Wine Column: Speaking of terroir, enough is enough

Every year at this time, I’ve looked forward to receiving a calendar from Kendall Jackson (aka KJ), that mega-winery based in Sonoma that turned a few hundred cases of oaky, sweetish chardonnay into America’s largest-selling chardonnay brand. The calendars featured gorgeous color photos by the winery’s PR director, George Rose. But last year, the calendar never came. Instead, George sent me a few review samples of newly released pinot noir from “J” Vineyards and Winery (up the road from Kendall Jackson), plus notes glorifying J’s terroir.

I guess George kept his Filofax when he flew the coop from KJ after 18 extraordinary years there. I’m sure he was attracted by J’s new mission: to rebrand itself from a luxury sparkling wine producer to a premium still wine house, emphasizing pinot noir. Times are tough in the bubble business, but demand for California pinot noir has skyrocketed, in the wake of the pro-pinot (anti-merlot) film “Sideways.”

J’s owner, Judy Jordan, grew up around her family’s Jordan Winery, acclaimed since the 1970s for its cabernets and chardonnays from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Judy become a geologist in Colorado while her brother John took on the family business. In 1986, the lure of the wine world brought Judy back to Sonoma. Her focus exclusively on sparkling wines allowed her to distinguish her wines from her father’s and brother’s.

Because of Judy’s expertise as a geologist and George Rose’s as a photographer of vineyard vistas, it makes sense that in rebranding J, the spin in the press releases and wine notes is all about glorifying “terroir,” that combination of soil, climate and circumstance that informs the leading French chateaux’ claim to fame. And J does keep the fruit of diverse vineyard sites separate, throughout the winemaking process, until blending. Still, I find claims of terroir-driven wines annoyingly ubiquitous today. And what I found, in tasting three J pinot noirs with some family members and a few California-based friends, was that, more than site-specific qualities of terroir, the wines expressed the marketing needs for distinctive styles at different price points.

To wit: The J Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, with a sticker price of $35, came at me like entering a Cinnabon shop. My California friend tasted it and said, “It’s like kissing a girl and getting nothing back.”

I thought that was a bit harsh; the wine really did have character, but for me, maybe too much character. It was a wine that wanted to bust out and do its own thing, to defy classic pinot noir character. But that’s what the lower end of the market is looking for — not a challenging, cranky Burgundian pinot, but a sweetie pie of a fruit bomb. Where’s the terroir in that?

Next, we tasted the J Nicole’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, a single-vineyard wine that was my favorite of the lot and really did seem to reflect its source. At $65, it’s a fancy wine; a bit sweet for my preference but substantial, solid and delightfully well-balanced. This one gets my gold star.

The J Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir came off as a more “important” wine, at $70, with more tannic oak and more complexity in the bouche. To me, this was not as much an expression of terroir as a choice of oak management. I’m cynical about this, but when a winery hits me with that vanilla aroma thing, I know they want me to say, “Ah! Tradition! Parker will love it!”

One taster in our group said, “Why not make just one amazing wine and get it over with?”

But that’s not the way the wine world works. Marketers need different styles for different price points. George Rose can say what he wants about terroir, but more credit for the wines should go to J’s winemaker, George Bursick. Apparently, Bursick was hired, like Rose, to rebrand J. He’s an experienced winemaker and semi-professional drummer who knows the most important thing about California pinot noir: When its sugars are ripe, the seeds are still bitter. He manipulates the wines’ tannins by eliminating the seeds, then uses appropriate oak aging. Whatever terroir the fruit comes from, he knows how to make rhythm with it — and the music changes, from Beach Boys to Bach to Beethoven, at different price points. Each one has its audience.

I’m tired of PR terroir-ism, and wish that all public relations managers in the wine business would stop singing the song of terroir, and give a drum roll to the winemaker. Hey — bottom line, the wines speak for themselves.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.