On the one hand, Kevin Pogue is a distinguished, down-to-earth, Professor of geology at Washington's prestigious Whitman College--having spent years in exotic locales studying the strata of the Earth. On the other, he's a literal rock star, rocking the world of wine as Washington's preeminent "terroirist". Terroir is the french word expressing "the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma." As a terroirist, Pogue consults with grape growers and winemakers, pushing them to concentrate on Washington's unique terroir and the spectacular fruit - and wines - it has the potential to produce.
This man tops Washington wine's "most wanted" list
Does your business card say "Terroirist" on it?
It doesn't. It probably should but I wouldn't want that card falling into the wrong hands or I might wake up to black helicopters over my house. It says it on the door to my office though.
How did you become interested in geology in the first place?
When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky I was just wandering around in the fields behind my parents' house. They were expanding the subdivisions and digging foundations and they were cutting into bedrock. I was nosing around in there and found a big cluster of quartz crystals in a cavity in the rock. I can still remember that moment - being completely flabbergasted that you could find something as cool as that just growing in rocks. I brought them home, looked them up in the World Book Encyclopedia, figured out it was quartz, started a mineral collection, and never looked back. It has evolved over the years into not just minerals, but landscapes, and then why landscapes look the way they do and the structural geology that underlies landscapes and the architecture of the earth - endlessly fascinating.
Do you still have that cluster of quartz?
I still have that. It's sitting on my desk at work. It sits right next to me when I'm in my chair in my office. I look at it now, and it's not a very impressive specimen at all. I think it was more impressive before I scrubbed it trying to get it clean - you know, I loved it to death - but now it sits up and with all the other impressive mineral specimens I have. It doesn't really stand out but it was a life-changing rock.
You're also an avid rock climber - is this an offshoot of your fascination with rock?
Yeah, but you know people always think that they're related but I think they're independent of one another. I've always enjoyed being in the outdoors and I have kind of an adventurous spirit and like going to places that other people haven't been to before. Rock climbing is a way that you can get to those places. I don't think too much about the rocks and their geology when I'm climbing. I think about more pressing matters - like keeping gravity from taking charge.
You started out your career studying the Himalaya in Pakistan but your work there had to end because of 9/11. Was that scary to sort of be forced to move your focus to another area?
Not so much. It might have been if it had happened earlier in my career, but I had a young boy and a brand new baby girl so the idea of going off and risking my neck in Pakistan and being away from home for longer periods of time was losing its appeal anyway. So it was time to cut out the Indiana Jones stuff and do something more sedate.
Sounds like it ended up being good timing. At that point had you already been getting inquiries about the possibilities with terroir in Eastern Washington?
Oh yeah, I can remember talking to some people as early as 1996 about where certain types of land might be found - and not even thinking about it very much then. But then there were a couple of fellows, Larry Meinert and Alan Busacca - professors at WSU, who published a paper about Walla Walla valley terroir. They contacted me for that and asked me a bunch of questions so that kind of opened my eyes to the fact that people were doing research into terroir here. Then people just started calling me up and saying, "Hey, I've got holes in the ground and don't know what I'm seeing. Can you tell me what it is?"
A majority of the winemakers I have interviewed have mentioned you at some point. Obviously things have gone from "What's in this hole I made in the ground" to "Where in the ground should we plant these plants?"
Kevin Pogue Pogue in the field at France's famous Chateau Margaux
Yeah, it has. I just went to France for the ninth International Terroir Conference. It occurs every two years and this year it was in Dijon and Reims - basically Burgundy and Champagne. I think there were about 300 people from about 27 different countries in attendance - and only three were Americans.
Would it be fair to say that you are one of the United States' preeminent terroirists?
Uh...yeah, I dunno. There are probably about five of us so, I guess. We're all pretty much in wine areas. There are a couple of guys in Napa, Greg Jones down in Southern Oregon, Scott Burns at Portland State University, Alan Busacca was at WSU but he's resigned research and just does consulting now. There's a guy in Texas at Texas Tech, actually, who is really good and does a lot of viticultural stuff there and is really helping the Texas wine industry. And, I think, maybe a guy in North Carolina. There are viticulture and enology programs in lots of places but they tend to focus on the biology of growing grape vines or the science of winemaking and not geology, soils and climate and their suitability for viticulture. That's more of a geology/geography problem, not so much a biology /winemaking problem.
But in the end, doesn't the terroir have a great effect on how those grapes grow and taste?
Yes. Of course how strong that influence is depends on the terroir and the grape because certain grapes are more expressive of terroir. I've heard it said, "Every piece of land has a voice - some just don't have much to say and others speak loudly at the top of their lungs." So, there's terroir and there's TERROIR, right? And some people can hear it - and understand its language - better than others.
What's been the most exciting thing that's happened for you in this whole arena?
Wow. I think there are a lot of exciting things. I think as a researcher it's gratifying to move from a research subject where there are maybe five or six people who could comment intelligently on the research I was doing working in a remote part of Pakistan on pretty complicated geology. It's important work, I think, in figuring out how the Himalayas came to be - so it had scientific value but when there's only a handful of people who can recognize and appreciate the significance of what you're doing, that's one thing. Now, to stand up in front of 350 grape growers and winemakers who are very intensely interested in what you're doing and really realizing the value of what you're telling them, that's very satisfying - and one of the most exciting things about what I'm doing now. I really like being able to talk to large groups of enthusiastic people who want to understand and implement things.
I recently spoke with one winemaker, Brian Rudin of Cadaretta, who seems to be one of these people. He's really excited about his particular piece of dirt.
Yeah, that's a fascinating site. I come upon this time and time again where people say, "We're going to plant this here" and I say, "Well...why don't you plant this instead?" We typically think of agriculture as being done in flat fields, with soils that are easy to till, and where rocks are bad things. But in grapes, a lot of times you're looking for steeper, rockier, harsher land because you actually get more interesting grapes - and more interesting wines as a result. So I'm kind of pushing people to think about more marginal pieces of land. That piece Brian is talking about is exactly that. There's this deeply weathered basalt near the surface and when you deeply weather something that's when you start to make the elements in that rock more available to a plant so you get much more complex mineralogy and chemistry in the soils. It's great to work with someone like Brian who really appreciates that and gets excited about it. He and I went out last summer and broke that block into two different blocks just based on soil depth and whether we thought the roots would be able to break into that deeply weathered basal. I'm interested to see what the wines are like from those two separate blocks - if you can really taste the difference.
Do you make a deal with the winemakers you work with that you get a few of the first bottles?
I don't usually have to make a deal - they're usually very generous. I may be a little biased, but my experience is when you work with winemakers who are excited about the dirt in their vineyards, they make great wines. There's just an amazing correlation, in my experience.
You also are a lover of wines. Do you have any favorites you feel are most expressive of terroir?
I do like wines and I have my favorites. I mean if you want to taste terroir, ideally you want wines that are single vineyard wines that come from vineyards where the terroir is consistent within the blocks where the grapes are coming from. You also want a winemaker who is not heavy-handed, and there are quite a few people making great wines that way here. Probably too many to mention. I think there are certain varieties that show terroir better - Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling - and I veer toward drinking those wines. I think life's just more interesting when there's variety and a lot of different people speaking in different accents - and that's just what it's like drinking different terroir wines.
Are you teaching anything about terroir in your classes at Whitman?
About three or four years ago I started teaching a "special topics" course in the geology department just called "Terroir". It meets for a couple hours once a week and I did it as sort of a voluntary overload just because I thought it would be fun and I thought the students would be interested. So we get together at Whitman Wednesday evenings and the students get about 50-60 pages of reading every week. We hit the topic from every angle - we talk about the philosophy of terroir - not just the geology, dirt, and climate - but cultural terroir and how certain areas have prescribed ways of making wine and growing grapes and how those have effects on the resulting taste of the wine. We talk about legalizing terroir with the AVA and AOC's and we have some field trips. Several times we go out after class to Brasserie Four, I'll pull a couple bottles off the shelf, and we'll taste them blind and talk about the difference between the wines - so maybe an old world Syrah versus a new world Syrah, or two wines of the same label but different vintages. We've been very fortunate that Christophe Baron at Cayuse has entertained us for a field trip at the end of the year. The students get a big kick out of going out in the vineyards with Christophe and getting to taste some of the Cayuse wines. Everybody wants to sign up for my class - I've had to limit it to 12.
Speaking of schooling, I've heard your teachings on terroir have been moving outside the classroom?
Yes - I was very impressed, for instance, that David Schildknecht of Wine Advocate, basically had me tour him around Washington for two or three days before he ever came here to do official tastings. He really wanted to understand the terroir of Eastern Washington and the differences between the different viticultural areas - he asked lots of great questions. It was impressive that he would go to the trouble of actually going on vineyard field trips, kicking rocks, looking at dirt and listening to me before he ever even tasted the wine. Good guy.
What's coming up for you that you're really excited about?
I've got a bunch of big projects going on. Some people interested in developing some exciting sites that I can't talk about but I think will be very expressive of terroir. I've got a book project I'm working on - I should say I "should" be working on - that will sort of detail the physical terroir of the Columbia Basin - lots of stuff.
I think that Washington is still kind of in its infancy in terms of where to grow grapes and exploring sites that aren't traditionally thought of as agricultural sites. I think going to Europe and going to the Terroir Congresses, and just touring on my own, has really opened my eyes to what a great vineyard site looks like in places where great wines are coming from. There's been a tendency here to sometimes kind of do what was easier or, you know, not "push it", so I think I'm going to push people to push it a little bit more and maybe do more edgier sites. I also sort of advocate for single vineyard wines where you can really taste terroir - I'd love to see people make more of those wines. I'd love to see us growing Riesling at higher elevations where it might be more dramatic. I'd like to see us planting super rocky sites - just because it's harder to do. Ryan Johnson's Force Majeure concept comes to mind. But really just pushing the envelope on steeper rockier sites - Christophe Baron's doing a little bit of this and Chris Figgins (Leonetti) is growing some really amazing Riesling at higher elevations here. I just love pushing people to try and match variety to site and get more of the taste out of the land. And I think the sky's the limit. We've got amazing potential - getting back to where we started from - and it's about exploring new terrain, right?
A point from Pogue: in the old world wine is not about the winemaker, it's about the terroir - as evidenced by French bottle labels