The Intoxicating War Between Science and Tradition

Review: Mark A. Matthews, ‘Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing,’ and Alice Feiring, ‘For the Love of Wine’

May 21, 2016

What makes a good winemaker? Is it a viticulturist’s arsenal of facts and scientific techniques combined with access to the best fruit? Or is it the villager’s traditional knowledge of picking, pressing, fermenting, and bottling his grapes? It is this concern, which strikingly mirrors a conflict in politics, that divides the wine world. Two new books capture the fractured condition of 21st century winemaking: speaking for the scientific or Enlightenment left is Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing by viticulturist Mark A. Matthews; speaking for the romantic, traditionalist right, there is For the Love of Wine by writer Alice Feiring.

In Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, Matthews sets out to debunk various wine "myths" that he argues have taken root because of blind belief in tradition and authority, both of which impede "potential progress." After tracing the historical origins of these "myths" and attempting to disprove them scientifically, Matthews concludes that they are a bunch of "bullshit" because they have little grounding in science.

The main myth under attack is terroir, which, very narrowly defined, is a belief that the soil in which grapes are grown affects the taste of wine. Broader definitions include factors such as climate and winemaking techniques. Matthews criticizes this wider definition and rejects claims that terroir is difficult to encapsulate, articulate, or test through science, calling this sentiment "poetry" (he means that pejoratively).

Most of the chapter on terroir is spent tracing the origin of the word to show that it has not always had positive connotations, and also that it has no grounding in science. Terroir, Matthews argues, evolved from the Aristotelian idea that plants "eat" the soil that they grow in. The term then morphed into a negative word to describe the mucky, rotten taste of wine in the 17th century.

It acquired a positive connotation in the 20th century after a nasty pest hit French vineyards. In order to help local winemakers bounce back, the government established appellation laws, which divided vineyards into regions. These boundaries, Matthews argues, also made it seem as though the soil in which grapes grew was directly related to the taste of the wine.

It turned out branding one’s wine with a region, such as the Bordeaux or Champagne (or even more specific designations) and passing it off as tradition or terroir, was "effective for marketing" and thus a way to profit off of self-generated authenticity. Those who owned the real estate in these regions grew rich and powerful and developed a vested interest in maintaining the false consciousness of the wine world. In other words, wine elites had a reason to perpetuate the terroir "myth," or what Matthews calls "cultural capital."

Thus, he argues, terroir is really a "social construct for establishing (and maintaining) control of both territory and wine reputations." Though terroir may appear to be knowledge (which is why it is such a great marketing tool), it is not instructive about the winemaking process because it is a result of "social or economic" factors rather than "empirical evidence in the grapes and wines."

It is telling that throughout his examination of terroir and other "myths," Matthews avoids discussing what good wine really is, seeing as "the assessment of quality is quite ephemeral and subjective." Tastes change, he says—that is why "the ancients," who had different sorts of wines, "must be considered unreliable as experts on wine quality." Until we discover "a human universal in wine aesthetics," the question of taste must be set aside.

Though Matthews claims to want "insight" on how to grow a "good or better wine," his failure to pursue what he might call a "normative" question makes his inquiry pointless: he won’t say what good wine actually is. What is worse, Matthews cannot escape value judgments in his attempts to be objective, because in tracking down the best methods for winemaking, he is implying that there is such a thing as "good" wine. As a result, Matthews’ destruction of the "myths" of winemaking ends up a destruction of local traditions that do not adhere to his stealth, implicit understanding of good wine or good winemaking. His desire to find one, neatly-packaged answer to a complicated and varied question also does not shelter him from the reality that winemaking is nuanced, and that each kind of grape can grow differently in each place; thus, he leaves unanswered the question of how to test the influence of terroir.

Matthews objects to the dogmatism of religion and tradition, but his fervent belief in the power of science and man’s reason chains him to the dogmatism of rationalism and positivism. And so, the militant viticulturist, in his attempt to be value-neutral, falls into the trap that 20th century political scientists fell into. After modern science bled into the study of political things, the question of the best political order fell to the wayside, dominated by concerns about method and objectivity. Ascertaining facts became the greatest goal, and the scientific method tickled modern man’s fetish for certainty. The "new political science" does not tell us how to live, does not answer life’s fundamental questions, and can never tell us what our ends should be, though it can tell us about means. And so we ended up with a political science—and now, a winemaking perspective—that is useless, and in denial about its uselessness.

On the other end of the spectrum lie natural wine advocates like Alice Feiring—a self-described "old leftie," though at times an overzealous activist and at other times saccharine and poetic in an annoying way, the reasons she loves natural wine are actually representative of a kind of conservatism.

Georgia (the country, not the American state) has 525 indigenous grape varieties and a winemaking culture that is thousands of years old. Invaders from the Ottomans to the Soviets have attempted to destroy this culture, but the local wisdom of winemaking has survived, passed on through generations. Feiring, terrified of wine globalization and wine technology, documents her travels across the former Soviet country to illuminate the importance of wine to Georgian identity. For her, terroir is the opposite of a marketing ploy. Rather, it is a belief that must be preserved against such profit-driven temptations as bringing grapes from Italy or France to Georgia.

She tells of the age old tradition of fermenting wine in qveri, giant vats made from the earth and sunk into the ground, calling it the most profound expression of terroir: "a wine from slate made in slate." Despite persisting for hundreds of years, however, Feiring writes that even qveri are vulnerable to extinction. Far from being the sort of thing that one could read about in a "how-to" book, these vats can exist only as long as there are elders with localized, practical knowledge and apprentices to receive that knowledge. "Our family has been making qveri for three hundred years," one winemaker told Feiring. "All the masters are dead. I’m the last one."

Georgians have also maintained the tradition of skin contact wine, in which grapes are kept in their skin longer than usual, giving the wine an orange color. They grow their grapes without preservatives or additives, stomp them with their feet, transfer the juice from a log into a qveri, and ferment it naturally, with all sorts of yeasts.

The process is, for many Georgians, a sacred one. One oenologist at a Georgian monastery told Feiring that he embraced all yeasts that may come, seeing them as gifts from God, rather than attempting to control them as modern winemakers do. "Are you saying that God did not provide the grape with everything it needed to make wine? There are no bad yeasts." Feiring also documents a Georgian church that dually serves as a school for traditional winemaking. "If not the church, who will represent the past?" one bishop there asked her.

Today’s Georgian winemaking culture is a far cry from the dark days of the Soviets, who, according to Feiring, "were famous for raping the earth" and "brought chemicals to the farmers to pump up production." Under the scientific imperatives of Soviet rule, Georgian vineyards were nationalized and only grapes that were easiest to grow were allowed: 10 varieties out of 525. Talk about universalizing taste. Factories were forced to mass-produce wine with only output in mind, and so the idea of using qveri was laughable. So-called Georgian wine became "absolutely poisonous," and at one point even contained acetone.

Still, Georgians remained defiant and started their own black market for homemade wine. "We won’t drink it," one Georgian man said. "But maybe some of those vodka drinkers up north won't be able to tell the difference."

Feiring has a serious blindspot, in that she does not address the potential place for innovation or reform within tradition, a point that Matthews does touch on, writing that "with thought and reflection … traditional explanations might be affirmed, or a path might be opened for migration toward something better." While admitting that some change must come, Feiring does not describe what good change would consist in. Instead, she believes almost blindly in the unexamined truth and good of tradition.

Despite her flaws, Feiring captures something about the influence of winemaking on a people—and of people and a place upon winemaking—that Matthews, because of his scientific motives, does not and could not.

"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," Thomas Jefferson, a wine lover himself, wrote in a letter to John Jay in 1785. "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds."

The Georgian people are at their core "cultivators of the earth," wine lovers and wine makers. Their liberty has been threatened numerous times, as have their winemaking traditions, but they have, for the most part, preserved these traditions and pressed on. Feiring allows her reader a glimpse into the soul of the Georgian citizen, with its characteristic resilience, warmth, and stubbornness, all of which are reflected in the wine there. Matthews, meanwhile, examines the anatomy of a wine drinker and sees pleasure receptors firing—but nothing more.

Published under: Book reviews