The language of agriculture and wine grape growing is constantly evolving and we seem to come across new words all the time. Ultimately, the goal of all new words should be to improve our ability for clear and concise communication. Some additions to our lexicon are more successful than others in achieving this goal. Here, I will address four recent terms that I believe have fallen short in improving the language of agriculture. They are soil health, soil quality, terroir, and ecosystem services. These terms are usually used without being defined, leaving the listener or reader with the challenge of inferring their meaning through the context in which they are used.
We begin with soil health. Soil is mainly mineral matter (≈ 45%), water (≈ 25%), and air (≈ 25%), with much lesser amounts of partially decomposed and undistinguishable plant and animal remains (≈ 5%). Certainly this assemblage of lifeless materials cannot possess “health” – that is a “state of being free from illness or injury” (Source: Oxford New American Dictionary).
Still, a soil can provide a more or less favorable environment for its inhabitants, including grapevine roots. Actually, this is one of the most important functions of vineyard soils. Soils also provide many other beneficial functions for agriculture and society, and soil function may be what the originators of soil health had in mind when they coined the term.
How well vineyard soils function is apparent in the growth and health of grapevine roots, overall vine growth vigor, the degree of uniformity among vines in the vineyard with regard to size and growth capacity, and the incidence of mineral nutrient deficiencies, ion excesses, and soil borne pests and diseases (figure 1). The good news is that we can enhance the functioning of root zone soils through our vineyard development and management inputs.
I trust the practical value of the term soil function is evident in the preceding statements. Soil health, in contrast, is has no relevance to reality.
“Soil quality” is even more dubious the soil health. In the wine business, we are well aware of the difficulty of measuring and describing the quality of wines. Wines, of course, are grape-based products formed through several processes in the vineyard and winery. Soils, on the other hand, are mineral matter and organic matter based and they form through a myriad of processes over long expanses of time. Clearly, the task of fully characterizing soil quality is more difficult than characterizing wine quality.
Yet, like wine writers, soil scientists have taken up to the challenge and have developed soil rating systems for agricultural uses. In California, the Storie index is among the best known. In this system, soil profile development, topsoil texture, slope, and dynamic factors (microrelief, drainage, acidity & alkalinity, and extent of erosion) are the basis for ratings on a 100 point scale. The Storie index, however, does not account for variability within soil mapping units and across fields. In addition, it does not easily apply to vineyard soils, where deep tillage, drainage improvement, amending, fertilization, and other inputs have altered them.
In the end, the fact that we cannot adequately characterize the quality of vineyard soils is not important. What truly matters is how well and uniformly vines on any given soil grow and produce fruit (figure 2). In the same way, what matters is how much a drinker enjoys a wine and not the score a wine critic awards it. In both cases, it is the effect and not the factors that matter. For vineyards soils, effect reflects function, which was discussed in the preceding section.
In the wine grape business, the term “terroir” may be unequaled with regard to ambiguity. This French word very roughly translates to a sense of place. Those who use terroir do so to reference the influence of a specific location on the quality of a wine. As if the notion of locational affects on wines were not sufficiently vague, the intended meaning of terroir often varies according to the user. On the one hand, some users believe locational affects are limited to immediate environmental setting of climate, soil, and topography. On the other hand, other users also include the parent rocks of the soil and human influenced factors like variety, clone, rootstock, vineyard design, the winery environment, and vineyard manager and wine maker decisions. As a result, we listeners and readers are left to make our best guess as to the meaning of terroir whenever we encounter it.
In spite of the dubious character of the term terroir, location remains an important influence on grape and wine quality. We must remember, however, that the influences individual location factors vary widely in nature and magnitude. In addition, our understanding of them and their interactions is very basic. Given this reality, any reliable locational index for wines that appears similar to terroir will be many years in the making.
“Ecosystems services” is the final uncertain term for our consideration. Service refers to “the action of helping or doing work for someone” (Source: Oxford New American Dictionary). Since services are actions taken by someone to benefit someone else, they involve will on the part of the server. Obviously, ecosystems and their components have no will and as a result, they cannot take specific actions to benefit anyone. Therefore, they cannot be service providers.
Still, ecosystems, including vineyard agroecosystems, benefit mankind through their various functions (fig. 3). So here, as with soil health, an attempt to humanize an element of nature fails to accurately represent it.
I had two reasons for writing this article. The first is to ask you not to be intimidated by such terms. The fact that well educated people originated many of these words and regularly use them does make them significant or even meaningful. The second is to ask you to avoid using them. In a world of ever increasing complexity we need language of ever increasing clarity to effectively communicate. Such dubious terms as those presented in this article have the reverse effect, clouding issues and slowing progress.
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