Terroir and Personhood
American winemakers have always embraced a definition of terroir that takes into account the physical aspects of a plot of land and the characteristics of the climate where that land exists. Old World winemakers, while focusing on this notion of the idea, have also embraced another dimension: the culture and history of a wine growing region when defining "terroir".
I've found both concepts particularly foggy and not always so useful in helping to characterize a wine. But it's the Old World idea that incorporates much more than the physical to be of little use to me. I've simply not been able to get my arms around the conceptual nugget that allows a people to explain a wine not only by the land and climate that give a wine its character but by the the culture and history of the region from which it hails.
Yet I've seen the light.
Spending the past few days with the family of my fiance have helped clarify for me how wines, like people, are part and parcel of their total environment: including culture and tradtions.
First, some background.
I was adopted by my parents at birth and don't know the identity or anything else about my biological parents other than they are Caucasian. Still, I am a "Wark". However, both George and Alverna Wark were only children. I have no aunts, no uncles, no first cousins. And those more distant Wark relatives are either unknown to me or have been entirely inconsequential in my life. And, I am not an uncle. My beloved sister has no children.
Put another way, were you to purchase me at a specialty man store, I'd be wearing a label that carried no appellation, but merely a variety and vintage: "Caucasian: 1963. The back label would consist of merely a warning of the implications of imbibing me too generously and probably some sweet words with little meaning.
Now, this is not to say that my character comes with no explanation. Both George and Alverna provided me with various, identifiable characteristics that I still carry with me. But to really understand those characteristics you have to consume a lot of Tom Wark, 1963. There are no readily available sign posts that immediately explain my character; no appellation; no easily observed traditions of upbringing that help explain me; no other similar or related characters that might give you a hint of what to expect from a Tom Wark, 1963. I am a pretty label with little information.
What was driven home to me these past few days, surrounded as I was by the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, close friends and even the departed family members of my fiance's clan, is that not only is our character and disposition a reflection of our familial and cultural background, but that an individual's identify is fully a reflection of the places and people with whom they are associated.
My beautiful wife-to-be is something very different from the many family members I met these past few days in San Antonio where a remarkable engagement party was the central reason for their reunion. And yet there she was, reflected in all their faces, their mannerisms, the lilt of their voices, their histories, their memories and their personalities.
I imagine that even that new breed of Garagiste Bordeaux, with its relatively new fangled intensity and density not on display in most previous renditions of Bordeaux going back centuries, still reflects its past and its heritage and it still reflects the character of Bordeaux bottlings now dead and buried. There is a lineage that can't be denied and it is not necessarily a lineal reflection born only of the soil and climate that has defined the Bordeaux growing region for centuries. There is something more, something cultural, that remains instilled in these newly fashionable wines.
There is a certain loneliness that comes with being a relatively blank label of a person. While this condition allows one to be creative in the construction of their personhood (and there is a real advantage to this), I can't stress enough how shocking it can sometimes be to have so few faces lurking behind you when you look upon yourself in a mirror.
I've never completely understood how so many people in my life could have cared enough to seem so worried that I did not have any inclination to seek out more information about my biological parents. And it's true that I've never really had a desire to seek out my birth parents. But so many others have seemed shocked when they've asked, "Don't you want to know where you came from?"
I understand this question a little better now, after this weekend, having been pulled so lovingly into the middle of a tightly knit clan. There is great comfort and joy in being part of a collective that knows its history and people and past and present and future. There is comfort in being embraced by the totality of a familial terroir.
There is something much more to be said for a wine that comes not only with its own individual characteristics born of specific soil and terroir, but also arises out of a past that delivers context and a commotion of meaning that goes beyond dirt and climate. I understand today how the "Terroir" of a wine can be defined by much more than the environment defined by a single growing season. I understand how a wine can be the understood by the winemakers and people that proceeded it.
The "Terroir of Kathy" is certainly defined by all she derived from Hank and Donna. But her make up and her meaning is also a reflection of Morrie, Cookie, Texas, France, immigration, Paul, Lawrence, Judaism, Benton, Andrew, Poland, and much more to which she is connected and many other members of her immediate and distant and current and departed family.
Just as the Bordelais can and have adopted the new fangled types of Bordeaux now lurking about that seem entirely different from past vintages, so too is my Fiance's family able to embrace a new person into their clan. And in many ways, this marks a new influence on the Terroir of Tom.