By Dawn Dolan
Winegrape Quality Paradigms: Observation and Explanation was the topic of Thursdaynight’s Luminarias talk, sponsored at SHED, Healdsburg, by the Healdsburg Literary Guild. The speaker was Professor Mark Matthews of UC Davis, who has written the idea-challenging book, “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing”. Dr. Matthews is an environmental plant biologist in the UC-Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and has done extensive research concerning the traditions of grape-growing.
In Dr. Matthews’ words, “People make stuff up to explain to themselves what they experience.”
To him, grape-growing is a traditional product, with long-held beliefs not based on factual data. For example, there is a prevalent concept in the wine industry that low yield equals high quality. After researching all the way back to ancient Egyptians, Matthews could find no evidence to support that. Then he graphed out forty years of Cabernet production in Napa, looking at yields per year. Then he overlaid this with the scores earned by the Napa Cabs from WS and Robert Parker over the same time period, and there was no conclusive correlation, or scientifically, there was insensitivity; Meaning, the low yield years did not get better scores than high yield years.
What does this mean for the modern day grape grower? As Professor Matthews mentions, “The grapes are getting better, the winemaking techniques are getting better, so the wine is getting better.”
He says the idea of terroir has been somehow romanticized to now mean that it is not only the physical location and soil of a particular place, but the idea that it is the physical know-how of farming that specific location, and it is passed down in some secret formula from generation to generation. To him, this is a recipe to preserve high rents in areas like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa, and keep the growing process somewhat mystical.
But of course the soil is important, we just don’t really know what about it is important. Data in the industry is sadly lacking, and often unwanted. As Matthews noted, many do not want a Grand Cru region, for example, broken down into a recipe that might include 30% limestone, 40% clay, etc.? We don’t know even a fraction of what happens in the soil of any particular place to try and recreate it through a soil and water recipe.
What are the truths in the myth? The fact that in Europe, over the last two millennia, getting the grapes ripe enough was often the biggest challenge to the winegrape farmer. Since there was a lack of growing knowledge (potassium deficiency, anyone?), grapes were dropped to help the ripening process, often lagging due to sick vines or climate issues.
This is Dr. Matthews’ main point; we can’t pull data out of practices that developed just because they seemed to work better, or because it has always been done like this. There may be empirical data to help us, which might mean revising our steadfast beliefs. Scary, yes, but perhaps productive as well.