Good Kramer Rant...For a Change

I usually dismiss Kramer’s rants as the rants from a know-it-all tilting at straw-men that he sets up. But his most recent one:

is dead-on, I think.
I’m in the process of reading Matthew’s “Terroir Myth” book and much of what Kramer states I find rings true. For example, Matthews cast his scorn on the idea that Chablis tastes the way it does (“chalky”) because of a direct transport to the chalky minerals from the soil thru the roots and vine and into the grapes. Indeed, there used to be some (British) writers who felt this to be true…but that was long ago. No modern-day writer (that I know of) would suggest that a direct transmission minerals from the soils into the grapes and thence into the taste of the wine. I’ve tasted plenty of chalk in my day (I used to put a stick of chalk in my mouth like a cigarette to gross out the girls in ole lady Rickey’s 5’th grade class…behavior like smoking a cigarette…or pointing a finger at someone & saying “bang” now gets you suspended from school for a month) and can swear that chalk tastes nothing like the “chalky” in Chablis.

I’m curious how Matthews would (if he does in his book but I’ve not yet got to it) address the taste of eucalyptus in wines (or chamisa/sage in the case of Deming wines) as coming from nearby eucalyptus trees. I suspect he would cast scorn on the idea.

It’s been interesting to me to watch the evolution of the term “terroir” over the yrs. When I first started learning about wine back then (by crackey), the term “gout de terroir” (the taste of the soil) was a slightly pejorative term. It referred to the slightly earthy/loamy taste you would get in some Bdx wines (a taste that has now been driven from Bdx, replaced by “gobs of hedonistic fruit”, to garner high scores in the Republic of Monktown).
Nowadays, you seldom see a TN that uses “gout de terroir” (in the old sense), but the whole concept of “terroir” has been hoisted upon this pedestal to be worshiped from afar, “worshiping at the altar of terroir” as I put it.

As someone who has his foot in the scientific community, but also the other foot in the fine-wine community, it has long struck me as to how little scientists in the enology/viticulture community listen or talk to those in the fine-wine community. Of course, much of the babble in the fine-wine community is absolute BS (just read any writing by SweetAlice), so you can understand their scorn for our writing. But that was not always the case. I’ve drunk wines w/ MaynardAmerine & VernSingleton and know the great pleasure they derived from drinking great wines.

I would be very much interested in CaroleMeredith’s take on Matthew’s book, a lady who is equally at home (I think) in the scientific community and the fine-wine community.

Anyway, for once, Kramer’s rant rings true. A good read.

I read Kramer’s essay and your note here on the board. I honestly cannot tell if you like Kramer’s “rant” because you believe he does or does not embrace Matthews’ viewpoints. I’m not being flippant. If forced to guess it seems you side with Matthews’ side of things (based on the taste of chalk story) but are also agreeing with Kramer. It seems to me they have opposite points of view. Kramer clearly does not side with Matthews. I can see, perhaps, how you could find truths on both sides. Just wondering where you are at. I’m with Kramer.

Tom - my understanding is that the eucalyptus thing is true. Specifically, eucalyptol from nearby trees can get on grape skins and go into solution during the red wine vinification process.


Yup, Jim…I thought I made it clear I stood on Kramer’s take on this issue. Maybe I didn’t. Though I do find much
truth in Matthew’s book as well and believe it has some valid points. I’m just not sure Matthews is really listening or understanding
to what wine writers are trying to say.

It is so tiring to continue to see this Terroir straw man (ie terroir’s existence requires that you must be tasting the exact minerals directly transported from the soil). It would be much more interesting for some of these guys to try to actually figure out why wine has specific tastes and sensations when grown on specific soils. Unfortunately it seems that there is not enough crossover between palate-training and doctorate degrees (Kramer’s point).
FWIW, I hosted my cousin and some of his fellow MIT soil and water scientists for a terroir tasting. After tasting the wines, they were convinced there were soil-derived differences. They didn’t find that conclusion controversial as it seemed likely that differences in water and nutrient availability would produce different compounds in wine.
In any case, I think part of the reason that “science” does not have many of the answers when it comes to wine quality is that wine quality itself is subjective and hard to measure. If we picked a measurable parameter (like “yields”) science will surely help, but the scientific method is much more challenged for non-measurable, aesthetic questions.

I guess you’re not a believer in the whole STGT thing! neener

Sorry. I think it is the way it is posted. Hard to tell you were quoting a small section of Kramer.

Yup, Kevin…I think you’re definitely spot-on here. Though I don’t think hardly anybody believes that definition of terroir anymore.

That seemed quite true back in the 80s when I was living in California and first getting interested in wine.

It was also amazing in those days how little knowledge most California winemakers had about European wines then (matched by the ignorance of European winemakers about New World wines!).

Do you think the scientific/fine wine lovers divide is still there?


If you’ve ever been around eucalyptus trees, this is very plausible.

I wonder if there’s any similar validation for the notion that garrigue (plants) continue to aromas?

I recently investigated the source/cause of the “small berry” phenomenon in CoCo and San Benito Mourvedre grapevines.

In my amateur studies, I came across articles about the morphology of Monastrell/Mourvedre/Mataro as well as the influence of the climate, soil structure, etc, on wine grapes.

Here are a few of the links to sites addressing the issues of “somewhere-ness” on vines and geology in wine growing areas:

Not having read Matthews original text, I can’t tell for sure; but it seems from Kramer’s comments that Matthews goes far beyond the “direct minerals” critique in discounting the existence of terroir entirely. Which is simply foolhardy. One doesn’t have to have any understanding of gravity at all to know that objects fall.

Probably still there, John…but maybe to a somewhat lesser extent than in the past. Books like ClarkSmith’s try to break
down this chasm, I think. Matthew’s book does not, in my view.

Carole should come along here before long and add her two (or four) centavos to the discussion.

I used to read, coming from a scientific background, some of the enology literature. It was clear that the UC/Davis scientists
(as in Amerine & Roessler’s terrific book) had little use for the blanderings of the fine-wine community, dismissing our use of
terms like “balance” and “complexity” as meaningless in their world. But I know that MaynardAmerine would be the first
to admire a great wine being poured for him…even though he would not deign to use “complex” to describe it.

I believe that rosemary, lavender, and (probably) some other plants are capable of casting their volatile oils in a windy environment (re Mistral). I have no evidence to back that idea up, however. :\

I recently read an editorial on the Wine Speculator website by Mr Chuck Wagner (the younger), entitled “Taking a Stand Against Vineyard Designations”, Feb 14, 2007.

In his piece,…Oh, well, you know what he thinks. :wink:

Yes. The rosemary/thyme/mint family releases similar oils, same process should apply to both.

TomHill wrote:
As someone who has his foot in the scientific community, but also the other foot in the fine-wine community, it has long struck me as to how little scientists in the enology/viticulture community listen or talk to those in the fine-wine community.

Agree 100%.

Where to start? First, I have read only parts of Matthews’ book and may never have the time to read the whole thing, so that is a limitation. (But not reading the book certainly hasn’t stopped many other people from commenting on it.)

The book deals with 3 topics around which Matthews thinks myths have been built – yield vs quality, vine balance, and terroir. (Keep in mind that the definition of myth that he is using is “a traditional story that serves as an attempt to explain what would otherwise be a mystery. As such, the explanation may be true, false, or somewhere in between.”) Most people have been reacting to the terroir section of the book because that is such a sacred concept in the world of fine wine. As Tom suggests, I do have some perspective on this issue because I’m both a plant scientist and a wine producer. I’ve also known and worked with Mark Matthews for over 30 years and have a very high regard for his intellect, knowledge and analytical thinking. He is an environmental plant physiologist and so his expertise and experience are in the very thing that terroir is about – the influence of the environment on the biological functions of the grapevine.

Matthews doesn’t discount terroir at all as a significant determinant of grape composition and wine flavor. He simply thinks that “terroir” has become an oversimplified belief system that is accepted without examination because it comes from people presumed to be experts. I think his book stems from his concern over what he perceives as a lack of critical thinking among those who consider themselves wine experts, particularly whose who sell wine, write about wine, and review wine. He thinks these people are quick to attribute their own subjective and very personal perception of the distinctive attributes of a particular wine to “terroir” without any objective basis, because they believe in terroir.

I don’t think I can say much more without reading more of the book.


Martha’s Vineyard had a row of eucalyptus trees immediately upwind from it, as I recall. Those died or were torn out in the 90s, and the characteristic flavor of the Heitz wine from there went away.

Flavors like eucalyptus, garrigue, or smoke landing on grapes and affecting the taste of the wine only makes sense. It’s quite different from the idea that limestone in the soil makes it through the plant’s roots, into the grapes, and changes the flavor of the wine to taste like limestone, for example.

An interesting question to me - given that eucalyptus in Heitz MV or garrigue in Rhone wines is considered pleasing and desirable (to me as well), why is it okay when it gets blown onto the grapes, but it would be an outrage if a winemaker were to add it as a flavoring into the wine or the must? And in this example, it’s not really “nature” - eucalyptus trees are not native to California and those ones next to MV were planted there by people (not for the purpose of flavoring the wines).