California Terroir

Vineyards outside Howell Mountain in Napa

Vineyards outside Howell Mountain in Napa

After visiting family in the Bay Area a few weekends ago, my wife and I decided to leisurely take 101 South on the way back to Los Angeles, stopping at some of our favorite towns along the Central Coast on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We had lunch in Paso Robles and—being that I try my best to drink locally wherever I am—I decided to order a glass of white wine from one of the nearby producers. It wasn’t all that great, but then again my expectations weren’t all that high. No matter how much I want to support my winemaking neighbors here in California, my taste skews towards the Old World. I like acid. I like balance. I like tasting terroir.

Not the idea of terroir, mind you; paraphrasing the ever-hilarious Stuff White People like by Christian Lander. Considering it’s become a measuring stick for people who think “complexity” is the pinnacle of craft, I don’t throw that word around lightly these days. I’m not trying to prove anything by talking about terroir. I just like tasting oyster shell in my Chablis. I like tasting crushed stones in my Sancerre. I’m fascinated by wine’s ability to soak up its environment, which is why I’ve always been drawn to terroir-driven expressions, particularly the whites. The viticultural aspect of wine—the actual farming—is what initially intrigued me away from teaching and into the booze business; it’s the most compelling part of alcohol for me.

When I first started in wine retail, back in 2007, California was going through what my old pal Jon Bonné refers to as the “Big Flavor Era,” a time when Napa wineries catered solely to critics like Robert Parker, extracting as much ripeness and richness as possible from their grapes in the search for higher alcohol levels and fuller bodies. When Jon first came to San Francisco in 2006 to write about wine for the San Francisco Chronicle, he too was skeptical about California’s winemaking scene, and—as he writes in his fantastic book The New California Wine—the “ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles and a presumption that bigger was indeed better.” That’s not to say that California wines weren’t good in those days—because taste is relative—but rather that they all sort of tasted the same. They were round, silky, and smooth; everything the general consumer usually associates with quality hooch. They just didn’t express any real sense of place, which is exactly why Jon went on the hunt for “new” Californian producers, those who spend more time in the vineyard than the laboratory.

Now before we go any further, I want to make a few things clear. First, there were plenty of California producers making amazing wines with restraint and character back in 2007; it’s just that they were overshadowed by the 100 point scores being doled out to the heavy hitters. They were outliers of the wine culture, rather than part of the culture itself. Second, a wine doesn’t necessarily need to express terroir in order to be good. I explain it to consumers this way: if I’m on vacation in Europe and I’m looking for a place to eat, I’m going to go out of my way to find a restaurant that serves dishes I either can’t get back at home, or are a specialty of the region. If I’m in France, I’m going to eat a shit ton of black truffles and duck confit. If I’m in Italy, I’m going to eat local pasta until I can no longer button my pants. When I’m buying a wine from France, Italy, or even California, I’m in search of a similar experience. Naturally, it should be pleasing to the taste, but I’m also interested in what it can express, maybe a flavor or an aroma that is distinct and can be replicated nowhere else. It’s not that California wine is incapable of terroir, but rather that California winemakers often see it as an afterthought, if an even attribute whatsoever.

Pinot Noir Vineyards in Sonoma

Pinot Noir Vineyards in Sonoma

When trying to convert casual wine drinkers into passionate devotees, this is usually the part of the conversation where we lose the average consumers. We start talking about these grand ideas—land, climate, and terrain—when most people just want to drink something that tastes good so they can get their buzz on. The longer we lecture, the larger that soapbox tends to loom, and I want to avoid that here. Ultimately, what we’re talking about is the difference between practicality and art, between a commodity and something stylistic. Some people see music as a commodity they listen to in order to pass the time while driving. Others see it as an art form worthy of the highest veneration. There are those that just want to dance and have a good time, and others who strive to push the medium to its furthest limits. That’s the divide we’re talking about here. It’s not snobbery. It’s just a matter of what inspires you as a human being.

I want to use a quote from Robert Mondavi here that I found in Jon’s New California book to drive this point home. In 1962, having just returned from his first ever trip to Europe, the Napa godfather summarized the divide between California and the Old World as such:

“To my mind, the contrast was stark: we were treating wine as a business, the great European chateaus were treating wine as high art.”

Bingo.

In Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and throughout France, the perception of wine isn’t all that different from that of literature or painting. People obsess over it. They catalog it, critique it, discuss it, and argue over its merit until the wee hours of the morning. Whereas my friends from college might wax philosophically about Radiohead’s importance in the prog lexicon of Genesis and Pink Floyd, citizens of Paris are doing the same about the potential of a piece of earth to express greatness using grapes as its vessel. I’ve spent plenty of evenings in the French countryside listening to farmers bicker about a ten dollar bottle of table red, almost resorting to fisticuffs over what seems like the most meaningless disagreement. It’s serious business over there. Or rather, it’s beyond business. To some, it’s almost a religion.

Matthiasson_LindaVista.jpg

The mysticism behind biodynamic farming, and how the lunar cycles impact a vineyard’s potential, leaves plenty of room for cultish associations when it comes to agriculture, but that’s part of what makes wine more than just a simple beverage. The intangibles of the heavens cannot always be explained with science, or fixed after the fact like airbrushing a photoshoot. That sense of awe in the face of nature has long been missing from California’s wine culture. The science of production—manipulation in the cellar, from micro-oxidation to reverse osmosis, in order to make wine more palatable to the masses—has always taken priority. I could never get past that polish as a consumer. Yet, driving down 101 on that Sunday afternoon, looking at the vineyards along the way, had me thinking about California again and my longstanding desire to be more supportive of local winemakers despite my bias. I needed to go back and reacquaint myself with some of the more old world-minded producers, which is why I pulled out Jon’s book. That led me to a bottle of 2017 Matthiasson Napa Chardonnay from Linda Vista Vineyard, and that first glass led me straight to Steve Matthiasson.

To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t until I opened New California Wine that I learned about Steve Matthiasson and his passion for farming. Like I mentioned, my days in retail were spent draining bottles of Pauillac and Sancerre, not so much Napa Chardonnay, so I somehow completely missed that the San Francisco Chronicle named Steve winemaker of the year in 2014, along with the string of accolades that followed from there. There is no shortage of press concerning his wines, and the fact that I’m just now being introduced to them is evidence of the tremendous California-sized gap in my wine knowledge (a problem I’m seeking to rectify). After freaking out over Steve’s wine this past weekend, and thinking about little else since then, I reached out to him in an attempt to learn more about his vineyard and why his Chardonnay tasted so vibrant and fresh in comparison to other Napa producers. He was more than happy to chat.

“One of the things I love about the Linda Vista vineyard is the acidity it provides. People think of Napa as a warm region, but there’s a big difference between the bottom and the top of the valley,” Steve told me over the phone this week; “Calistoga gets quite warm, but we get fog that doesn’t burn off until late morning, and in the afternoon the breeze comes off of San Pablo Bay. I wouldn’t call it a cool climate site, but it’s definitely a mild climate, so the wines tend to have a lot of acidity.”

Steve Matthiasson at home in Napa

Steve Matthiasson at home in Napa

To say that the 2017 Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay has acidity is like saying Las Vegas gets warm in the summer; it’s factually correct, but it’s a bit of an understatement. I can say with complete certainty that Steve’s wine is the most taste bud-tingling, zippy, zesty California Chardonnay that I’ve ever tasted. It’s an explosion of citrus. It’s like a party on your tongue, or—as my wife described it—like a wine disguised as a Margarita. It has acidity up the wazoo, to the extent that never in a million years would I have picked it out as California Chardonnay. I wanted to know more about why that was the case.

“Before modern viticulture and climate change, Oak Knoll, where we’re located, was never renowned as a Cabernet district because it was considered too cool, so it became the Chardonnay region,” Steve explained; “The soil is composed of marine-based sediment. The south part of Mt. Veeder is marine uplift, so it’s 20 million year old ocean soil, whereas the rest of Napa is volcanic and about 5 million years old. It’s high in magnesium, which works like calcium in limestone. Limestone soils are also low in potassium. It’s not very romantic, but low potassium is a big part of terroir. Grapes hold more acidity when they grow in low potassium soils.”

This explanation made my entire year. For over a decade, I had been taught that limestone soils produced wines with higher acidity levels, but nothing more beyond that. The explanations from winemakers and sommeliers always seemed to stop there, as if the answer was obvious, and I was never scientifically-motivated enough to learn about the chemistry on my own. There is indeed a terroir-driven reason for why the Matthiasson Chardonnay has such incredible pep: it’s the magnesium in the ancient ocean soil, reminiscent of another famous marine-driven terroir, also known for wines with blistering acidity.

The most famous stretch of Kimmeridgian limestone runs directly underneath France’s Champagne region all the way down to Chablis. The calcareous soil is a big part of why Champagne and Chablis both produce crisp and vibrant whites, often with minerality to boot. That limestone chalk, once part of the ocean floor, is what makes those vines so special, and why they’re able to produce wines of a distinct character, unable to be replicated elsewhere no matter how many have tried in the past. It’s what makes Champagne so famous. It’s why, as Steve stated, “Chablis was considered the gold standard for Chardonnay” during California’s early winemaking days. That limestone is ultimately what you’re paying for when you buy yourself a bottle. I asked Steve if there were any other factors besides the low potassium levels in the Linda Vista site: “There’s the climate, the marine soil, and the fact that the vines are more vigorous in the marine clay. Vigorously growing vines also tend to produce more acidity,” he added.

Linda Vista Vineyard in the West Oak Knoll region of Napa

Linda Vista Vineyard in the West Oak Knoll region of Napa

It wasn’t just the acidity that blew me away, however; it was also the distinct flavor of Meyer lemon that exploded from the glass. I typically associate California Chardonnay with stone fruit flavors, so the Linda Vista expression really caught me off guard. “We pick it really early over a three week period,” Steve explained; “We start at Champagne levels of ripeness and we end right as it hits modern style ripeness, where it has stone fruit and texture. It’s basically screeching crazy acid, mixed with riper grapes from the end of the pick. It’s a single vineyard, but it’s picked over a three week process. Back in Chablis, the small families can’t necessarily pick all their grapes in one day, so they do the same thing. We also don’t stir the lees because that can introduce oxygen, which can make that lemon flavor go away. Then we use neutral barrels to hold the aromatics.”

What really got me excited about that bottle of Matthiasson was that it was Chardonnay. I’ve spent plenty of time in my career visiting the great red wine sites of California—Monte Bello, Eisele, Howell Mountain—so I’ve always known where to look when in need of great Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet, I can’t remember the last time a bottle of California white wine got me so fired up. Since speaking with Steve, I’ve been thinking non-stop about the amount of vineyard land that must exist in California, capable of producing white wines of distinction if farmed specifically for that purpose. I’ve always been one eager to go deeper down the rabbit hole, and the fact that I’m clearly late to the party as it pertains to the “new California wine” makes me somewhat giddy inside. It definitely has me taking a harder look at Jon’s book, and simultaneously it has me thinking about another road trip, back up 101 through Santa Maria and the Central Coast, and into Sonoma and Napa from there. What else have I been missing?

-David Driscoll