Book Review: “The Taste of Place” by Amy Trubek

If you were a wine drinker 10 years ago, successfully naming five of the red Bordeaux varietals was enough to establish your wine-drinking credibility. Twenty years ago, this may have qualified you as an expert. Of course, back in the heyday of Hearty Burgundy, times were much simpler. These days, as wine has gained popularity in the United States, the stakes have increased dramatically. To a certain extent, the French word terroir seems to have become the American wine drinker’s buzzword of the moment — perhaps the secret handshake for some — as U.S. consumers attempt to develop and demonstrate their oenological knowledge.

In many instances, mentioning terroir almost smacks of elitism, as if uttering a bit of French might invoke some sort of Old World insight. But as much as I would enjoy taking the term terroir to task, there is no denying that this concept has a profound significance in relation to wine. From the American perspective, the word terroir is usually a convenient, one-word synonym for “soil and climate,” since these two factors seem to exert the greatest influence on a wine’s sense of origin. But while these two attributes are certainly key components of terroir, the actual French meaning of the word transcends these two physical elements. As Amy Trubek points out in her terrific book, “The Taste of Place,” the true nature of terroir is embedded deep within French culture itself.

Trubek begins her book from the French perspective, illustrating the ways that terroir can provide a nostalgic connection to France’s past. In this era of increased industrialization, Trubek argues that nostalgia trades at an all-time premium, and that the French take extreme pride in their culinary traditions. Trubek describes France’s idealized notion of the peasant farmer, an iconic symbol which — in 2008 — mostly exists within the French national conscience. But even though the peasant farmer has already become a quaint anachronism, France continues to embrace its agrarian roots: eating well remains a hallmark of the French identity, and as a result, terroir encompasses culinary traditions as much as it encompasses taste.

Beyond the early chapters, Trubek ultimately shifts her focus to the United States, detailing many aspects of our own culinary history. Although we do not have the time-honored culinary traditions that can match those of our French counterparts, Trubek does argue that the United States is developing its own culinary practices and ideals. “A Taste of Place” explores many facets of the American culinary landscape, including a spotlight on Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm and a history of the farmer’s market in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza. After her foray into California, Trubek continues east throughout her book, highlighting chef Odessa Piper in Wisconsin, and finally ending up with a history of the Vermont Fresh Network.

As an overview, “A Taste of Place” proves extremely insightful. To her credit, Trubek only uses California as her point of introduction, quickly expanding her focus to the national level. Along the way, “A Taste of Place” fleshes out the complete meaning of terroir, placing it within a uniquely American perspective, and uncovering its many cultural implications. In doing so, Trubek explains that the notion of terroir should not simply be limited to its tangible elements, such as weather and terrain. Likewise, the reader also learns that the discussion of terroir should not simply be limited to wine.

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