THE BLOG
05/29/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Are the Terroir-ists Winning?

Terroir.

Used to be every time I heard the word it called to mind some wily Frenchman prying open my wallet with a rusty cork-screw. Product defined by place. Seemed gimmicky. Protectionist too, the way only wine produced from grapes grown in certain vineyards in Northern France can be called Champagne. Plus, every time I tried to say the word I felt like I had a mouth full of peanut butter.

But lately, terroir is everywhere, and I've learned to both deeply appreciate it and more or less pronounce it correctly. The cheese lady at my local farmer's market talks terroir, rattling off the native grasses her goats graze. The honey guy a few stands down talks terroir too. Tea is "single garden," coffee "single origin," chocolate "small-batch." Even the marijuana dispensaries boast about the terroir of their buds.

Sounds good, but what does it actually mean?

Frenchies talk about a "gout de terroir," the taste of the place where the food or drink is produced. That soil and climate should influence how something tastes is intuitive -- how much sun and rain, fog off the coast, hot days and cool nights, etc. It jibes with the stereotypes we have about Mountain People vs. Beach People, Northerners vs. Southerners. If the character of organisms as complex as human beings can be defined by where they're from, then it should hold true for plants that are stuck in the ground. That delicious mid-palate minerality of your favorite Sauvignon Blanc? Surely it comes from the soil where the vines are planted, drawn up through the roots and deposited in the grapes.

Except -- and I've noticed this happens a lot to intuitions and stereotypes -- there's absolutely no scientific evidence connecting attributes of soil to flavors in wine. Or any other food. According to a paper published last year in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the magic is in the microbes. Scientists compared the bacteria and fungi on the surface of grapes grown in different wine-producing regions of California and concluded that microbial variation was responsible for all those wildly distinct flavor profiles. And what caused that microbial variation from region to region? The researchers attributed it to "vineyard environmental conditions."

Which sort of brings us back to old Pierre in his medieval chateau waving a flaky croissant in the direction of his family's grand cru-producing hillside. Okay, I'll buy that where wine is concerned, place makes taste, not just because of the soil, but from a sum of diverse factors, many of which are invisible. But grapevines -- as well as the plants that produce tea, cocoa, coffee, and marijuana -- are immobile, embedded in the terrain, and presumably more exposed to whatever flavor-defining factors are at play. But what about with food derived from animals? Does the terroir concept apply to that as well?

Any beekeeper can demonstrate it does, that the taste of the honey produced by their girls is defined to a large degree by the flowers growing around the hive. Given that honey is just regurgitated, evaporated nectar, it's unsurprising that the flavor-defining compounds produced by the blossoms would emerge in that liquid gold. According to the guy hawking the stuff at my local market, honey's flavor can vary as widely and subtly as wine, from tangy star thistle to smoky buckwheat.

That's another aspect of the whole terroir concept that I've noticed -- complexity of taste. It's not just that a certain place consistently produces food that tastes the same. It also produces food that has subtle flavors and complex aromas of food you can't find anywhere else. Terroir means a unique flavor profile derived from a unique place. You want straight-up sweet? Grab the sugar bowl. You want earthy, tangy, purple-tinged delight? Go for the lavender honey.

And what about my goat cheese lady and her ardent terroir claims? She says it's more than just the land and the climate, more than just her myriad fescues and clovers and melics and sedges. For her, terroir is multi-factorial, holistic. It's food produced by the happy intersection of human culture and natural ecosystem. It's about having the right breed of goats and using consistent artisanal methods passed down through the ages. And it's the people who tie all those elements together -- her and her husband and the workers they employ. It's the micro and the macro, the heritage breed nanny goats, the invisible bugs curdling their milk, and the cheese makers who have learned to make the most of both.

I've seen this sort of terroir first-hand. In Uruguay and Argentina where some of the best 100 percent pasture-raised, grass-fed beef in the world is produced, it's not just the right breed of cattle and the plentiful naturally-occurring grass. It's also the gauchos who care for the animals who make that delicious beef possible. This is where my straw Frenchman really earns his terroir bragging rights -- because the same grapes that can make a legendary Burgundy can also be ruined by an unskilled vintner churning out cheap jug wine. Just so, the same animal can produce a great steak or a mediocre one. It all depends on what they eat and how they're raised.

I want to say that what terroir really means is authenticity -- real food from a real place made by real people. But I know that's just exchanging a vague French term for an equally vague American one. When I bite into a grass-fed burger or steak from an animal that's been raised its entire life on pasture, I associate the clean and light taste of the meat with the green grass, fresh air, and clean water that allowed the animal to grow and thrive. And while it's true that pasture-raised beef is lower in fat than meat from cows stuck in feedlots and shovel-fed grain, I know this is mostly a poetic notion. It's really no different than the wine pseudo-scientist who claims the chalky taste of your favorite chardonnay comes from the soil of the vineyard that produces it.

I was back in rural Virginia over the holidays, visiting with an uncle who's been raising grass-fed cattle for over twenty years, when I thought of the word that for me best captures the many qualities contained in the concept of terroir.

Goodness.

Terroir means good food produced in a way that's good for environment. It's food that improves rather than destroys the land on which it's produced. It means food that has a positive impact on the lives of the people who make it, the people who consume it, and the people who live around where it's produced.

For all these reasons -- because it's both sustainable and delicious -- terroir means food that will endure and be celebrated for as long as there are people with tongues in their heads to taste it.