Wine, Time, and Terroir

Frances Dolan (Professor Department of English at the University of California, Davis) got us thirsty with a talk on “Wine, Time, and Terroir.” In it, she explored the contemporary California biodynamic wine culture that claims to be “real, natural, naked, and authentic.” Bound up in these claims are appeals to a particular kind of premodern past that suggests how wine quickly becomes “human adjacent” in its synthesis of the human role in growing the “blood of the grape.”

Dolan pic copyAt the Oecologies conference, I presented a paper entitled “Wine, Time, and Terroir.” I drew on on three bodies of evidence: websites and tour scripts from biodynamic vineyards in Northern California; recent pitches for lower intervention or more natural winemaking; and printed how-to guides to agriculture and particularly viticulture from the seventeenth century. Many of the people who are most self-conscious and articulate about their wine-making practices today seek in the history of viniculture an inspiration and resource for addressing pressing practical, environmental, and aesthetic challenges in the present. Their conviction that the past matters, but their confusion as to how, is an irresistable invitation to contemplate what we know about our particular plot of the past, what we don’t, and whether or how either knowing or not knowing could be useful. My central question throughout was the relationship between time and place: what becomes visible when we look at the there and then in which I specialize, seventeenth-century England, from my own here and now—21st century Northern California?

About this image: Parkinson is a seventeenth-century author who links the difficulty of growing good grapes in England to climate change–during the period we now refer to as the Little Ice Age.

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