Beyond Organics -- to Bliss

Want <em>really</em> natural eating? Try the taste of <em>terroir</em>

| September / October 2004

With organics the original plan was to stop the application of scary petrochemical poisons to the land, the food that grows on it, and the animals that roam it. A great idea, but people can hardly be blamed for wanting a little more than to be handed their cup of morning coffee with a cheery 'Poison-free, honey!'

Hence the recognition that there is more to organic food-growing -- from eating locally and reducing the use of polluting truck transport to the humane treatment of animals and knowing the farmer who grows your food.

What, after all, are organic eaters really in search of? Not just a sense of responsibility fulfilled, but a taste of honesty, of reality. A mouthful of the truth about land, water, and growing things. And the leading edge of that quest is called terroir.

Terroir, a French word that literally means 'land' or 'soil,' refers to a wine -- or, these days, a food -- that expresses the taste of the land, the very rocks, sun, wind, and rain patterns the food grows within, whether the land in question is a sizable region or a tiny microclimate. The grower who grows his or her product with an eye toward expressing terroir is saying: We have land here for which we have a long-standing reverence, and over generations we've figured out some things about it, and here is an agricultural product that communicates the soul of the land as we have come to understand it.

For terroir as it applies to wine, the first thing the cultivator does is match vine with land -- for example, gewrztraminer grapes and grenache grapes thrive in very different sorts of sites. The first step to farming a parched mountainside in a hot section of California is finding a grape that wants to grow there -- Zinfandel, let's say.

Using winemaking skills to 'extract' the terroir is the next step, and a really precise awareness of the territory is called for. Zinfandel from a particular site in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley that has, say, a dusty, dry volcanic soil, a direct marine breeze, and adjoining ridges of scraggly vegetation and eucalyptus trees might taste bright and concentrated (because of the California sun and quick-draining soil), brambly and minty (because of the surrounding botany), with a sea-mist edge (because of the minerals coming in on the breeze). It will taste unlike any other Zinfandel in the world, because that particular microclimate is found only there.

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