Tales of Terroir

Before wine merchant Kermit Lynch made the scene in the early 1970s, if an American heard the word terroir, it was assumed a Frenchman had hijacked an airliner. Lynch wised us up, first through cracking little newsletters mailed from his shop in Berkeley, California — and the wines that we avidly bought in their wake, through the post for those of us at a distance, until the taxman ruined things, as taxmen always do — and then in his bellwether Adventures on the Wine Route. The book is now being saluted with a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, including a new epilogue, which many will read first. Lynch would approve — he’s made his living by turning the established order on its oenological head.

Terroir, Lynch explained, is the greater-than-the-sum of a vineyard’s soil and stones, surrounding plants, microbes in the atmosphere, lay of the land, weather, tilt of the earth, while the biodynamic folks also consult the phases of the moon and the alignment of the stars. But for the earthbound, terroir is fundamental to the wine’s character. That black currant or hawthorn blossom or wild plum smell you detected in the glass — it’s likely growing near the vineyard, being cross-pollinated by bees, bringing peach to a Cornas, cherry to a Bandol. Wine is incredibly impressionable; filter it through cardboard and it will taste like cardboard, plant the vine near an apricot tree and, voilà, an apricot nose. Authenticity — the trueness to place, the goût de terroir — and tradition have helped guide Lynch’s hand to memorable wines.

These wines are distinctive individuals, and that runs against the prevailing winds out of Parkerland — believe it or not, still a force up there with the Coriolis effect — where the glass better contain a “hedonistic fruit bomb” or heads are going to roll. Robert Parker wields power over the wine world that both Lynch and Michael Steinberger find repugnant. “This all reminds me of an acquaintance who always seemed to have a new girlfriend. His girlfriends all had two things in common: huge breasts,” writes Lynch of monster wines. Great swaths of wine production have been Parkerized in the pursuit of inky golems with blistering alcohol. Everyone likes a golem occasionally, but Parkerization skates close to eugenics. The rock-’em-sock-’ems are short on surprise, subtlety, personality, conviviality, nerve, harmony, and seduction, qualities that Lynch admires, as does Steinberger, in  his new book, The Wine Savant, though it must be said that he is wary of biodynamic management — (“Under [Nicholas] Joly’s [biodynamic] management, Coulée de Serrant’s Savennières has become a stinker”) — as well as the of the broad interpretation of the term natural.

The two books are different animals, but they have much in common. Lynch sticks to France, and Steinberger, who writes a wine column for Men’s Journal and previously for Slate, of necessity gets around, though at his own chosen speed: “Consider [my book] an opinionated, highly idiosyncratic guide to parts of the wine world — parts I like, parts that interest me, parts that I enjoy writing about.” Both men love the chase and discovery, though Lynch will dig deeper, our private detective braving the cold and funky caves to dip the thief into the barrel. They both like their wine natural — (Steinberger: if he can define the term; Lynch: chaptalization has the “smell of greed to me”) — let it be: razory, sappy, nervy, rough, grapefruity, burly — though they would disagree over the introduction of SO2; Lynch is not a fan, while Steinberger believes that “if you don’t add sulfur dioxide, which acts as an antioxidant and preservative, during the vinification process, the wine will very likely spoil and become vinegar.” Both have good stories to tell and tell them well. Both have an appealingly out-of-left-field sense of humor — Steinberger on Madeira: “What had been the king among wines became a complete obscurity — it was the Joe Piscopo of wines” — and both have their eye skinned for the quality-to-price ratio. Both reveal their finds with generosity, which they better, or they can join the unemployment lines.

But Lynch and Steinberger are also different animals. Steinberger is chummy but first among chums. Lynch is owlish but tuneful, with notes of beatnik and dishevelment. With Steinberger, there is a lot of “look at me”; with Lynch, it’s “look at them,” the winemakers, which is passionate and engaging. If Lynch and Steinberger are both aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually, and sensually invested in their projects, Lynch makes us feel that there is something elemental to the health of our lives at stake. Steinberger gives us hope that there is good wine that we can actually afford — something to lift the spirit, stimulate the brain, gratify the senses: “There have never been so many good and diverse wines to choose from.” Lynch gives us the wine, the artisans, the landscape (Corbières, where the autumn grape leaves in their patchwork of countless varieties are “responsible for those blasts of vivid purple, and there are orange, yellow, gold, red-red, even leaves of luminous milky white”) — terroir as a way of being in the world. For wine, the secret isn’t a secret, writes Lynch: “…a low yield, grapes as healthy as possible, vinified in wood, the wine not put through wild gyrations of temperature and clarification, aged in barrel underground where it is moist and cold, bottled unfiltered when the moon says it is time. Above all, baby it along while following tradition.”