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Technology vs. Terroir

In Lawrence Osbourne's The Accidental Connoisseur he discusses California wine history and how innovation was the name of the game. Initially the producers in America believed that modern technology could win over old-world techniques and produce better wines. The technology developed (and still is developing) to improve wines or to match specific popular flavor profiles.

Later, some vineyards began introducing old-world concepts like closer row spacing that would necessitate hand-harvesting, and delicate presses to replicate hand-pressing. He visited Opus One and found that at the heart of the high-tech operation they were using old, labor-intensive operations to actually produce the wine, then using all the tech just to measure it. Old-world techniques became the sign of luxury brands- and charged prices to match.

This reminds me of the current state of the tequila industry, which is earlier along on this path. Long ago, tequila was made using the tahona, the stone wheel that crushes the agave, along with fermentation vats in the ground and clay ovens. Now most brands have moved to using more efficient equipment like autoclaves for cooking and diffusion band extractors for getting the most sugar out of the baked agave.

But in recent times, old-style techniques have become a selling point. El Tesoro uses a tahona and most everything else in the original style. In this case, they just haven't upgraded- and don't need to. "We make you pay for it," says their Master Distiller Carlos Camarena. Herradura lets their tequila naturally ferment, which is pretty amazing at the volumes they do. The rest of the distillery has moved to high tech, while they display their original equipment in an on-site tequila museum.

This operating middle-ground between low-tech and high-tech seems to be where many high-end distilleries are today. Tezon may be pulling an Opus One- using a tahona to crush the agave but surrounding it with a high-tech new distillery. (From what I hear anyway, I haven't been there yet.) In many ways, the high-tech people are saying, "We can distill the terroir out of tequila" like the California wineries did  years ago, and the low-tech ones (and every place in the Highlands) use terroir as a selling point.