The French have a word, terroir which comes from the word terre meaning “land”. It was originally a French term used in discussing wine, coffee and tea. It denotes those special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place puts into a plant.
The soil, weather conditions and the farming techniques all contribute to some uniqueness in a crop. Most people probably don’t taste it when eating a potato, but in wine it has become critical.
You can also loosely translate terroir as “a sense of place.” It was that more general sense of place that I was thinking of last month.
I had reconnected with a former student of mine via Facebook. Chris Donatiello had been a student in one of my middle school English classes back in the mid-1980. I also taught his brother, Guy, and sister, Lisa. All good students and good people.
I discovered from his profile that Chris now owns a vineyard in California. His C. Donatiello Winery is known for its small lot and single vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays focused on the Russian River Valley. Looking at photos of the vineyards in the Sonoma wine country made me think that owning a winery seems like a pretty Romantic career.
When a box arrived from Chris on Easter weekend with four bottles of wine, it took me in a number of directions.
I went online and started reading up on the winery and the wines. When I started reading reviews, it made me feel wine-stupid. But as a teacher, I could figure out that getting a 90+ is an “A” – and there don’t seem to be many perfect scores out there. (Tanzer Ratings for a few of his wines: Chardonnay, 2008 Orsi Vineyard 93 pts, 2008 Maddie’s Vineyard 93 pts. Pinot Noir 2008 Windhorse Vineyard 92; 2008 Floodgate Old Vine 92)
So, I don’t know much about wine. I can’t talk wisely about all those characteristic qualities of a wine that are described as being related to the local environment, but I had heard earlier of terroir through being a bit of a tea connoisseur.
That began when I read The Book of Tea in college. The book is Okakura Kakuzō’s 1906 essay linking the role of tea (Teaism) to the aesthetic and cultural aspects of Japanese life.
And I think that this sense of place applies to people.
In my own philosophy, where and when you grew up, and they way you were nurtured, determines almost everything. I don’t argue about whether it is “nurture or nature” that matters, because I think it is clearly the combination of the two. And, for me, the “nature” in that equation is very much the place.
I see some of that in Chris’ approach to wine. Watching a video with him, he talks about growing up in New Jersey, wine at his grandparents on Sundays, and his family’s own home winemaking. That’s something I remember very well from my Italian-American neighbors as a child. The grapes arriving in wooden crates (I rescued many of those crates and built many things from them.) and the crushing and pressing (which I got to participate in), and the hidden magic of the fermentation and clarification being revealed and the bottling.
It was the first wine I probably ever tasted. I didn’t like it, but I liked drinking it, because I knew how it was made and I had played a small part in creating it.
The concept of terroir is the basis of the French wine Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe.
It’s all about believing that the land imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region, but it is still hard to control all the elements when some are beyond the control of humans.
You grow up in a country, in a region, but really it’s a macroclimate – the Russian River Valley, the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy or Livingston, New Jersey. And for wine, there may be a smaller mesoclimate. For people, a neighborhood. Most importantly, I suspect there is even a microclimate – a particular vineyard or row or grapevines. Your home.
People have some control over these places. But many winemakers believe that whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence.
Some grape varieties, and some of us, thrive better in some areas than they do in others.
I like that his winery participates in Cellar Angels, a group of wine loving friends supporting good causes one wine bottle at a time.
I like knowing that someone I knew as an adolescent seems to have found his place in the world.
I probably will never feel comfortable saying that I can taste fresh red berries and flowers on an expressive nose and open-knit red fruit flavors that show a primary, slightly jammy quality and no rough edges.
And there are a lot of less famous ones doing good work and raising families. I hope that they all found or can still find their sense of place. As a teacher, I hope that I helped them have a good vintage year.