Where Does Wine Come From?

Where does milk come from? Most people will tell you that milk comes from a cow, but it is easy to imagine that a child might be confused and tell you that milk comes from the supermarket or from the milk company because these are the most obvious choices for someone who has never visited a farm.

The links between products and their natural origins are easy to miss or misinterpret in today’s complicated world, with its long and sometimes global supply chains. Christopher Chase-Dunn used to ask his students “where did your breakfast come from?” and the question when taken seriously sometimes really stumped them.

How Wine is Different from Milk

I like to think that wine is different from milk because we have a lot more information about its origins.  We know that it comes from grapes, of course, but there is often a lot of specific information available (on the label and on the web) about the origins and production processes. Most wine labels tell us the vintage year, for example, and the production region. Data on harvest dates, brix levels, vineyards sourced, fermentation and aging techniques and so forth are frequently available, too.

We typically know or can conveniently discover a whole lot more about where wine comes from (and when and how it was made) than we typically know about milk. It gives wine a certain “somewhereness” that I have written about before. So it’s easy to get sorta cocky about wine and to think that wine enthusiasts actually drink in all this information and are very well informed about wine terroir. But it would be a mistake to think that everyone is a geeky as I am in this regard.

Taste the Vineyard

If you ask winemakers where wine comes from many will tell you that it is made in the vineyard (vineyards are to wine as cows are to milk, I guess). But consumers don’t always think of it that way, as I learned on Sunday when Sue and I poured wines by several makers using grapes from the Riverbend Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA during the Taste Washington event in Seattle.

Most of the action at Taste Washington was out on the main floor, where about 200 wineries offered tastes of their wines.  Our table was in a area designated for vineyards, not wineries. You could visit the Boushey Vineyard table, for example, and taste its terroir as expressed by several different wineries that source their fruit from this famous grower. It was a different way of thinking about wine: vineyards, not varietals or winemakers or AVAs.

It’s an idea of wine much closer to the concept of terroir that wine geeks talk about with such urgency.

Riverbend is the estate vineyard of the highly regarded Fielding Hills Winery, so the people who stopped by to chat and taste with us were able to sample the Fielding Hills 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah as well as and a half dozen other wines made from Riverbend grapes by others (including wines by Nefarious Cellars, Soos Creek, Tildio Winery, Hard Row to Hoe, and Chateau Faire Le Pont).

The wines, all excellent, were sometimes very different (the influence of the winemakers) but there were some interesting common threads (the terroir) that could be teased out with a little time and concentration (difficult, I know, in the context of a big tasting event). It was an unusual and interesting opportunity to taste wines in this way and decide for yourself where wine comes from — the vineyard, the cellar or maybe both.

Where Does Wine Come From?

We had a great time and met a lot of great people, but we soon came to realize that the idea of tasting wines from the same place but made by different people was quite foreign to most of the attendees. They knew about the idea of terroir, but that’s not the way they identified wine in practice.

Where does wine come from? From wineries — those tables out on the main floor of Taste Washington — and the winemakers who work in them. The idea of the vineyard’s critical role was something we had to explain. To their credit, a lot of people embraced it and took their time tasting through the wines. I hope they found the time they spent worthwhile (they paid a high opportunity cost for their education in terroir given limited time  in a room full of great wines).

I’m always on the lookout for teachable moments and so I liked the challenge of staffing the Riverbend Vineyard table. It turns out that wine is more like milk than I thought — it’s easy to think that it comes from the store or the winery and to forget its natural origins. But you can find terroir if you know where to look and you take the time and trouble to seek it out.

Events like Taste Washington create teachable moments and proponents of terroir-based wines have lots of educating work to do to make the difference between milk and wine even clearer in consumer minds.

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Update 3/31/2010: By coincidence Jancis Robinson has posted an article on her Purple Pages website about the incredible terroir of Washington’s best vineyards. She attended a London tasting of Washington wines and was drawn to the the Cabs made from Champoux Vineyard fruit. Here’s a quick taste of the article.

The highlight of the Pacific North West tasting in London earlier this year was a clutch of very fine Cabernet Sauvignons from Champoux vineyard in Washington state. They reinforced my impression from the rest of the tasting that Cabernet can be a real star among the state’s reds, particularly when the vines are more mature, the site just right and the vineyard manager a perfectionist.

You can find the entire article (including tasting notes) here. It reinforces what I wrote above about the benefits of thinking of wine as a vineyard product.

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Thanks to Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills for inviting us to work the Riverbend Vineyard table. Thanks as well to Robin Wade for all her help. Thanks to all the nice people we met. Great wine, great people, great event.

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2 responses

  1. Hi Mike,nice article. I guess when analyzing anything ‘sensorially’it is necessary to separate the industrial segment from the niche segment. I lived in Switzerland for a couple of years and was amazed to discover the subtle differences in milk/cream products in places like Gruyere, Appenzell, Emmental; no doubt due to the grass grown in the pastures and breed of cow. The cheeses were a lot more obvious of course.
    Maybe wine is a lot more like cheese than we care to admit

  2. A fun piece, Mike, but because it’s a short article, you didn’t have room to explore other dimensions of “where does wine come from?”
    It also comes from the idea in some people’s heads that fermented grape juice complements a meal, and the idea that it helps people relax. As Ogden Nash wrote, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” There’s also a lie that affects some people interested in wine: the idea that you’ll impress a lot of people worth impressing if you know about wine.” (Think about the individuals you’d actually like to impress. If you can’t count them on your fingers, you have problems wine won’t cure.)
    Another idea that influences wine is how some heads of wineries decide what their wine is worth. If they come up with a price without asking, “To whom is it worth what?” they deserve their future.
    In short, like sex, one of the most important things about wine is between people’s ears.
    There are other aspects as well. If you live in Canada, where cornstarch until recently was considered a spice, what you seek in a wine will likely be different from someone who lives in a spicy food household (I speak as a Canadian who enjoys Mexican, Malaysian,Indonesian, Sichuan, Indian, Thai and other spicy foods).
    There are a lot of ways to answer “where does wine come from?” One of my favorites is from a Chicago housewife who said, “from the store run by the thief who charges too much for it.”

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