Dr. Kevin Pogue pt.2, On Teaching Terroir

Ξ May 12th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

“The geomorphology, soils, and climate of Columbia Basin vineyards are the result of a complex and dynamic geologic history that includes the Earth’s youngest flood basalts, an active fold belt, and repeated cataclysmic flooding. Miocene basalt of the Columbia River Basalt Group forms the bedrock for most vineyards. The basalt has been folded by north-south compression, creating the Yakima fold belt, a series of relatively tight anticlines separated by broad synclines. Topography related to these structures has strongly influenced the boundaries of many of the Columbia Basin’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).”
So begins Dr. Kevin Pogue’s recent paper Folds, floods and fine wine: Geologic Influences on the terroir of the Columbia Basin. Although the text may contain concepts exotic to the unstudied reader, this is one of the languages of terroir. No mere cultural cipher, though often an elitist fetish, terroir may be properly situated by multiple sciences, Geology, Climatology, and Microbiology having pride of place. Indeed, there is a durable, extensive body of literature that can help us think the question of terroir beyond the noise of received opinion, mysticism, and marketing dissimulation.
What I have especially enjoyed in recent interviews, with Drs. Greg Jones, Ron Jackson, and now Kevin Pogue, is the ease with which they move among symbolic registers. As educators their message is as simple as it is practical: ‘You, too, can understand’.
In this, the second and final part of my interview with geologist Kevin Pogue, the reader may see performed this message. He, like his colleagues above, finds communicating their learning the only way to fully realize their passion. John McPhee once said, and I paraphrase, that the greatest truth of Geology was that fossils may be found on the summit of Mt. Everest. Imagine the anguish of knowing such a thing but of having no one to tell.
Please see Part 1
Admin I remember seeing some excellent videos [from 2006, since taken down] on the geological origins of the Red Mountain area. Riveting, outstanding videos. They told of the formation of the area in a very exciting manner. Geology is quite an elegant science.
Kevin Pogue That was probably Alan Busacca talking. Alan has done a lot of the work over there. Alan, as a terroirist, has gotten himself more out there than I have. He was a professor at Washington State University and got so involved in being a consultant for the wine industry that he resigned his professorship. He’s planted his own vineyard and is making wine.
There are a few things with me in it on YouTube doing some consulting work and clips of some of the work I’ve done for some of the wine groups around here. [See this, @5:45 forward, and this.] But Alan is a great guy. Everything he says is right on; and there is a lot of b.s. in the terroir world! It’s mostly b.s. I’m just thrilled that every time Alan says something I know it’s going to be right on and relative. I’m psyched that, in addition to myself, the other terroir spokesman for the Northwest is doing such a good job. So, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with him. I’m glad to have him as a colleague.
Being from Montana, I went to Crow Agency to listen to the Native American Park Ranger go through the Battle of the Little Big Horn. And when I saw the Mr. Busacca’s videos of the Red Mountain area and heard the story of the enormous Missoula Floods, he gave it such an immediacy that I was reminded of the stirring Little Big Horn historical narrative.
KP Yes. He was a Geology professor for 20 to 25 years. We get wrapped up in those stories! It’s a great story and a big part of the Walla Walla story as well.
So is the Washington teaching establishment going to perhaps lose another one of its best geologists to winemaking?
KP No. They are not in any danger of losing me. I am first and foremost a teacher. I also have a little consulting business on the side called VinTerra. But I don’t advertise at all. I have that website, but I actually don’t advertise almost on purpose because I’m not sure what I would do if I got a lot more business. Right now I have three clients where I’m doing site evaluations for them.
In addition to that I’m doing research work this summer with a couple of students; and I’m going to Italy to the terroir conference in June. I’ll be getting back from that just before the Bloggers Conference. I’m really excited about that. They do this every two years. I went to the last one in Switzerland. there were about 300 terroir researchers from all over the world. It’s a fabulous experience. I’m giving a talk on how basalt affects terroir at that conference. And there will be lots of field trips to Italian grape growing regions around Soave in the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy. So that will be fun.
So I’ve got a lot on my plate! I’m teaching a full load here. I’m chair of the department. And I’m running this little consulting business. I’m doing my terroir research, and I give talks and lectures all the time. I talked at the Oenology and Viticulture program at the community college yesterday, and spoke at Taste Washington a month or so ago.
And you just got back from a field trip with your students. Correct?
KP Yeah! (laughs) That was part of my real job. I just took 40 of my students all through the canyons of Western Idaho: Clearwater, Salmon, Hells Canyon, looking at the bedrock geology of that area. We camped out three nights in the rain and snow. It was exciting.
I use to be a classic, hard core bedrock geologist. I did work, believe it or not, in the Himalayas and Northern Pakistan. I was working in the tribal area along the Afgan border doing kind of crazy Indiana Jones-style geology. Remote, adventurous, I’ve got all kinds of exciting tales to tell about that stuff. I did that off and on for 15 years, and then 9/11 came along. That was the end of that. But I was already very interested in wine and had been reading books on wine and terroir. And people were starting to come to me and say, “Hey, Kevin! Will you check out this soil pit? What do you think about this site?” And I thought, wow, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here. I would wonder why are they planting that vineyard there? They should be planting it over there. That’s a silly place to plant a vineyard.
I then started boning up on everything I could read and learn about. I already knew the geology of the area as well as anybody. So I just decided that was what I was going to do. I have a family, and have this big terroir laboratory in my backyard. I don’t have to run off to some crazy foreign country and get shot!
The other gratifying thing about it was that I could go to a meeting of viticulturists and have 350 people there very excited about what I have to say. I can go to a geology conference and have only about 10 people really know what I was talking about, even at a geology conference because it is so narrowly focussed on something that only a few people care passionately about; you know, the structural geology of the Himalayan foothills of Northern Pakistan. There are 10 people in the world really passionate about that. But there are millions passionate about where their grapes are coming from. So, it’s been very gratifying to have a lot of people very interested in your research. And it’s fun!
Are you familiar with the work of Professor Gregory Jones?
KP We are very good friends. We’ve been talking about collaborating on a big project in Idaho. I was in a phone conference with him few weeks ago. We are collaborating on a project on viticultural regions over there. He’s going to be at the same conference in Italy I’ll be attending. In fact, the Italian chairing the conference was hanging out with Greg for a couple a months this winter. He was over here visiting. I tried to get him up here but he couldn’t make it.
I’ve had Greg here at Whitman to give talks. We have a lot in common. He’s sat in my living room and we’ve thrown back a few bottles of wine! (laughs) I consider him a good friend. He’s a great guy. He invited me to give a talk in a session at the Association of American Geographers conference down in Las Vegas. And then I invited him to give a talk at Geological Society of America conference in Portland this year. We’re each contributing to each other’s sessions.
Have you talked with a sufficient number of Washington winegrowers to have some broad observations about signs of climate change in wine growing regions there?
KP You know, I can’t say that the folks that I’ve talked to have said ‘Oh yeah, we’ve noticed this or that is happening’. When I talk to them I hear things like that on average they get a big killing freeze every 8 years or so. So, bring it on! (laughs) If it [climate change] makes us have a killing freeze every 10 or 15 years then all the better.
And as Professor Jones points out, it very often happens that subtle and small adaptations by the winegrower are made over time. The changes are not huge shifts. You may change your watering a little bit. You may have a slight adjustment in your canopy, that sort of thing. Adaptations over time.
KP Exactly. I’ve done some research in connection with a number of papers I’ve written and was astounded to see that in the 1860s and 1870s that Walla Walla was producing 10s of 1000s of gallons of wine that were being exported out of the Valley, mostly by Italian immigrants. And that there was a massive freeze in 1883 or so. There are these great newspaper articles talking about the quality of the wine, how it was as good as Californian. I thought, wow, this is amazing, all of this happening back then! But there was this huge freeze. And since the settlements hadn’t been there that long they just said, ‘Well, this must happen pretty often… so, forget about grapes’. It never really recovered until the 1960s or so.
Is that so? I was unaware of that.
KP Yes. There was massive production of wine in the Walla Walla Valley until the late 1800s, before it was nixed by, I think it may have been, back to back freezes. Something led them to believe that it wasn’t a good place. It was starting to come back when Prohibition hit. And then it was gone. Then in the ’60s a few people started to grow again. Indications are that the climate is a bit milder now than it was in the 1800s, early 1900s. The The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History, by Ronald Irvine and Walter Clore details the history. There are some amazing quotes taken from period newspapers about how much wine production there was very early on in Washington’s history.
So how were you contacted by the Wine Blogger Conference? How did they discover you?
KP I think they discovered me through the Walla Walla Wine Alliance because I do all the terroir stuff for the them. I’m constantly giving talks and such. I just do that as a public service for them. When I was contacted I immediately said yes. There is this fascinating story about why this is a great place to grow grapes. We’ve got to get that out there.
But then I found out that if you want to reserve time to speak to the bloggers you’ve got to cough up a bunch of money. (laughs) They [the Wine Alliance] weren’t sure they could afford to have me speak to the bloggers. They’ve manager to work me in as a breakfast speaker. That way everybody is just eating breakfast anyway, so it’s not ‘reserving’ precious blocks of the bloggers’ time.
What? Well, that’s kind of annoying! (laughs)
KP Yeah. Ken, I have to run to pick up my daughter from elementary school.
Mine is walking home! I suddenly realized this morning that, to my horror, I had scheduled our conversation just when her school let out.
KP We’re in the same boat, man. Talk to later.


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