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The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley

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The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley

The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley

Two wine-loving geologists have opened a new line of inquiry into the heart of winegrowing, bringing new depth to terroir: the concept that connects a wine's character with the place giving rise to it. This book is a giant step forward on the ancient quest for distinction in wine: analyzing it, understanding it and better controlling it.


Title: The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley
Authors: Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell
Publisher: University of California Press
ISBN: 0520235134


  • Exquisite maps and photos
  • Deep insight into the physical and human sides of winegrowing
  • Lucid, inviting treatment of general and Napa geology
  • Of limited interest beyond the Bay Area except to people in the wine life
  • Has little about other wine regions of the world
  • Thorough introduction to Napa geology
  • Full treatment of winemaking basics and interviews with winegrowers
  • Two self-guided tours of Napa Valley emphasizing geology
  • Thought-provoking analysis of Napa wine's prospects

Book Review

The French say the grape is mainly a tool for extracting flavor from the soil. Yet making wine is not a simple art. The winemaker's dance is more of a juggling act involving many factors both natural (vine biology, ecology, meteorology, geology) and human (viticulture, market forces and business economics). Given this complexity, must our advancing techniques only serve to make the world's wines more the same, like plums or pop music, or can we learn better how to extract the special flavors of particular places? Geologists Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell place their bets on a deeper and wider appreciation of terroir, perhaps best defined as the natural factors affecting vines. That appreciation, they say, should grow not just among winegrowers but among wine drinkers as well.

Like much in science, the authors' insight stemmed from someone else's offhand comment: "What you're tasting in a bottle of wine is a hundred million years of geologic history." A geologist said it, of course, but he also happened to own a winery. His statement takes the concept of soil to a whole new level that encompasses more than the top meter or so of the land. Geologists will be enthralled by what Swinchatt and Howell have brought to the table.

Soil is itself a constantly changing product of bedrock, weathering, climate, vegetation and soil organisms. The land holding the soil, too, has a slope affecting its input of sunlight, contours guiding its airflow, a local rainfall pattern, and a deep structure due to the geologic history of the region. These variables are all relevant to winegrowing, and the Napa Valley has hundreds of different combinations, each requiring its own best practice. The good news is that most of these variables can be reliably measured (reducing guesswork) and mapped using GIS techniques (enabling insight). Now the geologist's skills can come to the aid of progressive winegrowers who are deeply interested in terroir.

That vanguard is one of the authors' targets. A subtext of "The Winemaker's Dance" is outreach to viticulturists who might in turn make use of the authors' consulting business. Swinchatt and Howell's new concept of the earth process unit or EPU is an element of that campaign, as are the striking digital views of the Napa Valley's form and structure that leaven the text. Geologists might feel that the three EPUs (residual, alluvial and fluvial) are right out of Geology 101, but for the winegrower they are both useful and innovative.

The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley

The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley

For the wine consumer as opposed to the wine vanguard, this book is complete nourishment with nothing held back. Two separate chapters are devoted to road tours of the Valley, one up Route 29 and the other up Silverado Trail. They will give wine country visitors a whole new way of looking at the Valley—in fact, the more you've been there the more you'll benefit. The attractive maps of Napa geology, soils and EPUs, plus more esoteric climatic charts, are never seen in ordinary wine-tour books. The leading-edge imagery that superimposes elevation models with aerial orthophotos for a hyperreal effect is seductive.
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