Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, recently wrote about his guest lecture for Dr. Kevin Pogue’s terroir course at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kramer, invited to speak to a class about terroir, led by a professor known for supporting terroir, as a wine writer known for supporting terroir, could have chosen some particular element of that big tangled concept to dissect, knowing that he didn’t have to spend most of his time explaining what terroir is and arguing for why it’s valid. Instead, as he explains in his Wine Spectator column, he explained what terroir is with an eye to why it tends to provoke such consternation. Terroir, Kramer says, is a metaphor.

My first reaction, seeing that phrase, is that it’s interesting idea.

My second reaction, reading on, is that Kramer isn’t talking about metaphors.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to explain why, and argue for why the difference isn’t pedantism but is actually significant to how we understand and work with this concept.

Kramer says that terroir is a lens through which we see and (can) come to understand the world: “As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.”

Metaphors are a way of directing our attention, highlighting some elements of the metaphor’s target over others, directing us to ask some kinds of questions over others. All language functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent. If I introduce a wine as “a lush, ripe Australian red” I’m predisposing you to pay attention to its sweet fruit flavors. Introducing the same wine first as “a classic Barossa shiraz with a meaty finish,” I’m encouraging you to pay more attention to its savory side right from the start.* Rhetoricians call the ability of words to make us selectively alert “framing.” The words we use change what we see by drawing our attention to some aspects of a complex picture and hiding or downplaying others.

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On Palate Press: Terroir is for Weirdos

My February piece for Palate Press takes a look at what wine lovers can learn about (I’d say, a more balanced, maybe more functional attitude toward) terroir. Does beer have terroir? Finding a definitive answer is, I think, less important and interesting than what we can learn by thinking through the question. It also gives me an excuse to mention Beers Made by Walking, an inventive and classically Oregonian project combining hiking, foraging, and beer. And Rogue Brewing Company, possibly the most creatively place-focused brewery in the country (at least among those big enough to sell beyond their own doors). These people embody so very much of what I love about being an Oregonian.

On Palate Press: Terroir is for Weirdos, and Other Place Lessons from Beer

Microbial terroir? The media gets it wrong again (surprise)

As has by now been widely publicized in wine circles and elsewhere, Dr. David Mills and graduate student Nicholas Bokulich of UC Davis have just published a journal article (in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here) demonstrating that populations of bacteria and yeast associated with wine grapes vary geographically in organized and predictable ways. Bokulich collected samples across California, isolated bacteria and yeast from those samples, sequenced bits of their DNA, and then looked for patterns.

This is a beautiful, extremely strong study with useful implications. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the news headlines are getting much of it wrong. The New York Times article on the subject* sets up the long-standing American skepticism about terroir, then proclaims that “American researchers may have penetrated the veil that hides the landscape of terroir from clear view, at least in part. They have seized on a plausible aspect of terroir that can be scientifically measured – the fungi and bacteria that grow on the surface of the wine grape.” This is the kind of unscientific media hogwash that contributes to people on the street having balderdash-worthy ideas about how science works. I can’t blame the article’s author for being one more journalist who doesn’t understand science (or who knows better but still needs the sexy story). I can blame the NY Times for not having the sense or taking the effort to get someone with enough research knowledge to cover the story well (Inside Scoop SF did, though they do have Jon Bonné). You’re the NY Times; you folks can do this.

Problem #1: Bokulich and Mills’ findings don’t actually say anything about terroir as we typically talk about it: in terms of sensory impact. The paper describes regional variations. The paper doesn’t connect those variations with any element of wine quality, perceptible or otherwise.

Problem #2: This is not the first time researchers have attempted to quantify some element of terroir. Not even close. Geologists and pedologists (soil scientists) have done a lot of good work looking at soil structure, depth, aspect, and so forth. Other microbiologists have looked at differences in bacteria and yeast across space. Bokulich’s study is exceptionally strong, but it’s not as earth-shatteringly unique as the media are making it out to be.

Problem #3: A technical point, but Bokulich and Mills didn’t actually look at microbes on the surface of grapes. They collected grape musts, which for them meant “destemmed, crushed grapes, representing a mixed, aggregate sample of all grapes from an individual vineyard block” collected after ordinary stemming and crushing operations at the winery. The strength of looking at musts is in having a sample that reflects averaging across a vineyard block and does away with potentially idiosyncratic variations between individual grapes. The main weakness is that we’re a lot less sure of where the microbes came from. What if some of the microbes came from the winery equipment or from handling operations instead of being present on the grapes in the vineyard? Significant regional patterns correlated with environmental factors – precipitation and temperature, for example – but we still can’t actually pinpoint where those microbes are originating.

The NY Times article does a pretty good job of summarizing the original PNAS paper. Kudos to it’s author for talking a bit about the methods behind the findings, for observing near the end of the piece that “the Davis scientists still need to prove that these microbes affect the quality of the wine,” and for calling up Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling at Washington State University for a second opinion. The problem is in the headline and the first few paragraphs which are, of course, what get picked up and misconstrued by everyone else.

This is a fine example of a frequent pattern in news science coverage. Researchers publish a paper on a sexy topic like wine or cancer, and – being like other humans – their conclusions about the implications of their findings might take a few steps over the bounds of reasonability. The university and/or the academic journal puts out some kind of press release, highlighting the sexy bits and the in-our-dreams implications. Journalists pick up on the sexy bits and elaborate even sexier hooks and headlines around them. The hooks and headlines get picked up by less reputable news replicators and on Facebook and Twitter. And by now we’re wandering around smack-dab in the middle of unreasonableness territory.

A chicken-and-egg problem: do we get headlines like this because national science literacy is bad, or does poor science literacy stem (in part) from the uncritical quality of our media? Either way, there’s improving to be done here.

  • Wine-Searcher’s coverage has to get an honorable mention, not only for its especially unreasonable tag line – “New research suggests that bacteria and fungi could be as important in the expression of regionality as soil and climate” – but for referring to what we all know and love as Botrytis cinerea or Noble rot by the show-worthy name of its anamorph (another form of the same fungi), Botryotinia fuckeliana.