an expert appraisal of Washington terroir

Monday, April 12, 2010

A lengthy and highly informative comment by Alan Busacca was posted late Friday, to a blog entry about the Columbia Gorge AVA in Washington. Because his post is so interesting, and likely to be missed, I am putting it up in its entirety today. The original blog entry (and all comments) can be found in the archives dated March 24, 2010.

Alan Busacca: “Hey everyone, I know I’m late to the dance, but please take a chill pill and calm the hysterics about AVAs for a few minutes, then consider this: Terroir is one thing, but the legal definition of an AVA, the criteria for establishing an AVA with TTB, and arguably the marketing reasons to have an AVA are all completely different.

I’ve spent 30 years in the Pacific Northwest conducting research on soils, geology, climate and climate change, agriculture, and now for the last 15 years on viticulture, and I’ve worked to get 5 of the state’s 11 AVAs approved, so please hear me out.

I am a firm advocate for the search for true terroir characteristics in our oh-so-young winegrowing region, but this rightfully will take decades, perhaps centuries to accomplish. We often like to imagine that a perfect AVA is synonymous with a perfect piece of terroir but technically and practically they exist for different reasons.

We all think we know a good and correct definition of terroir, so I won’t add mine here. But here is a paraphrase of the guidelines TTB uses to approve or reject petitions for new AVAs: “A legally defined area of wine grape production whose geographical features, climates, soils, or geology produce growing conditions that distinguish the proposed area from surrounding areas.”

Do you see the words ‘uniform’, ‘identically the same in all parts’, or ‘terroir’ anywhere in the definitions? No because they are not there and they are not intended to be there. I will come back to this in talking about the Columbia Gorge AVA in a moment.

But let’s go back and talk about the Washington AVA that everyone loves to cite as a perfect example of an AVA coinciding with a single terroir.

Everyone LOVES to cite Red Mountain. WRONG.

It’s easy to say, “they got it right at Red Mountain AVA and boy, did they ever get it wrong on the Columbia Gorge AVA”. I think this is because Red Mountain is a single bench that we can take in with a single gaze, and the overall macro-climatic characteristics are similar. Ok so far but consider this. Having performed detailed land assessments as a consultant now on almost 2000 acres of Red Mountain’s 8000 acres, Red Mountain is most decidedly NOT a single terroir. Just one example suffices: On Ryan Johnson and Paul McBride’s Grand Rêve vineyard north of Col Solare, we excavated 56 backhoe pits in order to make any sense at all of the soil patterns on 11 acres! On that tiny parcel, I identified eleven incredibly, distinctly different soil types, including soils from windblown sand 50 feet deep demarcated along a knife-sharp boundary invisible on the land surface from soils with a massive, absolutely impermeable hardpan 3 feet thick lurking just 10 inches beneath the surface.

What this means to vineyard performance and, hypothetically at least, to grape flavors and quality is clear: that in just 11 acres of one parcel on Red Mountain there are many terroirs, not just one. And Ryan and Paul have honored those dramatic soil, slope and aspect differences in designing a beautifully complex set of vineyard blocks, some of which are barely half an acre and the largest of which is only 2 acres or so.

To know the incredibly violent geologic history of Red Mountain as regards turbulent flows of cataclysmic floodwaters up and around and probably over the top of Red Mountain plus the multiple pathways of windblown sand off of the Yakima River floodplain since the end of the last Ice Age is to not be surprised at all at this. Such variation, along with incredible differences in the relative wind intensity of different locations on Red Mountain, may go a long way toward enlivening the discussion of reasons underlying the ‘femininity, elegance, and finesse of Cabernet Sauvignon from Ciel du Cheval vineyard versus the powerful, dark, tannic, masculine qualities of Cabernet from Klipsun vineyard...’ less than half a mile away (quote from Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel).

I could cite many similar points about supposedly uniform terroirs within other Washington, Oregon, and California AVAs (rainfall within the Walla Walla Valley AVA ranging from 6’ to over 40”, ‘melange’ (read: ‘chaos’) geologic terrains creating unbelievable complexity within all 14 Napa Valley sub-AVAs etc.), but let me return to the question of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the Columbia Gorge being an AVA.

If one reads the TTB definition, “A legally defined area of wine grape production whose geographical features, climates, soils, or geology produce growing conditions that distinguish the proposed area from surrounding areas”, nothing is said about ‘terroir’ or uniformity. James weighed in rather eloquently earlier with his comment describing some of the wonderful and unique attributes of the Columbia Valley region, AVA or not.

Read the definition again slowly to yourself and you must realize that no neighboring area is at all similar to the Columbia Gorge in toto. To the north? Mount Adams, Goldendale and elevations and climatic conditions totally unsuited to fruit production along the backbone of the Cascades. To the south? The same. To the west? Rainfall amounts up to 120” and temperatures too cool for vinifera. To the east? Perhaps here, following the definition set by TTB, a case can be made that the ‘geographic’ Columbia Gorge extends eastward at least to the area of Maryhill Museum or John Day Dam and that the AVA boundary might be expanded another 25 miles east. Farther upstream on the Columbia River, the cliff-bounded Columbia Gorge opens into the gentle-walled Columbia Valley from Rufus to Hermiston, clearly a different province by any measure.

Not good enough? Pick ANY other AVA in the Northwest to compare the Columbia Gorge AVA to and you fail to find even one that is similar. Simply nowhere else provides the sea-level passage for air exchange east to west, the rainfall and temperature gradients and types of soils (glacial, eolian, and true volcanic) that allow virtually every major variety of fine wine grape to find a perfect vineyard fit. Not a shoehorn fit, not some of the varieties, but ‘A World of Wine in 40 Miles’.

From a practical standpoint, who among us will oppose the argument that the most fundamental value of AVA status is in wine marketing, not purity of terroir. From this perspective as well, the Columbia Gorge is very cohesive as an AVA: it presents a scenic destination, close to major urban centers, transected by an interstate highway, with a century-long history of fruit production, with wonderful outdoor recreation resources originating from wind, water, and snow, within which a wine consumer can reasonably expect to find fine wines produced by local wineries from AVA-grown (as well as other-AVA) grapes, that accurately reflect the typicity of virtually all commonly known grape varieties. Name for me, please, another AVA in the Pacific Northwest that can make this claim.”

PG: And one further – small, but important – point: many wineries boast about their terrior. It turns up on websites, wine labels, press materials, shelf talkers. It makes you look ignorant. If you think your wines have terrior, it’s time to buy a French/English dictionary!


scott said...

I know you’d have to be a fool to offer a counter point to Busacca’s detailed and thoughtful discussion, but what the heck.

There are many voices out there that say it’ll take generations or more to define terroir in young wine growing regions. In part I think that’s wrong. Two things that contribute to terroir are inherently there where the vines are planted – land and climate. The land and its features were created over millennia or eons through geological processes, and climate is climate. Climate may very well go through gradual change, but at the vineyard level there’s no control over that, and as long as you don’t sculpt the site with a bulldozer, then the land is what the eons gave. The third and final major part of terroir is what the farmer and winemaker do or don’t do with the land, climate and grapes, i.e., how do they reflect the land and climate through the wine. This third part is the at least somewhat cohesive cultural practices of the AVA vignerons. The self consistent cultural practices are what can take generations to evolve. I think the idea of self consistency (some similarity in land, climate, and people) within an AVA boundary is key to uniqueness. Does that mean uniformity or sameness? Of course not. But ideally when you taste the wine you’d say, ah, that tastes like it came from here and definitely not from there. In my opinion an AVA with diverse land, climate and people will be challenged to provide that experience.

Given the definition of terroir that Busacca paraphrases, I think TTB needs to tighten it up. What should be captured in the definition is this idea of self consistency within an AVA, and in the early years it’s likely that only land and climate can provide self consistency since culture takes time.

Stephanie LaMonica said...

i know this post is about AVA differentiation, but since it was brought up, one thing about alan's last paragraph: i think it's a backwards way of looking at marketing of any AVA. from a marketing standpoint, the most fundamental value of AVA status needs to be the wine, which should, since it's created from growing conditions distinguished from other areas, be by extension distinguished from other wines. all the other elements listed are the icing on the cake. because when it comes down to it, if people aren't coming for the wine, and by the way, it happens to take place in the most lovely of settings, etc., why even bother with an AVA? you don't want it to sound like, "it's beautiful here, lots to do, close to Portland, and btw, we make wine." yowza.

terroirist said...

Of course Alan's remarks are right on the money. The bottom line is that NONE of the AVAs have a consistent and unique terroir. It's all about marketing. All you have to do is look at the boundaries, which often follow section lines or roads, or other non-natural landmarks. If AVAs were terroir-based the boundaries would correspond to topographic contours, soil unit map boundaries, or isohyets. The terroir of the rolling wheat fields southeast of the Dalles is more similar to the terroir of similar terrain near Walla Walla than it is to the slopes of Underwood Mtn. near White Salmon (also in the Columbia Gorge AVA). I just wish journalists, bloggers, and winery people would quit talking about "Walla Walla terroir" or "Red Mountain terroir" and only use the term in association with single-vineyard wines.

scott said...

terroirist – I don’t agree that we PNWers should stop talking about terroir and focus on single vineyard. In many, many instances the idea of single vineyard has been diluted because those single vineyard grapes are shipped out to many or dozens of wineries. The person growing the grapes has his/her vision for how to grow grapes, and each winemaker has his/her vision for what the wine should be like. That’s a lot of interpretations of the same single vineyard so it’s not very single. If a single vineyard had a single farmer and a single winemaker (ideally the same person), then not only do you have a unique single vineyard wine you have terroir.

And just because you and I don’t agree with how AVAs have been created so far that doesn’t mean it can’t be done better the next time.

Art said...

It's not mentioned here, but your readers may want to know that Mr. Busacca is involved in the Alma Terra project, a winemaking collaboration with Robert Smasne offering some beautiful terroir-driven Washington wines. It doesn't get much better than this combination of knowledge and experience.

Anonymous said...

I have read your posts, visited your website, and read your blog, yet I am puzzled as to where you have amassed such amazing wine knowledge. It appears you are new to the industry and I would love to learn where I could also become such an authority on all things vinous, for I fear I have been wasting my time tasting wines, managing vineyards and making wine. And to your comment concerning single vineyards going to multiple producers: I guess I should just dump my Burgundies because I must have been getting misguided joy from tasting multiple producers take on single terroirs.

Anonymous said...

That may have come across more harsh than I intended. What I'm trying to say is lighten up, your way, my way, or any other way is not the only way to do this wine thing. Smile and compliment more, espouse opinions less. The great and interesting thing about wine is the diversity.

Alan said...

Thanks everyone for the diverse points of view and perspectives; I'm sure we will be happily hacking away at each others' ideas for many years to come!

I do find Scott's remarks surprising since I specifically pointed out that 'terroir' is not to be found in the definition nor really is it exactly in the purpose of AVas. If self consistency is to be the hallmark of an AVA, I guess Grand Reve needs to have 11 AVAs in 13 acres! That'll be really useful!

Plymale said...

Great post. Regarding Red Mt, here is a view looking southeast, taken about 12,000 years ago:

See also a great video at the Long Shadows web site.

scott said...

Anonymous – If you’re going to dump your Burgundies please dump my way. Anyway, there has been a big movement in Burgundy where the individual wine growers are keeping some or all their wine to bottle themselves. Rather than selling to the negociants, that is. I think this trend and the wines have been well received by the community at large. And aren’t the most treasured Burgundies made by people who also farm their tiny parcel that is different somehow than the tiny parcel next door?

If memory serves me correctly even PG has commented before on the number of wineries dipping into the same well. And Steve Heimoff also had some recent and interesting posts on this topic ( - “It’s All in the Vineyard” and “Terroir II: Thinking Like a Grape”).

Alan – I know you said that terroir isn’t in the definition. I was familiar with the definition before your recent comment. I always inferred, incorrectly I guess, that in the spirit of the definition would also include this self consistency or commonality within the boundary. I believe the thread of commonality and uniqueness used in the Red Mtn AVA petition was highest degree days in the Columbia Valley and for Horse Heaven Hills it was wind.

scott said...

Anonymous – Not a problem.

I love wine of all types, but I am a bit of an idealist. So sure I have opinions, but I don’t claim that they are anything more than an opinion. PG’s introduction to his blog site says – “…a regular look at topics of interest, controversy, and debate among those of us somewhat obsessed with wine”. I thought that’s what we were all doing here.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of wine marketing and AVA's....can anyone say "Lake Chelan". They received an AVA and they haven't even figured out what grapes they can grow well.

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