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The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley Hardcover – September 14, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this exhaustive and sometimes exhausting book, Swinchatt and Howell take on the Herculean task of explaining how the "topography, bedrock, sediments and soils, temperature and rainfall"—that is, the terroir—of Napa Valley affect the taste of its famous wines. The authors’ previous books (The Foundations of Wine in the Napa Valley and Principles of Terrane Analysis) were solid preparation for the difficulty of unraveling this mystery. But the complexity of terroir nonetheless requires painstaking (and passionate) consideration of myriad geological, biological and cultural factors. Everything—the intensity of sunlight, the slope of hills, the length of shadows, the impact of different woods on the wine aging in barrels—comes under the authors’ examination. There is even an extensive presentation of Napa’s geological back-story—145 million years of subduction, shifting tectonic plates and magma flows. Puzzling through this intricate matrix of influences are the winemakers themselves, who, the authors say, work with the land in a delicate "dance." Sidebars offer sage advice on everything from "organizing a structured tasting" to "Pierce’s disease and the glassy-winged sharp-shooter." And the book lays out two wine-tasting tours through the different parts of the Valley with recommended stops at several wineries. Swinchatt and Howell pursue their topic with patience and profound attention to detail, and their writing is generally earnest and sharp. Though general readers may be daunted by the sheer density of this book’s scientific information, even a quick flip through its many maps, photographs and diagrams can be tremendously informative.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American

Time was when Americans in Britain would be sternly corrected were they to use the term "English" when what they really meant was "British." These days the British themselves are no longer sure which is which. Yet one distinction still rises above all ambiguity, and its identity might be surprising--wine. "British" wine is made in Britain from imported grapes. "English" wine, in contrast, is a handcrafted, homegrown product. The distinction should be clear: whereas British wine is made without reference to its place of origin, English wine is sold on its location. A sense of place is central to its image, its taste and its success. In The Winemaker's Dance, geologists Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell argue that this sense of place is central to the standing and the understanding of wine from California's Napa Valley, although their contention would be just as true wherever grapes are grown and wine is made. As such, Swinchatt and Howell take what they themselves see as a controversial stand, contending that winemakers should reassert a sense of place, to buck what they see as the trend toward a homogeneous "international" style of wine, fostered by the personal tastes of a small circle of influential critics. At the heart of their thesis is an appreciation of terroir, which, like many words in French, is both untranslatable and full of meaning. Coming from the classic French tradition of winemaking, terroir means the situation in which wine is made. "At its core," Swinchatt and Howell note, "the notion of terroir refers to all the qualities that characterize place: topography, bedrock, sediments and soils, temperature, and rainfall. Some wine writers and professionals include viticultural practices, and others recognize the impact of ... the winemaker." Terroir is not an object, then, but an epiphenomenon, an indefinable summation of the winemaker's dance, which starts with the careful selection of a vineyard and ends with the bottle on your table. The authors venture that the story of any bottle of wine starts much earlier than that, with the history of the land itself. In the words of David Jones, winemaker and geologist, "What you're tasting in a bottle of wine is a hundred million years of geologic history." Using this as the cue to take the broadest possible view of terroir, Swinchatt and Howell sketch the geologic history of the Napa Valley, starting with its origin as ocean floor squeezed up against the North American mainland 140 million years ago. Volcanoes have come and gone, rivers have woven their courses, and the weather has exacted its remorseless toll, to produce in the Napa Valley a rugged terrain of great variety in bedrock, soil and microclimate, despite its tiny size (just 40 miles long and 21 broad). For much of the book, Swinchatt and Howell show how winemakers have exploited the varied topography and climate of the Napa Valley as an expression of a characteristically American individuality. Yet they note a paradox. The finest Napa wines come from hot, water-stressed grapes clinging to marginal hillside soils, farmed by winemakers often new to the craft and therefore free to experiment. On the other hand, the classic wines of Bordeaux on which Napa wines are modeled come from cooler, more fertile lowland settings and are crafted by winemakers steeped in regulation and tradition. And yet Napa wines have ranked alongside the best that France can offer for more than a quarter of a century. The relation between quality and terroir is, it seems, not a simple one--and this is the central problem of contemporary winemaking. In crafting the best possible wine, is it better to follow the latest global fashion or remain true to the terroir that gives wine its sense of place, come what may? This is where Swinchatt and Howell might find their message controversial in some quarters. After months of exploration in Napa, interviewing winemakers and learning their secrets, they admit that their favorite wines are those that seek to harmonize all the aspects of terroir, without any one aspect becoming dominant, and that these balanced wines are, more often than not, French. With disarming frankness they admit that their most memorable drop was a 1988 Chateau Clerc Milon from Pauillac: "By no means an overpowering wine, it nevertheless stopped conversation at the table on the first mouth-filling taste and kept drawing our attention just as vividly throughout a leisurely dinner.... If the winemaker's intent is to 'let the terroir speak,' then the goal will be to balance the elements." In the adherence to a certain style of wine that tends toward aggressive fruitiness at the expense of subtlety, Napa wine risks losing its balance and possibly its way. With increasing use of technology and analysis that characterize those elements of flavor that make certain wines distinctive, it is becoming easier for a winemaker to craft any wine in imitation of any other. Were this trend to continue indefinitely, wine would lose the sense of place on which rests much of its allure and become any other foodstuff. Like no other agricultural product, wine depends on its location for its appeal. Throw the dice of time a little askew, and the Napa Valley would have been a sleepy farming community like many others, not the greatest tourist draw in California outside Disneyland. Two sections of The Winemaker's Dance are guides for visitors to the Napa Valley, pointing out which vineyards are where and--in the context of geology and topography--why. While I was reading the book, I found these sections incongruous, and I had planned to add a patronizing note that every visitor to the region should have this book in his glove compartment. I'd say so still, but for a different reason. Now that I have drained the authors' beaker of warm South to the dregs, the tourist-guide sections have an elegiac quality. Go see the Napa Valley today, before fashion drains its individuality. The Winemaker's Dance is a full-bodied book with somewhat hard-edged, granitic notes and a distinctly disturbing finish. But don't wait for it to age, for it might be too late. It's ready to read right now.

Henry Gee, a senior editor of Nature, is author of Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome (W. W. Norton, 2004) and the upcoming The Science of Middle Earth: Explaining the Science behind the Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told! (Cold Spring Press, 2004). (1,071)


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 229 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition edition (September 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520235134
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520235137
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.9 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #547,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By John LaFrance on February 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book for someone interested in an understanding of the complexities and nuances of creating good wine. After reading it I have a deep appreciation for the forces brought together by the winemaker. The Napa Valley and what it produces are certainly uniquely American treasures.

The authors begin by explaining the winemaker's dance as "an engagement with land, vine, and human understanding that is fundamental to understanding the relationship of terroir and wine". What follows delves into each aspect of the dance in exquisite and enjoyable detail.

Initially I thought I'd be overwhelmed by the scientific details of the geological formation of the Napa Valley, however, the combination of wonderful graphics, diagrams, maps and descriptions resulted in not only an understanding of Napa, but a greater understanding of geology in general. The authors move us through a history of the forces that created the major structures of the valley up to the resultant influences on soil and the particular issues that concern winemakers. Despite being geologists, the authors have a keen respect for the limitations of scientific information and are quick to point out the limitations and resultant assumptions.

Understanding more of the geologic history of the Valley allows one to understand the importance of site selection by the grape growers and winemakers. Rock, soil, sun, wind direction and temperature as well as other details of place and earth are critical in deciding what and where to plant.

The second half of the book brings into focus the amazingly complex work of growing excellent grapes and then harvesting and handling them to produce excellent wine.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Eric J. Lyman on December 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Terroir, as most wine buffs know, is the elusive argument that advocates of French wine use to argue that their favorite beverage is superior to the wine produced in other countries. It is an unmeasurable quality: a combination of soil, climate, character, history, and tradition that enthusiastic tasters say they can recognize in the wine. It is why a specific wine tastes the way it does and not the way one produced a few hundred yards away tastes.

Though Napa Valley is certainly a newcomer compared to the oldest wine-growing areas in France, Italy, and Germany, Napa certainly does have history, and certain patches of it are celebrated for producing wines that have enough sophistication and depth to stand up to any other wines in the world.

But to what extent does that mean California wines have a quality like terroir?

It's an interesting question and one that deserves a book that includes a thorough and lively treatment. The Winemakers Dance, unfortunately, is not that book -- although not for a lack of trying.

Passionate authors Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell are geologists by trade, and it shows by the way they attempt to argue for terroir in Napa from the ground up -- including scores of geological maps and aerial views of the valley floor and nearby mountains. The authors discuss many of the key players and vineyards in the region in great detail.

The problem is that despite the authors' attempt to create something accessible to and compelling for the general public, the books falls far short of that, remaining for the most part an academic treatise. Amazon's description of the book got it right: "exhaustive and ... exhausting.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By T. Horton on August 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A thorough and valiant attempt at trying to define "terroir" in one of the world's great winegrape growing regions.

I liked the book a lot more than I thought I would--it starts with the soils and geologic makeup, goes into climate, viticulture, and then tries to bundle it with how the grape growers and winemakers coax great fruit out of all of it.

Fabulous maps and graphics. Worth the price for this alone.

Terroir is a very difficult topic to get ones head around and I really appreciate the authors' work. A lot closer than you get from talking to grape growers and wine makers. (I have been an amateur winemaker for over 10 years, so I really appreciated the clarity of their approach.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Mark on June 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
yes, this book can not tell you everything about the wine, but at least, this book does provide a basic knowledge of relationship between terroir and the character of wine. If readers who are really interested in wine and terroir, you might buy another book called" Terroir, The Role Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wine." by James E. Wilson.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By san franciscan on November 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
These "scientists" had the support of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, who apparently didn't tell them that theories without solid data to back them up are essentially worthless. They wasted a lot of time on this book - don't you do the same.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have a farm near Napa county and was interested in assessing the suitablity of the farm for growing wine grapes. This book has a lot of
interesting information in it. It is especially suitable for someone interested in agriculture who will be visiting Napa county - there are
probably far more people in that category than there are people
interested in growing wine grapes.

For my purposes I would have liked to see a summary table or listing of wineries, wine price, type(s) of grapes grown, soil conditions, soil water retention, elevation, slope, sunlight orientation, and perhaps native vegetation on the soil. It was a bit hard to get this information since it was scattered throughout the book and there were usually just a few factors mentionned when specific wineries were discussed.
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