Wine Rant

The Single-Vineyard Wine Scam

Wine lovers' obsession with terroir gives winemakers a get-out-of-jail-free card

Zach Geballe By October 15, 2021
illustration of wine being poured into a bottle with a landscape in the background
Illustration by Irina Perju

We wine lovers are drunk on terroir. Almost everything that could be said about wine has been subsumed into endless, tedious discussions of soil, rocks, and a bunch of other junk whose importance in the finished product is neither scientifically verifiable nor interesting. Entire generations of wine drinkers are now busy obsessing over subtle soil differences in Champagne, with nary a mention of the fact that almost all Champagne is a blend of dozens of different wines from different vintages that then goes through a highly impactful secondary aging process. No shade to Champagne, but if someone invented the Champagne method in 2021, absolutely no one would think it could showcase terroir.

Is it really terroir?

The problem is that calling your wine a wine of terroir has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for those throughout the wine industry. Did your grapes fail to ripen properly? That’s just your terroir speaking. Did you just plant a vineyard three years ago and the results are underwhelming, but you’ve got bills to pay? Slap on a single-vineyard designation and charge big bucks because you’re exploring the terroir of your little corner of nowhere. Did raging forest fires leave your wine tasting like an ashtray? Terroir!

Some of this is the work of unscrupulous hucksters keen to pass off mediocre wine as magical, just because you can find the place it came from on a map. Does every corner of Europe truly produce magical, one-of-a-kind wines? I doubt it, but if you’re an importer or retailer needing to unload a few pallets of innocuous hooch, claiming that “it has a real sense of place” motivates wine buyers in a way that “it’ll get you buzzed for a decent price” doesn’t. Bonus points, if it’s made from an obscure indigenous variety that you can claim has been saved from extinction like it’s a Sumatran rhino.

It’s also the work of sommeliers, wine writers, and others who either have bought into the mythos or see it as an easy shortcut to sales or clicks. Long-term relationships rely not so much on the continued quality of a given wine, but continued demand for it in restaurants, wine shops, or online. Saying that a wine is great because it comes from the same place that made great wine in the past is a hell of a lot easier than actually tasting the stuff and making decisions about its quality. Just because a bunch of monks in the 1400s thought this particular part of a hill in Burgundy made the best wine, we’re still slavishly adhering to their hierarchies centuries later?

In fact, it’s no surprise that the very term terroir only rose to prominence when, after World War II, the French wine industry was facing both internal challenges due to the ravages of the war and increased international competition. Pretty clever of the French to convince generations that great wine had to be attached to certain great parcels of land, all of which just so happened to be in France. Eventually, like Dr. Frankenstein, they lost control of their creation, and now instead of terroir being somehow unique to French vineyards, it’s applied globally with almost no skepticism or interrogation.

Terroir’s time is up

One fact that terroir die-hards are being forced to face up to is that climate change is laying waste to many of the finest vineyard sites in the world. The heartland of terroir, Burgundy, might soon be forced to rip out its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and plant more heat-resistant varieties. Napa Valley might be too hot for Cabernet Sauvignon within a few decades. Perhaps we’ll soon be regaled with tales of how La Romanée is the ideal site for Syrah or how Mt. Veeder was always meant to be planted to Touriga Nacional.

I’m sympathetic to the notion that there might be great unappreciated — or even unplanted — vineyards throughout the grape-growing world. I’m equally skeptical that there are nearly as many as the terroiristas seem to believe. If this were just a flight of fancy I wouldn’t care, but it’s convincing several generations of wine drinkers that wine somehow makes itself with little or no human intervention.

This is flat-out wrong. While wild grapevines do exist, you’ll almost never drink wine made from them. Virtually all of the world’s vines are carefully selected and planted in thoroughly unnatural ways: even your beloved bush vines were spaced at regular intervals when they were planted. They’re tended and managed in ways that trick the vine into doing what we want, producing a lot of tasty grapes, instead of what it wants, vegetal growth and expansion … plus some grapes. They’re carefully monitored and managed to ensure optimal quality, and picked, by hand or machine, at the exact time they’ll produce the best wine. All of that, and much more, is human endeavor, which dramatically impacts the resulting wine and has nothing at all to do with terroir.

“I’m sympathetic to the notion that there might be great unappreciated — or even unplanted — vineyards throughout the grape-growing world. I’m equally skeptical that there are nearly as many as the terroiristas seem to believe. If this were just a flight of fancy I wouldn’t care, but it’s convincing several generations of wine drinkers that wine somehow makes itself with little or no human intervention.”

Where are the humans?

We’ve even managed to turn blending, one of the great human achievements in winemaking, into a dirty word, except somehow the now-trendy field blend. Without blending, very few of the great wines of the world would exist, yet now it seems to conjure notions of artifice and deception instead of what it really is, yet another example of how human intervention can elevate wine from a source of intoxication to something more inspirational and aspirational.

OK, you might say, but what’s the harm in indulging in a naturalistic fantasy? Who does it hurt? Well, first, let’s think about who it might help. There are cynical reasons for this emphasis on the piece of land over the people. Land can be owned, and people can’t. If a winery owner wants to enhance the reputation and value of their wine, it is far better to extol the virtues of wherever the wine comes from, instead of the work of the people who make the wine, since they might eventually join a competitor or strike out on their own. If the belief is that the patch of land makes the grapes great and not the people who work it, not only can those grapes command a higher price, but skilled workers can easily be underpaid or even replaced with machines.

Wine’s ability to connect us to a particular piece of land in a particular year is often touted as its singular virtue. It absolutely can do this, but wine can also do a lot more: deliver pleasure, bring people together, and most of all, give us a greater appreciation for what can be created when human endeavor and ingenuity are married to, not removed from, natural processes. Drinking great wine can make us appreciate the beauty and power of nature, but we should also remember to appreciate humanity, too.