Tag Archives: Northern California

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

The recent adoption of random power shut-offs to stop fires spread of fires in California reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change. Unannounced shut-offs for “public safety” reflects deep insecurity of climate change and an unpreparedness to deal with a climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize–and a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, as well as an abandonment of the long-term view. And the long-term view is lacking, both with the demand for currently updated real-time maps for fires, and the calamitous images of apocalyptic fires raging that dominate the news cycle and make us fear the near future.

The new fear to engage is that shut-offs of electricity could come to be a part of our regional landscape. If Fire Season is expanding in an age of increasingly extreme climate change, the news that electricity may be cut to up to 40% of the state covered by the electric grid suggests a new level of volatility across the state–one imposed by the owners of the grid, PG&E, as grid operators, fearing the calamitous collapse of transmission wires through which bear an electrical current of over 115,000 volts. PG&E was aware of the risks of wildfires for at least central years, noting wires sagging, towers at risk of failure and of poor support due to ground erosion, fifty years older or more, and dead branches that might break to strike them in high winds. But the scale of collapse of limbs grows with higher gustiness and forests of dead or brittle trees, and even the inadequacy of inventories of electric towers that date from the 1920s–and over half of the towers of the 230 kV system was date from 1920-50, the stress thatchy have come under is unknown along hundreds of miles of its power lines–suggesting that failures of towers was not at all an irregular aberration, but a near eventuality.

If we hope for (and may soon receive!) a full and open database of drone data above the 100,000 miles of PG&E electric lines, to help establish the scale of needed upgraded of power lines, the danger of limb strikes grow, and as they do, they expand the region of fire danger–and indeed ratchet up extreme fire danger, that put us in a new landscape of fire risk. Even as we have become habituated to real-time mapping of fires and their spreads, both from remote sensing and geothermal measurements that pierce dense smoke and cloud cover, the 100,000 miles of electric lines that PG&E supervises exposes the danger strikes conduct sparks to dry forest to ignite a fast-moving conflagration as gusts rise.

If PG&E networks extend across area almost two-fifths of which is judged of “extreme risk” in the state, the topography of risk changes with the instability of electric wires. Even a complete drone dataset of the 100,000 miles of wires might be difficult to view for signs of damage, which demand walk-throughs of a scale truly difficult to contemplate, and whose infrastructure is not only aging but, in the case of a transmission line whose collapse triggered the deeadliest state fire, a full century old. A President who once championed the repair of aging infrastructure is AWOL. But reliance on a no longer adequate infrastructure has disrupted a faith in the credibility long granted the privately held public utility as we try to remap the relation of the power infrastructure to the overdraw land.

John Blanchard/Source: California Public Utilities Commission/SF Chronicle Dec 15, 2018

The problem is both regional, state-wide, and local: increased gustiness across Northern California with the arrival of the feared hot, dry Diablo Winds across the Bay Area created a challenge for brittle, aging wooden electric and telephone poles outside most of our neighborhoods in the Bay Area, as emergency details were sent out to fix impending collapse of tresses that mounted ramrod straight Eucalyptus trunks, leaving wires in danger of falling, as teams of technicians on cranes made adjustments and needed repairs as large tree branches fell against aging cross-arms and crowded supply spaces of electric poles or higher voltage wires on transmission towers broke in the high winds. And it was not much of a surprise that PG&E focussed with something approaching panic on its own power lines, wherenthe malfunctioning of a 115, 000 volt power line had caused the deadly Camp Fire that lead to 86 deaths and destroyed almost 14,000 individual homes, rendering many more homeless only the previous years, in generating outage maps as an emergency response that the terms of its bankruptcy had permitted.

PG&E Directors must have entertained often the prospect of imposing outages, but refrained from adopting, was now allowed. With something of the demeanor of a boy caught looking at a jellybean jar, PG&E noted the possibility of “several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires” near transmission lines in the region, conjuring the precipitation of fires by high winds, and brittle branches near power lines: they noted fallen power poles, a broken part of the tower which malfunctioned in Pulga, and the danger of additional problems of distribution lines. The scenario made the prospect of outages seem a failsafe important to adopt and a new part of the landscape of fire. The fear of outages snaked in what seemed like canyons like fire itself, in fact, in the visualization that PG&E released, crowding the wild land-urban interface near city peripheries around Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland, nestling all too uncomfortably around urban areas themselves.

In a region of high-tech mapping, are these crude maps conscionable? The sudden loss of power that might arrive with little warning–in response to high seasonal winds that seem an occurrence of climate change, but are known to help whip up flames into fire whirls that generate their own tornado-like winds–runs along the edges of greener areas of the state,. They seem to mirror so many maps of power lines carrying currents to residents who have populated these areas where housing has readily been constructed and improvised since the 1970s, and began in the post-war period, providing something like the skeleton of the burn regions and blackened areas that are by now engraved in Californians’ minds, and the minds of PG&E directors. But the sudden warning that power may be turned off for 800,000 customers across 34 Northern California counties serviced by the utility, proceeding in a custom-designed fashion, after midnight, came as a bit of a shock–waking up to no power?–and seemed a bit of corporate opacity, only barely disguised as based on scientific reason, as heat and wind increased risk beyond normal parameters.

While these poles are property in the purview of PG&E, who are responsible for their maintenance, even with spending $700 million on vegetal management of brush, trees, and plants along the web of transmission lines, the scope of dangers of fire spread cannot be tracked or monitored as adequately as is now needed.

Transmission Lines in Forested Region of California Susceptibble to Branch Strikes

The precarity of transmission lines in the face of offshore and diablo winds grew problematic–far beyond the scope of PG&E’s abilities, due to sustained absence of groundwater from rainfall across much of the state–outside the Central Valley, in relation to the levels of groundwater in most of the entire state, taking 2005-2010 as a base-line, before 2014–

Disappearing Groundwater, 2011-13 (November, 2014)/ NASA Earth Observatory/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

–and seems to escape the ability of any one company to supervise vegetation with sufficient intensity without going beyond their own annual revenue.

And PG&E provided a map of the fires forestalled by outages, as if to confirm their value for customers after the Public Safety Shut-Offs, that remind us all in the Bay Area how much we are indebted to them in preventing the possible start of fifty six sparking of what they call “wildfires” from the aging infrastructure that they administer.

Indeed, safety inspections after the high winds suggested that the outages had been a sort of controlled experiment for power structures and transmission lines, a stress-test of sort that revealed the clustering of incidents around the very areas that they had mapped, and a density of considerable alarm within the Wildland-Urban Interface on which all eyes have been directed since SILVIS Lab,–much more on them and their visualizations later, although at the end of this lengthy long-brewing post!–had already cautioned that they had identified as an area of risk.

The growing risk of the region of dense housing and inadequate trimming was a region using old wires to send high voltages into new areas of houses often freshly built with poor fire policies. Over in Madison, WI, SILVIS Lab had already cautioned back in 2017 that the huge ecological change of such extra-urban expansion constituted an underappreciated and significant risk, not only for the environment, as it raised problems of forest health and wildlife habitat loss but as its anthropogenic nature posed problems of elevated wildfire risk and indeed of risk without proper escape routes. And when the 2017 fires mapped neatly onto the rise of housing denisty in the Wildland-Urban Interface–WUI–in what was clearly a broad state-wide problem, that a state-wide energy corporation seemed as if it were best to uniformly address, though would be challenged to do so without federal aid if it could retain profitability–and would drain the state of finances if they undertook the mission by making the company public.

Los Angeles Times/ SILVIS Lab data/Open Street Map
Statewide Fire Distribution as of October 12, 2017

Mapping the spread of fires is usually considered as important for fire fighters, or for home-owners and residents who increasingly have come to expect real-time on-demand fire maps, but the new trigger of electric shut-offs was strikingly, less a transparent or clarifying map than an opaque one, creating such worry that the demand to download maps erased the PG&E servers, even if they were not especially information rich. The sudden demand for new information about maps was frustrated by the lack of clear information in the outage maps, and their lack of easy navigation from our handhelds, or integration with map servers: as PG&E servers crashed, with folks expecting quick answers, cursing the private power agency, and being accustomed to have online responses readily at hand, and maybe less practiced in looking at paper maps as a consequence.

1. It is hard to map the experience of living in an area of high fire risk against the frustrating opacities of outage maps. In the robust but contingent real estate sector of California’s economy, the valuation of land is contingent on fires, a contingency that has been long supressed–or repressed, because the extreme interdependence is not seen as so contingent on global warming and climate change. But as the value of beach-front coastal properties in California may be changed not only by erosion but by sea-level rise, the increasingly great dangers of fire and fire spread expose a delicate pick up sticks construction of the high valuation of houses and land, increasingly closely tied to insurance rates and insurability; the x-ray that the spread of fires created on California’s class society, showing how the wealth, super-wealthy, and rest respond to fires by opting out of public fire-fighting, the fires have exposed uneven nature of home insurance coverage in real estate in fire-prone regions, and even the ability of insurers to close policies and cease to serve areas of the state, as insurers elect to stop covering homeowners in fire zones.

The very regions of wildland-urban interface where Californians have flocked to buy what seemed affordable homes, of lovely scenery, or have been desired areas of habitability, have been removed from fire coverage policies or increased rates in unexpected leaps and bounds that stand to create cascading effects in the economy in areas of significant brush; the rise of “insurer-initiate non=renewals” have created deep scars in the realty market and economy in response to fire severity, leading courts and the State Insurance Commissioner to block their spread to prevent freefall. In ways that have created ongoing fights in the courts about the markets, the low paybacks for destroyed properties and withdrawal of insurance policies stand to create earthquakes that reveal the close tie of the economy to increased dryness and intense groundwater declines–making us more conscious of the need to map our presence in a volatile landscape of extreme climate change as a dramatically uncertain terrain.

Temperature Change in California, 1895-2018/John Muskens based on NOAA data

The dangers for managing the state’s energy infrastructure far surpass PG&E’s ability to supervise–and that have challenged fire prevention strategies that have been farmed out to state parks, forest services, and national parks, although much of the fires derive from failed transmission lines carrying high voltages from property damages to increasingly populated urban interface.

With dangers ranging from the rapid intensity of fires, the increased number of acres consumed by fire, and possible risks of the airborne dispersal of smoke, and the long-term ecological effects of burnt structures and toxic fumes, or heavy metals leached into soil. The scale of increasing levels of fire risk remain poorly understood, and attributed, so interconnected are they to cascading effects and feedback loops of climate change: intense cuts in groundwater supply due to an absence of rain have changed the landscape of fire management, but in many ways begin from the lack of water in California’s soil, even in greatly wooded areas, that have created drying out landscapes of even greater risk.

MODiS Spectrometry

In such a scenario, the blanketing of regions with energy shut-offs that prevent current running through its electric grid to areas of wildland-urban interface seem the only possible response.

Management of energy infrastructure was became prioritized as threats of high winds this Fire Season sent warnings across the state,–prompting successive alarms of electric shutoffs cascading through the state, sending people to check their addresses on interactive web maps–even if the maps of shut-offs were themselves quite crude–that led PG&E online services to crash, creating even greater panic and uncertainty in the state in what seemed new fault lines where no one knew faults existed.

The new landscape of volatility, or of extra-urban combustibility, is not only a reflection of the drying out terrain of the state or the dry woods, dead leaves, and nearly crisp chaparral, but the real estate maps of extra-urban additions that increasingly jostle next to and beside undeveloped wildland. Pacific Gas & Electric is increasingly creating incursions into these lands, keeping up with the landscape of what seems late capitalism across California. The regular recurrence of “urban interface fires” across California’s fastest-growing communities in extra-urban additions over the past three decades terrifyingly follows a map of real estate extra-urban additions, however–

Destroyed Structure in California Fires in order of magnitude, 1985-2013, with 2017 Tubbs Fire Heather Anu Kramer (SILVIS, University of Wisconsin)

–that has redefined the pyrogreography of the state, and made it into one of the states with the highest probability of burns–three times higher than most other states–and transformed its cities: air quality to among the worst in the nation, radically reframing the question of the habitability of the state–to use an index of medieval geography, as if it were a torrid zone rather than follow familiar geographic indices. There is little way out of it, as the many drivers who sought to flee Paradise, CA, site of the Camp Fire, which became deadliest fire in California history, that continues to haunt the state, both in the real estate, insurance, and energy industry, who, famously, considered shutting off power to the region in a temporary power shut-off, just before the transmission towers that started the fire collapsed under heavy winds peaked just above thirty miles per hour, with gusts above fifty miles per hour.

The results were deadly–but also largely because of how much the maps available to residents mislead. The bulk of the seventy-one people killed as a result of the raging fatalities Camp Fire died as they were directed by GPS maps to drive into the areas of the fire they sought to flee in their cars, by maps that failed to account for fire in indicating drivers the most preferable routes. As transmission towers in the Sierra Foothills fell, as the transmission tower failed at Pulga station near the Poe Dam, and a second, potentially, near Concow Reservoir, both sent sparks into dry brush, but failed to register on traffic maps or GPS, with devastating and deadly results. Can one imagine future lawsuits against poor mapping servers that lead people into burning landscapes in the future?

Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

The fire history of the same region east of Highway 99 is not encouraging, as it bears such tragic traces of increased combustibility.

Jonathan Schleuss/Los Angels Times; sources: Cal Fire, USGS, NextZen, Open Street Map

The range of fire intensity can be mapped synchronically to paint a picture of the intensity of tree loss and fire spread in most all areas of the state outside the heavily irrigated Central Valley. Fire, in Obi Kaufman’s powerful rendering, seems the destiny of the state that its inhabitants have denied–but the anthropogenic character of increased fire intensity is only being clearly confronted for agencies like PG&E that have responded to demand by building out electric infrastructure in areas of already high fire risk–a build-out they can only respond to by subtracting electricity at the drop of a match.

Obi Kaufman, Fire Destiny

And yet we are compelled to map the increasingly combustible landscape, and map it repeatedly as if in the hopes to press out meaning from the landscape in hopes to make meaning out of something that is both a local, regional, and global phenomenon, as if to press significance out of it that we can better grasp. For so much lies on it. If California is something of an improbable test case for global warming–an advanced economy that lies at the cutting edge of climate change, with the most cutting edge and intensive mapping abilities at its service, there seems to be some way to serve its communities better. And in a region that relies intensely on maps, for commuting, watching weather predictions, and navigating real estate and home buying as well as school districts, parks, and criminality with increased intensity, where better but to expect better mapping of climate change?

If the report card is not good, it is because the picture is so dire, and the maps so poorly correspond to clear-headed choices or expectations. Indeed, they only multiply the parameters of danger the state is courting as it enters a climate emergency of droughts, fires, desiccation, and sea-level rise, of which fire risk is only the most prominent.

The recent plague of fires since 1995 across the state pose a question that we never expected: have the extremes of climate change forced us to return to geographical constructs of a lost past? If so, it is mediated by the nature of real estate markets in late capitalism in an overcrowded state: for the expansion of building not following regulations or preventive measures of fire safety has shaped the changing contours of risk in ways that we have been able to map most recently by the proxy measure of transmission lines across the state whose collapse has resulted in so many recent ignitions. Fires of increased burn-intensity, rapid and aggressive spread released carbon emissions in the 2018 fire season collectively totaling emissions of a year of power in the state–sixty eight million tons of carbon dioxide, as well as untold property damages and loss of lives.

This terrifying vision of the losses that fires bring has not only haunted the nation but created a corporate restructuring of Pacific Gas & Electric, the privately held power company. For the fears of past fire continue to haunt corporate policy. And if the power shut-offs that cut off electric power to provide the company time to inspect all power lines in the region seem, as the mayor of Malibu, Rick Mullen, put it, an eighteenth century technology to respond to a twentieth century problem of global warming, the mapping of shut-offs seems to have been invested with the appearance of high-tech tools, even if they were low tech approximations of where transmission lines ran–of limited actual data.

The frustratingly low informational level of these maps, which seemed to promise so much in an era of high mapping of fire spread, intensity, and directions, responded to gustiness more than fires, but imagined the threat of fires that seem only destined to grow in the feedback-loop of climate change and global drying that afflicts the state. The vivid aqua of recent outage maps snake across the landscape that reflect not only the imprint in their iridescent glow, but fail to educate consumers by keys that might adequately orient them to the imminent topography of combustibility, or the dangers of fires but only trace the negative spaces where power was at risk of being suspended across the state–roughly following the above-ground power lines that run across the woodlands-urban interface, telling us what those of us who have been looking at fire maps over the previous three years already know, and maddening most by raising the prospects of suddenly losing electricity, cel service, radio contact, and perhaps even the ability to charge their cars.

The maps might be confused with a form of readiness. They seemed a rather desperate attempt to escape similar levels of financial liability to find a shred of liability release and summon a sense of corporate responsibility by suggesting that they prioritized public safety in an era when public safety is in crisis mode.

Of course, PG&E is in crisis mode–and the maps reflect their difficulties in shouldering the possibility of liability for future fire outbreaks. Faced by bankruptcy, and apparently conceiving itself without funds to trim trees or prioritize the maintenance of transmission lines, the power behemoth has resisted spinning out parts of its extended enterprise, but rather insisted on its continued profitability, without, apparently, acknowledging the risks that the continuation of extreme weather in the state might cause. The resulting maps of shut-offs that were reflexively announced at the first word of high gustiness-surprising many consumers, created skeletal images of the forced closure of electricity to hillside towns, ravines and moutainsides in once bucolic areas, where property is sold in hopes to perpetuate the vision of bucolic hillside towns, which now looked like sculptures of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, as if natural sites of aggression, or jagged lines ripping across a natural landscape,–

–if not, more situationally appropriately, as this image by the Otolith Group from a film that reflects the seismically disruptive landscape of California, the creation of the anthropocentric environments that we have created in what was once prized as a landscape of pristine nature, as if this existed, but is now increasing at growing risk of being scarred as a man-made landscape is electrified.

For the maps of forced electrical shutoffs are truly creations an anthropogenic environment, if they are supposed to respond to wildfire risk. They reflect a new fear of the management of landscape, and of electrical infrastructure, based on the spaces served by the infrasctures of electrical power transmission lines, and the regions that they affect.

Rooted in the current growth of urban interface, the topography of landcover where older electric infrastructure bears new loads of coursing current provides the chance for transmission lines to create ignition points for fires, in the stripped-down maps that provided the basis for the outage maps PG&E posted in the Fire Season of 2019, haunted by the memories of the burnt landscapes of the 2018 fires.

Even as the Department of Interior of the Trump administration blamed poor forest management, the location of fires suggest that “proper forest management” was less a problem than the poor oversight of the expansion of realtor’s rapid remapping of extra-urban additions across the state–in the very regions where residents were effectively warned by the energy company itself that it would adopt new policies of cutting electric power that took full advantage of emergency powers it was granted as it entered bankruptcy, announced at a dedicated website it unveiled, www.PrepareForPowerDown.com, in order to reduce its liabilities, even if it only announced it only introduced “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” in order to “keep communities safe” in the eventuality the state continued to face extreme weather in the future.

If this is a landscape of late capitalism, and the burgeoning real estate market, the maps of outages are echoes of the far deeper, pressing questions of the landscapes of risk we have often forgotten to map with needed accuracy–even if we fear the destruction of the very extra-urban additions that have been broadcast to the nation as if they were the bombed out battle sights of global warming, and we have yet to map in the parameters of a climate emergency or bureaucratic irresponsibility.

While the map was not about to receive much circulation even as PG&E representatives visited California cities to inform communities on the urban interface for the eventuality of a power shut-off of “public safety,” the image by which most of the state was haunted by drone imagery from the previous fall was of the burnt-out areas of Paradise, CA and of Santa Rosa, from previous years, that so surreally seem to transpose what are bombed out areas of war fields and American suburbia with an almost hallucinogenic quality that bodes fears for the future of California–and, after this map appeared from the California Public Utilities Commission, haunted PG&E enough to provide a basis or template for warned outages.

Potential Areas of Planned for Power Shutoffs/May, 2019

Even as the energy company promised investments to “make its grid sturdier,” it predicted the likelihood of executing shut-offs “multiple times” in the future, as it indeed had in the Napa Valley Fires of 2018, but which it had not in the 2017 North Bay Fires which had caused $14.5 billion in property damages or the 2018 fires that had raged across an unprecedented 1.9 million acres–a surreally tipping point of sorts, transcending poet Walt Whitman’s query of readers’ ability to reckon a thousand acres by a multiple of thousands–and exceeded 16.5 billion in property damages in the Camp Fire alone, which PG&E is still trying to accommodate victims for property loss, wrongful death, or loss of residences. If the ongoing deep-lying effects of an officially over drought have conspired to create a shortage of underground reserves in the entire state, compromising the state of its forests and undeveloped areas in ways that go far beyond “forest maintenance,” it has created a lopsided continental map of fire risk whose consequences will be felt for decades.

The ever-increasing uncertainty of the landscape multiplied in unknown ways with the spread of power shut-offs whose enactment appeared a straw that broke a collective back: if the threat of smoke had created panicked uncertainty across the Bay Area in previous fires led residents to shift from the color-coded *AirNow” EPA maps of air quality–3.2 million in a week, causing the site to crash–during the Camp Fire, and rushed to interactive open source alternatives for greater security, the insecurity of announced electrical shut-offs seemed to make the state all the more inhabitable, and suggest that the relation of habitable and inhabitable lands was being rewritten by climate change with unforeseen rapidity, as the maps from the California Public Utilities Commission that provided the basis for PG&E to warn of electrical shut-offs registered, based on the expansion of areas of urban interface in Northern California on both sides of the San Joaquin Valley, an area not serviced by PG&E.

CPUC Map of High Fire Threats, 2019

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Filed under California, extreme weather, Fire Risk, PG&E, urban interface

Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. But if the bull kelp and other marine plants we find in the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a marine world, the contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore areas where they provided such rich habitats may soon start to reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone, a region where land and sea interact and what we see as underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, and is integral to coastal biodiversity that gives so much of a specific character to the California coast, and indeed gives us so much of a sense of where we are.

While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

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Filed under climate change, data visualization, Global Warming, oceans, seaweed

Savoir Your Terroir

How to spatialize the taste of wine is perhaps less important than the legal grounds of defining who has a right to produce wines of a given name.  But the wine map has become a genre in its own right to link the sensory experience of wine-tasting with the geography of place.  Especially in an increasingly homogenized spatial landscape, the preservation of place and locality–denominations or appelations–that guarantee the specificity of wine-quality by not only a legally defined and protected classification of geographical indication, but a preserve a sense of the landscape as defined for wine-growing. While the notion of a “terroir” is not exclusively dedicated to wine by any mens in France–one might speak as well of the “quality of the terroir” of cheeses, meats, or other local foods, assimilating them to the earthiness of the map–

–and indeed of any region, showing the produce as indigenous to the quality of the earth, tied to each region of France, as if the earth had produced the produce of the region without human help–a sense that was enouraged by the individually embodied depiction of each region as the Fons et Origo of its produce, people, and crest.

–the definition of “terroir” has been appropriated and adopted by California wind-growers to define their place within a geography of enological status in recent years. In an age of globalization and web-based maps, the artisanal notions of cartographic authorship are mined to the max in hand-styled maps of the regions of wines, foods, and and cheeses, or of traditional knives, that proliferate in the mapminded culture of France. Even the authoritative maps of the Loire Valley meld their scientificity with the sophistication of the appelations of burgundies, as the name of France is itself almost less legible, or on just too grand a scale, for the readers of the varietals of the Loire Valley, or Val de Loire, a region that assumes primacy as a center of visual attention, exploration, and savoring that seems designed to translate to the palate, as much as eye.

The recent imagery of the California’s wine productions using in barrels and clusters of grapes in an old tourist poster of the state for San Francisco’s Wine Advisory Board in ways that beckoned visitors to rural areas of the state, distanced in their symbology from AAA maps of the region’s roads and even from motor travel, but seemed to transport one to a land of barrel-rolling and wine-sipping that recast the state in predominantly rural terms where wine-growing occurred exclusively in a set bucolic regions removed from urban life. Indeed, the transformation of Napa region to a “wine country” that is removed from the city and industry–even if San Francisco is hardly a City of Industry–

–but rather one of relaxation, an alternative world to discover that lies close at hand, and indeed that beckons. The tacky directional orientations in such pictorial wine maps from regions as the Napa Valley suggest the arrival in a bucolic space, free from cares, where the presence of instrumentation is absent from the natural nature of tools of directional orientation, in a region of the world where the very surface of the map is besotted with grape juice or wine.

While selectively omitting any sense of urban settlement or indeed automotive conveyances, the Wine Advisory Board seems to have been designed to seduce visitors by the cartographical vignettes of relaxing workers and relaxed banjo-playing, in ways that naturalize the wine-growing as part of the landscape in order to boost local wines an era when California reds were often cast as the poorer cousin of fancier French wines.  To make the point that the state was so nourished by the year-round sun to be the land of wine-growing, oak barrels are plentiful from Santa Clara up past Mendocino, in an alternate tourist map that suggested how wines themselves transported one to the vineyards of the California countryside.  There was a time when the bounty of wine harvests in Northern California led the region to be cast as a site blessed by vineyards and grape harvest, where the light of the sun distinguished the Napa and Solano Valleys or the grapes of Sonoma as winemaking towns in a predominantly rural idiom.

WINES, Napa Valley to Fresno.png

But more than any other impression, one can sense by the map’s vintage that oenology is not, in the American West, at this time a refined science, so much as an almost rustic pursuit, destined for tourists and removed from the pressures of urban life:  much as the wines are themselves able to transport one to an idyllic rural setting, removed from race, class, work, and urban congestion, to a landscape in which one might leisurely repose.   Little sense of knowledge about wines seems important.

But the times have changed, as they often do, and the rise of the Napa regions are in the course of placing themselves on the map, as if to update the criteria for rustic travel and enological tourism, to respond to how California wines are appearing a global market for wines, and to place the region on the map in a way that it once never was. The precision of classifying terroir has migrated to northern California, and done so to secure California’s place on a global wine market, to authoritatively define its place in relation to the scientific standards of wine that are used world-wide to ensure in vino veritas, or at least identify with security the provenance of the wine as a basis for its quality. The objective authority that maps bestow on products is a novelty in northern California, but the scientificity of mapping, chemical analysis and secure ranking have become terms of economic validation.

1.  For in California, the notion of terroir is absent.  Indeed, the precision or authority of the claims of individual growing regions of viticulture that has become so important in recent years was long completely absent.  The division of such divides reflect–and have common origins with–the proliferation of descriptors that are usually blamed on Robert Parker, who enriched the descriptive language of wine-drinking with terms as acidity, astringency, jamminess, balance, and oakiness who also bequeathed the notion of “intellectually satisfying” wines to underscore the discriminating judgement involved in tasting good wines that so effectively remapped wine-drinking as a learned intellectual experience to bring it out of the rural land in which much California wine-growing was long symbolically enshrined.

Claiming his place at the avant-garde of bucking this trend in cartographical symbology,  northern California-based oenophile David Gijsen recently returned to the mapping of northern California vineyards and varietals in recent years.  Gissen followed the recent trends in mapping mass transit when he decided to remap his adventures in wine-tasting to distinguish his adventures in wine-tasting in the region, and cleverly adopted an image familiar from public transit to suggest how California wine-tasting has become a new mass-experience, tied to how we experience the wine-growing regions of the state.  Rather than employ the agrarian images of bountiful vineyards, his symbology shifted the metaphorical rooting of a wine’s terroir in a bucolic agrarian setting of the vineyard.  And in place of evoking (and romanticizing) bucolic fields of grapes, his map charted vineyards to reflect the dominant destination of wines’ identification for an urban audience who traveled to the nearby Napa Valley to experience its wines at first hand in ways that communicate the crowded weekend highways filled with pleasure-seeking wine-tasters, as much the countryside.

Indeed, the genre of viticulture maps that designate terroir serve to orient customers of wine–and have they long done so–to the basement cellars often located in urban restaurants or wine stores, as if to make them feel invited into the specific regions that they were grown.  As much as symbolic declarations of denominations, the maps of wines offer virtual imagined itineraries of tasting the fruits of specific regions.  And they offered a basis to distinguish an urban audience’s virtual wine tasting–and indeed to privilege the unique terroirs of an individual region’s viticulture.  Gissen’s iconographic punning on Harry Beck’s 1931 design of the London underground as a circuit registers–perhaps unintentionally?–a longstanding English taste for cross-channel eno-tourism and wine tastings in the Loire valley and Bordeaux regions–as well as registering the rich colors of French wines.)


The legend alone is worth the price of this map, available on-line from Amazon.com, links city, town, region and oenological appellation in a handy cheat sheet and endearing tourist guide:


Gisssen made good on his credentials as an architectural theorist in order to map the local California wines with a very welcome sense of humor–a sense of humor all the more welcome given the disproportionate weightiness and serious stakes that is often associated with the mapping terroir.  Terroir is, at base, an economic reality for wine producers.   But the tourism of wine tasters is increasingly part of the travels to vineyards and tasting houses, and their experience is increasingly reflected in maps of place–they are, indeed, among the most common audiences for these maps.  In shifting the demarcation of regions to boost trust in the origins of provenance of a given region’s wines, Gissen reflects an urbanization of most wines’ market and (without stating it too openly) reflects the re-marketing of the terroir map as something of a guide to local wines:  yet, as Gissen notes, “the urban sense of wine has yet to receive a visual language” outside of pastoral aesthetics of most terroir, and he seeks to offer one.

2. Maps have long served to perpetuate the mystification of terroir by tying  the identifying characteristics of wines to terms easily recognized by an audience of consumers.  Of course, the practice mapping regional terroir derives from the French system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), now widely adopted in other wine-producing countries to precise the geographic location of grape production.  The currency as an index of quality (and fetish) that terroir has acquired–and how it has been mapped to other regions as a sort of patent or fair-use standard of appellation–suggests a sort of viticultural zoning and essentialization of provenance.

Charting terroir demands an intense attention of the interaction of vine and environment based on creating a public record of long-cultivated local expertise of agricultural ecosystems–even if this sounds like a contradiction of sorts:  the sense of where you can cultivate grapes, or whose land is used for viticulture, reflects a historical messiness that territorial bounding of a set of fields dignified with one wine-type can’t really reflect.  The reduction of wine-types to the production of a given region, while intended as a protection for the producer to combat fraud, is often essentialized, leading to the widespread display and currency of terroir maps in wine stores that reflect on the consumers’ interest in selective drinking as a sign of social distinction; in other terms, the concept of terroir, derived from “terre” (and territoriality) confers cultural status to a wine’s taste–and effectively elevates the price one is willing to pay.  The notion of appellation is less about contiguity or clear cultural divides, however, than the sorts of soils and climates that serve best to define a wine making practice and taste, even as these are cast in apparently objective terms in a culture that privileged a univocal authoritative cartography.


To be sure, the notion of a transparent mapping of “one wine, one region” seems informed by the administrative mapping of a gastronomic landscape that mirrors the division of France into discrete administrative Départments, which it sub-divides and refines.


One possible ancestor of the mapping of terroirs is the great prototype of statistical mapping of regions which provided Parisians with cuts of meats, which Charles Joseph Minnard charted among other dense representations of data on the spaces for national commerce that included statistical  maps measuring how railways created a network commerce and or rivers were used as basis for the fluvial transport of goods.  To describe the relations of the provinces to Parisian markets, the bureaucrat Minnard distinguished both the sizes of multiple pie charts and their slices in this 1858 map to parse the meats arriving from different livestock into discrete administrative regions, which similarly tried to reconcile the notion of meat production with the rationality of the départments:

Minard Parisian consumption of meats

There is a similar mapping of economic exchanges rooted in a combination of microeconomics and taste in terroir maps. But the maps aim to create a social compact for an economic transaction that has yet to occur:  the mapping of terroir was conceived in response to expanded consumption,  as a cartographically refined register to track the authenticity of production of goods by crafting a graphic compact against fraudulent wines that protected the local vintner, rather than a statistical record of economic exchange. To be sure, the diversity of France was long predominantly cast not in linguistic, but agricultural terms, adding a special significance to the appreciation of terroir as a cultivated taste, and an appreciation of localities, tastes, and privileged access to individual regions, as much as a sense of local boosterism. The agrarian diversity of France was often cast in terms of bounty–the area of the nation that was without farms seems smaller than the regions dominated by cereals, but the areas of deep pink where vineyards grow, are distributed through broad swaths of the nation, if the largest continuous cluster is, famously, in the south–site also of the dominant vegetables of tomatoes and carrots.

French Agricultural Diversity

–but the terroir of vineyards reflects a geographically specific denomination, leading to a discrimination of the discrete localities by which the most savored wines arrived on a national, and increasingly global, market. But the globalization of terroir antedates its legal formulation in the French nation, and the tenacious grip of what seems a sort of enological copyright on a broad market for champagnes, and the tenaciousness of local growers to brand an increasingly broadly marketed appellation that they felt the need an economic imperative to secure .

French Agricultural Diversity

The 1908 definition of the terroir of Champagne set a legally binding definition of how the bubbly could be marketed under that name.  The definition set something of a benchmark for truth in marketing to fix authenticity of regional wines widely adopted to affirm the usurpation of any name outside the appellation–and reflecting to widespread trust in the objective truth of maps.

terroirs in France from CHampagne

The hope for graphically affirming how appellation was wed  to territoriality, analogously to the frontier of a state, may reflect a trust in the civil service, as the  Minnard map does.  But the format of mapping terroirs created lasting and continuing problems in the essentialization of the qualities of a wine’s taste.  The mapping of terrors provided an affirmation of difference and distinction, even when such variations as weather, humidity, shifts in soil quality, sunlight and a panoply of ecological factors themselves resisted clear mapping:  legislation culminated in the establishment from 1927 of formal recognition of the limits of viticulture, grape-harvesting, and pruning of vines within fixed boundaries that recognized the limits of provenance linked to approximate understandings of atmospheric character, quality of soil, and, in the case of Champagne, chalkiness.  The region of Champagne was mapped to define the distinctive region of finer deposits finer and more porous limestone soils, by limiting Champagne vineyards to some 15,000 growers, or just 3.4% of France’s vineyards, and set a standard that is still with us inherited today as an index of champagne legitimacy, and define the monopoly of its “authentic” producers–as well as establish the authenticity of Burgundy, Beaujolais, Bordeaux or Cognac as well as Loire wines:  if it is on the map, it authenticated.  Yet the notion of such a DOC is distinguished form territorial sovereignty or from recognizable divisions of landscape or space.

To be sure, in France, the image of a “terroir” is so naturalized within the geographic imaginary, that it can easily depart from the products of the”land” to be a synecdoche of regions, that may extend as a mnemonic of the copiousness of the varied past, as a shorthand for regional differences that extend from local knives–

–to other elements of the past once inherent in the land, such as the old monastic orders–

–more than a mnemonic, the parsing of “terroir” has been scientized, in ways that suggest a purification of regional divisions on the basis of the minerality, air quality, relative moisture, solar exposure and wind patterns, as if the qualities of terroir could be parsed geographically to explain why the water of each region is distinct, and the viticulture the essence of inherent regional differences, whose specificity is to be fetishized on scientific grounds. The varietals of French wines were internalized and standardized on the international markets,

–and increasingly in web maps of wines that allowed customers to click on maps of regional wines to find their specific tastes, and even to read about the DNA links between wines of different regions, to create something like an evolutionary stemma of the relations between regional varietals–Syrah and Pinot Noir, for example, were tied, big surprise, to the same cuttings, and to Savignin Blanc from the Jura region, revealed a genetic database of contemporary grapevines, which also made its way int Central Europe under the name Traminer–suggesting how science may indeed somehow, slightly heretically, trump geography; the research into archeology of wine grapes suggest that the ancient grapes of the Savignin stock arose from domesticated berries, linking twenty eight grape seeds from the Iron Age and Roman era to seeds of wines that were, heresy of heresies, actually imported to the region by the Romans, suggesting the very sort of cross-border mobility and human presence that is often cleansed from the maps of wine varietals that we consult in most shops and wine stores.

But the wine map rooted in myths of regions’ mineralogy, water, sunlight, and climate have produced a parallel resurgence in the intensified regional localism–or localization–of wines, creating a sort of fragmentation of the wine map that absents humans, paradoxically, quite utterly, and privileges the “natural” differences of regions, rather than ties between grape stock, whatever kinship exists between ancient grape seeds that became prized by regions as their own–and as distinguished by the specificities of terroir to make them utterly unique from the wines of their competitors.

Domesticated Berries from Archeological Site in Jura

In an age when we must look for justification of the unique nature of branding, the demand for cartographical definition of distinction of regions’ wines–and the rights of distinct communities of wine-growers, may trump similarities among the stock of grapes that grow around the region of Reims, for example, from the Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, and Vallée de l”Ardre. The currant publications of amps may seem a not too bucolic over-abundance of cartographic promotion of localities of wine production and grape-growing regions dividing regions in France from one another to reflect the relative classiness of their profiles of wines, but also are an important way to secure a place in the market for wine producers, and affirm the continued value of the local in the face of globalization.

The objectivity of mapping techniques have come to the rescue to define a sense of territoriality among appellations. Recent advances in statistical mapping and geosciences of course created a far more complex definition of tracing of key qualities in the glasses, which greatly encouraged or facilitated a romance of attachment to local vineyards that was cultivated as much for urban tastes, taken as transparently or accurately translating local knowledge of viticulture to the marketplace in ways that intersected with cartographical practices and skills, even when upsetting usual notions of cartographical continuity.


There has been a huge demand, as a result, to adopt climatological and geomorphological criteria of mapmaking to defend the privileges of being able to use a given name, and invest them with greater objectivity and tangibility–or defend the rights to one’s DOC status, in an age when consumers usually balance limited access to information about vineyards with deep curiosity about identifying the intrinsic qualities of a given wine.  Each region has its own geological profile that determined the unique taste and quality of its grapes, full-bodied in the Montagne de Reims plateaux, influenced by limestone topsoil in the Vallée de Marne,  whose topsoil is distinguished by chalky layers of Belemnite and Micraster, or Kimmeridgian soil in the Côte des Bar. The definition of such distinctions are increasingly important in a global marketplace for wines, swamped by cheaper if less well-known wines, where the huge range of the scale of prices, often for status conscious audiences, finds many challengers in the growth of low-budget wines.

Clear regional variations of Champagne soils acknowledge the difficulty to essentialize or claim any clear and distinct correlation to minerality or land-type.  They balance these, however, with the need to mythologize the practice of restricting practices of viticulture in bounding a regional terroir, in ways that foreground the benefits of the diversity and range of authentic champagne on the basis of regional soils of different geological epochs:

Champagne soils

3..  Terroir is of course re-mapped in terms of the experience of of tasting a given wine.  A predominance of descriptors are linked to values of minerality in ways that romance the ties of wines to the qualities specific to the earth that nourishes wines.  As well as fruits or flora, think of the many descriptive notes that summon the physical characteristic of place that determine individual taste:  earthiness; minerality; grassiness; stoniness; crushed rock; chalkiness; crumbliness; gravelliness; paving stones; hints or flavors of slate, schist, or silex–that suggest an un-mediated expression of a region’s geology, as if the taste derived from a geomorphological profile, rather than being judged by the wine-drinker.  A simple cross-mapping of viticulture and soil qualities reveals the constructed nature of wine regions, and undermines the terroir map’s naturalization of uniform local geological profile or soil-characteristics:  this cross-mapping of viticulture and soil qualities reveals the constructed nature of wine regions, and the constructed nature of any attempt to naturalize regional provenance by a single geological profile.

Geological:Wine Regions

–and the absence of uniformity in the boundaries drawn in maps defining practices of viticulture in such evocative and recognized regions of wine-growing on the banks of the Loire and Rhone:

Central France-Loire and Rhone

As in the case of any map, nature is recast as a varieties of expertise.  Other factors including wine preparation, grape cultivation, relative humidity, exposure to sun and weather are more determining of taste and quality of the wine than terroir–and those not sold on the identification of wine by terroir alone find cool opportunities in the marketplace for French wines.  Terroir is something of an artificial construction on grape-growing on a cluster of fields, that is able to be all too quickly essentialized as an index. Territory is essentialized as an authoritative measure and standard of oenological quality:

Marsannay Terroir

Is there a more recent deconstruction or fragmenting of the wine map to the degree to which appears the case, as terroir is affirmed by subdivisions to situate taste in a specific location?

The parsing of terroirs to best express the complex relations of vine and ecological environment has led to a refinement of the simple bounding of a region to a detailed examination of the relationships between soil quality, geomorphology, and the inclination of the slopes of vineyards in the Douro region to better discriminate and region’s DOC criteria, employing a full range of color samples worthy of Kelly-Moore, using a palette of innumerable varietals to distinguish wines’ tastes:

geology, geomorphology, slope inclination of DOC Douro

Or of the DO in the Cigalle, the soil map throws into three dimensions an almost plastic record of local geomorphology, here represented at a scale of 1:50,000.

D.O. CIgales, 1-50,000

To preserve the complexity of taste-variations within a single terroir, this map discriminates five sub-divisions in a single region’s vineyards:

terroir classification- 5 subcategories

It is difficult, if not impossible, to effectively rationalize the contributions of different climactic and ecological variants within a region that can be mapped in such transparent ways.  And yet the placement of the bottle on the terroir map is a sign of quality, and a reassurance of protection in the marketplace of a substance whose varietals are difficult to substantiate as natural, and whose qualities are impossible to naturalize by provenance; and so we use the map to denote  distinction and draw clear differentiation among oenophilic competitors, to draw sharply distinctive origins around riverbanks, across a varied mosaic of geological differences.  The mosaic of regional wine differences masks the minimal differences drawn by aromatic descriptors, but surely masks the indeterminate nature of actual data by presenting them as inherent in the region’s micro-climates or micro-ecologies of increasing geographical refinement.

Mosaic of Minimal Differences

The notion of such protection of local farmers and monopoles on terms are far less rigorously defined, it seems, among the less homogeneous or centrally administered cultures of Italian cities in Tuscany, who have competed against one another to define the propriety of assuming the title of Chianti, albeit by accommodating chianti classico, chianti colli senesi, and chianti from Felsina

DOC map chianti, Felsina, Chianti Classico, chianti colli senesi.png

The less official cartographic representation–although this map with an apparent provenance from a wine label seems remarkably detailed.

4.  So habitual is the mapping of terroir that the mapping of California wines became a means to invest the grape with a level of distinction and proof that it can hold its own; status is effectively conferred by a recognized coloration of recognized regions of viticulture.

Napa Valley was the first recognized “American Viticultural Area,” in a polemic response to French assertion of terroir by 1981, after years of its popularity and promotion, as if in final response to the denunciation of lack of recognized terroir among California wines.   Robert Parker had indeed felt so lambasted by terroirists who “latched onto terroir in the 1970s,” to critique California vintners and wine-promoters for imposing a “bland style” of wines on the world of buttery Chardonnay and bold Cabernet–whose powerful fruits were cast as deracinated without Old World structure.  As California wines were cast as the yuppie of global beverages,  lacking distinct provenance, the mapping of the state’s wines provided a platform from which to assert their legitimacy.  The maps of regions of wine-growing in the Napa Valley had been so widely absorbed an aesthetic of the pastoral by the 1990s as to create a conceptual mapping of the rural vineyard with clear social implications that migrated from tourist maps to popular ephemera.

Napa Valley-Wine Country
California Terroir

But the arrival of wine-maps that designate regional appellation afforded an index of taste and a visual charting of tasting that was almost a necessity of marketing in the land of micro-climates.  Mapping California terroir spawned a complex variety of mapping a region that, while first confined to Napa and the coasts, rapidly spread over time both into the central valley and far further south than would have been thought possible.   Steve and Mark De Long’s “California Wine Map,”  sold in its first edition of 2009 as a work of “essential reference” has come to catalogue all the 108 American Viticultural Areas that have been recognized since 1981:

Such maps offer concise arguments for oenological legitimacy–foregrounded above by the inset map of Napa.  As aesthetic statements of a wine’s origin, they map nicely onto the recent explosion of taste descriptors–rather  than map the local geography in ways that a future vintner would consult–although it is an index to a vineyard’s price:  although soil-character is an index for conditions of good viticulture, the vineyard after all precedes the map that places it in a value-system.

The recent explosion of northern California vineyards necessitated re-classification by terroirs–if only to combat the idea that Californian terroir is difficult to establish rigorously, and California wine not equal in authenticity to French, and contain the perfect ecological balance into which to transplant, say, Pinot.  In Mendocino, Castle Rock Winery assures us, the wine’s nose is distinguished by “headwaters of the Russian River carve a fertile and rugged landscape” in which the cool springs, crisp falls, and wet winters” for Pinot Noir, made apparent in analogies to the Burgundy region of France where the grapes were first grown.  Although multiple factors inflect the taste of the wine as it ages, from the cleaning out of barrels to the quality of the oak or wood, to the spraying of grapes or amount of residue on their skins’ surface, Castle Rock proclaims the source “handcrafted wines from some of the finest appellations on the West Coast: California (Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Carneros, Mendocino County, Monterey County, Paso Robles), Oregon (Willamette Valley) and Washington (Columbia Valley),” linking the wine to the terroir to comply with a code of compact for the consumers benefit by the promise to focus their attention to the selection of regional terroir.

Are the maps of terroir ever of interest to the vintner, or are they as indispensable–and as inevitable–artifacts of the market to the same degree as the combination of 120 florid decriptors in the tasting notes, often designed to manufacture the nose as much as generalize the individual palette?


To be sure, the currency of descriptors of tastes on the market is so confusing that tube-like infographics have gained currency on the market to clarify and open access to the recognized oenological lexicon of aroma descriptors that has been standardized in the food sciences, as if to orient readers to the secret terminology by which to discuss their tastes:

When David Gessen imaginitively transposed tasting routes from a rural setting to an urban iconography for visitors to northern California, he wanted to remind us that he was on his own home turf.  He is sure-footed in his visual transposition of wine-tasting routes that attract regional tourism in Northern California and counties around San Francisco to a metro map–the transformation of terroir in California was at first mostly for export, but also increasingly addressed California oenophiles far beyond the francophilic community–and Gissen is on target when he re-charts the major grape varietals of the region in a oenological version of what now appears to be a state-wide BART map, as if to suggest the access to wines Northern California’s many viticultural regions allows.  To be sure, the map expanding the service of Bay Area Rapid Transit System to the surrounding region that the actual transit system fails to adequately serve, but blends rural and urban in a range of blends that are designed to be savored:


This is not a wish-fulfillment vision of the expansion of BART tracks to vineyards, however, but a recreation of terroir and a translation into Northern Californian terms.  But the map reminds us of the degree to which such maps are about capturing the trust of the consumer, and providing grounds for the common tasting of new wines.  The most refreshing aspect of the map is its open-access invocation of public transportation, transposing  BART paths to the far more mystifying obscure combinations of regional terroir and aroma descriptors pronounced by the sommelier schooled in such classifications.  The map’s detail, exemplified by this section of the Santa Clara Valley, differentiates the proportional percentages of varietals of each region with impressive precision, and casts a progressive wine-tasting on an imaginary sequence of BART stops:

Santa Clara Valley

For the map is literally asking us to come along for the ride, inviting us to explore the terroir by well-known paths, lest we lose ourselves in the Napa vineyards along with the busloads of tourists who travel there for wine-tasting every year.  The map both mediates and preserves criteria for the elite experience of wine-tasting, and the imagined sacred communion with a select and privileged region that is re-enacted with each glass of wine.

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