Terroir and Personhood

Tw 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.


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11 Responses

  1. John Kelly - December 14, 2010

    Welcome back, Tom. Some of us noticed that you have not posted for a couple of weeks and wondered what’s up. Glad to hear you were in the bosom of your family to be. You have put up a very poignant and personal metaphor here for the meaning of terroir – instead of going off at length on how I agree with your assessment of the term as it is used in the new world, and why I have stopped using it altogether with respect to all but a few regions, I will simply wish you and yours a happy holidays. Cheers!

  2. Kathy - December 14, 2010

    Another home run my darling!

  3. Hope - December 14, 2010

    As an adoptee myself I must say I had never related it to Terroir, but as usual it has opened a new meaning to me. I like you did not quite “get” what the culture and such had to do with wine. But this is an excellent explaination. I have been lucky enough to meet some of my “birth” brothers and have to say it was strange to see someone who looked like me and to see family photos of more people all with a resemblance to myself. It awoke in me a tie to a culture I never knew or had thought about and yet it seems to have been part of me forever. That culture has introduced me to foods and wines I would probably never have tryed and found them wonderful. Food and wine is so much of a culture I guess it just makes sense that the culture could be an important part of a wine!

  4. J.A. Kodmur - December 14, 2010

    So lyrically put, combining personal, professional, philosophical, all from the heart….great GREAT post Tom!!!

  5. (Uncle) Morrie - December 14, 2010

    Regarding “the Terroir of Tom.”
    ….let me say that meeting you and being with you this past weekend was a uniquely fulfilling, warming and joyful experience. You describe and express so much in your clear and poetic metaphors of sharing your thoughts, emotions, inner truths, and yes, your essence of being, so openly and freely with your fellow humans, that to either read your words, be in your presence, or have the good fortune to be with you one-on-one in person—-creates an immediate connection and feelings that if not outright love, bordering very close to that most beautiful and profound of human feelings.
    Let me just say that the true measure of unique vintage, essence of presence and being in any person is their “character” and even more importantly the soul that is within them at the very core of their being and nature which reveals so much and which I for one, truly found to reflect a profound capacity to appreciate, understand and to love unconditionally the most beautiful of things, from wine, to life, and most importantly Kathy, and through Kathy, to so freely embrace all of us who have so loved her throughout her life, and have felt her love in return…..and now it brings me such joy to witness how Kathy has now opened her “secret garden” of her deepest and most profound love because she truly has found her soul-mate……and that is you, and clearly to my eyes, she is your soulmate. Tom, I saw in you, a soul that shines out through your eyes, your smile, your words, your presence and your qualities clearly as a seeker as well as a teacher and philosopher able to articulate so much of the essense of life’s beauties and the bountiful warmth, character, and humanity that is so spiritually connected to the earth through grapes, and the spiritual nature and joy that comes from the harmony of the human soul in expressing itself through the magic and nature that is the fruit of the vine in so many complex, yet simple, and direct forms which periodically achieve an incredible integration and harmony of earth’s soil, living plant, human spirit, and plain hard back breaking soul challenging HARD human labor (coupled with spiritual fragility/sensitivity) to bring it all to fruition and balance.
    What I’m trying to express to you in my own clumsy, long winded way is that, Tom, I witnessed in you and your love for Kathy, and your warm embrace and acceptance of the family—-well I witnessed a soul, a spirit, a being, a person, a man of the highest order, vintage and pedigree who, although you may not have pursued your biological ancestry or vintage in terms of where or who you arose from….what I met, saw, witnessed—and experienced in truly sharing a moment in time and space with you—-is a human being possessing a spirit, character and presence of complex elements of physical, emotional and spiritual being—-and seeing how you exuded such love and warmth and genuine NON-judgemental acceptance of all—especially of me, my beloved brother Hank and my beloved sister-in-law Donna—well, all I can say is that “…the Terroir of Tom…” possesses remarkable and uniquely special qualities in the most wonderful of ways…….

  6. Samantha Dugan - December 14, 2010

    Uncle Morrie might have just stolen my heart…feel lucky to have read both your piece Tom, and this lovely comment. Congratulations to you all.

  7. Charlie Olken - December 15, 2010

    I come from a family like Kathy’s, and it does do wonderful things for the inner part of me. We like to say that you become an Olken when you marry into the family, and if you are a woman and your name changes, your children are still Olkens. It is that kind of clan. It is our own tribe.
    Tom, it sounds like you are about to become an MOT, Member of The Tribe. Congratulations. And, of course, congratulations to you both. And if you did not already know the words, perhaps just learned them or may not yet, the thoughts that go with the blessings you bestow on each other go like this. Mazel Tov. Ask Kathy if you need to.
    Warmest and best,

  8. Thomas Pellechia - December 15, 2010

    Can’t say much more than: you moved me.

  9. Chris - December 15, 2010

    I hope we hear more from (Uncle) Morrie.

  10. Gretchen - December 15, 2010

    Congrats to both you and Kathy, Tom!
    I love the analogy between extended family and terroir (I am the oldest of three and my parents were either the oldest or youngest of six). I came to my understanding of the concept of terroir through my geeky love of Geography (my undergrad degree)

  11. JohnLopresti - December 17, 2010

    TomW, Having been a kid in northern CA, I probably should contribute a geographical and demographic note, adding to the nice personal essay in the post.
    I clearly notice a Novato world-outlook in some of your writing, TomW. Sometimes it seems akin to my experiences in the “terroir” of the northbay region’s people I knew in my youth. Further, there is a kind of Humboldtification in a few prose passages in your posts in the past.
    I think we absorb our environments, which is different from the way plants are phenotypically relatives in a given region.
    I was reading again of Carole Meredith’s work on DNA of zinfandel, primitivo, and the other Mediterranean forebears of modern winegrapes. Some of that history involves some disparate origins, events like pinot genetically intermixed with a variety now banned in France based upon its inadequacy for winemaking; similarly, Meredith and other academic researchers identified various similarities among vines in Italy, the Balkans, and Greece.
    Now, without guessing too much, I think the new banner at the top of the website here also shows perhaps some Greek parentage in your past.
    Admittedly, I don’t know much about TX. I saw what the panhandle part of TX is like; it looks a lot smaller on the map than it is to traverse in a car. Sounds like a lot of territory there.
    And, I would feel ok with knowing only some of my forebears. There is a certain freedom from being part of a select subset of friends and relations. The basic idea, to me, is that the wine be well made.

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