Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wine Book Review: "Into Wine" — a Testimony of Terroir

“But out of all the obscure nonsense infused in the world of wine, there is one word I’m in love with — one word the French language had the elegance to give birth to and to nurture. That word is: terroir.”

“… there is no understanding wine if you don’t have a good grasp of what terroir means.”

“Le terroir is what turns wine lovers on.”

For Olivier Magny (Parisian sommelier, wine educator and entrepreneur) terroir is a way of life. It’s a set of values, an active stance one takes in defense of place and authenticity. Into Wine, Magny’s forthcoming book, is a terroirist’s manifesto.

What is terroir? Like inner peace, love and punk rock, it’s a term that has different connotations for different people. Inasmuch as the word can be defined, I like referring to terroir as the collaborative effort of Mother Nature and humankind to capture the essence of a specific place and put it in a wine bottle. Magny likes American wine writer Matt Kramer’s translation: “somewhereness.” Magny later uses this generally-accepted definition: “Terroir is the essence of a place — its signature.” But for Magny, terroir is more than just the taste of slate and minerals in an Ürziger Würzgarten riesling. “Terroirism,” he writes, “is about doing the right thing, for yourself and for others, for the environment and for the community.”

If the word is loosely defined in the positive, perhaps terroir is best understood for what it is not. Magny considers pesticides and herbicides forces of anti-terroir. A large portion of the book is spent detailing how pesticides and herbicides harm the soil and denigrate the environment as a whole, all the while creating a culture of mass production and environmental apathy. “One of the biggest enemies of the expressions of terroir in wine,” Magny says, “is irrigation.” Shipping grapes from one region and sneaking them (legally) into a wine from another region is an act of anti-terroir. Filtration, oak chips and other winemaking tricks can rob a wine of its terroir.

One of the reasons I love this book is because Magny’s views on terroir, sustainability, organic viticulture, etc., largely correspond with my own. But even if you disagree with some of Magny’s points, this book will get you thinking about key aspects of the terroir culture, and that’s a good thing.

But Into Wine, scheduled for release April 19, is more than just a love poem to terroir. Magny does a good job explaining the basics of the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôllé system of regional classification. He breaks down the different chemical processes of winemaking, gives advice for newbs on how to decipher wine labels, and lays out a helpful list of wineries around the world that practice biodynamic farming. The text is littered with interesting little info boxes, statistics, charts and stories from his wine travels. And Magny offers answers to 25 wine FAQs, including: What are sulfites? What is the sediment in the bottle? What do you think of Californian wine? His answer to the later — “Overall, overpriced!!” — is a little ridiculous, but, hey, he’s French.
If you’re looking for a textbook on wine varieties and regions, this is not it. If you’re thinking about getting “into wine,” if you’re mystified by this notion of terroir, if you’re curious about the interrelatedness of wine and environmental sustainability, hell, if you just like to drink the fucking stuff, read this book. Along with touring vineyards and attending copious amounts of wine tastings, this book is a good place to start a wine journey. Writing of his own travels through Wine-Nerdistan, Magny says, “studying wine was not just about Pinot Noir or Merlot, but also about plant biology, chemistry, history, geography, marketing, agronomy, etc. If I wanted to be good at what I did, I had a great deal to learn.” If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Pop a cork, pour a glass, crack the book and just enjoy life.

Photo courtesy of Olivier Magny.
Into Wine also includes a brief history of Magny’s project O Chateau, a wine tasting school and wine bar. In 2009, for example: “We moved into an old wine cellar near the Louvre. After launching Wine Dating evenings for singles in Paris, we get invited to host the first Milanese Wine Dating and make Italy’s main news show (drunk).” (What the hell was I doing in 2009 and why wasn’t I bumming around these events in Paris and Milan?) In 2012, the O Chateau Wine Bar received a prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, and Bonjour Paris named it “the best wine bar in Paris.” Not too shabby.
Despite being a Parisian, Magny has a relatively petite ego and little to no patience for snobbery. To him, growing, making, studying and tasting wine is all about increasing net happiness, not impressing a bunch of stuffy, overcompensating douches. Magny comes off as the type of guy you’d love to share a few glasses with, which is probably why O Chateau has been so damn successful. And Magny’s democratic approach to wine tasting spills over into his writing style, which is whimsical and cheeky. He quotes Goethe, George Carlin, Henry Ford, Count Dracula and others. He calls B.S. when he sees it.

He also falls into gimmick mode a little too often, for example, inserting three different footnotes into a 16-word sentence. Some two-page spreads have 10 different footnotes, which has a dizzying effect and distracts from Magny’s fast-moving trains of thought. (I recommend reading the book as I did, finishing the two pages of text and then going back over the footnotes.) Magny also frequently uses the cliché of comparing of wine to women. “Just like a woman, wine has bad hair days.” Proper crystal stems are “wedding dresses” for wine. “Wine is more than the sum of its parts, and that’s also why it’s so glorious (just like a woman).” One bottle is “a Californian cougar with fake boobs.” While I understand how this language could bother some women , I tend to think it’s pretty harmless, perhaps a bit lazy from a writer’s perspective. It’s also not incredibly surprising because — did I mention? — the guy’s French.

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