read the transcript : Ed’s presentation at “Petite Soif” Natural Wine Festival at Vif’s in Fremont, Seattle

Drinking Wine and using GPS

“it’s not what you think”

Thank you to the staff of Vif for the Petite Soif festival and for asking me to speak today. By way of introduction, I can say that I am perhaps the last driver to utilize GPS and I do so with much loathing and suspicion. That might be all you need to know about me. I do admit that I have come around to accepting its role in my life. For the last 21 years, my wife, Barbara, and I have travelled a lot together, both searching for wines in France and then trying to sell them here in the States, and GPS has not only helped us to reach our destinations in a timely fashion, it has completely taken off the table the question of whether or not men ask for directions. GPS is not however, a replacement for maps. Spending hours in a car and having no idea where you are or where you’ve been or where you are going, is at the very least disorienting and more insidiously, fosters a loss of connection – specifically the connection to place.

This connection to place is central to what I would like to talk about. In Amy Trubeck’s wonderful book, “The Taste of Place” published in 2008, she speaks in her preface about Maine potato farmers and their struggle to find an economically viable solution that would allow them to continue growing their traditional crop. One of the responses was to grow varieties of potatoes that are classified as culinary rather than industrial. This has many implications, but for the moment, I just want to highlight the distinction between industrial and culinary potatoes.

This is something Michael Pollan was getting at in his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. When this type of differentiation occurs with our food choices, Mr. Pollan reports that it causes us anxiety. So, if I may ask:

How did you get here?

Did you walk or ride a bike,

Did you come by car and if so, how many passengers were in the vehicle?

Does the engine run on gas, diesel or perhaps electricity?

We do have choices to make, and for me, as regards our food and wine choices, the road forward

recognizes place as the important anchor and compass.

The discerning consumer of 2017 is interested to know about authenticity and typicity, a sentiment that echoes the French phrase “local, loyal and constant.” There is a precedent. The ancient Egyptians used seals to mark their closures with information about the provenance of their wines. This practice continued with the Greeks and Romans who marked their amphoras with the names of domains and vineyard sights. This continued through the centuries and in the 18th century official decrees were passed to designate and protect vineyard areas. This was first seen in Tuscany with the Chianti region, in Portugal with the Oporto region and in Hungary with the Tokay region. The next century saw the major classification of Bordeaux estates in 1855 which gave rise to the notion of a “cru”. (And no, I do not know the derivation of this term which seems completely self-referential and whose only root means uncooked. I don’t think that Chateau Margaux was calling its wine “raw” or suggesting that the wine should be served with crudité, but who knows?) The end of the nineteenth century was not kind to the vineyards of France and other European nations. They were attacked first by Oidium or powdery mildew in the 1850’s and then shortly thereafter by the aphid known as phylloxera. Both of these blights came from the U.S.

By the end of the century the vine growers had found solutions to both problems and restoration was well on its course when as the 20th century arrived, a new blight appeared. It was homegrown and came in the form of fraud, both from the point of view of a product’s contents and its labelling. The wine and food producers looked to their government for help and protection. It is interesting to look at how the French government fashioned a durable response to the concerns of both the French wine and food producers and the French consumer, and in so doing, created a roadmap to deal with the problems producers and consumers face today. A law was passed in France in 1905 that protected against producers who “falsely attributed the location of origin of the merchandise as a way to sell their goods.”

I find it mildly amusing then to remember how ,when I first entered the wine business around 1980, the store shelves were packed with Ernest and Julio Gallo’s bestselling wines; a white called Chablis and a red called Hearty Burgundy. The anti-fraud law in France was strengthened in 1908 by setting geographic boundaries to winegrowing areas and stipulating that the wines show characters that were, and here’s that phrase again, “local, loyal and constant.” Despite the government’s efforts, fraud continued with only infrequent consequences. One response to the continued fraud was the increased reliance on brands, for example; not Champagne but Veuve Cliquot or not Cognac but Hennessy. The government responded by embracing the concept of terroir. Amy Trubeck quotes the anthropologist Mary Douglas who states, “dirt is matter out of place. Terroir, however, is dirt in a certain place.” It was under the guidance and leadership of Joseph Capus, an agronomist from the Bordeaux area and later minister of Agriculture and Senator from the Gironde that the French government passed into law the creation of an organization that would acknowledge and protect the specific flavor of a place. The specific flavor of a place is what makes the difference between an industrial and a culinary potato.

The organization that was created in 1935 was the Comité National des Appellations d’Origine. It brought together wine professionals from all over France who would examine the regional requests for recognition and protection. It is important to note that application for recognition had to be made collectively by the wine producers of a region and if granted, the new appellation would be protected as the collective property of the producers, as well as part of the agricultural, gastronomic and cultural heritage of France. After this system of appellation contrôlée was established for wines and spirits, it was adopted for dairy products as well as olive oil, fruit and vegetables, meat and honey.

What Joseph Capus brilliantly understood and is at the core of the A.O.C. system is that the specific flavor of place can only be achieved and should only be recognized when the winemaker brings together his or her land with the proper choice of grape type and winemaking techniques to create an expression in the wine that reflects the uniqueness of its constituent parts. It all sounds very Montessori. The fact that Joseph Capus recognized the selection of grape types as the indispensable compliment to the nature of an area’s topography, soil and climate for producing a wine with original qualities, shows his deep appreciation for the intricate web of terroir. The selection of grape types has a lot of relevance today and young winemakers with the intention of deepening the expression of their terroirs are researching and replanting local, heritage varieties that still exist in conservatories and people’s gardens but haven’t been commercially grown since phylloxera. For the most part they are not included in the appellations’ charters. These passionate winemakers are going to the I.N.A.O. and making their case for why these varieties should be recognized and protected within the A.O.C. status. They are linking the past with the present; local, loyal and constant.

For us as consumers, we have choices to make, and they do not need to make us anxious. If, as Elizabeth Barham has said, we embrace the idea that the products we consume reveal “what there is in nature to be known” rather than concealing it by viewing nature as an obstacle to be overcome or controlled for production, then we are choosing the specific flavor of place as our road map.

GPS be damned.

Region: News