La Clarine Farm

All about the Farming...and More.




Is terroir like a quantum field?

When I first started out making wine in a minimalist manner, I learned a lot very quickly.  Although worrisome at first, I learned that reduction can evolve into beautiful aromatics, and that the strange stages of ambient yeast fermentations can reveal complexities that a single strain inoculation never would.  Sometimes, the uncertainty in how things will evolve is confounding.  Mostly, it is rewarding, if one can accept the uncertainties.

I have come to see that terroir is not a completely independent, location-based phenomenon.  It relies on the farmer/winemaker/vigneron being part of the equation.  It is the person who steers the terroir towards an expression.  This would help to explain why sometimes, when an estate changes hands, the wines are never the same as before.  Or in Burgundy, where there can be multiple owners of one small vineyard.  Why are the wines made by neighbors sometimes wildly different?  If terroir is so site specific, so fixed, why does this happen?  

It all started to remind me of a quantum field, in that the set of possibilities of a wine (from vineyard to bottle) is (perhaps) infinite.  And it strikes me that these possibilities are indeed what we mean by terroir.  Terroir (or the terroir-field) is not static and fixed.  Rather, it is everything that can be.  It relies on an interpretation by someone or something to manifest itself, much like a subatomic particle only has a position when someone is there to observe it.  And like a particle, it could be in two different places (or have two different expressions) to two different observers.

Each terroir-field embodies this almost limitless set of possible outcomes. Each step in grape growing and in the cellar is a series of decisions which eliminate or restrict certain other possibilities.  By choosing A, we may stop B or C from expressing itself.  Or choosing A may emphasize other aspects.  Our choices, pruning, trellising, vineyard layout, farming, picking, cellar procedures, etc., all serve to define one group of possible outcomes (what we would call its expression of terroir) while restricting others.

In essence, the farmer/winemaker/vigneron becomes the crucial link in allowing a vineyard, its grapes and the vintage to express itself.  He or she allows a terroir to become explicit.  

Seeing terroir in this way opens up so many possibilities to the farmer/winemaker/vigneron.  We must, as winemakers, become aware of how our intentions and actions can support or detract from our primary goal – delicious wine.  What is considered delicious is open to interpretation, too, but at least this view gets rid of the idea of a “correct” method of making a wine from a given vineyard.  Now, all ideas can be explored.  Some surprises may be found.  New ways of thinking about wine can emerge.

The Role of the Farmer

I was first exposed to the writings of Masunobu Fukuoka several years ago - I don't remember quite how – I think I read somewhere about a Japanese rice farmer who had ducks and chickens and weeds in his rice paddies - but the idea of a more true polyculture really activated my imagination.

I had already been using the ideas of Rudolph Steiner and biodynamics for a while; in fact, our farm, La Clarine, had been Demeter certified at the time.  The idea of the farm as an entity had always appealed to me more than the nuts and bolts of the Preparations, and when confronted with Fukuoka, suddenly the picture became clearer.  Somewhat.

Where and what is the proper place for the farmer?  Of course, farming is a human endeavor.  There is nothing really “natural” about it.  It is a process by which Man exploits Nature for his own gain.  But the depth of the exploitation, it seems to me, is entirely up to the farmer and his or her mindset.

Is Nature something to be conquered?  Does she need our help?  Most of our agricultural sciences seem to think so.  Have a look at the results of our dependence on chemical farming:  poor, degraded soils, unhealthy plants which can only be sustained through more and more frequent fertilization, dependence on fossil fuels (which is unfortunately pervasive throughout our lifestyles), insects and fungal issues which defy easy solutions.  The list is long.  

Modern agriculture is one based on control, and, ultimately, death.  The basic philosophy seems to be: “The soil is poor, we must add to it to make it better.  An ideal soil is imagined, so all soils must be adjusted to fit this profile.  The weeds are competing with the vines, so we must kill them.  And mildew “may” attack my crop, so it's best to spray something which may, in the end, be harmful to beneficial insects and soil microflora, but...hey, mildew may attack my crop!  Just to be sure...”

The use of softer, organic farm inputs is certainly a step in the right direction.  But from my perspective, organic farming is merely a type of “replacement” farming.  One simply replaces fish emulsion, for instance, for the bag of triple 15.  But the underlying philosophy is the same – natural processes are often the enemy and control is the goal.

For me, biodynamics offered a way out of this dead end.  But the more I became immersed in BD, the more I realized that the issue of control is very firmly entrenched here, too.  The Preparations are very powerful tools, medicines, if you will, for bringing a balance onto a farm, but like all medicines, there comes a time to stop the treatment.  In my view, continued treatment only takes you away from the desired goal – a living, independent farm entity.  I began asking, “am I creating a junkie-vineyard?”

Fukuoka's book, “The One Straw Revolution”, seemed to me to start at the point I was at and expanded rapidly beyond.  What would happen if the farmer played more of the role of caretaker than active participant?  What if much of what we were doing to our land and plants was really not necessary, done more for our own human benefit (ego) than for the benefit of the plant?  What if we stepped back and just watched?

So I did.  Use of the BD preps gradually became less and less frequent.  My vines responded with enthusiasm, almost as if to say, “thanks for giving us the chance”.  I stopped all fertilization, instead relying on native ground cover (weeds) and their innate ability to replenish the soil, perhaps less dramatically than a substance from a bag, but certainly more sustainably.  I decided that I would only spray against powdery mildew when absolutely necessary.  Over the course of the last 4 years, that has been exactly once.

Dropping what is comfortable and “known” and deciding to completely trust in natural processes may seem very daring.  It does require some planning and observation, but really no more than figuring out how much sulfur to spray this week.  But it does require a commitment.  It requires an acceptance of chance and also allows for the possibility of failure.  

Fukuoka's ideas were translated into English as “do nothing” farming.  Either the phrase was badly translated or Fukuoka had a wicked sense of humor.  It's very hard work, but now the work is completely positive.  I kill nothing, I spread no poisons, my farm is very alive.  My soil is my soil, my terroir, and truly sustainable.  And I am very much a part of it.  I would translate Fukuoka as “don’t do anything unnecessary” farming.

So, what is the role of the farmer?  To promote life and to help set up an ecosystem as close to Nature as possible, whereby natural processes and systems can function.  To promote the possibility of “naturalness”.

This philosophy can very easily be carried into the wine cellar.  Once one can accept what the season has given in the vines, it is no great leap towards a minimalist approach to fermentation.  You realize that fermentations will happen of their own accord and carry on with their own tempo, that there is no need to augment or to “help out”.  Surprises do occur, most of them very pleasant.  Sure, weirdness does pop up, but more often than not, “problems” resolve themselves over time, adding to the richness of the wine.  My role is to maintain a healthy environment and allow these resolutions the space in which to work (time).  Very similar to my role as farmer, actually.

And winemaking becomes a thoroughly enjoyable activity.

(c) 2016 La Clarine Farm