Terroir: A Taste of More than Place

Amy Trubek leads the reader on a historical, cultural, and technical journey through the complex world of “terrior” or the “taste of place” as she defines it. Trubek focuses on wine, cheese, and maple syrup in France, California, and Vermont. Through these specific places and examples, she explores different viewpoints, traditions, advantages, histories, and futures of the ideas of product differentiation based on specific place (be it France, or Vermont, or this small eastern corner of this particular orchard).

I felt the writing was a bit repetitive and could have been more powerful if it was a more concise overview, but I understand that terroir is a difficult concept to put into words- especially for an American audience. That being said, by the end of the wine section, I had a clear sense and emotional feeling about terrior. My interpretation of terroir is broadly a quality inherent in a product that cannot be replicated or explained. Though Trubek mostly proved this through physical qualities of soil that affect the taste of wine, cheese, meat, or produce, she also touched on the artisanal qualities as well. To me, terroir is more than a taste of place, because it embodies history and tradition. I do not think that two people could produce identical tasting wine from the same grapes. I am a firm supporter of the value of craftsmanship and tradition and the additional value that adds to a commodity.

Perhaps personally, I found it difficult to relate to place as the main driver of terroir because I do not find myself firmly rooted in place. My roots are stronger in family and tradition. I found myself connecting to Trubek’s description of terroir through my experience at flea markets. The goods I find at flea markets have the same indescribable quality of tradition that connects me to the items in a way that mechanized production cannot. Emotionally, I felt a connection to the wine producers staying true to the old ways. I related to the sense of fear that the traditions will die with this older generation, because I feel the same about flea marketing. I try to learn all the stories I can about objects from the past so I can preserve them and I hope there are others like me trying to learn as much as they can from the experienced wine-makers to preserve the production of wine with attention to terroir.

I realize, however, that not many people have the same visceral, emotional connection to this idea of terroir. I think this is because it is so closely related to knowledge and values. If you don’t know the stories surrounding production, you cannot feel as connected, and if you do not value that information you will not seek it in the first place. In places like France and Vermont where quality and locality are valued, the desire for products with terroir is natural. I went to Burlington, Vermont a few weeks ago and noticed that just about every menu boasted at least one item with “Vermont cheddar cheese” and/or “Vermont maple syrup”. I even ate a “Vermont omelet” that combined both of these flavors.

It seems as though terroir in the U.S. today is more focused on marketing strategies than true craftsmanship. In Vermont it seems as though people really to appreciate the quality of Vermont cheese and syrup that is different than anywhere else, however I do not get the same impression about those products sold outside of Vermont. Outside Vermont, the focus on terroir feels more like a marketing tactic. I think that this is because culturally, not everyone is raised to value terroir.

I think that this goes back to Bourdieu’s ideas about the taste of luxury and the taste of necessity. I was surprised that Trubek did not include more of this theory. She did acknowledge that taste preferences are centered around social class and that in France, there has historically been a stark contrasted between food and drink for the elite and for the peasants, but she did not carry this analysis over to the U.S. For me, that was a real gap in her analysis. Terroir and locality are closely tied to new food activism in the U.S., however, Trubek failed to explain the social class stratification that goes along with this. Craftsmanship and quality have not been strong, traditionally American values for the food system in quite some time. As she noted, we are often much more driven by convenience, abundance, and price. Those who are aware of terroir in some sense are those who are privileged enough to not worry about convenience, abundance, and price- they have the taste of luxury.

I appreciated that Trubek showed some social enterprise ventures that strive to make local, quality food more widely available at restaurants. That hinted at the future and potential for the notion of terroir to spread, but I would have liked to see more of that. I was left wondering where she sees the future of terroir, if terroir can be widely understood and valued or if that would diminish its appeal, and how she’s sees this force so oppositional to globalization continuing to operate in an increasingly globalized world. 

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