Terroir: The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. —Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
The word “terroir” is so French that it cannot be perfectly translated; it represents respect and love for the land and its diversity, which is exemplified in the culture of food and wine. The word expresses the uniqueness of every region and its products; but more importantly it expresses the delicate symbiosis between the environment, plants, and the humans who nurture and enhance the characteristics of the land.
Hugh Johnson, in his foreword to James Wilson’s book Terroir, summarizes well the depth of the synergy (the book’s introduction is dedicated to wine but applies to all agricultural products):
“Terroir is the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, not even the soul of the vigneron.”
“When the French take a bite of cheese or a sip of wine, they taste the earth: rock, grass, hillside, valley, plateau. They ingest nature, and this taste signifies pleasure, a desirable good. Gustatory pleasure and evocative possibilities of taste are intertwined in the French fidelity to the taste of place.” This quote, from Amy B. Trubek’s book The Taste of Place, was an eye opener to my own cultural heritage but also to all the ethnic diversity I have experienced during my travels. The concept is universal and the planet is an abundance of terroir that has been lost to a great extent due to agricultural industrialization and the globalization of the food industry.
“The planet is an abundance of terroir that has been lost to a great extent due to agricultural industrialization and the globalization of the food industry.”
Nature is diversity and every corner of the planet could be considered a terroir in itself, defined by its weather patterns, topography, geological heritage, water source, flora, and ecosystem. There are terroirs so rich and so unique that they have produced one-of-a-kind natural wonders, such as the avocado in Mexico, tobacco in South America, coffee in Ethiopia, tea in Asia or the grapevine and cannabis in Central Asia, to name but a few.
Natural topography, climate, soil, plants and animals define a region. Our Earth’s terroirs are the product of billions of years of geological formation of the landmass, along with 500 million years of the plant kingdom’s evolution from a simple alga into the incredible complexity of today’s flora and the amazing diversity of inter-dependent life forms that exist on the planet. Humanity has evolved in a world of extreme diversity and has been influenced by regional environments. This evolutionary influence must have been minimal during humanity’s long migration from the African continent to Europe, Asia and the Americas but more apparent when we became semi-sedentary and more dependent on local naturally occurring resources. The richest terroirs of the planet have been at the origins of sedentary life and civilization. If indeed, as anthropologist and geographer Jared Diamond says in The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of Human Animals, “agriculture grew from human behaviors and from responses or changes in plants and animals, leading without conscious plan toward domestication of plants and animals,” then the land’s abundance and fertility has been a defining factor of the transformation.
The word psycho-geography was defined in 1955 by French theorist Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” However the concept can be traced back to Paul Vidal de la Blanche, father of the French school of geography, who stated in his groundbreaking work Tableau de la Geographie de la France (Outline of the Geography of France) that it is impossible to understand a culture without taking into account the land, and equally, that one cannot appreciate the land without understanding the culture of its people.
We Are What We Eat
The Fertile Crescent region in Central Asia was the birthplace of wheat, oats, barley, grapes and olives. Southeast Asia saw the rise of bananas, sugar cane, yams, rice, sago, and taro, and the Americas were the birthplace of tobacco, avocados, maize, pumpkins, squash, potatoes, and cacao. These three matrices of early agriculture have shaped very different civilizations, myths and people; terroir, agriculture, and human evolution are interconnected at the deepest level; the land’s sustenance in all its varieties could well be the source of human diversity.
“Terroir, agriculture, and human evolution are interconnected at the deepest level.”
Ethnologist Leo Frobenius and, later, mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced the notion of paideumatic influence, “the tendency of cultures to be shaped—in their major symbolic inspiration and dominant forms—by their own geography, soil and climate.”
This geographic force molds not only culture but the organism’s makeup of its inhabitants as well; societies living in the same environment on different continents possess similarities that are attributed to a convergent shaping by the environment, the Amazonians Indians of South America and the Dayak of Borneo are a clear example.
Another interesting instance of a terroir’s powerful influence can be seen in Egypt’s original cattle. They have been repetitively annihilated by epidemics during the long and rich history of the country, but nevertheless the current Egyptian cattle bear an uncanny resemblance to cattle portrayed in 5,000-year-old artwork even though the modern species originally comes from different continent.
Protecting and Treasuring the Land
Agriculture changed the face of the earth and human destiny from its birth around 15,000 years ago; civilization was born from the bounty of the land, from the work of farmers and their relation with their local terroir. A farmer was an active and beneficial part of the ecology of his region before large-scale industrialization of the food industry and the collateral damages it brought to the planet. The future of industrial agriculture is tied to genetically modified organisms (GMO), but is it a future we really want, knowing (as we are reminded by the Union of Concerned Scientists) that “the impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment, public health, and rural communities make it an unsustainable way to grow our food over the long term, and that better, science-based methods are available.”
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, funded by the World Bank) debunks the myth that industrial agriculture is superior to small-scale farming in economic, social, and ecological term. According to globalagriculture.org, “The report argues for a new paradigm for agriculture that recognizes the pivotal role that small-scale farmers play in feeding the world population. Small-scale, labor-intensive structures that focus on diversity can guarantee a form of food supply that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and that is based on resilient cultivation and distribution systems.”
Farming is nourishing the land, farming is being conscious of the ecosystem that makes up a specific terroir, farming is nurturing the amazing diversity of life forms that feed a plant, farming is interdependency and symbiosis, farming is growing products that express the full potential and characteristics of the growing habitat.
Protecting California’s Cannabis Terroir
The area known as the Emerald Triangle, in Northern California, has been a refuge for many Earth-conscious farmers, and is also the largest growing region for cannabis in California. If we follow the blueprint for success written by the wine industry, three generations of small farmers will change the face of medicine and give birth to a multi-billion dollar industry from their dedication to the land and to a banned plant.
The concept of terroir and the system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC, or Registered Designation of Origin) that is used in the wine industry has to be replicated in an effort to protect California’s heritage cannabis and the livelihood of the farmers who grow it.
“The concept of terroir and the system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée that is used in the wine industry has to be replicated in an effort to protect California’s heritage cannabis.”
The terroir of Northern California is apparent in the wine it produces—wines that are recognized worldwide for their quality and diversity due to the variety of distinct microclimates and to the land’s geological and topographic characteristics. The uniqueness of these wines is directly related to the grape variety, the region, and the growing and winemaking methodology.
This very same terroir has also worked its magic on a variety of cannabis genetics brought to the area in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s from all over the planet. Today’s cannabis heirloom progenies are the expression of the land’s uniqueness and the manifestation of generations of farmers/growers dedication and love for the plant and their land—the source of the Emerald Triangle’s deserved reputation for quality.
The wine classification system has been so successful in promoting the production of quality and protecting small enterprises that it has been adopted worldwide and has been actually customized successfully to other agricultural products like cheese, butter, chickens, lentils, and honey, to name but a few.
California is on the verge of creating a multi-billion-dollar world market sustained by small farming and Earth-friendly methodology, all based on an agricultural product that has not only the potential to transform medicine and the well-being of humanity but to heal the planet as well.
To learn more about how you can support local farmers/growers in their efforts to further legitimize the expanded use of the cannabis plant, visit the websites of these organizations:
- National Cannabis Industry Association
- Emerald Growers Association
- California Cannabis Industry Association