Harvest Time In Sonoma

Fall is fast approaching, and while the summer coming to an end so soon is kind of a bummer, I'm buoyed by thoughts of the annual wine harvest just around the corner. For oenophiles, there is no better time of year.

Speaking of wine, "terroir" is a funny word, isn't it? Rolls off the tongue like the name of a breed of diminutive show dogs or a decadently rich dish at a posh Parisian restaurant. But for as highfalutin as it sounds, "terroir" is nothing more than dirt. Granted, fussier types in the wine world might scoff at such an unadorned definition of a key agricultural component, preferring trendier terminology such as soil, clay, loam or even earth. But all the fussing and scoffing in Napa and Bordeaux won't change the fact that if adding water to it eventually causes stuff to grow, it's dirt. However, you are more than welcome to refer to it as terroir or grass dandruff or dried mud or whatever blows your hair back. Seems silly for civilized folks to get hung up on semantics when there's wine to be drunk... er, drank. Or is it drinked? Whatever.

Winemakers like the famously talented Pierre Seillan of Vérité in Sonoma County spend little time mincing words and a whole lot of it thinking about (insert favorite word for dirt here) because it is absolutely essential for growing grape vines. Indeed, during a harvest-time visit a while back to his winery in Healdsburg, California, Pierre confirmed my long-held suspicion that in the absence of dirt it would be damn near impossible to grow grape-producing vines at all. Pierre waxed philosophical about the "message of the soil" in each of his wines, which have the unique distinction of having garnered 100-point ratings from Robert Parker in successive years (2007-08).

After the grapes are harvested at Vérité they are deposited into something called a Sthik hopper that Pierre had specially imported from Cognac. He claimed his Sthik — the only one in the U.S. — is a world-class piece of machinery and I'm inclined to believe him. Having spent the better part of a day watching him in action, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Pierre Seillan is an honorable man and not the sort who would ever lie about his Sthik. His Schneider destemmer, on the other hand, well, some day I hope to get the real story about that thing.

Pierre's strategy of winemaking involves a four-day cold soak followed by a weeklong fermentation. After six months in the barrel the magic happens — he does his blending. And he does so as well as anyone in the business, as evidenced by the effusive praise his wines routinely garner from some of the most respected critics in the business. Once Pierre is finished getting his mix on, it's back into the barrel. where a mysterious phenomenon he calls the "ghost in the shadow" occurs — I believe what he means by that is that the wood's influence on the wine ought to lurk rather than lunge.

"What I need for Vérité is more time," Pierre told me near the conclusion of our tour. "More time to see how the newer vintages will show." To illustrate his point, he opened a bottle of the exquisite 1998 "La Muse."

"Do you see how it's evolved? How balanced this wine is?" he asked, and I nodded gratefully in agreement. Did the same when he talked about the truffle and blackberry notes, and the hints of coffee and cocoa.

"With age," he continued, "the wine develops and we come to experience the full expression of the terroir."

I was tempted to crack wise about terroir versus dirt but just then the winemaker smiled one of those million dollar smiles one often sees on the faces of proud fathers handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms. So instead I took another sip of the '98 La Muse and asked Pierre to tell me more about his Sthik... no use getting hung up on semantics when there's wine to be drunk.