing side of it, and the idea of creating a brand. He created this iconic brand out of nothing, sold it, and went on to do other things. Somewhere along the way, in elite wine circles, that wine and concept became taboo. It was anathema. There was the thought that this is the opposite of what you should do and that the greatest winemakers are people whose names you may never know. The vision of a great winemaker was someone who ideally had their own little patch of land, planted weird obscure varieties, and made these wines that had no commercial purpose to them.
J: Very romantic.
Z: Yeah. They had this tortured genius notion. I’ve had some of those wines. Some of them are great. Some of them suck and a lot of them are in between. The thing that was refreshing to me about this notion, and that I’ve been trying to push back against a little bit when I talk to people, is this idea that wine is not a natural product in the sense that it does not occur naturally. All wine is unnatural in the sense that you can’t just go into nature and gather wine. You can pick grapes. If you pick grapes and press them, you will have a fermentation and then you’ll have vinegar or something that’s rancid. Wine is an arrested part of the breakdown of grapes. We love it. It’s great. But no, it’s not natural in a true sense of that word. Some of it is more unnatural than others. In the process of making wine, people do everything from growing grapes, choosing to plant it in a certain place, growing it, cultivating it, training it, trellising it, picking it, and making wine from it. All those things are human actions. I agree there’s a sort of gimmickry in this specific brand. I don’t deny that. What I found refreshing was a recognition that wine is a human product. We make it. To your point, Adam, and I agree with you, it’s the same way that bread is a human product. Bread doesn’t grow on trees. The starting raw material, wheat, takes a lot to get to the point where it’s a delicious sourdough loaf or whatever. We would never think to say that a baker is not the most important person and an agent in bread. The person growing the wheat matters and maybe the quality of the wheat matters. I wish I had more opportunities in life to have artisanal wheat made into bread by skilled bakers. That would be delightful. Bread doesn’t ship and store the way wine does, so I don’t get as many chances to do that. We would never deny the skill, agency, and the absolute necessity of a talented baker in giving you the highest expression of that wheat. Yet, a lot of people in wine have really sought to to diminish the role of the winemaker, including winemakers themselves in some cases, which I really don’t understand. A lot of people outside of that have really sought to strip out the role of the winemaker.
A: Answer a quick question before I want to take this conversation to a crazy place.
Z: Oh, let’s go.
A: In terms of winemakers who diminish, I think a lot of winemaker’s at the end of the day are just like brewers and distillers. They just want to sell their product. If they think that right now, what the buyers want to hear is that it’s all about the vineyard, they’re going to sit there and say it’s all about the vineyard. Whatever you want to hear, they’ll tell you, so long as you buy the wine so the winemaker can survive. I do want to ask a larger question. Do you think that this movement comes because of the fact that we as a society have become anti-education?
A: Education has become expensive. It’s astronomical. A lot of us have massive student debt. We come out of college, and a lot of us don’t make salaries that can help us pay off that debt pretty quickly. We think we should be paid a lot more than we are paid. We have our generation, millennials, and Gen Z making less than our parents made at our ages, which is crazy. Across the country, there’s this movement about how, if education is not going to be free, then forget it. We have the whole VC world saying, who even needs to go get an education? Just start your business. We have this whole movement that’s almost anti-expertise. Or anti-education to gain that expertise. Is that also fueling everything? I don’t know. It seems like we have to think about where else we are getting messages in society. I feel like I hear this happening even when I hear people talk about certain fashion designers who are “self-made.” No one wants to think about whether or not those people had apprenticeships. There’s artists who didn’t get degrees, didn’t get MFAs, etc. It’s interesting, as a thought experiment, to think about whether this is a larger idea of us as a society turning against education. Joanna? You take this.
J: So, you’re saying that we don’t value craftsmanship.
A: No, I think that, to become a lauded winemaker, a lot of those lauded winemakers have these degrees.
J: Ah. OK.
A: We turned away from the idea of the winemaker towards the site in large part because there are people who are devaluing education because education has become so expensive. For example, if we were to say that the winemaker is really important and, to be a successful winemaker, it’s really important to get a degree. There’s a lot of people in our society that could not afford to do that. Education is insanely expensive. If that is also the case, is the discussion of the site as its own thing a reaction to the fact that it’s not just about thinking about the romanticism of everything? It’s also that, if I want to do this thing and I can’t afford to gain the knowledge to do this thing or to be poor as an apprentice to do so, I’m just going to go do this thing and tell a different story. There’s the thought that, I may not have the skill set right now, but I sure as hell don’t have the money to get that skill set, so I’m just going to continue to fail as I learn.
J: I think that’s a very valid point to make. As a result, are we turning towards highlighting terroir? Or is that not even a part of this argument?
A: I think that’s why you try to highlight terroir, because you can’t lean on your own expertise because you don’t have it yet.
Z: I think there’s probably two things happening here. There is something to the idea that expertise in general is being diminished in its value societally. Some of that is good. Sometimes, I think expertise, as Adam said, is not equally available to all people. The barrier to gaining that expertise is very high for some people more than for others. There are real, broader societal issues with that. I also think there’s another piece of this, which is that learning how to do something in school does not mean that you will inherently be good at it or great at it on your own. Winemaking is both science and art. I think anyone who’s good at it will tell you that, whatever their background. I think we have seen a rejection of the science part of it and of the technical side. We’ve seen that in a lot of camps, not just the natural wine camp, frankly. At the same time, what has also been going on is that a lot of people are recognizing that there is an opportunity with clever branding or a compelling personal story that might not be about your winemaking credentials or even maybe the source of your fruit. You can just skip over the learning to do it part or you can learn to do it while doing it. The reality is, because our understanding of winemaking and the science of it is much more complete than it used to be, you can read a book and probably not make something poisonous. You can make something that’s drinkable and maybe you can make something that’s even enjoyable and consumable to some people. I think that you’re right, Adam, that there is a part of this which is a broader societal trend. I also think there’s something specific to wine, which is a very specific backlash against the idea of all great wine being made by a few people. That’s what it’s felt like for a while if you’ve been paying attention, when we were early on in our drinking age. Now, there’s been this democratization, I suppose, of winemaking. It has come at the denial of the importance of the winemaker and the skill of winemaking in a way that is unfortunate for everyone. Yes, you’re right, Adam, that people want to be able to sell their product and maybe they don’t care what the angle is. But in the end, I think it gives consumers an incorrect impression of what wine is, how it comes to be, and how it makes it from the vineyard to your home or to the restaurant. It is such a human endeavor. That is part of its beauty. It is a synthesis of human technological prowess and of natural beauty. That is wonderful. I would not want to deny either piece of that in talking about wine.
A: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. It’s very interesting. You guys didn’t really answer my question.
Z: Excuse me for not having a sociology report ready for you. Geez. Do your own homework, Adam.
A: Fine, Zach.
A: No, I think you’re right. It’s unfortunate. I agree with the analysis that it’s a little gimmicky, the way that this one wine is marketing itself, but it is interesting to see that there are people who are starting to say, we’d like to be back in the spotlight a little bit and we’d like to talk about us as well. I think it’s both. It’s site and person. It’s not just the site. It’s what that person does with the site and how do they understand the site? How do they want that site to be expressed? There may be really skilled winemakers who want that site to be expressed through what we would say is a more traditional vein of winemaking where it’s much more about the purity of the fruit, but also wants to be known as the person behind that wine. They want to talk about their perspective on why they did what they did. It’s the same way that you want to hear from an artist and ask them, “Why did you do what you did on the canvas?” Not just it is what it is. It was all the paint.
J: I also just think, with how people respond to chefs, I wouldn’t be surprised if consumers become increasingly curious about the people who are making their wine.
Z: For sure.
A: I think that’s very true. Well, Zach, Joanna, this was really interesting.
Z: Yeah. Let us know what you guys think. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A: Hit us up. Let us know. We want to hear what you think. If anyone can answer my question, hit me up. I’ll talk to you both next week.
J: OK, take care.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or whatever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.