Terroir, Soldera, Barthes, Derrida, and St. Augustine

deconstruction derrida barthes eco

Above: In the late 1970s, Gianfranco Soldera created a “terroir” by building a series of botanical gardens in Montalcino, including this mini swamp.

My entry today for the Houston Press is an intro to the concept of terroir.

As I was writing it, it occurred to me that many wine writers omit bacteria as one of the defining elements of terroir. In the light of the dialectic over native yeast in recent years, I was surprised not to find bacteria or yeast mentioned in the online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that few wine authorities discuss the human contribution to terroir through culture, history, and tradition. Would we have a notion of terroir, I asked myself, if the friars of Burgundy hadn’t manicured and monitored their cloistered vineyards with maniacal care?

terroir montalcino brunello

Above: Soldera’s white garden is his biggest source of pride.

My thoughts led me to a memory of walking through Gianfranco Soldera’s botanical garden for the first time in 2008. Anyone who’s ever visited the estate knows that his biggest point of pride is the garden and in particular the white-flower garden and the mini swamp (above). In the 1970s, he created his own terroir on barren land, including the yeast colony that rose from his earthly handiwork.

If humankind can create terroir by reinterpreting landscape, I wondered, does humankind’s perception of terroir influence terroir itself?

At first, Barthes, Derrida, and deconstruction came to mind. Could Eco’s notion of the “open work” be applied to wine connoisseurship? Is the winemaker dead (to quote Barthes)? Every bottle of wine is an expression of a moment and a fabric — a text — of elements that converge between harvest and vinification. And each bottle of wine tells a different story depending on how and when it is handled and opened and by whom.

Yes! I thought: a bottle of wine is an “open text” whose meaning is interpreted and ultimately defined by the reader/drinker.

But can terroir — the quasi-mythical concept of site and vintage specificity — be influenced by the reader/drinker?

Surely it can. To apply Kantian absolutism to terroir would be to negate the very ethos of terroir.

Ultimately, my thoughts led my back to my beloved St. Augustine and his reflections on the nature of memory.

Our concept and conception of terroir could not exist unless we remembered our previous perception of terroir.

In other words, if you only tasted Bonnes Mares or Monprivato once in your lifetime and tasted no other expressions of Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, you’d have no sense of their uniqueness.

I arrived at the conclusion that terroir could not exist if we were not there to perceive it (in many ways St. Augustine was a precursor of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest but doesn’t make a sound).

If terroir cannot exist without humankind, then humankind does, indeed, wield influence over it. And if perception of terroir cannot exist without humankind’s memory of terroir, then it follows that even the end user of a bottle of wine play a role in terroir.

Whether you taste a bottle of Soldera on his estate (where he built a terroir ex novo), whether you taste it on the hilltop where he regularly dines, or whether you taste it in New York City or Houston, Texas, you play a role in the terroir by perceiving it.

Wine for thought…

Punk and funk meet at Terroir in San Francisco

Tracie P and I will never forget the first time we visited Terroir Natural Wine Bar and Merchant on Folsom in San Francisco in May 2009. We watched on as then co-owner Guilhaume Gerard, wielding an aluminum baseball bat (conveniently stowed above the bar for ready access) chased a homeless man out the door and down the street after the man attempted to steal a bottle of wine. Unflustered, Guilhaume soon returned and put the bottle back into a display case and picked up our conversation where we left off.

Terroir has seen its ups and downs since its heyday in 2009 but it’s still there and I thank goodness for it: it’s the one place that I make sure to visit every time I’m in San Francisco (since I travel there more often than not to play with Nous Non Plus, it’s tough to make time for a proper dinner but I can always find a moment for a glass of something natty).

Saturday evening, the last I spent in SF, I went to Terroir accompanied by good friend Billy and Zanotto for a celebratory lap (following our well received Col Fondo tour).

Owner Luc Ertoran poured us some great wines, including the sparkling Vin de Savoie, above, and the Mauzac and Duras by Plageoles from Gaillac.

The wines, conversation, and company were awesome and I really dig the free spirit of Terroir, where you never know whom you’re going to meet and what you’re going to taste at midnight on Saturday on the gritty side of SF.

But the thing I love the most about Terroir is how Luc — or whoever is manning the bar — always has something by the glass that will surprise and thrill me.

This gig may not be for everyone but it sure does it for me…

In other news…

A lot of folks have been quoting Matt Kramer’s recent post on “the big lie of wine democracy.” Ha! If you, like me, are laughing heartily at the thought of a byline by Wine Spectator’s Kramer with such an outrageously self-referential title, please come sit at my table and I’ll pour you some Pampanuto Bianco!

With all due respect to the many writers who are quoting him and drawing inspiration from his muzak, I think it’s worth pointing out that Kramer works for the very same military industrial complex that propagates that very same semiosis…

Wine for thought for this last weekend before Tracie P, Georgia P, and I head to Italy for our 2012 harvest trip…

Thanks for reading and buon weekend yall!

An awesome flight at Terroir in Tribeca last night

There’s no two ways about it: New York is simply the greatest “wine” destination in our country. On any given night, whether its old Nebbiolo or funky skin-contact Natural wines you crave, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

Last night I connected with good friends at Terroir in Tribeca where I got to taste two of my all-time favorite wines, the Galea (2003!) by I Clivi (Colli Orientali del Friuli) and Ageno by La Stoppa (Piacenza), one of those life-changers.

And there were so many other cool wines, at reasonable prices, that would have quenched my thirst for wine that could speak to me in lyrical tones.

Marco Canora’s meatballs are as good as when I first tasted them at the original location on East 12th in 2008.

Speck and fontina sandwich rocked.

And a special thanks to sommelier Will Piper, who was always one step ahead of our table, offering just the right wine in perfect synch with the rhythm of our evening. The dude really knows his stuff and he was right on at every turn… loved it…

In other news…

Why is Angelo Gaja lecturing on Russia? Stay tuned to find out…

Celebratory 2001 Pora and Walter Benjamin: reunited with my library

“Unpacking My Library” is the title of one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essays. On the surface, it is an entertaining essay about a harmless self-indulgence of one of Europe’s leading literary minds between the two world wars. But the underlying text is a study of the nature of book collecting and how our understanding of literature and culture is shaped through the very medium by which they are transmitted to us. Ecce textual bibliography and the study of how the medium (the signifier) affects the meaning (the signified).

Walter Benjamin famously “fished for pearls” in his legendary library. The depression that he suffered when he fled from the Nazis and was separated from his precious books is as tragic as his senseless death by suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940 — a day away from freedom.

I’m no Walter Benjamin (by no means) and I am blessed to live in a time and place of relative prosperity and stability and freedom of thought and speech.

Yesterday, after two years of separation, Tracie B and I began unpacking my library after it arrived from my storage space in Manhattan here in my new home, Austin, Texas.

I cannot tell you my joy at being reunited with my Petrarchs, my Pasolinis, my Benjamins, my dictionaries (my Goldoni dictionary edited by Gianfranco Folena! my Cortelazzo etymologic dictionary!), and my countless tomes on food and wine.

There is so much information available today on the internet and the Google Library project is a promising if controversial initiative. But… books, books! Nothing can take the place of these glorious little information-delivery machines!

And the dulcis in fundo was a little sedicesimo of poems and songs on wine written in Neapolitan dialect. My lovely Tracie B curled up on the couch as I continued to unpack and read me sweet rhymes on wine with her soothing Neapolitan cadence. Today, she shared some of our Sunday afternoon with a translation of one of the poems on her blog.

To celebrate last night, we ordered pizza (please don’t tell Franco, but we were beat after a day of unpacking!) and drank a bottle of 2001 Barbaresco Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco (I picked it up for a song in a closeout sale here in Austin). The wine was rich and almost Barolo-like in its power, unusual for Pora which is generally softer and rounder among the Produttori del Barbaresco crus. The 2001 — a great vintage for this wine — is closing up right now and I’m putting my two remaining bottles away, to be revisited in a few years and maybe more.

Pondering my copy of Benjamin’s Reflections which now lives happily again on my desk, I couldn’t help but think of Pora and Barbaresco as a terroir and a text, a text delivered to our palates via the medium of Nebbiolo.

Tonight, I won’t bore Tracie B with my collection of essays on the history of punctuation or my introduction to old Occitan. She’s promised to make me something out of the cookbook by nineteenth-century Neapolitan noble Ippolito Cavalcanti! :-) Something having to do with escarole, eggs, and Parmigiano Reggiano… mmmmmmmm…

Happy Labor Day, y’all!

Savary Chablis and Tracie B’s enchilada casserole. Who knew? (also, Gramsci, Gaja, Israel Merlot in Italy, and natty wine in SF)

Above: Tracie B’s enchilada casserole may not be pretty but it’s shot to the top of my list of favorite things she cooks with meteoric celerity. And what better with the spicy and rich flavors of tomatillo sauce, cotija cheese, fresh peppers, corn, and cilantro, roast chicken, and corn tortilla than steely, mineral-driven (and affordable) Chablis? Who knew?

Seems we weren’t the only ones drinking Savary Chablis last night: a series of backs-and-forth on Facebook with Anthony on whether or not my silverface Princeton is a 69 or 71 was interrupted around dinner time because Savary 07 Chablis and Tracie B’s enchilada casserole were calling in my case, Savary Chablis Vieilles Vignes (I believe the 06) after his show last night (wherever he is!).

It’s Saturday and I’m working today (because I have a tight deadline on a hefty translation: a folio edition of twentieth-century Italian photography, pretty cool stuff actually). But before getting to work this morning, I did indulge in some Antonio Gramsci and his notion of cultural hegemony. I’d been thinking about Gramsci over the last week and how wine, in his era, was considered a luxury product in the eyes of the agrarian class (Italy was still in the early phases of its industrialization) and an important trading commodity by the landlords. How far the western world has come in such a short period of time! With the rise of globalization (unthinkable in Gramsci’s time when protectionism reigned) and the seemingly boundless exchange of wine today, Tracie B and I can enjoy an excellent and affordable (at our price point) Chablis that has traveled seemingly effortlessly across that misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean. And we enjoyed it — no less! — with Mexican cooking spiced up by peppers grown in the farmland that stretches between Dallas and Austin in Texas (we still had some peppers left over from my stopped at the sorghum syrup and stuffed armadillo store).

My hankering for Gramsci was whetted in part by the soul searching that followed the wild exchanges this week but it was garnished by the news — which I read at Franco’s blog — that Angelo Gaja is importing Israeli Cabernet and Merlot to Italy. It seems that like the historic stockfish vendors of the Roman ghetto, Gaja saw an opportunity in bringing modern-style international grape varieties from the promised land and selling them to the “Israelite” communities (as they are called there) in Italy. Does Italy really need another international-style Merlot? From Israel?

Gramsci, where art thou?

In other news…

Above: I bet this guy knows his Gramsci. Guilhaume Gerard, one of the owners of Terroir in SF, pours great wine and writes a great blog with an emphasis on you know what.

I read at McDuff’s excellent blog that there is a now a site with information about the natural wine week event going on in San Francisco next week, hosted by different venues, including one of my favorite natural wine destinations, Terroir, with a symposium led by the inimitable Guilhaume (whose natural wine credentials, by all accounts, are impeccable and who has an amazing palate and writing style).

Just some of the reasons I’m so smitten…

From the “it’s Friday so just indulge me” department…

1. She just gets so giddy when you get some good Basque cheese in front of her and some stinky wine (and she’s knock-out gorgeous; to gaze at her makes me feel like Antonioni with Monica Vitti in his camera’s frame). That’s her last week at Terroir Natural Wine Merchant in San Francisco.

2. Her palate is as good as any I’ve ever tasted with and to hear her describe wine is like Petrarch to my ears (that’s her tasting barrel samples of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in Yountville, CA).

3. She is a pro taster and nothing gets by her. She’s never afraid to ask the tough questions (that’s her tasting with Tadeo at Neyers).

4. She is just the coolest blogger and she will travel to the other side of the world for a wine that she loves (like this post she did about tasting in Savennières).

5. I just can’t imagine my life without her (that’s us in Sausalito).

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Oh tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side

What is Life, George Harrison

Terroir found in California (but can I afford it?)

Above: “Heirloom Radish Salad” at the girl & the fig restaurant last night in downtown Sonoma was delicious (although I regretted taking our server’s advice on freshly cracked pepper).

It strikes me as incongruous that the people who live in Napa and Sonoma are such fierce champions of unadulterated, pure, wholesome ingredients in their food and yet still favor big, oaky, concentrated, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon in their glass.

Above: This Californiano-turned-Tejano couldn’t resist the Texas Burger (topped with jalapeño, guacamole, and salsa) at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in St. Helena. And who can say no to Chili Cheese Fries?

On the one hand, they favor locally grown ingredients that reflect the colors and flavors of their land and their approach to cooking — à la Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower — leans heavily toward the simple and direct, with immediate flavors and textures playing the starring role (e.g., the heirloom radish salad above).

And on the other hand, my countrymen speak proudly of the sledge-hammer flavors of their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the buttery texture of their Chardonnay (so much of Napa Chardonnay taste more like Napa than Chardonnay to me). I’ll have a lot more to say on this when I can post unhurriedly next week.

Above: There’s no denying it… Tadeo Borchardt makes excellent terroir-driven expressions of Chardonnay at Neyers Vineyards in Napa. We truly enjoyed the wines (despite my previous but as-of-yet not entirely unresolved misconceptions and prejudices about Californian wines in general).

Tracie B and I agreed, however, that we found “terroir” (and the purposeful use of inverted commas here will become more apparent in an upcoming post) when we tasted yesterday with the winemaker of Neyers Vineyards, Tadeo Borchardt, whose single-vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnays were excellent — and the Thieriot, in particular, was superb. The company I work for represents Neyers’s wines in Texas and so we had been invited to tour the winery and taste all the wines side-by-side. Tadeo’s winemaking style (minimal intervention and ambient yeasts only) marries well with the cool microclimate of the Sonoma Coast growing sites and tasting the wines side-by-side revealed, in fact, just how site-specific each expression of Chardonnay actually was. We looked at each other and agreed that we had found California terroir.

Only one problem: we (personally) can’t afford it.

So little time now and so much to say. We just got to San Francisco and we’re running out the door to taste at Terroir Natural Wine Merchant and then to the Kermit Lynch dinner.

Stay tuned…

NPA and NN+ in SF CA

Above: A view from the stage. My bandmate Céline Dijon (Verena Wiesendanger, right) was in a super good mood last night at our show at Rickshaw Stop (hint: a fan was buying her Jameson). The show was a blast and we did three encores. Thanks again to Waldo of Rickshaw for letting us rehearse at the club: enjoy the Clos Roche Blanche Cot we gave you!

It was something of a blogger summit and a meeting of virtual friends last night between Terroir Natural Wine Bar and Merchant and Rickshaw Stop in SF.

Among them were my virtual and now real friends Cory Cartwright (author of Saignée) and his delightful wife Emily. We shared a bottle of the enigmatic 2002 Ribolla Gialla by Gravner. One blogger, who prefers to remain anonymous, noted (and I concur) that the Gravner is an “abstract” wine, a wine (in a certain sense) that you cannot drink. There’s no question that Gravner’s wines are fascinating, thought-provoking, and intriguing: as the wine aerated it revealed a remarkable array of fruit aromas — think dried and moldy apricot (but in the mouth, it still felt to me like the wood dominated). Owners Dagan Ministero and Luc Ertoran were on hand as well, and a lively discussion of “orange wine” ensued and they generously tasted us on a number of bottlings (including Ca’ de Noci and Damijan). Virtual friends Slaton Lipscomb and Simona (author of Briciole) were there, too, and Clark Terry of Kermit Lynch blog fame also joined up at the show.

The most interesting and unique wine of the evening was the Natural Process Alliance skin-fermented Chardonnay (above), sold only in reusable stainless-steel containers. (Spume has written about this wine as has Alice.) This wine is as stinky and cloudy as it gets and it is 100% delicious (maybe not for everyone but just right for yours truly). Slaton noted that it tastes slightly different every time because its malolactic fermentation has not completed when it ships. You can only get locally and I highly recommend it.

The crowd was fantastic last night and we did three encores, closing with a rocking version of “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand. Tonight we play at an all-ages club in San Jose and I’m just passing time until tomorrow when I get to be reunited with my Tracie B, who’s flying in to visit with her girlfriends and see our show at Spaceland.

Highway run
Into the midnight sun
Wheels go ’round and ’round
You’re on my mind
Restless hearts
Sleep alone tonight
Sendin’ all my love
Along the wire

Human, all too human: remembering Josko Gravner’s son

One of the owners of Terroir Natural Wine Merchant and Bar in San Francisco, Guilhaume Gerard, recently reminded me that that the wines come first, before the people who import them. Guilhaume pointed out rightly that while there are a lot of people in the wine trade whom we admire and care about and others whose scruples give us pause, the wines are what is really important. I agree with him.

To Guilhaume’s observation, I would add only that the wines and the people who make them come before the people who import and sell them.

miha_gravnerToday, after Franco and I posted on VinoWire about the tragic and senseless passing of the young Miha Gravner (left, photo by Alfonso), I was blown away by how many people linked back to our post, on Facebook and on their blogs, writing about how they never met the young man but how, nonetheless, they felt a personal connection to him and his family through their wines. As Franco wrote in his post at Vino al Vino, Miha had begun working closely with his father Josko and would have continued his father’s legacy.

Josko Gravner was part of a small group of radical “extreme” winemakers, who, as Eric wrote today in an unrelated post, vinified and aged their wine in clay amphorae. I’ve tasted Gravner’s wines on many different occasions, from many different vintages, and no one can deny that these are benchmark, original wines, wines that push the envelope of contemporary winemaking by reaching back to the secrets of the ancients. Josko is also one of the fathers of the natural wine movement in Italy and was inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.

Cory at Saignée put it best when he wrote:

    If you’ve never had one of Josko’s wine, now is the perfect time to grab a bottle and raise a glass to him. They are some of the most individualistic, interesting, and unforgettable wines in the world from a man who has dedicated his life to exploring the possibilities of what wine can be. i, of course, have never met the man and am only familiar with his wines, but i’d like to think that personality can come across in wine making and that you can know someone just a little through their wines, and i wish him the best through this tragedy.

I imagine that Cory, Guilhaume, and I will open a bottle of Gravner at Terroir on Thursday night before I head over to do our set with Nous Non Plus at Rickshaw Stop.

Stop by if you have the time and we’ll remember a young man who would have made the wines we would have drunk for a lifetime.

Idol and Bandol

Above: On Tuesday nights, Tracie B and I watch American idol, play armchair critic, and open a good bottle of wine. Last night we splurged (in celebration of my Princeton translation) and opened the 2007 Bandol Rosé by Tempier, which I found at a surprising palatable price at a “local” market. We paired with her excellent nachos.

The counterpoint wasn’t lost on me and Tracie B last night: we watched what may be the apotheosis of the commercialized and reified American dream (where rags-to-riches hopes are dashed or indemnified by the almighty texting hand of the American consumer) and we sipped a rosé made by a small winery in Provence in the south of France, that counts a meager 8 employees and just 30 hectares (that’s about 74 acres, 6 less than 2 X 40 acres and 2 mules!).

Tracie B and I had tasted the rouge a few weeks ago and she had not-so-subtly mentioned how she wanted to taste the winery’s famous rosé. There’s not a lot of this wine in the U.S. and not a lot of it made: according to Domaine Tempier’s site, its total production is 120,000 bottles, of which 29% is the rosé. I really wanted to surprise Tracie B with a bottle and I struck out at a few of my favorite wine stores.

But when I called my colleague, wine specialist Jen Powell, at a little local grocery store called Whole Foods in Austin, she told me that she had a nice allocation — at a great price. Btw, just because I work in the wine trade doesn’t mean I don’t have to buy wine like everyone else (even though the company I work for reps this wine!).

Above: Tracie B’s nachos are awesome. You can read her recipe here. The bright acidity in the rosé was a perfect match for the spicy flavors of the salsa, the wine’s tannin a great complement to the fat of the refried beans and her sautéed ground turkey topping.

One can argue whether or not Tempier’s Bandol Rosé is the best in the world (as a few did in the comments of a recent post), but when you taste this wine, there’s no question that it is a hand-crafted, artisanal wine that truly tastes of place where it is made, Provence — a classic and superior example of a terroir-driven wine, imported by rock star terroiriste Kermit Lynch, who, btw, just launched a new blog.

I can’t help but wonder (on tax day in our great land): is our country interesting because our Coca Cola (official sponsor American Idol) culture reigns supreme or because at our “local” markets we can find the wines of a tiny little winery in Provence in southern France, where slopes are so steep that they must be tended by hand? Or is our country interesting at all? Or does the answer lie in the fact that the two phenomena live side-by-side?

Rock on Bandol, rock on idol.