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…

Zaia watch: Italy’s agriculture minister’s tenure much ado about nothing?

It’s already been a big week for Italy’s agriculture minister Luca Zaia, left (note the signature black tie and the green pocket square, both very powerful and provocative symbols for a public minister who’s role is to protect the best interests of the entire country).

His recent and controversial call to arms, exhorting Italians to drink only Italian sparkling wine on New Year’s eve, has been the subject of a tide of chatter in the Italian blogosphere. I agree with Franco when he writes that the self-proclaimed prince of Prosecco is a servant to self-serving provincialism and his “despotic” exhortation reeks of the same self-serving italianità that prevailed in another era in his country when the trains ran on time.

Zaia was also the subject of a wonderfully satiric but ultimately poignant post by the Italian Wine Guy, “The Mark of Zaia.” IWG’s insights are invaluable here and his overview tracing the trajectory of Zaia’s meteoric rise is as frightening it is revelatory.

But the biggest news to arrive from Zaialandia this week was the breaking however much anticipated story that he has received the nomination from separatist, secessionist, racist, and xenophobic political party Lega Nord (Northern League) as its candidate for soon-to-be vacant governorship of the region of the Veneto. He even has a shiny new Facebook fan page for his candidacy.

As Franco pointed out in a recent post, the news is good and bad: on one level, many observers, including those of us who sell and promote Italian wine abroad, will be happy to see the Venetophilic pol leave a position he had no business occupying in the first place (I’ve been told that Zaia started his professional career as a nightclub bouncer); on another level, the news is bad since, in the light of the fact that Zaia will probably win the election and become governor of the Veneto, he will be the leader of one of Italy’s richest and most important wine-producing regions (home to some of Italy’s most important exported wines, namely, Prosecco and Amarone).

The news inevitably fills me with sadness. Ultimately, Zaia’s tenure as the steward of Italian agriculture and the Italian wine industry, was the product of political posturing and maneuvering. An ambitious and able politician, Zaia clearly had set his sights on higher political office and when Berlusconi appointed him agriculture minister, it was not because Zaia was the best man for the job but rather as a political payback to the Lega Nord for their support in Berlusconi’s 2008 bid to reattain the prime minister’s office.

Photo courtesy Alexnews.

Sadly — for Italy, Italians, Italian winemakers, and foreign lovers and promoters of Italian wines — Zaia has presided over one of the greatest crises in the history of contemporary Italian winemaking. And it was all much ado about nothing.

His frequently updated blog has never even made note of the recent news that a new adulteration scandal has surfaced in Tuscany.

In Lombardy, there’s a self-effacing, ironical joke that the intellectuals tell about the peoples of northern Italy, based on a folkloric paradox, probably uttered by an old man on the streets of Milan not so many years ago: Rasista mi? Ma se l’è lü che l’è negher! [You’re calling] me a racist? But he’s the one who’s black! (In an essay he published after Berlusconi’s famous gaffe calling Obama “tan” following the 2008 elections, Umberto Eco cites this phrase as an example of northern Italians lack of self-awareness.)

I can’t help but be saddened to think that the Veneto (my beloved Veneto!) will be governed by a racist, xenophobic man who has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants, to avoid eating pineapple, and to open only Italian bubbles on New Year’s eve (Prosecco perhaps?), a man would almost certainly tell the above joke without the self-effacing irony.

But for him to achieve such self-awareness and to grasp its irony would be like the teapot calling the kettle black.

The “seventh” bullet in my wine bag

Adam Spencer

Above: Adam Spencer aka “Adam Spence,” one of the Clanton Cowboys Gang and one of the meanest sommeliers ’round these parts, faced off with the San Diego Kid (that’s me) in the outskirts of San Antonio yesterday at Saloon Pavil. He was ready for me but he didn’t count on the “seventh bullet” in my six-shooter wine bag.

Dusty and tired after a long day hawking wine in San Antonio, the San Diego Kid had a harrowing brush with death at Saloon Pavil where Adam “Spence” Spencer nearly sent him to his grave. Spence is one of the fastest hands around these parts and one of the best sommeliers the Kid’s ever met on the mean streets of Texas. His wine list is compact, studied, intelligent, original, and surprising. And his palate is as sharp and his wine service as polished as they come. The Kid’s French bottlings were no match for Spence but the Clanton Cowboy wasn’t counting on a 2001 Barbaresco Ovello that the Kid happened to have in his six-pack wine bag — the “seventh bullet.”

Cooper's BBQ

I cannot tell you how good that wine tasted — it had been open all day — with the tender pork loin and pork ribs at Cooper’s. The tannin, the fat of the meat, the gorgeous fruit, and the tanginess of the BBQ sauce made a long day of hawking wine all worth while.

Boy, was the San Diego Kid lucky to get out of San Anton’ alive! Delivered from danger once again by the skin of his teeth and the seat of his pants, he headed out to Cooper’s Old Time Bar-B-Que in New Braunfels where they allow outside wine “but no hard liquor.”

Cooper's BBQ

Above: Cooper’s in New Braunfels. Folks say that the Cooper’s in Llano, Texas is the best one but this one was purdy darn’ good.

The San Diego Kid then made his way to I-35 and sure was glad to get back to the loving arms of his Squaw in Austin.

By now, he knew the way from ol’ San Anton’ to Austin. Riding north from central Texas on his trusty horse and faithful companion Dinamite, he couldn’t help but hum a lil’ new country diddy he’s been working on:

GPS may get you where you wanna go/but it sure as hell don’t get ya’ into heaven…

In other news…

If you visit Do Bianchi, you know how much I love Produttori del Barbaresco. I’ve been collecting my Produttori del Barbaresco posts in a new opera aperta or open work blog called “My Own Private Produttori del Barbaresco”: if you’d like be a contributor, just send me an email and I’ll make you an author (you’ll need to register with WordPress.com first). The idea is that it will be an open blog where we can collect stories, anecdotes, tasting notes, and reflections on Produttori del Barbaresco. Content doesn’t need to be new, either… Thanks for reading!