• Whitney Olson

Terroir: A Sense of Place

“Memories don’t have an address,” I told my father one afternoon several years ago. He was grappling with deciding whether to sell the family home or to remodel. I was hoping to release him from the idea that he had to remain in the house in order to preserve the memories. Last weekend, I had cause to rethink my idea of place and of memories while listening to George MacLeod speak about his experiences growing grapes.

George MacLeod, a renowned grower in Kenwood, California, attributes three things to his successful vineyards: love, luck, and affection. Planting his grapes on a rocky hillside he needed plenty of all three, but MacLeod thinks that what really makes his grapes special is being lucky enough to own land with a distinct terroir. Terroir, according to McLeod, means land (terra) and memory. Encompassing geographic features and human history, terroir is the unique memory of the land that has the ultimate influence on the character of the grapes. Terroir is also a spiritual aspect that represents the human history – joy, skill, heartbreak, sweat, hard work, success, failure, pride, and frustration – and plays a vital part in the construct of a sense of place.

No surprise here. It takes good land and good farming to produce good grapes. If it were this simple, however, wine would be treated as a commodity like wheat or corn, with only two or three wines of each variety on the store shelves. The fact that there are thousands of wines for us to choose from is an example of how terroir comes into play. According to MacLeod, the same varietal and the same farming techniques can produce a fruit with different characteristics depending on the terroir. The fruit with the best depth of character comes from the fruit grown in the more distinct terroir. Grapes grown in unique soil on hillsides have a terroir that distinguishes them from grapes grown in friendlier climes and soils. A little stress from the land creates a unique and desirable character in the fruit. The fruit carries to the wine the memory of the land, the care, and the spirit.

Listening to MacLeod, I was struck by the idea of a sense of place and wondered how terroir would translate to people. I began to consider how the impact of terroir, an expression of the memory of origin and upbringing, is carried forth through our children. How does a metaphysical terroir influence the character of people?

I don’t raise grapes, but I’ve spent close to thirty years raising children, trying to pave the smoothest path possible for them in this quickly changing world. My children have had it pretty easy living a middle class life with engaged parents. As I get ready to send my youngest off to college, however, I realize that my reign of influence, the time for nurture, is narrowing; yet my children are still developing.

The idea of terroir has put a new spin on my parental paranoia. The concept that the land does not forget and that it finds its expression in the fruit that grows in that place makes me think of the expression of my parenting on my children, the character, values, experiences, and interactions that are unique to our relationship with each other. The terroir, the predicaments and impediments of a life well lived, will provide the finishing touches on the character of my children. Wherever my children’s lives take them, they will carry with them a specificity of place: an imprint that cannot be rehomed, an internal blueprint that distinguishes them from others, and a depth of character that adds to the varietals of humankind.

My father decided to keep the home and the memories all in the same place. I like to think of him as an old vine with deep roots firmly attached to the rocky hillside, expressing not only a physical sense of place, but also the deep character that comes with a life well lived. I imagine that like most parents, he looks at his adult children, wherever they might be, and recognizes their distinct terroir.

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