When People Intrude on Wine’s Habitat

Paul Blow

It was with great relief that I learned recently that a proposed coal mine to be built just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the town center of Margaret River, Western Australia, had been scrapped. A fine wine region had escaped the damaging impact of industry.

The Mosel region in Germany won't be so lucky, as the Green Party ended a two-year legal tussle by approving a massive bridge project. The article quotes wine critic Hugh Johnson proclaiming that this "mad, destructive, unnecessary road" will cut through "the finest Riesling vineyards on the planet."

The best wine tends to come from marginal, difficult sites. But typically that's speaking environmentally. It's not often that we think of wine country as competing for space with industry or urban development, but more and more frequently it happens. This is especially true nowadays as plantings of vines have proliferated all over the world, and living near or among them has become popular—a particularly modern token of the privileged, aristocratic life. Last year the issue came up in another Australian region, the McLaren Vale. It's happening in France, New Zealand, Argentina, and even here in California. Marty Mathis, of Kathryn Kennedy Winery in Saratoga—right in the heart of Silicon Valley—told me a few years ago that he can sit on his porch and look out over what used to be vineyards and today see young tech millionaires turning up their driveways in their Ferraris.

Unfortunately, vines in the best vineyard spots like the same kind of climate as people: not too hot, not too rainy, fresh air, cool nights. There are more vines on the planet right now than there is demand for wine. But sadly, the vineyards making less desirable wine are in areas not in high demand for settlement, places like California's Central Valley.

I don't think of all vineyard land as sacred, but places that produce extraordinary wine are rare, special, and should be protected. A mansion could be built anywhere. Unlike a fine wine vine, it needn't worry (too much) about soil drainage, exposure, wind.

To mourn the Mosel Bridge passage, I popped a bottle of Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling, not only one of the most delicious Rieslings on the planet, but also still one of the best deals. It was complex with flavors of apple, lime skin, honeysuckle, and mineral. And to celebrate the escape of Margaret River, I pulled a bottle of 2004 Howard Park Cabernet out of the basement. Its screw cap made that satisfying crack (like Bruce Lee snapping a bad guy's neck) as I twisted it off, and the wine was gorgeous: with black fruits, earthy notes and tobacco spice, and voluptuous texture. At seven years of age, it was well preserved. Here's to hoping the rest of the world's great vineyards can be too.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.