He believes that the traditional view of “terroir” — the aggregation of environmental factors believed to affect the characteristics of grapes, and thus of the wine made from them — in the popular wine press is “on its last legs.” He has said that its defense rests more on vested interests than on sound science. He doesn’t expect it to die without a bitter fight, but expects that the truth will eventually prevail.
The terroir revisionist is Dan Gatlin, the owner, grapegrower, and winemaker of Inwood Estate Vineyards in Fredericksburg, Texas. Not expecting people to believe someone who just talks the talk, he has also walked the walk — most recently in the form of two examples of chardonnay from grapes from two vineyards in Dallas County. His 2014 Dallas County and 2014 City of Dallas chardonnays are stylish enological near-doppelgängers for premier cru Chablis — despite being produced from grapes grown in a climate of 6,000 degree days (thermal units measuring heat accumulation, used to predict plant development rates) versus 2,200 in the Chablis region.
This isn't an isolated example. In 2002, two new cabernet sauvignon clones from France, touted to be of superior character, came to the U.S. It took about 10 years for the University of California at Davis's Foundation Plant Services, the American clearinghouse for imported grapevines, to certify them as disease-free. After that, the original material was released to nurseries, and Inwood was fortunate to get some vines in 2014. They planted them near Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country AVA.
In 2015, they got only a smattering of fruit from these blocks, but he wasn't disappointed in it. He says: “In due time, I will release more detailed information about this work, but for now I can say that the difference in the DNA of various mutations, or clones, is so dramatic, it's hard to believe they are the same variety. We had already observed this with the Clone 4 cabernet at The Vineyard at Florence, and it revolutionized the way we thought about almost everything we were doing previously”.
Who is this 35-year veteran of viticulture and enology, and what inspires him to send out literary tracts that rail against the status quo to his mailing list, in the tradition of nineteenth-century pamphleteers? I sat down with him not long ago to find out more.
But first, a little background. I discovered Inwood Estates Vineyards by accident. While I was attending a Bordeaux wine tasting at a wine store in Dallas in the late aughts, a friend virtually kidnapped me, bundling me into the back of his SUV while insisting that there was something I had to try. After a quick one-mile drive, we stood at a dowdy commercial unit on an industrial estate. He marched me to a tasting counter. There I was given two glasses. One was filled with Inwood Estates Vineyards 2005 Cornelius, a 100-percent tempranillo made from grapes grown at Newsom Vineyards in the Texas High Plains, the other with 2003 Bodegas Muga Reserva from Spain’s legendary Rioja region.
I sniffed each, and I tasted each, and I was, as they say, blown away. While exhibiting stylistic differences (more ripeness for one), the Inwood stood toe-to-toe with the Muga in clarity of fruit expression, structure, intensity, and even finesse. Here was a compelling product demonstration to give to the taster who acknowledged facts rather than just drank labels.