I have a friend, let’s call him “Bob,” who has a vacation home in the hills above Calistoga. He drives expensive cars and is often traveling in some distant country in search of adventure. Bob flies his own plane and sits on three or four boards of successful companies; his children attend Ivy League colleges. Bob is also a total stoner, smoking marijuana daily.
A while back, I’d come over early to help Bob prepare dinner for a few mutual friends. As I prepped the salad, Bob stepped out on his deck, lit up and took a long drag.
“Dude, too bad you don’t partake because this is very fine weed,” Bob said, his voice sounding strained as he held in the smoke. “This s--- has excellent terroir.”
I frowned. Bob was a good guy, but watching a 60-year-old man smoke pot then call me “dude” was disconcerting. Bob also knew using the word “terroir” in this context would annoy me, but he found it amusing to throw the term around.
Terroir is a French term typically used to describe all the elements that make a particular wine special and distinct, such as varietal, geography, climate, soil and weather. More and more, people are also using the term to describe the place a wine is processed and even the people who grow and make it.
“Tell me this,” I said as I joined him on the deck. “How can what’s basically a weed that anyone can grow in a few months be compared to something that takes years to produce, like wine?”
His face had begun to take on a sort of melted-wax expression and his eyes were slightly yellow and glassy, though his grin never faltered.
“You’re limiting yourself to historic word definitions, my writer friend,” he said. “Anything grown in the earth then harvested by people can have an element of terroir. Take this, for example.” He held up a large brown bottle with a hand-drawn label. It was full of one of the new craft beers produced by a local winemaker-turned-brewer.
“What, now beer has terroir, too?” I asked.
My friend nodded slowly, his expression beginning to return to normal.
“Beer, pot—why not?” he asked, then paused to take a long drink from the bottle. “You have to try this batch, dude. This s--- is awesome, too.”
“Maybe these things have elements of terroir, but can’t you use another word?” I said. “I mean that word has deep roots around here.”
“Deep roots,” Bob laughed. “It was co-opted by marketers less than a couple of decades ago.”
Bob sensed my frustration. “Look, I’m not trying to spoil your illusions,” he continued, “but just know that what you call ‘California Wine Country’ had plenty of other crops in the past and will likely have other crops in the future.”
I laughed back: “What are you trying to tell me—that people are going to rip out their vines to plant marijuana or hops? That’s crazy.”
Bob just smiled and pointed down toward the valley. His deck overhangs a rocky canyon with Mount St. Helena to the north and San Francisco Bay to the south. In winter, the valley and even some of the hills look like they’re covered in quilted squares of various shades of brown, red and green corduroy.
“Dude, there’s nothing like this view any other place on the planet,” Bob said, “but look down there, my wine monogamous friend. See those fields with all the teepee-like poles?”
I hadn’t noticed them before, but a few of the fields just back from the Silverado Trail had odd, non-vineyard looking structures going in.
“Some sort of new trellis system?” I asked.
“Nope, those fields are planted with hops for beer-making,” he said.
“But that’s some of the best land for winegrapes,” I said, defensively. “I mean, I bet the growers were getting upward of $6,000 per ton if they were growing Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Bob looked at me and held up his bottle. “This beer cost me $25, and the brewer can make it anytime she wants. She doesn’t need to only make one batch of wine per year when she can make beer to meet whatever the demand might be.”
“Twenty-five bucks for a bottle of beer?” I asked.
“Three hundred bucks for your fancy wine?” he countered.
Before I could respond, he pointed to another plot of land. This one was tucked back into the hillside and had a small rectangle of lush green in one corner.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
He nodded. “The world is changing, my friend, and economics and consumer demand drive everything,” he said. “I mean, this isn’t Europe, where we have generation upon generation of tradition we have to stick to. Here, our legacy is to give the people what they want, when they want it.”
“Are you telling me you envision a future where grapes aren’t the biggest industry around here?”
“No one knows, my friend,” he said. “But I can tell you people are starting to make real money from these other crops, and demand seems to be increasing.”
Bob raised the beer bottle in a mock toast, took a drink and then set it down on the deck’s railing. A few cars had driven up and familiar voices called from the open door, so he went to greet them.
When I heard him say “Dudes, so awesome you could make it,” I felt the urge to push the bottle off the railing. By the third “dude,” I couldn’t take it any longer. When I heard the sound of breaking glass, I somehow felt just a little bit better.
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