“The biggest human effect on terroir is ego”: tasting outside my tribe @PasternakWine

beauvenir nerthe

Above: all of the wines in the Pasternak Prestige Portfolio tasting yesterday in Chicago were spectacular. But La Nerthe’s 2009 Clos de Beauvenir is the one I can’t stop thinking about today. A rich blend of Roussanne and Clairette, the wine showed nuanced but intensely focused layers of dried and fresh stone fruit. What a wine!

At last week’s Design Bloggers Conference in Atlanta, my friend Adam Japko delivered a brilliant talk on “moving outside of your tribe.”

When interacting solely within your own tribe, Adam explained, you don’t push yourself toward a new awareness of your potential.

And so, when the marketing team at Pasternak Wines asked me to come up to Chicago to do some live social media from their Prestige Portfolio tasting, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to gaze beyond my comfort zone.

The morning seminar panel included six winemakers/managers from leading French estates — Champagnes Barons de Rothschild, Saget la Perrière, Château la Nerthe, Château Lafleur, and Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) — a stellar lineup, not a dud among them in the lively dialog moderated by Master Sommelier Serafin Alvarado.

liz mendez chicago

Above, from left: Rachel Driver Speckan (wine director at City Winery Chicago), Linda Adams (Chicago’s top wine tweeter), and Liz Mendez (wine director at the wonderful Vera, my new favorite spot in the Windy City).

The panel theme was “why terroir matters,” a tall order at 10:30 a.m. in the wake of a Chicago blizzard.

But the panelists’ aggressive and no-holds-barred approach to the subject impressed me and the standing-room-only crowd.

The cocksure Edouard Moueix of Château Lafleur made such a valid and vital point when he asked rhetorically, “What is terroir?”

Terroir doesn’t exist,” he said emphatically. “It’s a term that we’ve invented to describe something that can’t be described.”

He was referring in part to recent tinkering with the Bordeaux classification.

“Classification and terroir is a war of lawyers,” he noted, eliciting a chortle from the crowd of top Chicago wine professionals.

But he was also making a wider and more philosophical observation on the fact that terroir is a sort of conceit that we have created to express the ineffable.

best chicago char dog

Above: “Ceci n’est pas est une hot-dog.” Why do I love Chicago “char dogs” so much? I had to have one two at Midway airport before departing for Houston yesterday evening. A question, no doubt, for the philosophes du plaisir.

Echoing Barons de Rothschild manager Diane Flamand’s comment about how the human element is an influence in terroir (“Machines can’t taste grapes, humans can,” she told the group; “Only humans can decide when to pick and ideal ripeness is fundamental to the expression of terroir“), Edouard surprised his attentive audience by exclaiming, “the biggest human effect on terroir is ego.”

The winemaker’s pride, her or his ego, as it were, can affect terroir inasmuch as the winemaker’s will to express her/his imprimatur often trumps or clouds “terroir expression” (a notion that he believes doesn’t exist a priori, adding another wrinkle to his Escherian conundrum).

It was a provocative and intriguing, however flippant, statement, in my view.

It evokes St. Augustine’s concept of perception and the subjectivity of personal perception as formed by memory and human interaction.

Would terroir exist in a vacuum? I thought to myself. Would terroir exist if there were no one there to taste it?

We speak so often of terroir but are we really talking about our own perception of the wine and not a confluence of climatic, topographic, and geologic elements? Is it really (the) ego that defines terroir?

If a winemaker were to hand you a fantastic glass of Roussanne and Clairette from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and say that you can taste the sandy-clay subsoils and the galettes in the vineyard where the grapes are grown, would he or she be asking you to take a sensorial plunge into her/his perception, perhaps guiding your palate through dissimulation?

It’s wine for thought and it sure tastes good to me.

Thanks again, Susan-Anne Cosgrove, for inviting me to be part of this superb tasting and discussion!

4 thoughts on ““The biggest human effect on terroir is ego”: tasting outside my tribe @PasternakWine

    • I know Craig through social media and am a big fan. We tried to connect that night but between his shop hours and the blizzard, it was next to impossible. I hope to be back in Chicago soon. Great wine town! thanks for being here. :)

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