Terroir in Translation: Exploring the Place of Place in the Global Food System – New World Terroir

By World Congress Planning Committee

DATE: SATURDAY, AUGUST 13, 2016                                  TIME: 11:00AM


Session Code: IRSA_24C


Session Description: The concept of terroir, or the way that specific geographic and sociocultural characteristics influence the foods and drinks produced in particular places, has long been associated with its French origins. Yet various permutations and interpretations of terroir can be found around the world: from Mexican tequila to Hungarian tokai, from Wisconsin artisanal cheese to Darjeeling tea, and from Vermont maple syrup to Chiapan mangos, to name a few. The sociocultural meanings ascribed to each of these interpretations of terroir vary widely, a dynamic further complicated by the influence of markets and institutions on conceptualizations of terroir in particular contexts. In some cases, for example, terroir appears to be actively constructed or ‘engineered’ in dialogue with market demands, while in other cases longstanding cultural traditions dominate understandings of terroir. In some national agricultures, terroir is at the center of rural development agricultural policy, for reasons both cultural and economic. Too, the degree to which terroir is inextricably linked to specific ecologies is more fluid than it initially appears, as foods today are constructed and deconstructed at scales ranging from the molecular to landscape levels. This paper session aims to explore new and changing conceptualizations of terroir in a variety of international contexts, primarily exploring non-Western European understandings of the following questions:

  • To what degree is terroir a fixed or fluid concept? To what degree does it reflect an ongoing dialogue between cultures, specific ecologies, and markets?
  • How are interpretations of terroir linked to particular economic and political institutions and underlying power relations? How do interpretations vary between places?
  • What meanings does the construction of terroir in various cultures reflect?
  • How might ‘inventing tradition’ influence how terroir is employed in non-Western European cultures?
  • To what degree are conceptualizations of terroir bounded by taste?


Session Organizers: Kathryn De Master, University of California-Berkeley; Sarah Bowen, North Carolina State University


Session Chair: Sarah Bowen, North Carolina State University




  1.  Douglas Constance, Sam Houston University; Andrew Prelog, University of Northern Colorado; Taylor Crane, Sam Houston State University

The Contested Governance of Tennessee Whiskey                 

In Spring 2014 a controversy emerged in Tennessee over the official definition of Tennessee Whiskey, a special kind of bourbon whiskey. The “bourbon” brand is protected by U.S. law. To be bourbon, the distillate must be produced in the United States, be made from at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. Formal governance of the bourbon commodity system began in the United States in 1964 when the Congress passed legislation designating bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States.” A similar resolution was passed in 2008 declaring bourbon to be “America’s Native Spirit.” By 2010 the US bourbon industry had consolidated under a few major distillers, with a few global investors owning the several of US distilleries and the brand names. Tennessee Whiskey is a specially-processed bourbon. Legislation was passed in Tennessee in 2013 to strictly define the requirements to be called Tennessee Whiskey to follow the bourbon requirements, plus to be filtered through maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County process. These requirements are included in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Small distillers in Tennessee and the major distilled spirits transnational corporation Diageo of the UK challenged the new laws to allow them to use “used” barrels and avoid the Lincoln County process. The controversy between Jack Daniels (owned by Brown Forman) and George Dickel (owned by Diageo) continues.


2. Ryan Galt, University of California – Davis

Chocolate and terroir: New American chocolate makers’ connections between equitable trade and quality, variety, territory       

New chocolate makers in the United States are attempting to fix many problems of cacao-chocolate commodity chains, namely extreme producer poverty and child slavery, and environmental degradation from shade-free cacao production. Borrowing from the alternative food movement, the business strategies of the new American chocolate movement pair high-end chocolate — with distinctions made about the terroir-variety-flavor nexus, such as designation of single origin and/or with recognizable flavor profiles — with more equitable trading relationships, especially fair trade and direct trade. Using interviews with new American chocolate makers, this paper examines the connections drawn by chocolate makers between their forms of trade and the qualities of their chocolate, including conceptions of terroir. Claims about cacao flavor profiles and growing region are now common on high-end chocolate bars, yet there are considerable disagreements between chocolate makers about the relative strength of various influences: variety, growing region, production and post-production practices (especially fermentation), and their own processing practices. Additionally, the dimensions of terroir most commonly associated with wine map only weakly and metaphorically onto chocolate — in part because of the usually vast geographical and social distances between cacao production and chocolate consumption — which means that meaning creation around chocolate terroir is developing its own trajectory.


3.  Sarah Cappeliez, University of Toronto

“We’re not necessarily driving the bus”: The socio-natural formation of place and its role in winemaking discourse           

Terroir is a notoriously complex term used to identify and link artisanal products like wine or cheese to a specific place. The particular makeup of terroir – the fact that it intertwines material (e.g., soil, climate, etc) and symbolic (e.g., history, culture, etc) elements – makes it an ideal starting point for advancing our understanding of place and its role in evaluating cultural objects. In this paper, I compare how different winemakers and wine marketers and regulators in two contrasting wine regions – Niagara and Châteauneuf-du-Pape – define terroir and its functioning and effect on the wines they produce, sell, regulate, write and talk about. My interviews with these key actors, as well as participant observation in wineries and at wine festivals, events and courses in both case study sites, reveal that place in the context of winemaking is not just a social construct – it refers to an active and acting material world as well. Nature is a “fact” that wine producers must contend with, and they view its role as primordial in the crafting of their wines, going as far as to obscure their own role and contribution to the winemaking process. By discussing the key traits of terroir highlighted in French and Canadian wine discourses, I seek to shed light on how place is both a social construct and a natural constituent, and to connect the material world to value more broadly.

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