Terroir from Above
Any keen observer of the global food and wine scene will have noticed that over the past 10 years it has become, if anything, less global. Gone are the days when a restaurant would be praised for its daily shipments of foreign seafood; “local” is in. Even agriculturally bereft Hong Kong is getting in on the game, with local produce services cropping up like organic bok choi.
Wine too has seen a resurgence of terroir fervor, with both New and Old World winemakers touting the specialness of their plot of land, be it a sprawling valley or a postage stamp. A winemaker’s passion, they insist, is so intimately related to the land that the winemaker is an integral part of terroir.
Where does the flying winemaker fit in? For those whose vocabulary doesn’t include this eighties neologism, the flying winemaker is – for better or worse – a symbol of the globalization of wine and the product of affordable air travel. Instead of communicating by post, winemakers could suddenly travel to regions they’d only read about and actually make wine. Many were Australians using their off-seasons to get in another harvest up north. Ernie Loosen, the iconic German flying winemaker, launched his career with a bout of travel, saying that “if you taste all the great wines of the world, you get an idea about how a great wine should look.”
Identifying greatness is one thing, implementing it another. If we accept that wines from different places should taste different (otherwise, why bother flying?), the key is to achieve greatness that is something beyond an aggregate of obvious traits (“generous fruit” or “silky texture”) or else risk portfolio homogeneity, the dread of conscientious flying winemakers. Of course much depends on the winemaker’s level of involvement, be it advising on irrigation systems or offering wine hobbyists readymade wineries lock stock and barrel, 98pt scores included.
Ernie is somewhere between: some consultants have over 100 properties under their belt; he has a respectable four. When we caught up with Ernie recently, we discussed his new Oregon joint venture, J. Christopher; his Washington JV, Eroica; his Pfalz estate, JL Wolf; and of course the original Dr. Loosen in the Mosel. Although this range represents only a few grape varieties – mainly Riesling and Pinot Noir – the climates vary massively. Oregon and Washington, though neighbors, are nothing alike viticulturally; the former is all gentle hills and Burgundian fog, the latter mainly irrigated patches of desert. Though both Dr. Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle grow Riesling, their settings are as unlike as Ma On Shan and Wanchai.
Ernie’s roles also differ at the various properties – at J. Christopher, which he joined in 2010, he seems to play the role of angel investor and advisor. Typical of the state’s garagiste culture, the winery began in 1996 as an unsustainably small side project carried out at somebody else’s winery; only since Ernie’s arrival has it become commercially viable. Chateau Saint Michelle, Loosen’s partner in Washington, is the United States’ largest Riesling producer, and had been operating for 45 years when they launched Eroica in 1999. Both are hailed as some of the most Old World style wines produced in the United States.
Older by an order of magnitude, JL Wolf in Pfalz had 240 years of winemaking history when it came under Loosen’s control in 1996. Pfalz is a warmer region (by German standards), and very dry, allowing Ernie to try his hand at a slightly fuller, fruit-driven style of Riesling, as well as less typical varieties for Germany such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
How does Loosen handle this diversity? “A great wine starts in your head; I have a certain idea about a great wine and I think you can transform it to each category.” Though this might have terroir obsessives up in arms, it is refreshing to speak to a winemaker who acknowledges man’s role in winemaking. One sometimes feels terroir extremists would prefer us to believe that they happened upon a puddle of fermented grape juice collecting at a low point in their fields.
Loosen can’t be accused of flooding the world with identical wines either; in Oregon, for example, though he supplied capital and viticultural advice, he’s left winemaking to the original owner, Jay Somers. He contributes his years of experience, but also – critically – his commercial savvy. Perhaps this is the true root of wine fantasists’ objection to flying winemakers; they can’t countenance the words wine and money in the same sentence. Many wineries never see a cent of profit, only repaying their owners’ investment once sold; for many idealists, this is unobjectionable if not laudable.
But for all its romance, wine is in fact a business, and should not be held in an idealistic stranglehold by those of us who enjoy it. In his own words, Ernie Loosen is not a philanthropist, he runs a business. He is also a passionate man bringing us diverse and delectable wine from regions many of us will never visit, and we say cheers to that.
As published in the South China Morning Post