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Terroir is Money

A truly unique product feature or benefit is a very powerful selling tool. Coca Cola and KFC safeguard their recipes more carefully than some countries do state secrets. Billions of dollars (in aggregate) are spent each year by companies applying for and defending patents, trademarks and the like. Packaging and advertisements often put more focus on these selling points than they do the brand behind them.

Terroir is exactly this type of tool for wineries. Almost by definition, the terroir of every vineyard or block is unique. No two plots of land can have exactly the same combination of soil composition, mesoclimate, microclimate, orientation to the sun, microbes, etc. Though I wrote otherwise, satirically, in a April Fool’s Day article “Terroir To Go,” terroir cannot be duplicated or transplanted. Many wineries use this to their advantage.

It may seem that terroir is a feature that comes to wineries for free. The earth and sun are simply there. On the contrary, terroir can be a very costly feature to “implement.” Since every terroir is different, and some are perceived to be better than others, there is a corresponding difference in the prices of the real estate involved. Buying a vineyard with a great reputation, or simply buying grapes from such a vineyard, can easily cost at least five times more than it would to work with a less prestigious vineyard.

In contrast to many unique product features that cost a lot of money to invent, terroir is mostly pre-existing but can cost a great deal to maintain. At nearly every step in the grape-growing and winemaking processes, choices are made that can either increase or decrease the extent to which terroir shows through in the final wine. Many of the choices made to highlight genuine terroir result in increased costs and/or diminished volume. For example, allowing the grapes to grow too large and juicy, which increases production volume, dilutes the flavors. Strong flavors from inexpensive barrels can easily overwhelm important nuances of the juice. There are hundreds of other examples.

When wineries make these pro-terroir decisions, they do so in the belief that it will eventually increase the quality and value of their product or because they have a strong philosophical leaning toward terroir-centric wines. But philosophy doesn’t put food on the table, so even the fiercest terroirists need to make their investments pay out.

European wineries have been particularly successful at using terroir to both increase the value of their wines and secure what some people see as a moral high ground. These producers have convinced many consumers that you can almost literally taste the famous vineyards of Europe. Some might even imply that the terroir is somehow only evident in European wines or that wines without evident terroir are not genuine.

The concept of terroir have also been used to justify flavor profiles that some people might otherwise find unattractive. And though some of these flavors or aromas could be eliminated, or at least moderated, by slight changes in the vineyard or winemaking practices at a particular winery, those choices are sometimes resisted because they might be perceived as masking the “genuine” terroir. While not a common practice, terroir can be valuable to a winery in this respect because it allows them to sell as a feature what might otherwise be considered a flaw.

Some wine “experts” are convinced that top quality wines cannot be made in California due to issues of terroir: its weather is too hot, its soil too fertile and its... name your excuse. Such generalizations are absurd. However, the success such arguments have had shows the strength of terroir as a sales and marketing tool.

The power of suggestion is very high when it comes to evaluating food and drink through tasting. However unconsciously, people tend to find those flavors, aromas and levels of quality that they have been led to expect. Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has done a number of interesting studies that prove this to be the case. (Here’s a link to a YouTube synopsis of one such study).  Many more can be found in his excellent book, Predictably Irrational.) So, “selling” terroir not only offers both intellectual and romantic arguments to consumers for a wine’s superiority, it can work its way into the consumers’ subconscious mind and lead them to experience whatever claims have been made.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that terroir is a myth or the cynical creation of wine marketeers. Though there is no universal consensus on exactly how to define what variables combine to constitute terroir or the exact mechanisms that result in any particular wine’s characteristics, the general concept is both valid and useful. The fact that the concept makes intuitive sense and that differences in wines from different vineyards can be easily and consistently perceived in blind tastings compounds its value to wineries.

Terroir is more than a romantic notion and more than the sensory signature of a vineyard. Terroir is an important differentiating feature for wines and something that wineries put a great deal of effort and money into cultivating.

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