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  • 1 Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader. Editors, Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein. Oakland: Universit (...)

1This set of articles, based in recent ethnographic fieldwork by a new generation of anthropologists, taken together, make a compelling case that terroir continues to have a certain explanatory power; terroir, or the taste of place, reflects and indexes certain phenomena that materially and existentially matter right now. And these authors do not slavishly accept a definition of terroir but rather they argue for new interpretations of this term, ones that accept (contrary to many earlier and current definitions of the term) its heftiness as a result of its multivalent capacity. These anthropologists agree that terroir is powerful, but it is not exactly precise. Or in more lyrical prose, wine writer Matt Kramer says, “It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences.1

  • 2 The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Amy Trubek. Oakland: University of California (...)

2Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously said, to define ‘dirt’ is to make sense of matter out of place, because there can only be dirt and dirtiness when matter has been classified. Terroir, by extension, is dirt in a certain place, and what this dirt signifies is a human matter. The significance is rich loam for anthropologists and our understandings and interpretations matter. Douglas’s work on cultural categories served as a powerful inspiration for my own investigations of terroir and her legacy lives on in the work of these anthropologists as well. To us, terroir, is dirt in a certain place and thus “the cultural significance of dirt – as soil, as surroundings – motivates all interpretations of terroir.2 In these essays, the soil is less significant than the surroundings; focusing as such on larger landscapes – cultural and natural – reorients our understanding of a certain case (pigs in Kentucky, wine in Alsace, Ohio and the Basque region, sheep in Iceland) but also, more broadly speaking, of the category.

3These papers make important contributions to an understanding of terroir embedded and entangled in contexts, of both human and non-human types. All to the good, as terroir, or the taste of place, is complex and contradictory, and speaks to many past and contemporary preoccupations about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Much of the complexity involves defining, or perhaps more accurately containing terroir. Efforts at definition often include circumscribing it to a certain place, or a certain era, or a certain material condition. But, as anthropologists now argue, what these best definitions evokes terroir as a “sensory field”, and in this casting, as Anne Lally points out, such a definition involves – “not just chemical and or practical composition of a taste of place, but also [the manifestations of] its inherent complications, messiness, and conflicts”. As all these papers make clear, terroir and taste make sense to people in relation to contextual matters and thus it cannot be understood using simple analyses of cause and effect. So, taste and place might be crucial to this definition of terroir, but the primary approach is to locate the networks of practice and meaning that rely upon but also reinforce how and why terroir concerns a relationship between taste and place. In this approach, terroir is fluid and flexible. As Mark Anthony Arceño goes on to say, while terroir and the taste of place are often presented theoretically in stable terms (component features that may be defined), in reality the concept is best understood as dynamic, always being made, and thus always 'fixable' too. Each of these articles provides a fascinating case study of such networks of practices, revealing the values and beliefs of the central characters (be it winemakers, sheepherders, or others) but also exploring other concepts (conservation, climate change, linguistic identity, sustainable agriculture) that inform and influence a particularistic enactment of terroir.

4All the authors present cases whereby the lived reality of terroir for those engaged in a relationship to agricultural practices, particular landscapes, and sensory fields transcend the material conditions for which it might be associated. Terroir cannot simply or merely be about the amount of schist in the soil (in the case of wine) or the percentage of fat in the milk (in the case of cheese). The contemporary relevance of terroir also needs to be understood as a quest for a collective identity, the need to say ‘this wine is about us, this cheese is for us and then ours to share with others.’ The conditions of modern life, what philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah characterizes as a ‘world of strangers seeking to find common human ties,’ create a new urgency to our investments in terroir, and help explain its continued relevance. At the same time, the natural environments that are necessary for the existence of terroir also exist in conditions of flux. The eroding soils of the Icelandic highland pastures, the rising temperatures of Alsatian vineyards, the new boundaries within the Basque winegrowing of Rioja, the reintroduction of heritage breeds of pigs in rural Kentucky, all demand both fidelity and flexibility when analyzing terroir, what it means, and how it works.

5Anthropology matters to the future of terroir, to the means by which it exists as an intervention into an industrial and global food system or the extent to which it reflects and reproduces cultural identity or, as all these authors explore, (here in Arceño’s words), the ways in which it articulates how “landscapes [exist] as an assemblage of past interactions between among humans and non-humans.” We can help elucidate when, how, why, and where the interplay between practices involving making food and drink intersect with a notion of the good of taste of place.

6The fluid and flexible concept of terroir also encourages anthropologists to commit to the development of multi-sensorial ethnographies, as is the case with this collection of articles. Food and drink mean much to humans, but what also matters is how the food or drink tastes and smells. We need it to survive, we organize ourselves around procuring it, but we also experience it through sensation. All of these papers look closely at the intersection between collective identity, sensory engagements and cultural practices, contributing the close consideration of ethnographic research to bear in order to illuminate these clearly significant aspects as to why terroir matters now. And so, we better understand, as mentioned in Kerri Lesh’s article, the Basque region’s interest in making terroir operational, or at least explicable, in both Spanish and Basque regions, languages, and contexts. We also see the issues of competing social ends and the place of taste; in one case it is good for Icelandic agrarian identity and why the sheep taste unique but not so good for Icelandic notions of preserving soils and bringing trees back to the landscape. In the case of winemakers in Ohio, terroir, understood in its more cause and effect definition, may not speak to all winemakers, but the sensory consequences of changing weather patterns do resonate. Finally, in the context of heritage pigs in Kentucky, the sensory significance of these breeds in this locale, according to Sharyn Jones, means that “that terroir may be understood and reformulated through explorations of health (in this ancient sense) on farms and in specific communities.”

7All these authors “prospect for differences” when making sense of terroir, and we come away from these investigations with a more subtle and labile understanding of what this concept means – to those working the land, those eating the landscape, and those of us observing all, making sense of its importance both now and in the future.

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1 Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader. Editors, Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein. Oakland: University of California Press, 9.

2 The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Amy Trubek. Oakland: University of California Press, 54.

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Electronic reference

Amy TRUBEK, « Introduction », Anthropology of food [Online], S14 | 2020, Online since 31 July 2020, connection on 28 September 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author


PhD, Chair and Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont;

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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