For many, the term terroir conjures up images of soil, rock, slope and sun. The goût du terroir of a Chablis can summon the steely minerals of a limestone-rich earth. But the notion of terroir is also said to be somewhat mystical, an unquantifiable sensibility, philosophy, history. In his Foreword to James E. Wilson’s Terroir, Hugh Johnson writes, “If Chablis tastes different from Meursault, Margaux from Pauillac, the first place we must look for the difference is underground. Terroir, of course, means much more than what goes on below the surface. Properly understood, it means the whole ecology of a vineyard, every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way the vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron” (Johnson 1998, 4). According to Amy Trubek (food anthropologist, French-trained chef, and Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont), contemporary understandings of terroir assume that quality is linked to an origin of some kind. But such an understanding is further complicated by the production, exchange and consumption of terroir products in a global marketplace. The difficulties in translating terroir, both linguistically and conceptually, strike to the heart of Trubek’s question in The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. How has terroir become a transnational concept for discerning taste? Why has an idea that is predicated on specificity and place gained momentum at a moment in which food systems and wine industries have become increasingly industrialized and globalized? Does terroir mean the same thing in France as it does in Northern California? In Vermont? In Wisconsin?
With these questions in mind, Trubek takes us on a cross-cultural voyage in search of the many meanings and practices that have come to be associated with goût du terroir, which Trubek translates as ‘the taste of place’. This narrative, which begins in 18th century France, finds its conclusion in a discussion of maple syrup in present-day Vermont. In between, Trubek introduces us to wine producers, farmers, chefs, restaurateurs and local consumers in the rolling vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, in the hills of Northern California and on the plateaus of Wisconsin. Chapters 1–3 will perhaps be of most interest to wine scholars, although the importance of the subsequent chapters should be no less diminished for those wishing to know more about expressions of terroir in the contemporary United States. Chapter 1, “Place Matters,” situates terroir in historical context in 18th, 19th and 20th century France, and describes how new institutional initiatives (such as the 1855 Bordeaux wine classification and the establishment of the AOC in the 1930s) motivated changing notions of terroir. Chapter 2 focuses on present-day articulations of terroir in France; Trubek’s study of the Robert Mondavi Winery’s failed bid to establish a winery in southwest France highlights the way in which terroir takes on different meanings in France and the United States. Chapter 3 takes us to California, where Trubek investigates the practices of taste and place at wineries, and then introduces us to the idea of a ‘culinary terroir’, as exemplified through the emergence of ‘California cuisine.’
Chapters 4 and 5 expand on the idea of culinary terroir, as articulated in the practices of local restaurants and networks of tastemakers (most notably, chefs, culinary students, farmers and researchers). The final chapter more fully inquires into the tension between place-based tastes and commodification by contrasting terroir and branding as two different categories for understanding taste and protecting food. The book then concludes with an appetite-whetting comprehensive index of products that are protected by European institutional initiatives, beginning with French AOC products (cheeses, meats, produce, olive oils and wines) and then moving on to all of the other food products within Europe that are protected by an E.U. Designation of Origin.
One of Trubek’s primary arguments is that contemporary practices of tasting place are interventions into globalized orders of food and wine production and consumption. To this end, Trubek shows us how current articulations of a taste of place are conscious practices in both France and the United States, albeit for very different reasons. She traces the trajectory of terroir and goût du terroir in France in demonstration of the fact that its current meaning – as an indicator of taste, place and quality – is a recent development (Trubek 2008, 22). For centuries, the French vision of terroir was bound up with the construction and preservation of a French agrarian ideal: the taste of place rooted tradition in the French soil. This conception changed in the mid-19th century, with the introduction of the 1855 Bordeaux wine classification. The attempt to codify the taste of place connected it to ideas of quality, an approach that gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century as the notion of terroir became more implicated in wine culture. By the 1930s, the state had introduced the appellations d’origine contrôlées (AOC) system in the service of protecting French wines in a growing international marketplace. The emergent relationship between taste, place, quality and wine culture consequently persuaded terroir to take on a layered meaning in France: while it indicated a non-quantifiable cultural approach to place, such as local winemaking traditions and philosophies of flavor, it also came to denote a scientific approach to place, as something that could be known and studied (69). Over the course of the twentieth century, the French notion of terroir assumed a meaning that drew more heavily on the former; it became deeply connected to roots, memory and identity. In an increasingly fast-paced and urbanized context, the taste of place has become a conscious practice, a form of nostalgia for an agrarian history (52, 93). As such, contemporary manifestations of terroir and goût du terroir in France can best be understood as a way of maintaining a national identity within a globalized economy. Trubek values the French model because it embraces the cultural as well as the scientific components of terroir. But, she astutely warns that the contemporary manifestation of the French taste of place privileges nostalgia and perpetuates a view of terroir as an essentialist form of heritage-making, which thereby precludes the imagination of new possibilities in a global context (247).
The case is somewhat different in North America. Trubek traces the global circulation of the idea of terroir and shows us how the concept gives rise to different interpretations and practices in the United States. The Mondavi Affair in Aniane, France, in 2001 unfolded precisely because the California-based winery had construed ‘place’ and ‘terroir’ to refer only to quantifiable geographic properties; it understood ‘soil’ to the exclusion of local tradition and identity, and was consequently denied the opportunity to build a winery by the citizens of Aniane. Similarly, Trubek shows us how many wineries in California often interpret terroir-based practices to entail only a less invasive method of production, such as the application of biodynamic methods. In the absence of tradition, practices of taste and place in the United States tend to privilege the more quantifiable, geography-based aspects of terroir, and we see that this is especially true for Northern California’s wine industry. Culinary terroir, the progeny of California’s wine terroir, is predicated on the idea of environmental sustainability as a reaction to a highly industrialized, de-localized food system. But the emergence of both local cuisines and taste-of-place-based food products also introduces a cultural component, wherein networks of tastemakers and consumers come together to forge robust local agrarian food cultures (237).
One might think it odd that Trubek concludes a book about taste and the specificity of place in both France and the United States with an abbreviated discussion of Slow Food, the non-profit Italian (and now global) organization that seeks to counteract the effects of an industrialized, globalized food system by linking taste, place and culture through practice. But Trubek’s appeal to Slow Food emphasizes that 21st century terroir is about consciously slowing down in a fast society, and forging the local in a de-localized world. In France, this means appealing nostalgically to a bygone era and tradition in which French identity was rooted in the land. In the United States, it entails innovation and bricolage, whereby local sustainability counteracts large-scale homogenous production and where local tastemakers encourage the development of new values. In an effort to consider the global possibilities for terroir, Trubek laments Slow Food Italy’s “brand of historical determinism” for privileging tastes rooted in Italy’s authenticity and tradition, though she acknowledges that economic ambitions can help create new markets and motivate consumer publics to forge taste-based values (240, 243). Trubek’s limited discussion of Italy should encourage us to think about the taste of place in new contexts. For example, what should we now make of the Super Tuscans, the innovative, high-quality, highly branded and American-focused Italian wines which challenged the antiquated classification system that for a long time legitimated poor quality, watery fiasci? Originally made in an ‘international’ style (that is, made with Bordeaux-style varietals and aged in barriques [Bastianich and Lynch 2005, 210]), but trumpeting the links between taste, place and local culture, the shiny Super Tuscans beckon us to consider how what Trubek takes to be potentially competing values – terroir and taste of place versus market forces, aesthetic ideals and cultural capital (Trubek 2008, 245) – may be differently configured. Might the innovative Super Tuscans offer us a new (or another) model for thinking about the possibilities for terroir in an increasingly globalized context? While Trubek’s discussions of maple syrup and cabécous de Rocamadour cheese suggest that taste of place practices and branding strategies have the potential to co-exist, we might wonder whether they must always be “very distinct framing categories for preserving, protecting, and promoting farming and food” (212).
Trubek’s work is highly engaging, accessible and provocative. We should take the book’s final few pages on the taste of place in Italy as an invitation to consider global iterations of the local beyond what Trubek so adeptly and passionately devotes to France, California,
Wisconsin and Vermont. As Trubek tells us, place (still) matters.
New York University
Johnson, H. (1998). Foreword. In James E. Wilson, Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines (p.4). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bastianich, J. and Lynch, D. (2005). Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers.