Only God knows what’s in this bottle

Thoughts on the Nurture v Nature debate.

There is a moment in the French film Ridicule when a celebrated wit and member of the church has just completed a passionate exposition to Louis XIV and his court on why he believes in the existence of God. As he takes the applause at the end of his speech, he announces that, if his majesty so desires, he could return the following week and attempt to prove the exact opposite: that God doesn’t exist. This, unsurprisingly, goes down rather badly with the king and the Abbe has to leave Versailles in some haste.

This somehow came to mind recently as I read Robert Joseph’s thoughts on the RAW Wine Fair, which celebrated “natural wines” – – and the ensuing discussion his thoughts provoked. In the same week I attended a wine tasting at which a not-inexpensive Volnay was showing particularly badly. A colleague remarked that, if the producer had been there, no doubt the word “terroir” would be found somewhere in their explanation of its “unusual” character.

It would seem there is nothing that the wine trade enjoys debating more than the theme of nurture versus nature. And what I find a little frustrating is that I’m not technically competent to get to grips with the detail of the debate. Conceptually, however, I feel I could argue for both sides.

On the one hand I believe that in an ideal world all premium wine would reveal some sense of place and, more importantly, that all wine, would be made in a sustainable way (in the broadest sense of the word “sustainable”). On the other hand, as a consumer, I believe that wine is fundamentally something to be enjoyed, while I value and respect consistency of quality and style.  The way wine is produced should to me (within reason) therefore be a means to these ends, and not an end in itself.


Imagining parallel worlds

All this prompted a memory from some 15 years ago of a wine trade debate, when I was asked, as an employee of a New World producer, to speak on the side of “Nurture”.

I asked the audience to imagine a parallel world in which all wine was produced by companies, large and small, with what one might now call an interventionist, New World mentality. Terroir was allowed to express itself, but not as much as the winemaking team. You can imagine, I’m sure, how my argument developed: in essence everything was in perfect balance in this the best of all possible worlds.

However, I noted, tucked away in a yet to be discovered corner of this world, wine was also produced, but here the wine industry was not in a healthy condition. For a start the vine was grown close to the limit of cultivation which produced significant vintage variation in quality, quantity and therefore price. This discouraged long-term planning and investment in the winery and the vineyard. The variability was exacerbated by the system of inheritance, which meant that the vineyards represented a patchwork quilt of ownership.

The end product of all this was that wine could be sublime or awful, or any point in between. The purchase decision was in fact so much of a lottery that demand was restricted to the wealthy minority who could afford to take the risk.

Now it came to pass that a group of younger producers decided that enough was enough, and resolved, in their desperation, to call in a marketing man. He soon got to the nub of the problem. Given that the fundamental causes of the variability of the product could not be addressed, at least in the short term, he needed to find a way of turning this weakness into a strength.

So he created a totally new proposition, based on the premise that variability was the result of the natural process by which wine was produced. Wine was a product of the soil, the microclimate and aspect of the vineyard, and not the winemaker. The human hand in fact was largely absent. Indeed the marketing man’s eventual advertising campaign featured the strapline “Only God Knows What’s in This Bottle”. This he preferred to his original line, “God Only Knows What’s in This Bottle”.

He created the concept too of a “Voyage of Discovery” to encourage consumers to find their particular favourites amongst the multitude of wines on offer. The fact that the following year they would have to undertake the voyage all over again only added to the experience. After all, the journey is often more exciting than the arrival.

His own codeword for the whole project was SCAM (Soil + Climate + Aspect = Mystique) but in public he used the word “terroir”, which sounded wonderfully earthy and natural.

I ended up by asking the audience whether they felt that, once this region had been discovered, its winemaking ethos and practices would be seen by the market, or wine industry, as superior to the status quo. Clearly my conclusion was that they would not. .

Terroir is a marketer’s dream

As was very obvious at the time, I was clearly being provocative with this  tongue in cheek and perhaps rather heavy handed parody. However, on a more serious note, looking back at my three main conclusions, I would  stand by them today.

Firstly, I was expressing concern about the trend towards worshipping at the shrine of nature, which beyond a reasonable level implies both an acceptance of inconsistency for its own sake and, perhaps more importantly, a criticism of those who are attempting to minimise variability, whatever the results.

Secondly, I noted that it couldn’t be in the long-term interests of the many good and responsible producers who express their terroir in their wines, to be lumped together with other producers who are trading on their appellations and/or using terroir as an excuse for poor winemaking. It is  surely in all our interests, therefore, to expose the latter and not simply praise the former.

And, thirdly, terroir assuredly plays a key role in determining the style and quality of many wines, but it is also a marketer’s dream. The artisanal nature of our business, and all the positives associated with this, are somehow encapsulated in this one word. The wine trade may continue to search for the ‘perfect ‘ definition, while even the premium wine consumer might struggle to get even close, but that does not in my view reduce its potential power as a means of stimulating premium wine sales.

It is clearly crucial, however, that there is substance behind the style (unlike in the parody). And in defining ‘substance’ one might go further and imagine another parallel world in which no wine was permitted to be sold unless certain environmental standards had been achieved- standards which would be far less likely to mean very much to consumers unless effectively marketed. As, of course, is the case with “terroir”.

Here, in fact, is yet another example of where our industry is unlikely to make substantial progress unless production and marketing are in close harmony. We are sadly some way from that position currently. In the meantime we should be on our guard against the cynical, wherever it lurks. In my view if terroir didn’t actually exist then somebody, somewhere, would look to invent it.

The Abbe, of course, might well have said something similar about God if Louis XIV had given him the chance.


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