Rob Played Terroir, Wine Maker Business Simulator, Vineyard Tycoon Game
Guest Author, Robert Campbell.
There are business simulators for every industry. These Tycoon-style video games attempt to present the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that a real life business competing in the featured market encounters every day. As a middle-aged man with an affinity for ‘business strategy sims’, I’ve tried managing airports, amusement parks, shopping centers and zoos. Now I’ve just experienced life as a winemaker in Terroir, a 3D tile-based tycoon game in which I operated a vineyard with three different types of soil. In this sim, I made and sold my own wine! In my very first game, I grew three different types of grapes and made my own Wizard Wines brand famous all over the world. Once I’d learned how to grow and bottle a decent vintage, I improved my label’s reputation and was able to sell my product for higher prices and buy more properties. Like all good business simulators everywhere, the game demanded that I do all this while dealing with my estates’ economical woes, my neighbor’s greedy land grabs, and environmental factors entirely beyond my control.
Terroir was released on Steam (an online gaming platform) on the 20th of September 2017 by an American software development company called General Interactive. Terroir can be bought as a stand-alone piece of software or played online for about nine dollars Canadian. The software was in Beta (short form for it’s buggy) for a long time, and there were frequent complaints about the economy of the game being wholly unrealistic (buying fields for $20,000, for example) and of course the angry real-world winemakers have flooded the developer’s feedback forum with notes about the game’s gross oversimplifications and glaring inaccuracies (are there tannins in the white wines?). I’ve been studying the art of making wine and have even found some tips on how to make better wine here on Rosehill Wine Cellar’s website, and so I was eager to give it a go and see what I could learn about virtual winemaking and the business of running a vineyard.
For now the game is Single Player only, so it will have to remain a private obsession until developers tackle the multiplayer version. There are computer players available to compete against of course, and I selected two of these opponents. I also chose to accept the recommended starting budget of $35,000. The game makes no mention of geography or offers any choice of location on any maps of famous wine regions, but based on the low cost of land I figure we’re farming an ’emerging’ wine region without a native grape or preference.
One click later, I began the game with a single loam-soil type field beside a little white house in poor repair that I presumed was my starter chalet. I also owned a tile of forest nearby with a road going nowhere and through which I built a fence guarding nothing and erected a road sign to help lost travelers. These are decorative elements only, but I suppose the presence of the wood lot could somehow help (or possibly hurt) my field’s ‘canopy’ which I don’t totally understand.
On Becoming a Virtual Vigneron
A winemaker or vintner is a person actively engaged in the business of making and selling wine. They’re generally employed by wineries or wine companies where they work with owners, as well as viticulturists. The professionals who plan, supervise and coordinate the growing of selected grape varieties for the production of wine, dried fruit or table grapes are called viticulturists. But none of that matters in Terroir; in this business simulator video game the player does it all.
The game starts rather slow. Players can do absolutely nothing except watch for the first minute; each month is twenty seconds long and each of the four seasons is comprised of three months and hence, one minute long. Right now it’s still Winter 2019 and the ground is frozen. Clouds go racing by until March when finally a lonely piece of fencing pops up in the empty field beside the house. Now it’s time to plant the vines.
When I click on that piece-of-fence button I’m able to select from four different grape varietals (more later). But when I do the math, I realize the only grape, Cabernet Sauvignon makes any economic sense (when you start with only $35,000). The maintenance costs are only $80 per month for this varietal, as compared to $300 per month for Chardonnay and more for the others. Regardless, I’m quite satisfied growing Cabernet Sauvignon, which is among the world’s most widely recognized red wine grapes and is hearty and adaptive. The vines are grown in nearly every major wine producing country in the world, from Canada’s cold and moist Okanagan Valley to Lebanon’s arid Beqaa Valley. This is a sturdy choice and very marketable too as none of the other computer player grew this grape. There were other options, but I was too scared to venture out and try the more exotic varietals right at the beginning of the game.
Rkatsiteli grapes make a more acidic white wine with spicy and floral notes in the aroma. Acidity matters, and as you will see later, getting the acidity level right on target (a different level for each different wine) is part of the winemaker’s art. Plus although cheaper to initially plant, I wagered the $300 per month maintenance fee would soon erode most of my early business profits. So with all this in mind, I resolved to leave the Rkatsiteli grape alone and plant Cabernet Sauvignon as my first vines. Five years later I started into Chardonnay which also requires a loam soil, and then Sauvignon Blanc on a sandy field I bought for fifty thousand dollars.
The vines will last twenty years on average, but may need to replaced before that, or long afterwards. Indeed I see there’s a Steam Achievement award for having century old vines that are still producing fruit.
Terroir gives grape growers a powerful tool: clippers!
As rain passed overhead, and the sun emerged in May 2019, I watched my first vines grow and break into a leafy bloom. That vegetation must be cut back so the plants pour their energy into growing the fruit I learned, and with one click of the hedge-clippers I zapped away the foliage and exposed a more skeletal vine with small purple triangles. Then I wondered if there was a best time to do the pruning? There really isn’t. What I mean to say is, that there’s no set month or season where pruning happens, but rather my decision to remove the leaves in my fields was based on the ripeness of the crop and the health of the vines rather than the calendar date.
The summer months were spent watching the fruit mature and trimming my vines as necessary to steer my crop toward an optimal Ripeness of between 4 and 6 on the ten point scale at the left of the page. If it’s July and the crop is already at Level 4 Ripeness, then a sudden shower is a welcome surprise. The resulting leaf growth should not be cut back until August as the foliage will shade the fruit and slow the crop for an early September harvest at Ripeness level 5. I was going to write that is the perfect grow-scenario and will win awards if you can manage to get it in the bottle, but I suppose the best-case scenario is simply to get as much juice as possible; a skilled artisan can use the following five wine making processes to turn any ill-balanced juice into award-winning product. Crushing, fermenting, pressing, aging and bottling were all part of Wizard Wine brand’s terroir.
The wine making process begins with the annual Harvest Report.
Good or bad, each year’s crop is harvested when the player clicks a purple bunch-of-grapes button that appears over the chalet. Then you watch an army of little people amble over the tiles and pick all the fruit from every field at once. When the wooden tub in each patch flashes purple, the harvest is complete. Moments later, a pop-up graph presents the annual Harvest Report which details the constituent levels of the grapes’ juice fresh from the fields. Each varietal is indexed separately and will have different values. The most relevant information in the Harvest Report is the total volume of how much juice was collected followed by the Sweetness level. The other factors can be raised or lowered as necessary, but the amount of juice you have to work with is finite, and the Sweetness level of the juice can only be lowered. The best crops are those which are abundant (the juice tonnage exceeds the number of fields) and relatively equal in terms of its levels.
When aiming for the perfect tasting Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to achieve an Acidity Level of 6, a Sweetness of 4, and Tannins around 5 or 6, and body should be about the same as well. So this red wine requires all four levels be almost evenly balanced. The winemaker’s tools available in the next piece allows Players to find that perfect blend.
Crushing grapes using the Pigeage process
The pencil-sketch images that appear during the juice processing sequences channel the classic French wine industry of the mid 18th century. The series starts with the crushing of the grapes. The artwork shows a man sloshing about in a wooden tub beside the French word Pigeage, which actually translates as ‘Pegging’. This process increases the tannins in the wine by two tenths, but there is no other option. At the beginning of the game, Pigeage is the only grape-crushing process available. Modern winemakers call it ‘punching’ and it’s used to crush grapes to make juice but and also to extract the desired polyphenolic compounds during fermentation. This is the stage during which the skins of grapes (marc) are allowed to macerate in the must. This operation allows the wine to benefit from the tannins (polyphenols) and colors (anthocyanins) provided by the skin. This phenomenon is amplified by the pigeage which brings the skins back into contact with the must, assisting with their extraction from the skin and into the liquid.
The player may upgrade their crushing machinery, but only after they upgrade their home estate. Later it’s possible to buy a ‘Traditional Crusher’ for $100K, and then a ‘Motorized Crusher’, and finally the ultimate grape-smashing contrivance is the ‘Vin Gris Crushing’ option.
Are there tannins in white wine? This was a major complaint of the game on the discussion forums “ie, how could my Sauvignon Blanc be so tannic?“. The simple answer is yes, white wines do indeed have tannins. In fact, all wines have tannins, just at various levels. They enter the juice from the skins, stems, and seeds during pigeage and fermentation and so of course red wines are much more tannic than white wines but all wine has tannins.
Fermentation affects the Sweetness of wine
Next the crushed grapes must be left for a time to ferment. The pencil sketch image here shows the winemaker stirring the must. Here wine is being fermented in large wooden tanks which are called “open-tops” when the contents are left open to the atmosphere.
In very general terms, a wine fermentation occurs when yeast consumes sugar and converts it into approximately half alcohol, and half CO2 gas (carbonation) by weight. During the fermentation process, sugars from wine grapes are broken down and converted by yeast into alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide. Grapes accumulate sugars as they grow on the grapevine through the translocation of sucrose molecules that are produced by photosynthesis from the leaves.
In my own life, it has been my experience that a substance’s perceived ‘sweetness’ is almost entirely subjective. A friend may find something sweet, while I find it bland. But with wine there are other factors which help convince human tongues that things taste sweet or sour. The sweetness of a wine is determined by the interaction of several factors, including the amount of sugar in the wine, but also the relative levels of alcohol, acids, and tannins. Sugars and alcohol enhance a wine’s sweetness; acids (sourness) and bitter tannins counteract it. The game of Terroir reflects this reality in that it’s possible to decrease your wine’s sweetness by leaving it longer in the fermentation stage. Every two weeks of fermentation decreases Sweetness level by one tenth. I do not believe it is possible to raise sweetness after the crop has been picked. This one way players experience crop failure in the game of Terroir; if the wine is picked too young and the sugar is too low then it will not be possible to make an easily sale-able wine. This is especially true with Chardonnay. I received the best reviews with Sweetness Level 6 and that’s hard to do year after year. It means the crop has to be picked ripe. If you have a lot of sugar in the wine then deciding the right amount of fermentation time becomes part of the unique circumstances that will give your wine its personality, its terroir.
Next the wine is pressed, or maybe not
As I wrote above, when playing the game of Terroir you’ll want to bottle your Cabernet Sauvignon when the liquid in the oak casks has an Acidity Level of 6, a Sweetness of 4, and Tannins level of between 4 or 6. The body should be relatively centered as well. So if the juice from the fresh crop is is already at the desired Acidity level then no pressing whatsoever is required. In the photo below I hope to get the mixture one tenth more acidic to achieve the desired 6,4,6 levels for Wizard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Acidity gives wine its tart and sour taste. The white wines in the game often need to be pressed to get the desired Acidity. Sauvignon Blanc is best bottled at Acidity level 8, and so that means it almost always has to pressed at this stage of the wine making process.
Fundamentally speaking, all wines lie on the acidic side of the pH spectrum and most range from 2.5 to about 4.5 pH (7 is neutral). There are several different types of acids found in wine which will affect how acidic a wine tastes. The most prevalent acids found in wine are tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid.
In reality, timing exactly when to press the juice and how much to press is one of the most important decisions in the red wine making process since that will be the moment that maceration and phenolic extraction ceases. In the game we often only need to press a small amount to reach the desired levels of acidity. In the game this process is used to add Acidity to the juice.
Should the Tannins number be too high for our juice, we can press more of the wine to get a higher Acidity level in the short term; later below you’ll read how we can leave the new wine in oak casks for a few months longer to reduce both Acidity and Tannins.
Ageing wine in wooden casks lowers its Acidity and Tannins levels
At the beginning of the game there is only one ageing method available to players: Common French Oak casks. Later its possible to get stainless steel vats and other equipment which will affect your wine in different ways.
In the real world, the oak lumber that’s used to make wine barrels often comes from countries with cool climates. Cold winter air limits growth and the trees mature more slowly here; they also develop a tighter wood grain. Most of the French oak for wine barrels comes from one of five famous French forests. Some of these areas were originally planted during Napoleonic times (as oak was considered a strategic resource for shipbuilding). These forests are located in the center of the country which is colder than the coasts; they are found in Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges, and each is considered to have distinctive characteristics. When vineyard owners buy French Oak Casks in real life, it is often possible to specify from which forest they wish their barrel to be sourced. To retain the desired measure of oak influence, a winery will replace a certain percentage of its barrels every year, although this can vary from 5 to 100%. Some winemakers use “200% new oak”, where the wine is put into new oak barrels twice during the aging process. Bulk wines are sometimes more cheaply flavored by soaking in oak chips or added commercial oak flavoring instead of being aged in a barrel because of the much lower cost.
Ageing the wine in ‘Common French Oak’ wine barrels, a winemaker’s only option at the start of the game, will decrease the acidity by one tenth and the Tannin level by two tenths for every month that it ages.
The photo show a wine cask on its side and the levels on this picture detail one of my more disastrous early crops that was harvested either too early or too late (and before I knew about the leaf-clippers). All the same, because the Tannis and Acid are equally high at 10/10 they can be wrestled back to manageable levels in tandem simply by spending four months in the cask. This particular batch will probably not garner any 5-star awards however as the Body level is also too high.
One of the mistakes that I consistently made in my cellar was to forget that I’d left wine aging in the casks. I’d just get busy in the springtime out in the fields preparing the vines for the season, and next thing you know four months have passed, and the wine in the casks has lost too much Acidity and Tannins. This is another reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is such a good varietal to grow as it usually requires little fermentation time and no aging.
Bottling the wine locks its levels for posterity
Now it’s time to bottle the wine. The game provides eight different bottle types in two different colours with a choice of either cork or screwcap closures. Wooden corks costs double the price of metal screw caps and there is no metric to show if the virtual consumers care which you select. I read somewhere that snobby wine reviews will be negatively affected and sometimes make remarks about poor presentation when they review your wine bottles that are closed with screw caps, but I have not seen this. It’s not clear if they are affected by the shape or colour of the bottle either. Regardless, the bottle prices are set by these experts who write reviews after the tastings, and so it stands to reason that you’ll want to select the best packaging if you know you have great product.
During the bottling process there is no measure of volume except the amount of oak casks awaiting bottling. In the picture above you can see it that it says 10 of 10 in the center of the page. This is the number of casks that I’m setting out for bottling. Only wine in glass bottles can be sold during the game. It’s always a bit of a surprise when you click to the next section of the wine cellar and see for the first time just how many bottles you have to sell.
Once the wine is bottled, it behooves you to immediately organize a wine tasting event so your product can be sampled and reviewed by experts. These notables will attend your events and review your vintages on their own dime; this is essential because they rate the wine and set the prices that international wine distributors will pay.
I have a theory about the long list of wine reviewers and which should be invited to the party; you are only allowed three guests. While it’s human nature to want to select the most famous and most respected aficionados, the truth of the matter is that the more stars they have beside their names, the more critical they will be about your product. So I work it a little differently; if i know my wine has the proper levels of Acidity, Sweetness, Tannins and Body then I will invite the very best reviewers at the bottom of the slider (the ones who were unlocked by my previous triumphs). There is no cost involved in having this party, but there is the risk that they will not like the wine, in which case they’ll set the bottle price lower and devalue your entire harvest. The chance of that happening rises the higher the reputation of the reviewer. But then again, only the best reviewers can unlock the highest wine prices. I’ve had $114 bottles, and I’m sure others have had even higher prices. However, getting back to the reviewers. Sometimes you don’t want the best-of-the-best if you know what I mean. You see, if I know I’m a few points off-the-mark here or there in the levels, then I will invite less well-known reviewers and still get good reviews and an okay wine price. Unless it’s absolutely terrible wine.
Sometimes there’s a glut in the market, especially if your last batch of wine was sub-par. It can take months to clear. If you visit the marketplace before the distributors have unloaded your last batch, all the merchants will have messages saying ‘…waiting to sell a number of bottles”. In these situations, you simply have to wait as there’s nowhere else to sell your product. Yes, you could unload it for $5 a bottle at Kruppe Stores which buy everything and ‘disappear it’ instantly. Later in the game it’s possible to buy an empty lot and erect a tavern. You can get good prices for poor quality wine there but it costs $250,000 to build. This is a great way to get rid of poorer quality product in your cellar, although your wineries’ reputation grows if you sell wines rated 3-Stars or better in this bar. The ‘Fight with a Merchant‘ chance card lets you build the tavern for free.
Early in the game I had a perfect year and Wizard Wine Estates, my company managed to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon with the desired 6,4,6 levels that earn 5-Star reviews. So I held back twenty bottles and waited for the CIVO awards which happen every four years. When invited to submit for that round, I sent off the last 20 bottles, and paid the $1000 entrance fee. Four months later I found out we’d won. Wizard Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 was recognized as best in class and became a CIVO award-winning wine.
The prize is three points of Renown plus an extra 10% premium added to the wine price. Unfortunately the wine was long gone from my cellars, but I needed the reputation boost as players need to have over fifty points of renown plus one hundred thousand dollars to upgrade their estates.
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you have no choice but to dump inferior product. If the wine market is glutted and you have really terrible stuff after the reviews are published, then sometimes it’s best to just be rid of it. You can always start again fresh next year. I’ve left bad crops to rot in the fields too, as this is far preferable and much cheaper than harvesting a horrible juice and making bad wine. In the photo below you can see one of my early attempts perfecting the levels for Chardonnay failed miserably and the wine reviewers gave that vintage one half-star. So the first 1920 bottles of Wizard Chardonnay were unceremoniously dumped before they reached the market and damaged relations with wine merchants.
It wasn’t long after that ordeal that Wizard Wines got into trouble buying land we couldn’t afford and making more bad wine that we couldn’t sell. We borrowed $3000 from the local development bank (which is the most they would lend us), and then we struggled to make the payments. Like so many other start-ups in this business sector, the fate of Wizard Wines was ultimately decided by the bankers who eventually shut us down.
Terroir is a French word for “land”, but in the wine industry it has come to mean the soil plus the combined set of circumstances including all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including its unique geography and contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitats. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to add character, and terroir is the word used to describe that unique blend. Now wannabe winemakers have a different reason to love the word Terroir, and the 2017 business simulator game from General Interactive teaches us to respect its meaning and the great lengths to which real life professionals go to make it all work.