Terroir. Who knew that word could get the room roiling. Sure there was that Harold McGee article in the New York Times last year, disparaging the concept of tasting terroir in the wine. There was the 2002 article by Karen McNeil, "Is Terroir Dead." That one highlights that the hand of man obliterates place. A better title would have been, "Are We Killing Terroir?" The debate, the evolution and misconceptions of the word continued in the Hotel Vintage Plaza and the Portland Indie Wine fest in both seminars. In the midst of the lively conversation, while I was still trying to pretend I was a neutral party, a winemaker from Healdsburg asked the panel to define terroir. Clark, the only winemaker on the panel who did not own vineyards, seized on the question. He confidently announced that terroir was 'appellation.' The woman and the audience were sophisticated. They didn't take that answer lying down. Plenty stood up. Where was Clark going with that one? One (that would be me) might ask the same thing about his push for a natural wine certification for 'natural' --something he does not make. For a guy who introduces himself as having been booted out of M.I.T., he was far from an anarchist, concerned rather with order and rules. After that, hell broke loose in the room. I stopped the pretense that I was neutral, and every time Clark took a swipe at me, in his good-natured way, I blocked the jab. One or two times, I took the initiative. Outrage is a wonderful motivation. This was my first panel and as Don from Domaine Selections, who graciously provided the gorgeous Jean Paul Brun vielles vignes beaujolais observed, I was not a very comfortable presenter. (By the way, Joe Dressner reports that the 2007 VV did not achieve appellation. I presume it was too honest a wine and showed too much terroir for the AOC.) I was mostly anxious about posing as neutral, ruling over a panel while I had strong opinions on about everything that came up. When the appellation question came up, I relaxed. When Clark tried to tell the audience that I was against organic farming, my brain truly sharpened up so I get set the record straight that if he remembered my opening remarks says that I take that as a starting point, a given to make great wine. And when Clark said his "roman syrah" was wild yeasted I had to point out that his tech sheet stated Pasteur Red. There were several other moments of slippery language. And then there was his wine, poetry in the bottle. But you know, mother's love their children no matter what they look like. To him, perhaps it was Robert Frost, but it certainly wasn't T.S. Eliot. His wine was bottled music, perhaps Barry Manilow but not Mozart. But I run away with my thoughts like a Bowery Bum with an oyster. The next day I wondered if this terroir-oriented altered reality could be a Left Coast e.g New World disconnect. My suspicion turned to firm theory by noon, after attending the Indie showcased Terroir 101: Can you Taste Place in Chocolate, Coffee and Wine? This was the Indie write up: Some say terroir is dead, but tell that to Aubrey Lindley, owner of Portland chocolate boutique Cacao; Mason Sager of Caff Vita Coffee Roasting Company; Joseph Whinney of Theo Chocolate; Michael Hebberoy of ONE POT and Athena Pappas of Boedecker Cellars who’ve created thriving enterprises by paying attention to origin and place. Is terroir’s alleged death just an excuse for inferior products? The seminar is moderated by Kate Simon, senior editor of Imbibe Magazine and will include a tasting of chocolate, coffee and wine to spark the conversation. $35 The Caff Vita coffee, by the way, was divine. Michael is the controversial figure who (with his ex-wife Naomi) started the deconstrcuted restaurant concept and ran away to Seattle, spun magnificent tales about the coffee rituals of Ethiopia. He made it seem like an opium saturated dream. He lobbied to include culture as an aspect of terroir--a cute quirk on the topic; fun to think about but ultimately doesn't stick. Aubrey, whom I adore, (co-owner of the BEST CHOCOLATE SHOP IN THE WORLD, Cacoa. http://www.cacaodrinkchocolate.com/ you'll want to know that.), read from the back of one of the chocolates he sells that reported terroir is 10% of chocolate. That makes sense when it comes with something as highly processed as chocolate--after all--isn't the same thing with cocaine? But wine? Wine is a different genre. We started however with wine. The panel’s winemaker poured wines from two different 'terroirs,' she buys fruit from. She emoted about the two wines as if they were beloved kittens with different markings. She believed in the magic. She presented the magic. But she presented those two vineyards without any mention of the soil. And when asked, whether volcanic or sedimentary, she couldn't tell us about the dirt or even the difference in the climates, what we knew was the name of the clone. Alone that was shocking. but together with Clark's definition from the previous day, I began to believe what I suspected all along, that a culture exists that rejects old-style wisdom. Wine in the New World has become about grape and winemaker and the knowledge that man can override nature. Perhaps this is the natural evolutions in a wine society where winemaker and growers are not the same person. Perhaps when the winemaker is not a vigneron, the emotional connection between land and bottle is broken. The next day, Aubrey showed up at my Powell's reading. He confided in me, " I was waiting for someone in the audience to ask, "But isn't terroir the interaction between soil and climate? What's the matter with them?" But you know what? Both of these seminars were terrific. People left both filled with argument and new ideas. They were as stimulating as Talmud class. Sometimes the questions are just as good as the answers. I'm waiting for Lisa D., the mother of the festival to make these topics a full weekend event. Next up: What happened to me at the Powells Reading or Alice Gets Scammed.