In this, the first of many guest posts to come on A Tempest in a Tankard, I’m extremely happy to welcome wine scholar, Kevin D. Goldberg, a friend and fellow German history colleague who has researched and written extensively on the nineteenth-century German wine trade. In his contribution, Goldberg trains his critical lens on a concept taking root in the craft beer industry: terroir. As many drinkers of craft beer know, the craft beer renaissance was touched off by a profound dissatisfaction with the factory-produced and mass-marketed beer brands that dominated North American markets in the wake of the Second World War. As part of the larger counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the nascent craft beer industry eschewed factory-produced food and beverages, and encouraged us to consume locally. But as Goldberg reminds us, this turn to the local is laden with historical baggage. As we craft beer producers and enthusiasts attempt to set ourselves apart from mass-produced beers by grasping at vaguely construed notions of “nature” and “terroir,” Goldberg forces us to ask if our sometimes ambiguous and unreflexive deployment of these terms has obscured what craft beer is: a product of the “talent, ambition, and hard work of generations past of beer makers who fused together technological know-how and gustatory delight.”
Terroir is dead. Long live terroir. Speaking on behalf of the wine world, let me welcome you to the passé-chic realm of the exotically obvious; that an agricultural product is, in some immeasurable way, influenced by its roots in the world. Tillers of the soil have known this for millennia, pushers of the pen are still trying to sort it all out. Derived from the Latin terra, meaning of the earth or land, terroir has become a kind of commonplace refrain to verbalize the indefinable effects imparted to a wine by the soil and climate of the origin vineyard.
Writers and readers of wine magazines and wine-themed blogs have exhausted themselves in debating terroir, but without reaching much consensus. We might very well say that terroir’s appeal is precisely its uncertainty. If we could in fact measure the uptake of “place” in our wines it would surely be much less deserving of popular conversation (how long does the fun really last even in semi-spirited discussions of residual sugar and tannins, both among the many measurable or perceptible qualities of wine?). Terroir remains something that we all want to believe in. It gives us something to think deeply about. It’s our Proustian transporter to vacations past. It justifies more and greater purchases. It satisfies our thirst for subtle social differentiation. Terroir is a matter of faith, and faith is, if nothing else, an unyielding belief in the unknowable.
In spite of its hazy existence, some generalized assertions about terroir are possible, two of which I’d like to mention here. First, place does matter. Campaigners for terroir are selling more than just tulips in Amsterdam. There is a legitimate product behind the claims. The American wine critic David Schildknecht stands as one of the most sensible and passionate advocates of terroir. Equally passionate (if a bit more quixotic) is Terry Theise, a renowned importer whose heartfelt catalogs have become cult reading among terroir buffs. These intelligent and experienced voices leave us no doubt that soil and climate have some role to play in shaping taste in wine. Second, terroir is marketing. In spite of terroir’s genuineness, doubters and naysayers can and do have reasonable suspicions. Growers, importers, distributors, critics, and merchants have frequently been less than forthcoming about the technological side of the winemaking process. The fact is that the taste profile of the great majority of wines purchased in the U.S.—smoke, vanilla, espresso—is determined not by nature but by overt and intrusive cellar practices. To be clear, this is not unethical or even out of the ordinary, but in spite of what the label may say, this is not terroir.
That beer terroirists now look to wine terroirists for direction is a bittersweet irony (deny it all you want, but craft beer enthusiasts have by now been long-intoxicated by vinous plotting and scheming). The concept of terroir—if not direct use of the word by consumers—was mainstream in the wine trade by 1900. The dual phenomena of industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century brought with them massive changes in alcohol consumption. The mechanization of factory production allowed for the inexpensive manufacture of consistently good beer. From Chicago to Manchester to Hamburg, the spectacular growth of cities gifted beer companies their bread and butter; the wage laborer. Beer would become the drink of the modern man in the modern age. As a result, winegrowers and wine merchants, already feeling the pinch of their exclusion in the working class tavern, decided to fight back against the tide of steam, steel, and the 12-hour workday by making appeals to the very thing that industrialization and urbanization had abandoned: the good earth.
Historians have actually documented well the middle class reaction to the rapidity of change in this period, explaining how respectable men and women came to understand their evolving relationship with nature in marvelously new ways. Seemingly timeless things like dirt, love, sex, and well, even time, were given new meanings as human sociality shifted from the farm to the city. As part of this shift, pitched battles were fought over the production of food. Many food and beverage trades, including meat, dairy, and wine, were rocked by adulteration scandals grounded in the then contemporary conflation of food grown/raised in nature and food made or altered through technological processes. These adulteration scares, as well as the continuous losing of market share to beer consumption, helped spark wine’s return to nature.
This is a literal claim. Unlike factory-manufactured beer, winegrowers and other wine tradesmen saw themselves as resisting the onslaught of modernization by remaining tied to nature, with wine still a product of natural processes. Of course, an irony within the irony here is that this was also a remarkable period of growth for viticultural technology and the science of enology, both of which fostered a sense of urgency in those seeking to reclaim wine’s natural origins. In Germany and the United States, where industrialization and urbanization were most intense, advertisements for “natural wine” were most ubiquitous. The concept of natural was the central feature in the increasingly popular “single-vineyard” wines of Europe, with astronomical prices being paid for wines from well-known vineyards along Germany’s Mosel and Rhine Rivers, and in the French regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. By 1900, the two essential components of terroir—naturalness and place—were firmly in place.
As with anything else, though, the terminology of wine and beer discloses a system of established, underlying beliefs. “Winegrower” is a far more terroir-friendly occupational status than “winemaker” presumes to be. The former apparently guides the wine already provided by nature while the latter seemingly makes the wine out of whole cloth. But rather than artificially imposing the language of terroir on the production of beer, I suggest that beer enthusiasts embrace the notion that beer is more a product of human hands than of terroir. Similar to the way a term like “winemaking” points to human decisions and interventions at every stage of the process, a term like “craft beer” has the virtue of honesty: it describes that very human element of beer production. Acknowledging craft beer for what it is – as much an industrial as an agricultural product, even at the artisanal level – means refusing to conceal the human in the language of terroir. Rather than making beer into wine, I would suggest recognizing the talent, ambition, and hard work of generations past of beer makers who fused together technological know-how and gustatory delight. In a word, what differentiates beers is the quality of the craftsmanship, not the origin of the hops.
In addition to the many Schildknecht pieces widely available on the internet, you can hear his and other intelligent explanations of terroir on graperadio.com’s 2008 podcast: http://www.graperadio.com/archives/2008/04/07/soil-weather-terroir-and-wine/.
Terry Theise’s most recent catalogs can be found here: http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/theise_catalogs.html
Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren, Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life (Rutgers University Press, 1987).
Amy B. Trubek, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir (University of California Press, 2009).
Kevin D. Goldberg (Ph.D. History, UCLA) is an instructor of History at Kennesaw State University. From 2011-2013 he was a Cogut Center Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University, where he organized a symposium on “Terroir in the Humanities.” Recent publications include articles in Food & Foodways and Agricultural History, as well as a forthcoming translation of Weinatlas Deutschland (Wine Atlas of Germany, University of California Press). Goldberg is currently writing a book, The Fermentation of Modern Taste: German Wine from Napoleon to the Great War.
Barley Field: Wikipedia Commons
Proust: Wikipedia France
Soil-Encrusted Bottle: Allwine
Hallertauer Hop Flower: Wikipedia
Terroir/Winemaker Cartoon: Appellation America.