David Howell is a retired research geologist who spent 30 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1990, when he collaborated with fellow geologist and friend Jonathan Swinchatt on the video Earth Nectar, the Wines of Napa Valley and the Earth From Which They Arise, Howell has worked closely with vintners in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. In 2004, he and Swinchatt published The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley. He received a PhD from U.C. Santa Barbara and was an adjunct professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences from 2005 to 2009. During his distinguished career, Howell has authored over 150 scientific articles. Howell also leads wine-and-geology tours in his favorite California and French wine regions.
Karen interviewed David Howell for WineSpeed in February 2020.
Karen MacNeil: How did you first learn about wine and at what age?
David Howell: As a child of the 1950s, wine was not the drink of choice for my parents. My mother drank Sherry and my father liked Manhattans with cheap rye whiskey. We lived on a small mountain with a view to the west overlooking New York’s Catskill Mountains with many, then famous, Jewish resorts. From friends there, I learned about, and even sipped some of, the sweet syrupy Manischewitz wine. As a young teen, I would sometimes help in the kitchen of a small restaurant, and the dishwashers talked a lot about Ripple Wine, basically fortified sweet wine. In those formative years, premium wine was nowhere to be found. But after college, the military sent me to Kaiserslautern Army Depot in Germany. My geology was of no use there, but my background as a painter made me perfect for the job of Depot Beautification Officer. In this capacity, I needed to entertain, and I found wine in the US Army PX store and in the nearby French commissary. It wasn’t long before German riesling and French St. Émilion wines were a regular part of our meals.
KM: What is your favorite type of wine?
DH: This is surely a contextual question, and the wine I like is almost always predicated on what food I am eating. The array of French varietals suits me just fine.
KM: Did you have a mentor in the wine business? Tell us about her/him.
DH: I never had a mentor, but I have learned a lot about wine from my colleague Jonathan Swinchatt and the many vintners we grew to know while producing the film “Earth Nectar; Napa Valley Wines and the Earth from which they Arise” and writing our book The Winemakers Dance – Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley. I have learned from Warren Winiarksi, Michael Silacci, Will Bucklin, and many others. Also, I am constantly learning from Doug Posson, my teaching partner and fellow tour leader. He has never forgotten a single wine he has ever drunk: the varietal, the setting, or the occasion.
KM: Why is soil important to quality grape growing?
DH: A vine is a plant, and it needs a solid footing to grow. What the vine becomes is dependent on a host of factors such as sunlight, heat, nutrients and water. Having the right balance is essential, and that can come from many different types of soil, albeit the best are ones where the soil is well drained and relatively thin. These tend to be either residual soils formed from the decay of the underlying bedrock or coarse-grained alluvial soils.
KM: Do you think you can taste geology in wine? Can you taste, say volcanic rocks or limestone in a wine?
DH: NO! Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals are made of chemical compounds. Plants do not absorb these into their vascular systems. But knowing the geology surely does influence how I approach a wine and what I take from a wine. Much like how the provenance of a painting enhances the object even though it has nothing to do with the pigment, the artist, or the genre.
“Knowing the geology does influence how I approach a wine and what I take from a wine. Much like how the provenance of a painting enhances the object even though it has nothing to do with the pigment, the artist, or the genre.”
KM: Have you ever thought about making wine yourself?
DH: NEVER! I leave that to the experts or even to my “garagiste” friends who have gotten better as they learn to carefully source their grapes.
KM: What wine region has the most fascinating or varied geology?
DH: Every wine region has varied and compelling geology and each is different. Here are few examples from France and California: the cobble (galet) strewn vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; the alluvial gravels of Medoc, To Kalon, and Santa Lucia Highlands; the metamorphic rock of Côte-Rôtie, Anjou, and the Sonoma Coast; the volcanic residual soils of Napa Valley; the limestone of Burgundy, and the limestone with flint (silex) of Sancerre; and the granite of Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Each has the potential to produce a compelling wine. The places are like my children, each has his/her own characteristics, and I would not want to say one is more fascinating than the other.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
DH: Beer, particular IPA’s or, on occasion, Guinness on tap. And perhaps it’s my age and the current style, but on a hot summer day it’s hard to beat a tall gin and tonic, or on a cold snowy evening, a nice Manhattan. But for thirst, nothing’s better than plain old water.
KM: In New Hampshire where you now live, you often host speakers who have included ambassadors, a prime minister from Pakistan, financial experts, and heads of NGOs. How did this series come about?
DH: Walpole is a small, quintessential, New England village and for a variety of reasons a number of folks with worldly experience have come to retire there. Their interest in world affairs continues. In a town about 30 miles away is an active World Affairs Council. We decided to form our own group with more discussion to the format. We take advantage of friends and colleagues who wish to visit, either to see the fall colors or perhaps ski at one of the many resorts. We provide no honorarium just a meal in our local French bistro owned by Ken Burns, the documentarian. Most of the events take place in the big barn on our property that I call my art studio.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
DH: I simply don’t think in those terms. I feel fortunate to have been provided a good education, to have been able to do research around the world, and to have met many people who themselves are doing fabulous work. I am continually trying to understand how the Earth works, appreciate what it gives back to us (wine, of course) and understand how we as humans can be good caretakers of the land.