“The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir” by Amy Trubek
I’ve been on a French wine kick for the past couple of years and lately I’ve been trying to learn more about red Burgundies. It was my good fortune then to come across “Bordeaux/Burgundy.” Pitte is a geographer and food and wine critic with many years of experience writing about and drinking fine French wines. This is an enchanting book: both fact-filled and a delightful historical and cultural exploration of French wine and culture.
do you think that I could produce fine wine with this terroir?
The ‘rivalry’ between these regional French wine powerhouses seems to be of long-standing though the origins of the debate are shrouded in mystery. More than just a battle between wine styles, it seems to have taken on a cultural meaning in France perhaps akin to the almost irrational way that fans at the World Cup strongly cheer for one team over another. One quote from a Parisian journalist that Pitte mentions should suffice to give you the idea:
I had probably never drunk a single glass of wine when I chose my camp once and for all: Bordeaux rather than Burgundy. Once and for all! But one lives and learns. Since then I have learned to put some Burgundy in my wine…The palate must give way to the mind.
Pitte looks to the particular histories of these two wine producing areas as the main source of the not always so friendly competition between them. Aside from being in different locations, Burgundy was heavily cultivated in vines and producing fine wines long before Bordeaux had earned such a reputation. Pitte stresses the consumer markets for these wines as the key driving force in shaping their production. Historically Burgundies were sold in Paris, the old Duchy of Burgundy and Central Europe; Bordeaux wines in England and Northern Europe. Market and economic forces then influenced which vintners prospered and which failed.
This flies in the face of the often talked-about idea that terroir is mainly due to the land and climate that the vine experiences with human actions relegated to a small part of the equation. Pitte doesn’t reject terroir. Instead he emphasizes the effects of man over nature in the creation of fine wine. Much of the book is then a development of this ‘radical’ idea.
It’s easy to be persuaded about the importance of money allowing the development of fine wine estates in Bordeaux and vineyards in Burgundy. At first glance, it seems tough to reconcile the land issue. Pitte suggests that many parts of Bordeaux and Burgundy are underdeveloped and with more capital could produce wines to rival the finest in Romanee-Conti or in the Medoc. From this he concludes that there’s nothing that special about the actual ground that these famous vineyards grow in. One spectacular example is the revival of Chablis, which had languished for decades but now produces fine wines that are demanded throughout the world. He also finds numerous other plots of ground that are underdeveloped for various economic reasons. Chablis is an exciting example about the lesser influence of ‘the land’ for another reason: for many years, winemakers in Chablis would ship in soil from other regions of France to make up for the erosion that plagues the area. Yet no one doubts that these wines are still ‘Chablis.’
Another controversy that distinguishes Bordeaux from Burgundy is the grape varieties used and whether or not wine blends are made. Instead of falling back on the somewhat circular reasoning that the vines grown in these places are perfectly adapted for these areas, Pitte again looks to history as a guide. In 1395 Philip the Bold decreed that only the red noirien grape could be planted in Burgundy. Severe punishments were levied against any producers that ignored this ban. The noirien, now called pinot noir, of course took over as the main red in the area. There was nothing inevitable about pinot noir’s domination of red Burgundy beyond politics. It’s just in hindsight that it seems perfect.
Of course, these reds are only pinots, a very different situation from Bordeaux where numerous reds: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and others are blended in an endless array of mixtures. The difference here is merely cultural and is not due to some magical aspect of the climate and land. Pinot noir itself could probably be grown in Bordeaux, and certainly chardonnay could. It’s likely that some Bordeaux varieties could thrive in Burgundy, too. History and culture doesn’t allow this, not biology.
Pitte misses the mark as far as I’m concerned when he comments, quite briefly, on American and New World wines. Though he argues that international wine consumers, especially Americans and Japanese, are much savvier than we used to be, he dismisses wines from the Americas, Australia and New Zealand as “vins technologiques” which excessively focus on the taste of the varietal rather than the terroir in which the grape is produced. I’ve tried numerous Californian wines and must disagree. There is a distinct Western Paso Robles taste that is noticeably different from Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys in Sonoma County; which are different again one from the other. I suspect that Pitte simply has not had the good fortune to discover these fine wines where he lives. Too bad for him!
This question of the possibility of an American conception of terroir is the focus of “The Taste of Place.” This short book by an anthropologist and chef is not as beautifully written as Bordeaux/Burgundy but is engrossing in its ideas about the roles of the consumer, the producer, the restaurateur and the land in the creation of a uniquely regional American cuisine.
Trubek looks uncritically on the French model for wine production and classification as a starting point for her analysis of the American scene. Unlike Pitte, who makes a nuanced argument about the emphasis in the terroir debate over man versus land; Trubek argues from the perspective of universal ‘brands,’ which she characterizes as “generic,” versus ‘the taste of place.’ The latter is meant to correspond to terroir in the French sense. She includes wines and all other types of agricultural products in her argument, thus expanding on Pitte’s model.
Brands for Trubek are placeless food products that have a universal consistency that wouldn’t be found in a terroir-driven form of agricultural production. It is clear that she is for ‘un-branding’ American food. Starting in the U.S. with a look at the Bay Area, she cites Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley as a pioneer in reawakening Americans to the benefits of regionally distinct foods. Trubek champions the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and other similar farmers markets around the country as spaces in which these regional foods can be discovered.
Trubek attacks this problem in a few different ways. Focused for a good part of the book on restaurants, both because many people eat out often in America and restaurant chefs can be very influential taste-makers, she looks at an interesting case in Wisconsin. L’Etoile restaurant in Madison has built its reputation on creating seasonal, Wisconsin-centered regional food for decades. Restaurant owner and chef Odessa Piper developed relationships with local farmers in an attempt to create a specifically local cuisine that expresses Wisconsin-ness. Trubek writes in particular about the black hickory nut, which is a traditional nut from that region of the country that isn’t found elsewhere. The nut has a long history in Wisconsin though has been gradually losing ground, it seems due to the difficulty involved in harvesting it. At L’Etoile, it is used in numerous dishes as a signal expression of the state.
This idea that place can be reflected in local cuisine through the use of specific ingredients indigenous to an area holds center stage in the last chapters of Taste of Place. In Vermont, Trubek’s state of residence, maple syrup is named as a quintessential expression of Vermont-ness. The syrup has a complex history which Trubek elucidates well. I do believe her when she writes that different maple syrups produced in different regions of the state have different tastes that allow a blind taster to identify where they’re from. This hearkens back to the original wine model of terroir.
One difficulty with this expansionary model of taste of place as applied to all foods is the struggle to distinguish flavor variations within any particular kind of produce. Most of us can appreciate that Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples, for example, have distinct textures and tastes. But can you tell where they were produced or see variations from year to year in these items just by eating them, analogous to wines? I’m sure that I can’t.
Reading Trubek, I was struck by the ways that regional American cuisines with long histories get such short shrift. Creole and Cajun foods from Louisiana, Sonoran Mexican food in Arizona and New England clam bakes are just a few of the many expressions of locality in food that one commonly encounters in this country. These better known regional cuisines often use locally grown or caught products, very similar to the L’Etoile model in Wisconsin. Certainly they’re all quite unique. Aren’t these showing “taste of place?”
More troublesome still, I can’t quite see the difference between foods and wines that express ‘terroir’ and those foods and wines that are merely brands. After all, when you get right down to it, aren’t Bordeaux, Burgundy or Vermont Maple Syrup all famous brands? What’s so bad about brands, really? Is it the idea that they have to be mass-produced and uniform in shape and taste that’s off putting? I’d say that most brands vary if you really think about it. Why else do we try on Levi’s jeans before getting a new pair? Even McDonalds and Starbucks, two American worldwide super-chains offer variable menus from store to store. Say what you want about the Big Mac, but I love Starbuck’s drip coffees, branded or not.
I guess that I’m pro-terroir but I’m not anti-brand. Brands are very useful as a means of communicating about products to consumers that may not know—or care—about all of the complex details involved in an artisanal product. Perhaps over-reliance on any one or a few brands is the real problem with American consumers. In that sense, eating locally and increasing our awareness of other kinds of foods makes perfect sense.
My last objection to these terroir/eat locally crusades is that it becomes too limiting. If I truly just eat locally, then I’ll never enjoy mangoes, Thai food or French wine again. I don’t want to live in that world. Why not some middle way? Can’t we try to eat the freshest ingredients—which often mean those things produced locally—with our eyes and minds open to all of the wonders that come from other local cuisines around the globe?