The smack of California earth

Everyone in Napa recognizes Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quote, “Wine is bottled poetry.” His statement adorns Highway 29 at the entrance to the heart of the Napa Valley.

In the 1880s, Stevenson, a Scottish writer living in Paris, fell in love with a married American woman named Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. When she left France, Stevenson followed her to San Francisco.

Once in California, he slipped into poverty and nearly succumbed to tuberculosis and several other mysterious illnesses. Eventually, however, he persevered and married the newly divorced Fanny. Along with their dog and Fanny’s son they honeymooned on Mount Saint Helena at a rundown shack in the small mining settlement of Silverado. Their adventure became the material for “The Silverado Squatters” and other stories.

Stevenson’s sentiment that wine is bottled poetry seems to makes sense, somehow, and evokes both a romantic and mysterious note, while maintaining room for individual interpretation — just like the definition for the word “poetry” itself.

Merriam-Webster calls poetry the “language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.” Yet everyone seems to have his or her own unique view of what poetry is, and this includes some of the most famous poets.

Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Emily Dickinson said, “If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that it is poetry.”

Others describe poetry as “musical,” “universal” and “the truth.” One of my favorite explanations is from Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, who told me poetry is “ultimately all about time: that we are surrounded by beauty and then die.”

Wine, too, is also certainly about time. Each vintage is unique, and at its best wine also seems to express the beauty of the place that surrounds the vineyards. Of course, this idea that a place has an influence on the specialness of a wine has its own poetic word, often being referred to as “terroir.”

Although not calling it terroir exactly, the influence of a specific place on a wine’s quality and uniqueness was also captured by Stevenson’s full quote, one version of which can be found in the first chapter, titled “Calistoga,” of “In the Valley,” published in 1881.

“Wine in California is still in the experimental stage; And when you taste a vintage, grave economical questions are involved. The beginning of the vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: The wine-grower also ‘prospects.’ One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grapes after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best.

So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafitte. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still like undiscovered chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed. But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them. The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.”

The quote appears prophetic, and I am sure that many vintners and wine lovers alike resonate with the idea of earth lingering on one’s palate. In other words: terroir. But like poets defining poetry, wine professionals have a variety of answers to the question of the meaning of terroir.

Recently, I asked winemakers for their own definition of terroir. Although each of them referenced the word “soil” in their explanations (which was reassuring since the word terroir is derived from the French word “terre,” meaning land or earth), they also had their own special views on the concept.

“Terroir is the combination of soil, climate, vine/rootstock and human intervention,” said Bibiana González Rave, owner and winemaker of Cattleya Wines and consulting winemaker at Pahlmeyer. Rave was ranked as winemaker of the year in 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle. “The amazing combination of all aspects of terroir has the most significant impact on the wines we make.”

“Terroir is the energy the vine, or any other plant, gets from where it is grown,” said Rajat Parr, former San Francisco rock-star-level sommelier turned winemaker at Domaine de la Côte. “There are many factors that influence it, mainly soil, exposure, drainage and finally the hands of those that take care of it.”

Stevenson’s words seem to bring together the basic tenets of both poetry and terroir, linking time, place and beauty through wine.

When Stevenson visited the Napa Valley, there seemed to exist an inexhaustible amount of precious ore in the earth and even a few remaining grizzly still roamed the countryside. The Scotsman had come to California in search of love, and he found it in both his beloved Fanny and also his deep appreciation for the potential of the Napa Valley to create poetic wines of terroir, more precious than gold.

Will the smack of California earth linger on the palates of future generations? The answer will largely depend on how we understand and implement and preserve the intentions of Stevenson’s words.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2016