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Terroir is not a small dog or related to 9/11

Localism, regionality, indigenous, terroir. What does it mean and why should we care? It’s mysterious. Ask two different winemakers, chefs or farmers for their definition and you will get three different answers.

The classic definition of terroir (pronounced ter-whahr) is “a taste or sense of a place” or it’s an item that “uniquely reflects its place of birth.” Literally, the French translation for terroir is “soil,” a term for the effect of land on flavor.

Matt Kramer, wine writer and author of Making Sense Of Wine, poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness”. This approaches terroir simply as referring just to the geological and geographical attributes – location, location, location or should I say microclimate, microclimate, microclimate. Jamie Goode of The Wine Anorak online wine magazine argues that terroir is reserved solely to describe the physical environment in which the agriculture (specifically grape vines) grows-that is, the soil type, microclimate and aspect of a defined area.

My problem –Β  some products have a sensitivity to terroir; other foodstuffs may be less likely to show it. Yes, dirt matters but it’s about so much more. Is it just that age old nature versus nurture argument? I think not. Terroir comes from an ongoing process of discovery, stewardship and passionate art. It involves both nature and human endeavors. It is the combination of complex variables – climate, feed, soil, the human touch and seasonal shifts – that contribute to the character of the end product.

I’m also tired of the wine geeks out there pretentiously fighting over what terroir really means and applying it only to their precious juice. Terroir is passion. There is the human element that interprets the product and intervenes at the proper point but it also includes the non-human-based impacts such as history, experience and culture. My friend Paul Atkinson of Laughing Stock Farm and his amazing suckling pigs have it. Pierre Kolisch, his 110 goats and their amazing Juniper Grove Farm goat cheeses have it. The Bolster family’s produce from their Deep Roots Farm have it. And even winemaker Gilles Antoine de Domingo and his Cooper Mountain Vineyards certified organic and biodynamic wines have it.

It, to me, is summed-up by Justice Potter Stewart back in 1964 when he tried to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . “[1] Or more likely, I know it when I taste it.

Why do we care? We have been fooled by multi-national corporations into believing what’s hot, what’s new and what’s “in” is the standard for culinary excellence. Not so my friends. Let me turn to the Slow Food movement and their Ark of Taste. The Ark “seeks, first and foremost, to save an economic, social and cultural heritage – a universe of animal breeds, fruit and vegetables, cured meats, cheese, cereals, pastas, cakes and confectionery. Their mission is to preserve endangered tastes – and to celebrate them, by introducing them to the membership and then to the world…”

It’s all part of an appreciation of your own regional and local history and recognizing that every area has the ability to produce flavorful and wonderful food. The best way to defend the planet’s cultural and biological diversity is to enjoy it at the table. Grow it, sell it, support it and eat it. Your taste buds will thank me.

Note: This is a rewritten and excerpted piece I wrote for Restaurants and Institutions magazine

[1] Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964)

More on Terroir from the GO Network:
What is Sustainable Cuisine? – Part One
What is Sustainable Cuisine? – Part Two
Oyster Lust : Eat. Drink. Better.

2 comments
  1. Lisa Mattson

    Dear Stuart:
    We’ve never met before, but I wanted to introduce myself and find out if we can send you information from time to time that might be of interest for your blog. We’ve just unveiled a new documentary film series featuring wineries and several of them are biodynamic producers. Here’s a link to the full press release. Let me know if you’re interested in being e-mailed when new films premiere.
    Best,
    Lisa

    http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/09-24-2008/0004891275&EDATE=

    AWARD-WINNING FILMMAKER CREATES SERIES OF WINE FILMS
    Film trailer for documentary series available for viewing at http://www.wilsondanielsfilms.com

    ST. HELENA, California (September 24, 2008) – Bret Lyman, a Napa Valley-based filmmaker and
    proprietor of B.Napa Studio, has turned his camera on the vineyards, wineries and principals of Wilson
    Daniels Ltd.’s French and Hungarian properties to create a series of compelling, short films.
    A trailer for the entire film series is available online now at http://www.wilsondanielsfilms.com.

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