Sunday, January 18, 2009

De Department of Homewand Secuwity

"I'm going to catch dat wascalwy terroirist if it's the wast ding I do" --Elmer Fudd

There is something about the phrase, 'Homeland Security' that makes me vaguely uncomfortable. It has a disconcerting, somewhat abstract, almost European feel. The word 'homeland' is not one that, previous to the coining of this phrase. was in general usage or employed in any conventional context to describe America. I suspect it was invented 'de novo', cloned, not born, specifically for the purpose of naming a government agency after it (I have the same suspicions about new breeds of dog like 'Labradoodle', I think the dog was invented to suit the name and not vice versa) .

The use of the word 'security' in conjunction with it does not improve matters much as it seems to imply that America is some big mall and that terrorists are simply trying to boost a pair of jeans from the 'Gap' (call Security!). Maybe I'm just being picky, but when I use a word to describe America, I prefer 'country' or 'land', even 'neighborhood', any of those sound far better than 'Homeland'
which ranks up there with 'Motherland' and 'Fatherland' s one of my least favorite words. Worst of all, it doesn't make me feel like the place it is describing is anyplace special, it is 'the Homeland' without even the benefit of a possessive pronoun like 'my'.

The French have a word to describe what makes a certain piece of land, a certain location special; They will tell you that it is some ineffable mystical combination of sun exposure, soil, wind, temperature and terrain. It is generally used to describe why it is that wine from a certain piece of land is different in character from that produced on another piece of land whether that second piece be across the ocean or just over the hill; that word is 'terroir'. Americans have another word to describe something that is ineffable, impossible to define and produces hard to categorize results. They call it 'b_llsh_t".

If I seem skeptical about the concept of 'terroir' as contributing anything whatsoever to the quality of wine, it is not because I do not believe that all the elements of weather and terrain are important to producing grapes of quality; of course they are, but, to assert that they somehow collectively seep in to the grape and make my grapes (and consequently the wine) somehow different from Joe Snow's grapes over the rise is just nonsense. The reason my wine may be better or worse will stem from the fact that I have planted grapes appropriate or not to the terrain, picked them at the optimal time or too late or too early and had a winemaker who knew exactly how to handle them, or, I used 'Winemaking for Dummies'. Nothing mystical about it.

Let me tell you the reason this idea of 'terroir' has become so entrenched and so facilely adapted as an explanation for varying quality. Europeans had some six or seven hundred years to determine which grapes were appropriate for which soils and locations. This resulted in a mutually beneficial adaptation of site to grape, and also over time, through selection, of grape to site. This all came to a screeching halt around 1860 when a little North American root louse called 'phylloxera' was accidentally introduced into European vineyards. Since that time, all the European vineyards had to be replanted on grafted onto American rootstock. By the time this was largely accomplished, some thirty years later, the fate and character of the majority of wine grapes was fixed forever. Every (non-hybrid) grapevine that was planted thereafter was a clone of one of these original replanted vines. In essence, grapes that were transplanted or newly planted were no longer adapting to soil, climate and terrain any more than a biological twin who goes to California when their sibling remains in New York will automatically undergo physiological changes. It doesn't, as a rule happen, at least not in any predictable manner ('What-evh-her dude').

Don't get me wrong, I truly believe Blue Mountain Jamaican or Hawaiian Kona beans make the best coffee, and probably San Marzano tomatoes are superior for making lasagna (I'm still not sure on this one) but, what should be realized is that these crops are still undergoing cross fertilization and selection, that is to say, still adapting to their unique environments. Terroir notwithstanding, clones, which for our purposes means grapevines, do not adapt, and until there is a radical change in the susceptibility to that little root louse, they never will, at least not the classic varieties.

So, the next time somebody tells you that it is just impossible produce a wine as fine as they do in Bordeaux or Mosel or even California, because those places have a unique 'terroir' you can tell them
'Be vewy qwiet! I'm hunting b_llsh_t.'

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