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Variability and Change

Terroir and the Place of Climate among Central Ohio Winegrowers
Variabilité et changement: terroir et climat chez les viticulteurs du centre de l’Ohio
Mark Anthony Arceño


This article examines how central Ohio winegrowers are able to manufacture “the taste of place” in the midst of a dominant global discourse that maintains a rhetoric of anthropogenic climate change. Importantly, this work positions climate as not necessarily changing but rather as seemingly always being in a state of change. While relatively few winegrowers in central Ohio have been growing grapes and making wine for a few decades, many more are relatively new to the artisanal and industrial wine landscape, which includes added pressures beyond climate (such as changes in the global market or legislation) that influence decision-making and ongoing landscape transformations. Drawing on interviews and participant observations conducted in central Ohio, as well as in Alsace, eastern France, this article argues that constant adaptations to multiple terroir contexts are liminal acts that illustrate how terroir is being “reverse engineered” (i.e., in a constant state of being made or even conceptualized a posteriori) in a region that is facing social and ecological change.

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This article is based on a paper I gave as part of a panel on climate change denial during the 2018 AAA annual meeting in San Jose, CA. Funding for the dissertation research presented here was provided in part by: The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology (Elizabeth A. Salt Anthropology Travel Award; Larsen Research and Travel Award); The Ohio State University Office of International Affairs (Academic Enrichment Grant); and the Chateaubriand Fellowship Program (Humanities and Social Sciences “Make Our Planet Great Again” Fellowship). I remain grateful to the Editorial Committee, reviewers, and Drs. Brianne Herrera, Kerri Lesh, and Anna Willow, all of whom provided invaluable feedback and comments leading to this final draft. Finally, I remain forever grateful to all of the winegrowers, as well as their families, co-workers, and volunteers, I have worked with, for without whom this work could not be possible.


1It may very well be said that place-based goods like wine—as well as the lifestyles and cultures such goods represent—are being threatened by climate change (Adger et al. 2011; see also Bonfante et al. 2018; Gishen et al. 2016). Just a few years ago, concerns over the impacts of global warming were renewed by the International Panel on Climate Change by 2030 (IPCC 2018). So it seems, climate change continues to threaten human and non-human life (see Mason and Rigg 2019), while concurrently making it difficult to adapt and respond expediently and effectively given its unpredictable, stochastic, and often volatile nature. The aim of this article is to illustrate how, in the midst of unstable environmental conditions, the terroir concept (as a dynamic, cultural entity) permits the ability for the threatened to persist (see Strauss 2012).

2Previously, a group of over fifty French chefs, sommeliers, and château owners warned that a rise in global temperatures by more than 2% before the end of the century will result in soils that can no longer survive and wines that would need to travel beyond their traditional and indigenous limits (Johnson-Bell 2014). One of the starkest examples of that reality is already happening in the conservative winegrowing region of Bordeaux, where traditional Merlot grapes are producing too much alcohol; in response to such observable effects of climate change, winegrowers there are arguing for expanding the list of varietals—inclusive of grapes from Portugal and China—that may be grown for the production of wine (Gray 2019). In the eastern French winegrowing region of Alsace, temperature data from 1972-2002 indicate a 1.8°C increase in the vineyards, this difference of which greatly impacts wine grape ripening, results in earlier harvest dates, and places grape varietals at risk (Duchêne and Schneider 2005; Duchêne et al. 2010). And in more recent years, Australian and Californian winegrowers have had to contend with bushfires (Bedford 2019; Stelzer 2009) and wildfires (Bigley 2019), respectively. The Wine Folly team based in Washington state even declared they are “no longer strangers to ash, smoke, and hazy skies” (Rendoni 2018). And who could ignore the winegrowers in Kent, England, who seem to be growing Chardonnay and producing arguably better Champagne-style wines than their French counterparts across the pond (Yeginsu and Peltier 2018)?

3However, not everyone agrees with scientific discourse on climate change, i.e., the phenomenon defined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992: 7) as: “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” In particular, researchers have found that farmers do not necessarily agree with attributing climatic changes to human activity (Mertz et al. 2009; Raymond and Spoehr 2013; Veteto and Carlson 2014). As Bruno Takahashi and colleagues (2016) point out, the acceptance of anthropogenic origins appears to be related to farmers’ own operations in the field. Observed changes in the landscapes and practices of French winegrowers in the Loire Valley and Alsace, for example, are often viewed instead through the lens of technical or commercial changes, while climate change tends to be met with skepticism (see Teil 2020a).

4Following a theoretical overview of landscape and terroir, I draw upon ongoing fieldwork that I conducted in central Ohio, USA, which I began in February 2018, to illustrate how winegrowers maintain a sense of cultural stability in the midst of dynamic change. As I shall describe bellow, my analysis is informed by sensory data I attained through walking and semi-directed interviews, as well as participant observations, with central Ohio winegrowers of six different family-run vineyards. In addition, I spoke with and worked alongside some of their family members and regular volunteers. Where appropriate, I also draw upon some of my experiences conducting concurrent fieldwork in Alsace, France (summer 2018, autumn 2018, and spring 2019), to highlight how impacts of climatic and other forms of change are differentially being understood and responded to. While in Alsace, I utilized the same methodological approaches as in my Ohio-based work, conducting research with Alsatian winegrowers who represented 13 vineyards, most of which were family-run.

5It is important to note that in both regions, I worked primarily with winegrowers, i.e., individuals who produce wines from their own grape harvests. I distinguish this group from those who specifically only grow grapes and those who produce wines from others’ grapes, both groups of which, among others, have different contexts and adaptation strategies at their disposal (e.g., see Thiollet-Scholtus et al., forthcoming). I would also like to note that I largely use the term vineyard when talking about the central Ohio winegrowing sites, as the vineyards themselves (i.e., where the grapes are grown) are generally located in the same space as the winery (i.e., where the wine cellar and tasting room are situated). In the case of Alsace, I maintain the use of vineyard for the sake of consistency as a proxy for each business, recognizing that the location of their physical vineyards and the wineries themselves may not necessarily occupy the same demarcated area.

6Emergent in my central Ohio research is the shared reality that winegrowers of this region must contend with unstable environmental conditions. Notably, those I have worked with neither appear outright to heed the global discourse of anthropogenic climate change rhetoric nor completely refute the scientific consensus thereof (Arceño 2018; see Cook et al. 2016). Not quite proponents and not quite deniers of climate change, they appear to occupy a third, if not liminal, space, living “betwixt and between” (Turner 1967: 96) a sense of certainty and uncertainty when it comes to how they handle the challenges they may face in the process of growing grapes and producing place-based wines. Likewise, and though I spoke a bit more freely about climate change in Alsace, winegrowers there did not immediately or necessarily attribute changes to their daily practices as direct responses to it.

7As winegrowers consider where their vineyards are and what they will become, I hope to demonstrate that the spaces they, their vines, and those who support them occupy a terroir of sorts that is defined by a social ability to constantly adapt to environmental and other changes. This includes but is certainly not limited to forces such as wine production practices, legislation, consumer demands, and financial considerations that contribute to various changes in winegrowers’ landscapes.

Theoretical Framing: Landscape and Terroir in Sociocultural Context

8In a manner similar to how Anne Lally (this issue) defines soil degradation in Iceland, I view landscapes as accretions or assemblages of past interactions between and among humans and non-humans (Balée 2006; Barnes 2000; Willow 2011). I purport changes to these meaning-filled spaces or “places” (see Adger et al. 2013; Feld and Basso 1996; Guthey and Whiteman 2009; West 2005)—from the vineyard, wine cellar, and tasting room, to the name of the specific winery or geospatially indicated or marketed area of land—may influence the need to rediscover or redefine the sense of a given place’s taste. Indeed, the ability to maintain the identity of the place, people, or products coming from a place (i.e., the qualities which index what it means to be of/from [e.g., Hermansen 2012; see also Keyser 2014]) reflects one’s resiliency and ability (or that of the product itself) to adapt in the face of any change, climatic or otherwise (Bonfante et al. 2018; Michon 2011). And it is through this view that we may begin to question whether the seemingly static identity of place is in fact being threatened.

9Though perhaps not in the same intentional terms as Jennifer Howard-Grenville and colleagues assert (2011), I argue that winegrowers’ understandings and responses to landscape change are cultural acts that influence how food (or in this case, wine), place, and identity are being understood socioculturally. That is, these interrelationships are constantly being renegotiated as winegrowers respond to observed changes and subsequently alter the landscape (e.g., through how vines are treated and wines are produced) from one state of being to another. This aligns with contemporary, anthropological framings of terroir, which have shifted from a purely geological notion (see Wilson 1998) to that of recognizing the role of winegrowers as actively mediating terroir expression (Demossier 2011). As Amy Trubek (2008) has done, and as others in this special issue have referenced, I understand terroir in terms of the goût or “taste” of place: it is the idea that the confluence of climate, soil, and overall environment, as well as the local know-how and training of people, produce spatially-located foodstuffs with distinctive nuances in both quality and taste (Aurier et al. 2005; Demossier 2011; Paolisso 2007; see also Barham 2003: 131; Bérard and Marchenay 2006: 18; Douguet and O’Connor 2003: 238; Teil 2012: 481).

10Given the above, I understand the taste of place as something that is manufactured (see also Hammer 2011a), with the terroir concept reflecting meaningful, constructed relationships among place, product, and people. As Sharyn Jones (this issue) points out, small-scale farmers are transforming everyday goods into meaningful connections among the product, the place it is produced, and the social heritage and practices linked to the food and its origin. This is also very much the case for how Basque producers are using the social and linguistic values of Euskara to forge these relationships (Lesh, this issue) and how sheep are co-producers of place-based identity in Iceland (Lally, this issue). In the case of winegrowers in central Ohio, connections are being forged around social responses to necessarily constant adaptations and innovations to suit what may otherwise be described as changing terroir contexts (e.g., physical, aesthetic, culturological, etc., as discussed throughout Matt Harvey, Leanne White, and Warwick Frost’s [2014] edited volume on wine and identity).

11Unlike Alsatian winegrowers, with whom I have also conducted research and who tend to focus their attention on exploiting terroir conditions and qualities sui generis that emerge from one’s interactions with their local environment, central Ohio winegrowers emphasize the importance and creation of place in ways that are perhaps not all that dissimilar to what Heather Paxson (2010) has described as a “reverse engineering” of terroir among American cheesemakers. Here, I understand reverse engineering terroir as actively creating the taste of place—versus viewing taste as a given and situated therein—on the basis of promoting specific practices and values. As I shall demonstrate, central Ohio winegrowers are engaging in a collective creation of sorts, through the production of grapes grown, turned into wine, and bottled in Ohio, that revolves around their ability to establish successful winegrowing businesses that are both resilient and adaptable to a region that is undergoing various forms of change. Given my understanding of landscape as noted above, the accumulation of changes to space over time further permits a valuing of past decisions, as well as the knowledge gained through trial and error, while allowing for change to still occur in the same terroir system (see Barham 2003). All of this is to suggest that conceptualizations of terroir may be viewed and better appreciated in central Ohio through more of a retrospective lens than in the context of something that already exists.

12The emphasis of this article therefore is not on the cognitive dissonance winegrowers experience when it comes to talking about and responding to climatic or other forms of change per se. Rather, it is more so about how their inevitable responses to the effects of changing or variable climates influence how they manufacture or reverse engineer (subconsciously or otherwise) the taste of place, as well as the wines and identities rooted in such places, in the midst of social and ecological change.

Participant Context: Winegrowing in Central Ohio

13Vineyards were established in the state of Ohio as early as the start of the 19th century, with the first successful vineyard often attributed to pioneer Nicholas Longworth and his sparkling Catawba wine (OGIC 2020a; see also Mosser 2017). The Cincinnati region where Longworth was based was the predominant locale of Ohio wine until the late 1860s, when the wine industry moved further north in response to destructive crop diseases (Latimer 2011; Robinson and Harding 2015). Prior to Prohibition, Ohio was actually the major producer of wine in the United States (OGIC 2020a); as of 2018, it is the sixth largest producer (Bendersky 2018).

The Place

14Today’s Ohio winescape may be subdivided into five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), four of which contain active vineyards. None of the winegrowers I have worked with are situated within an AVA, as they collectively exist south of the appellations of Isle St. George, Lake Erie, and the Grand River Valley, and east of Loramie Creek and the Ohio River Valley, the latter of which is recognized as the “birthplace of American viticulture” (OGIC 2020b). Further, the central Ohio region is bordered by the Appalachian Mountains in the east and south. While Ohio itself is generally viewed as a swing state, I would generally characterize central Ohio along starker red/blue – rural/urban political divides. The vineyards I visited are not in the city and are situated in more rural sites, with each vineyard located within walking distance to its respective wine cellar and tasting room. This is in contrast to most of the vineyards in Alsace that I visited, which often required vehicular transport to neighboring cities or towns where vines were planted along the slopes of the Vosges Mountains.

15Despite a description shared with me of central Ohio having “Siberian-type winters and Mediterranean-type summers,” winegrowers in central Ohio have needed to contend with heavy and relentless rainfalls over the last few years, as well as prolonged heat, both conditions of which have been projected for the capital city of Columbus (GLISA and UMCC 2016). The grounds are relatively flat and easily collect rainwater due to the generally heavy clay soils, though most of the vineyards I worked in either had gentle slopes or underground tiles to help redirect water. One winegrower I worked with described their choice of establishing the vineyard where it was in the following manner:

“Well, we had looked for a while. And we probably should have looked longer. Because one of the problems we have here is drainage. As you know, in central Ohio and elsewhere throughout Ohio, it's heavy clay. One thing that appealed to us is that there had been some drainage tile in here because this land had been heavily farmed. […] You'll see [further up ahead on the slightly raised portion of the vineyard] that the vines are healthier, and you can see where there are drainage problems [i.e., the flatter portions where rainwater collects]. Those vines are stunted.”

The Product

16Perhaps emblematic of Ohio’s winegrowing roots, if not for the amenable environmental conditions, the winegrowers I have worked with tend to grow Vitis labrusca hybrids, such as Catawba, as well as varietals that either align with regional customer preferences for sweeter wines (e.g., Concord) or are most suitable to generally cold winters and humid summers (e.g., Niagara). Concurrently, many European-American hybrids may also be found among the six vineyards where I conducted my research (e.g., Cayuga White, Chambourcin, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, Traminette, and Vignoles). To a lesser degree, Vitis vinifera could also be found, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. While many central Ohio winegrowers, including those in my sample, may have to source grapes or grape juice off-premises (due to such factors as weather and limited growing space), all of the ones I worked with do produce and bottle wines made from estate-grown grapes. In order for any Ohio winegrower to label their wine as an Ohio wine, at least 90% of the grapes must be grown in Ohio soil (see Mosser 2017), though not necessarily from the same vineyard.

The People

17Central Ohio winegrowers, as is also the case for many cheesemakers in Vermont (sensu Paxson 2010) but unlike those I worked with in Alsace, do not belong to a transgenerational tradition of producing wine. This is not to say, though, that they are not in the process of establishing an ongoing identity for themselves, their wines, and the places upon which both are becoming elaborated; family members or at least those of a younger generation are involved in the inner workings of four of the vineyards. Each vineyard is typically run by either a husband and wife team that divides winegrowing roles (i.e., grape-growing, winemaking), as well as analytical or lab testing and public relations tasks, or a husband who is supported by his wife who typically takes on the accounting side of the business, in addition to her own fulltime job. In addition to a regular crew of volunteers, other family members help with either specific tasks or are present on more of an as-needed basis.

18The winegrowers who comprise my sample are quite varied, with each of them having a different level of expertise, motivation, and entry point into the wine industry. (As a brief aside, some winegrowers grew up consuming or preferencing beer over wine.) By and large, there are no apparent class differences, though one winegrower mentioned earning more income through a separate revenue stream outside of the business. Politically, some winegrowers are conservative or libertarian, while one described themselves in contrast to their neighbors who were “socially and fiscally conservative,” “armed to the teeth,” and “afraid” of minorities coming in from the city. And others still wore their religious (Christian) more so than political affiliations to varying degrees on their sleeves, as many of their customers attend the same church. The youngest winegrower had just turned 16 around the time I started my study and was soon after accepted to a viticulture program, while the next youngest was preparing to attend the same program. The large majority of the others had left their former jobs and intended to tend to vines and make wine for the rest of their lives. As one winegrower, who previously worked for a mechanical contractor, recounted:

[Winegrowing] was going to be something to do when I retired. And it went right past that. […] The first year we were selling wholesale; we sold 400 bottles. The first year we opened in here [the tasting room, which he and his family built], we sold 1,700 bottles. And the next year, it was 4,000 bottles. And when it got to that point, it was tough working full time… And then working in here full time at night… And then open on the weekends. So there’s no time.

19On a related note, one winegrowing couple, who came from construction and information technology backgrounds, thought they would retire with the vineyard. “It turns out there’s a lot more work involved,” they recalled, adding that winegrowing “in small quantities is not a retirable investment.”

20In regard to the others in my study, some of the winegrowers have collegiate backgrounds in geology, chemistry, and electrical engineering, while others come from the art, business, and culinary worlds. Winegrowers of two of the six vineyards have learned their trade through decades of winegrowing (one has been growing grapes for at least four and making wine for two; another has been a winegrower since 1985). Those who are relatively newer to winegrowing have relied on extension services, personal networks, and even YouTube, to address various aspects of winegrowing (e.g., how to deal with various pests, netting techniques). Given that there is no longstanding heritage to fall back upon, many of the winegrowers appear to be in a constant state of trial and error, such as learning which trellising systems and varietals work best to suit both the social and ecological environments in which they are situated. As one of the winegrowers said as I followed him along on a vineyard tour he was giving some visitors, “We’re always doing this: seeing what works and changing it out.” Another winegrower shared that: “Farming has always been a risky business because of the weather. I think that we should always plan for the worst and hope for the best. That being said, I'm not one to grow grapes that I know are going to die 24 degrees below zero.”

21All these different inputs influence if, when, and how to respond to various landscape changes.

Methodological Approaches: Walking, Talking, and Tasting with Winegrowers

22On my first day with the primary contacts of each winegrowing site in central Ohio (n=11), I conducted a walking interview (Evans and Jones 2011), having them set the route and introduce me to their landscapes, i.e., the vineyard, wine cellar, and/or tasting room. I followed them up and down rows of vines, taking photos, listening with my recording pen, and asking questions of the varietals they showed me and the changes to the fields they pointed out. I had a list of topics (e.g., perceptions of environmental change, responses to those changes, conceptions of terroir) to direct my interviews (sensu Hubert 2004), which I ended or completed more often than not in the tasting room. I also completed a few more semi-directed and informal interviews with family members, hired workers, and/or volunteers at each site. I then later returned to conduct participant observations by way of helping in whatever ways I could, inclusive of planting, pruning, harvesting, crushing, and bottling, both to thank the winegrowers I was working with for their time and to learn what it is they do on a more daily basis. Since I began this research, I have visited each location at least five times. All interactions in central Ohio were conducted in English, and I continue to communicate with winegrowers via email or Facebook for intermittent updates if I am unable to follow up with them in person.

23During my first two visits to Alsace (late June-late July 2018 and then a little over two weeks in October 2018), I established a core group of six winegrowing sites in the winegrowing capital of Colmar and Wettolsheim, one of Colmar’s neighboring communes. This included the Grand Est-Colmar research center of what is now known as the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), where I was based. During my third and final visit to the region (late January-early April 2019), I expanded my research sites to include other Alsatian locales outside of the core group. I conducted a walking interview with each of my primary contacts (n=13), which included individuals who were solely responsible for grape growing or winemaking. As in the case with those in Ohio, I also conducted semi-directed interviews and informal interviews with family members, hired workers, and/or volunteers. Though I found it a bit more difficult to establish rapport and work out logistics to help out in Alsatian fields (largely due to my limited time during each research visit and the actual timing of those visits during key winegrowing stages), I was fortunate to conduct participant observations (inclusive of pruning, harvesting, and/or bottling) with most of the core group. Among the core group, I met with someone from each winegrowing site at least three times; I visited each of the additional sites at least once. With the exception of one complete interview in English, all interactions were conducted in French, and as in the case of my informants in central Ohio, I have since remained in contact with my Alsatian informants over email or Facebook.

24Throughout the research process, I made sure to engage with my senses, taking note of the sensory world around me beyond the purely visual, which I captured through photography and helped to define a sense of place (sensu Stoller 1989; see also Low 2017). Gustatory experiences included tasting grapes right off the vine (and wines in Alsace directly from the barrel or fermentation tank), as well as tasting many of the available wines at each winegrowing site. In particular, this aided in discussions of sensory markers that may be indicative of place, perceptions of changing markers over time, and differences between vintages and/or plots of land. Further, the lack or presence of bird calls or the buzzing of bees and other insects also became apparent as they engaged my aural faculties at different points in the year. My shaking hand during walking interviews conducted in blistery weather and the beaming sun as I planted new vines did not go unnoticed, nor was that the case with each branch that struck back during pruning. And the smells of the vineyard and wine cellar aligned with different winegrowing activities throughout the year and stages of fermentation. (For additional sensory details, see Arceño, forthcoming.)

25Through my time interacting with winegrowers in both central Ohio and Alsace, I have learned that each of them has their own way of pruning their vines, planting new ones, and sensing whether a particular harvest was, is, or will be good. What aids such sensibilities and predictions varies in light of a variety of interconnected environmental (e.g., weather, soil, and flora) and social factors (e.g., technical skills and networks, legislation, and the economic market). Changes to any of these and other components (e.g., different varietals, improved trellising systems, new events) arguably changes the construction of terroir, or at the very least gives slightly new meaning to the constructed identity or “taste” of place, on the basis of changes to a prior state of being.

Contending with Climate (Change and Variability)

26Many central Ohio winegrowers, including those in my study, are relatively new to winegrowing, having been in business for about a decade and subsequently unable to clearly recall steady changes in climate. While they may have been seeing the impacts of climate change but not attributing them to it, winegrowers appeared to talk in terms of seeing the impacts of extreme weather-related events; it would perhaps be more appropriate to suggest they can talk more accurately of climate variability rather than climate change, the latter of which is typically seen over decades (as defined by IPCC 2012: 5). From the perspective of one winegrower who has been growing wine for the past 35 years, the following Facebook message I received reads as especially telling within the above context:Growing many types of grapes in the climate we have has always been a gamble, but the last 7 years have had the deck stacked against us as far as cold either in the winter or spring is concerned.” If these rough years are what newer winegrowers have had to deal with, how could they clearly make sense of whether or the extent to which the climate has been changing?

27As noted earlier, none of the winegrowers I have worked with in central Ohio are outright climate change deniers. Observable environmental or landscape changes are happening, regardless of whether humans are the drivers of those changes. And while they may not necessarily be eager to participate in global climate change discourse, there is no denying that they are very much aware of the on-the-ground changes they are experiencing. However, winegrowers spoke relatively little of proactive measures to address environmental concerns, though they did speak of ways to help their vines adapt and reduce their overall carbon footprint. For example, one of my informants described over lunch a direct-to-well water source they were installing so that customers could get chilled and triple-filtered water. She proudly said they were helping to save the environment, as they no longer had to buy bottled water, though she also acknowledged the benefits of cost reduction and not needing to transfer 50 pounds of water every two days for customers.

28Concurrently, the winegrowers do turn to science, and observe, respond, and adapt, given their embodied experiences and memories of more frequent weather extremes. All of them identified off years, referring most clearly to the back-to-back Polar Vortex years of 2014 and 2015, which presented them with visible signs of damage and an ongoing need to recover (see also Mosser 2017; Robinson and Harding 2015). They also take detailed records of Brix levels (sugar content in the grape’s juice) to figure out when to harvest, when they harvested what, and how much potassium metabisulfite to add after crushing, in order to get a better sense of practices they might need to change the following year. Regarding controls to test a new miracle product to help with clay soils, one winegrower remarked they are “trying to be scientific about doing so.”

29The increasing use of science and technology is made apparent by the use of weather stations or cell phones to check forecasts and attempt to establish patterns. For some, the stations help track rainfall and explain cold damage. Using a weather station to help with his spray program, one winegrower remarked “you need records to hold you accountable.” Having come from Akron, which has had the same weather pattern as far as the above winegrowing couple could recall, central Ohio has always been variable; perhaps it is for this reason that winegrowers are also having a tough time recognizing climate change. Likening forecasts to the stock market, one of them understood predictions based on what happened in the past, but she would like to understand the future part. What are the odds that researchers have when it comes to predictive modeling? Further complicating this narrative are winegrowers’ on-the-ground experiences that see anticipated storm forecasts either come to fruition or completely bypass the physical location of their vineyards. Whereas one vineyard may have been destroyed by hail and high winds, another may have gone untouched. Forms of environmental change become all a guess because there are so many variables. It is also not that they do not trust what people say; it is more a matter of there being too much information out there and a lack of clarity as to what is accurate.

30On that note, many of the central Ohio winegrowers spoke about differences between those in academia and those who farm, the former of which does not seem to pay attention to money or practicality when making their recommendations. Pragmatic research becomes often viewed as more important than scientific research. Citing extension services, I was told toward the start of my research stories of recommendations that resulted in damaged vines, grapes that never took root like they should have, and winegrowers feeling ignored or left in the dark. Such experiences undoubtedly led to a building of distrust of researchers and scientists over time, though the hiring of new personnel and presentations at regional conferences appear to positively shift some of those relationships. For example, one of the winegrowers sent me a different Facebook message regarding the “very informative manner” in which a presenter discussed climate change: “No scare tactics really, which is why to me he is more credible.”

31The overall relative lack of concern about climate change aligns with similar local and regional case studies (see Takahashi et al. 2016), whereby daily weather patterns influence decision-making. As Paris-based INRAE researcher Geneviève Teil has most recently noted (2020a; 2020b), grapes have always been growing and winegrowers have always been adapting; they are never waiting for science to tell them it is time to adapt. To put this another way, small-scale, day-to-day events and adaptations are changing landscapes but at rates that are not typically on the radar of winegrowers. Until they can see local, emergent patterns, and despite recent scientific reports of predicted changes in the capital city of Columbus, most the winegrowers I worked with choose to wait out the storm. What if the climate scientists are wrong? As one winegrower shared, they probably would not change the type of grapes they grow (which is a common adaptation strategy): “It will just be more and more challenging to grow them.” On the other hand, and turning to a voice of the future generation of winegrowers, one of the younger informants of my study surmised:

“I feel like one reason there are so few people focused on vinifera wines in Ohio is because of climate change. [In that winegrowers tended to assume vinifera could not be grown in this environment.] Between the time that Ohio was starting to get its wine industry and now, our climate has warmed up enough that it supports vinifera better than it used to. It’s still not the perfect environment to grow them here, but they’re at least easier to grow than they were in the past.”

Crafting (Social) Tastes/Identity amidst a Changing Landscape

32Among those I have worked with in central Ohio, terroir itself is seldom referred to or, in the case of newer winegrowers, quite unfamiliar; though when it is, the concept is understood differently. On one hand, it is “evident,” with one winegrower often articulating differences in soil types, as well as the topography of the landscape and its influence on expected weather conditions for growing grapes. On the other hand, the “whole terroir thing is kind of BS at times…,” as suggested by a winegrower who questioned the claim of terroir’s influence on “Quality.” For one winegrower who appreciates the terroir concept, this may be a matter of lack of continuity:

“[Terroir] entails everything, and that's how it goes in your French, Spanish, and Italian vines. They’ve got a continuation. Especially with the better estates, the person that usually takes over the winemaking was basically an assistant to the winemaker for 10 years or 20 years. And then he retires and the next guy takes over. You've got a continuation of how things are done. So, it involves the human aspect, too. That's why people here don't like to include the human aspect, because everybody moves around and the wines change. There's no stability yet. But generally from the Old World view, it encompasses everything, but the people here, [say] ‘Oh, it's just a vineyard here.’ [All] they think [of] is how the grapes grow. The winery doesn't count. No, the winery should count.”

33The tangibility of terroir (or perhaps the general lack thereof) in central Ohio may be viewed in relatively stark and perhaps unsurprising contrast to the winegrowers I spoke with in Alsace, where terroir remains a rather embedded, cultural component of French winegrowing narratives (Demossier 2011; Trubek et al. 2010). This trans-Atlantic variation in articulating terroir, its existence, and its merits appears just as telling as the variability in weather and other geoclimatic conditions framing the experiences of the winegrowers I have worked with. Despite the apparent range of sensibilities surrounding terroir, the concept does allow for an exploration of changes to winegrowers’ landscapes and by extension their place-based identities, due to any number of forces (climate change included), whereby I contend the meanings and constructions of terroir are influenced by changes to components of the winegrowing system.

34As winegrowers craft the identities of themselves, their wines, and the places they occupy, it seems then that many winegrowers’ decisions when it comes to manufacturing place are irrespective of climate of an environmental sort and are more so oriented toward creating a social climate or environment for their guests. As the same winegrower who questions terroir shared:

Our goal is to make people want to come in here and not feel like they suddenly have to feel intimidated. We're going to talk to them about the wines… We like them better if they don't know anything about [wine] because we're going to be able to help them understand it. If they know a lot about wine, that's great, too; we'll be able to talk their language. But the idea is people come in here, they don't feel intimidated. They feel welcomed. They feel comfortable. They feel like they're really in a place that has, let's go back to that… the terroir of great wine, right? That little slice of wine country is really kind of what we're going for.

35What winegrowers are going for—a sense of welcome I have long found to be central to the larger Midwest ethos—is being manufactured through multiple avenues. Many winegrowers focus on social events held on site (necessitating the building of pavilions or other shelters for outdoor gatherings) and make use of social media to attract new clientele that might be missed from otherwise strong word-of-mouth. Some are more exclusive and rely on email lists to garner specific patrons. Others plant “show grapes” to create an immediate ambiance as guests enter the tasting room, while others must contend with suburban encroachment as ongoing housing developments are being built. As winegrowers and their guests enjoy each other’s company over a bottle of wine or during a personalized tour of the vineyard, people are doing more than just consuming a product coming from place. These acts become emblematic of a cultural identity that is created through terroir and imbued into that bottle of wine, which Brent Hammer reflects as being representative of “the experience of a temporal, spatial, and cultural place” (Hammer 2011b: 33).

(Re)Negotiating Change and Reverse Engineering Terroir as Liminal Acts

36And so, how might changes to terroir and the taste of place be read in anthropological terms in the face of changes resulting from any number of forces, climatic or otherwise? Considering the annual “ritual” of vine-to-wine production, I would like to resituate the discussion between the transformative processes of a grape’s identity. The “to” portion of vine-to-wine, or even from first planting to the moment after the bottle is uncorked, is what I consider the long and varied range through which ongoing evaluation and response is happening amid observable changes. In this temporal and physical space, I contend that the activities and relationships among winegrowers, their vines, and all of the varied elements that comprise terroir are constantly being negotiated and may consequently be defined as sociocultural, liminal acts (sensu Howard-Grenville et al. 2011).

37Considering again my notion that terroir and the taste of place are manufactured, as “made” entities, they are also “fixable.” Adjustments are being made every day either by humans and/or nature, and parts of the landscape and/or winegrowing practices are changing as a result. For example, if it is too wet, winegrowers may stay indoors to work in the wine cellar while powdery mildew attacks the leaves, as the rain has washed away any previous treatments. If it is too dry or there is poor circulation in the soil, the vines may bury deeper into the soil in search for water or grow aerial shoots to collect moisture from the air, or winegrowers may choose to irrigate. If it is too hot, winegrowers may choose to work early in the morning or later into the night when it is cooler, as the grapes are at their best and least fragile during harvest. If it is too cold, or the vine has experienced too much damage from hail or heavy winds, the winegrower must choose whether to replant that varietal or select something new. All of these responses to changes throughout the winegrowing landscape are made in the liminal space marked by where they were and where they may be in the distant (and not-so-distant) future.

38Even for those in the winegrowing industry who may speak more openly about global climate change, how it factors into actual decision-making processes about what can be fixed in both the short term and at the local level is not so clear. That is, the impacts of climate change are not necessarily visible on a day-to-day basis and therefore make it difficult to make business-related decisions. Intentional changes to one’s landscapes become read more so as adaptive responses to past trends, if they can be established, rather than as proactive measures in preparation for the future, a view which was shared by many I spoke with in Alsace. One of the central Ohio winemakers of a winegrowing site explained it in this way:

I don't think any of our customers that have been here the first day and have been coming for the last 10 years could taste an appreciable difference between the wines that they might have had, other than my winemaking skills have gotten a little bit better... But all things being equal, I don't know that the quality of the grape has gotten significantly worse or better, at least in this area over the last 10 years. That said, I would be the first to say that climate change is happening and that to deny it or to somehow put your head in the sand and say, ‘Well, it's not gonna happen here,’ is a fool's errand. But the problem becomes, from a business standpoint, and a winery and vineyards standpoint, knowing when to pull the trigger to say, ‘Yeah, it's real and it's really starting to affect our stuff.’ It's a gradual [change], year after year, and then after a while you have to look back and say, ‘Oh, I used to be here. This is what used to be harvested and this is where we're at now. Man, I really do need to change.’ Day after day, things incrementally change without perception. […] But it's a time and money investment, and for somebody to make that investment, you have to have the data to sort of back it up [showing] that it's affecting them. And that's why I say after maybe two winters of really horrible winters [the Polar Vortexes], that's what happened with our Riesling. It may not have been due to climate change, but we certainly took the hint that it ain't gonna work here. So we’ve got to make that change. And I think people have to kind of get slapped in the face to see things are changing. You have to change your ways, and I'm not quite sure what that slap in the face is.

39The range of fixability is of course socioculturally and even legally contextual. Regarding the matter of irrigation, for example, the geographical indication certifying a wine comes from Alsace does not permit irrigation in that generally dry region of France (JORF 2014). Yet, when I visited Alsace during the 2018 harvest season, the ongoing heat and relatively drier-than-usual conditions in Alsace had sparked an ongoing discussion of the pros and cons of redefining winegrowing traditions and changing such practice. (Though, according to one of my informants, activity around irrigation concerns seemed to have slightly diminished given larger water reserves the following year.) The point I mean to make here is that forms of legislation may hinder or allow for a range of available options, while social buy-in in terms of what traditional practices can or should be changed, when, and under what conditions, is equally informed by lived experiences on the ground.

40In central Ohio, where climatic variation is too great and legal controls over what counts under a geographically-indicated name is not as restrictive as in Old World locales like France, terroir and the taste of place are difficult to define and market in traditionally environmental terms. (The sole exception of my sample is a winegrower who has been growing grapes in the area for four decades and has been producing wine for the last two; consequently, he recognizes the importance of the land for allowing him to grow European varietals in central Ohio’s changing weather.) As such, the taste of place as a fixable category becomes more socially oriented, as winegrowers in this region aim to produce wines representative of themselves, their craft, and the identity of the grape(s) used, rather than as especially drawing from the natural world around them, and in concert with various consumer demands and economic or legal restrictions. In this light, an experientially-informed terroir becomes reverse engineered (sensu Paxson 2010) in such a way as to reinforce the social (and ecological) relationships that give meaning to the producers and consumers of place-based goods like wine. Contextualized in terms of being part of the “atmosphere business and its added value,” one winegrower explained:

“We want to make the best wine. That's the goal. At first, we [thought], ‘Okay, we're only going to make wine out of grapes we grow.’ And then people drank too much. [They did not grow enough grapes to support that model.] So, we decided [to work with someone who] grows some grapes and buy them from her, and we would go help pick them. While our guests definitely want to see the vines and want to confirm that you are knowledgeable in winemaking, they aren’t really particular about whether you grow the grapes or someone else grows them when they finalize their wine selection. But most customers that come here are interested in the idea of a ‘real’ winery with a vineyard; it's the aesthetics that's more important to people. They're looking for a place to go that's like nature. It really is the experience that counts more. And that's the reason we've gone through and have been building [the pavilion and seating areas].”

41Central Ohio winegrowers are thus engaging in a collective creation of sorts that revolves around their ability to establish successful vineyards that are both resilient and adaptable to a region that is undergoing various forms of change. And in many respects, they are perhaps still experimenting with what works in an area where relatively little baseline (the sense of a reliable topography, climate, technique, etc., that is typically found and emblematic of terroir) has yet to truly be established. The future state of central Ohio vineyards is thus one that is not necessarily environmentally or climatologically driven (other than perhaps selecting for hardy plants that can deal with wide weather fluctuations). Rather, it is one that more so attends to arenas that are social (what do guests expect or want; how far can palates be pushed; what is the technical know-how of the winegrower); economic (how to differentiate and generate revenue in a large market; participating in regional wine trails); and legal (wine labeling requirements; navigating FDA regulations of what foods can or cannot be served).


42As L. J. Johnson-Bell (2014) has noted, rates—and, I would add, types—of change are not problematic. What is problematic is the frequency and erratic nature of these extremes, such that it makes it much more difficult to predict how to react and adapt. She writes:

“You can taste climate change. Our wine regions are being remapped. That’s not new; they have always been changing. But the changes were slower, permitting adaptation. Today we are witnessing an unparalleled rate of change. And never in the history of our planet has the wine industry been so firmly and comprehensively entrenched in our economic and cultural identity. These changes will have varying effects on different wine regions that will depend on their ability to change or adapt” (Johnson-Bell 2014: viii).

43At the end of the day, it seems climate and changes thereto are but one of many features of terroir that register in the minds of central Ohio winegrowers as indicative of the taste of place (cf. Gishen et al. 2016). In large part, I attribute this to the wide variation of weather in this region that equates to a reliably inconsistent perception of climate from year to year, which is not so much the case as in Alsace (though this is beginning to change). The decades or generations of previous experience not to be easily found in central Ohio means that Alsatian winegrowers are continuing longer-standing winegrowing traditions, more readily able to define terroir in distinct terms, and more easily able to identify trends such as increasing precipitation and heat, given their much longer observable history. By contrast, especially newer central Ohio winegrowers have begun to establish their own baselines through the use of weather stations and other technologies to track climate variability; time will tell whether local trends of climate change become visible.

44Meanwhile, central Ohio winegrowers remain reliant on others (inclusive of extension services and other winegrowers), as well as their own local observations, to inform their decision-making, as experimentation continues to determine what works and what does not in a region whose target(s) is seemingly always moving and consequently ill-defined. They are seeking vines that are better adapted to the current landscape and are adapting their landscapes to help the vines to survive changing environmental conditions, based on their previous experiences. And they are doing the same (i.e., adapting) to highlight their locality and help grow their consumer base. The phenomenon of a changing world is increasingly forcing their adaptation and response. Financial and timing constraints limit the ability to experiment (unlike winegrowers in France who have much larger areas and oftentimes teams to work with). And with winegrowing being a multi-year commitment to establish mature yields (see Mosser 2017), it remains uncertain what will become of their investments of time, energy, and money in an unstable environment that seems to be changing every field season. It is because of such pressures that social-ecological relationships are constantly being altered among the place, products, and people that identify the taste of place. And it is in this context that I have sought to argue that a collective creation emerges on the grounds of adaptability and resilience, which is central to the central Ohio winegrowing experience.

45Concurrently, warmer weather is giving more of central Ohio and New World vineyards the opportunity to grow or at least experiment with European varietals that did not used to be possible, while the aftermath of Ohio’s wettest year (2018-2019) moves this conversation far beyond the vines (see Motsinger 2019; OCJ 2019). Such realities have forced many to consider (and also question) if what people are experiencing on the ground is in fact the result of climate change (Groves 2019; Mack 2019). Quite clearly, there remains an ongoing tension as to how to explain the place of climate in not just winegrowers’ lives.

46What has become even clearer over the course of my fieldwork is that—if we are to situate terroir at the nexus of place, product, and people—central Ohio winegrowers are producing wines of embodied space, whereby their wine serves as a tangible and symbolic commodity that is intimately linked to the places and people that make up that business or local culture (sensu Bérard and Marchenay 2006). They are also doing so in a sociocultural context where conditions are always changing, as in the case of weather extremes, evolving legislation, and changing consumer profiles. As winegrowers adaptively respond to these various changes, in regard to the grapes they grow and the wines they make from them, their liminal acts bring terroir into future focus: places (physical or even virtual spaces of meaning attributed by people and product), products (wines; social-ecological experiences like vineyard tours and post-harvest meals; local food trucks and music that add to the sensory experience), and people (winegrowers as much as volunteers and patrons) may become framed as resilient and able to survive multiple changing landscapes. Through ongoing adaptation, human decisions, processes, and environmental responses thereto, have shaped and continue to shape senses of place. And it is in this sense that the taste of a given place or, more generally its terroir, is manufactured or reverse engineered to signal winegrowers’ constant ability to adapt to change.

47Ultimately, the place of climate among central Ohio winegrowers seems to be a matter of scale and but one of many factors when it comes to manufacturing the taste of place. Whereas globally there are reports for a warming and ongoing warming to come, coupled with erratic extremes, increased precipitation, or devastating droughts, the picture is not so clear locally. The contention with changes in climate appears to be based upon the recognition of apparent visual cues to mark or attribute these changes. And for winegrowers who do not have the temporal data or experiences to recognize changes in taste from year to year over a long period of time, tasting climate change is a bit more of an elusive, sensorial experience. Whatever the case may be, terroir or the specific “taste” of that place—whether it be in the form of a selection of award-winning wines; specific flavor profiles from sweet wines generally preferenced in central Ohio to a large range of choices for any customer stopping in along a wine trail; or even experiences from musicians and food trucks that concurrently signal local tastes to wine clubs and exclusive tastings that envelope socioeconomic partnerships—is a moniker of distinction (sensu Bourdieu 1984) amid ongoing forms of change, which is manufactured through the production and consumption of place-based goods.

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Electronic reference

Mark Anthony Arceño, Variability and ChangeAnthropology of food [Online], S14 | 2020, Online since 31 July 2020, connection on 29 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Mark Anthony Arceño

anthropologist, The Ohio State University,

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