Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, recently wrote about his guest lecture for Dr. Kevin Pogue’s terroir course at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kramer, invited to speak to a class about terroir, led by a professor known for supporting terroir, as a wine writer known for supporting terroir, could have chosen some particular element of that big tangled concept to dissect, knowing that he didn’t have to spend most of his time explaining what terroir is and arguing for why it’s valid. Instead, as he explains in his Wine Spectator column, he explained what terroir is with an eye to why it tends to provoke such consternation. Terroir, Kramer says, is a metaphor.

My first reaction, seeing that phrase, is that it’s interesting idea.

My second reaction, reading on, is that Kramer isn’t talking about metaphors.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to explain why, and argue for why the difference isn’t pedantism but is actually significant to how we understand and work with this concept.

Kramer says that terroir is a lens through which we see and (can) come to understand the world: “As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.”

Metaphors are a way of directing our attention, highlighting some elements of the metaphor’s target over others, directing us to ask some kinds of questions over others. All language functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent. If I introduce a wine as “a lush, ripe Australian red” I’m predisposing you to pay attention to its sweet fruit flavors. Introducing the same wine first as “a classic Barossa shiraz with a meaty finish,” I’m encouraging you to pay more attention to its savory side right from the start.* Rhetoricians call the ability of words to make us selectively alert “framing.” The words we use change what we see by drawing our attention to some aspects of a complex picture and hiding or downplaying others.

All metaphors are framing devices; not all framing devices are metaphors. A metaphor is a structure that explains one (less familiar or intangible) thing in terms of another.* Metaphors describe a “target domain” as having characteristics in common with a “source domain.” A lot of research investigates how metaphors shape how we understand the world by encouraging us to take mental schema developed for one thing and apply them to another.

One school of thought says that all words are metaphors because using language is invariably about describing one thing in terms of another.** But if we’re a bit more restrictive and conventional, identifying a metaphor means identifying the source and the target, filling in the blanks in “[target] is like [source].”

Applying that formula to terroir, the best I can devise is “wine [target] is like Earth [target].” Maybe. But reading the rest of Kramer’s explanation – very sensible, for the most part – I think that his version of terroir could be better described by a different framing device: a metonym.

Metonyms use one element of a large, complex thing to stand in for the whole thing. “Lend me your ears” is a great example; the speaker wants your attention, not the cartilage holding up your glasses. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is another common metonym. Kramer says that terroir stands in for the incredible, nuanced, intimate relationship winemakers can have with their land, its soil, the plants they grow, and the rest of the environment. We use the simple word “soil” to stand in for all of those factors which would be so inconvenient to name in a sentence. To say “this wine has terroir” is to ask: “can you taste how this wine reflects the multigenerational expertise, devotion, and care its producers have for making wine on their land that enables them to show off what is unique and beautiful about that place?”

To say that terroir is a metaphor relating wine to soil or land is to say that wine has characteristics like the soil without saying that the wine “really is” expressing the soil. Metaphor doesn’t require a mechanism; it only invites us to recognize similarities. To say that terroir is a metonym, in contrast, is to say that we’re pointing to a real thing, but that enumerating all of the elements of that complex thing is inconvenient in ordinary conversation. When Kramer says that he suspects that microbial diversity is at the heart of the “real terroir,” he’s saying that wine really does express it’s place (metonym) in contrast to saying that wine can be explained in terms of its place without actually being connected to it (metaphor).

The difference is important for how we try to investigate what terroir is. If terroir is a metaphor, we might see how far that metaphor goes without looking for a mechanism. As a metonym, we’ll investigate the many elements that go into this complex thing. Some scientists may think that research will eventually quantify and describe all of the component parts that comprise terroir and make wines from one place distinct from another. Kramer and I both disagree. Those inevitably reductive studies aren’t built for capturing complex, emotional relationships amongst people, places, and other species that resist being reduced to numbers. Moreover, I’m not convinced that quantiative measurement will ever fully describe the incredible relationship between a complex hydroalcoholic solution and human sensorineural apparatus that we call taste.

I agree with most of what Kramer says, but might take issue with his saying that terroir is about seeing that “the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.” That is, unless he’s using “Earth” as a metonym for all of those relationships that build worlds out of people, plants, animals, microbes, and places working in community.

*People who study metaphors distinguish between metaphor – the big-picture structure of connecting a “source” and a “target” domain – and metaphorical expressions – all the individual phrases that refer to that big-picture metaphor. “Wine is poetry” is a metaphor; “a lyrical wine” or “this wine has great rhythm” are metaphorical expressions. Or, more familiarly, “argument is war” is a metaphor; “I won the argument” or “she shot down everything I said” are metaphorical expressions. The seminal (and easy to read, if longer than necessary) reference on this subject is George Lakoff & Mark Johnsen’s Metaphors We Live By, which makes the point that metaphors aren’t just decorative but are the very fabric of language and understanding.

**The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche takes this position in his essay on “Truth and falsity in an extra-moral sense” and I agree with it. Getting into the details isn’t necessary here, but the essay is a good read for understanding relationships amongst words and how we understand reality.

3 thoughts on “Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

  1. One thing is for sure: “Terroir” is a malleable concept that can mean pretty much anything that people want it to mean. If it encompasses the soil, climate, practices, microbes, regional culture etc., that is a lot of latitude to self-define it.
    So those of us that are scientists – i.e. devoted to measuring stuff and looking at causal relationships among variables – (ie reductionist approach) – should stop worrying about it or treating it as a construct that is dissectable with the tools we have available to us as scientists (eg. hypotheses and experiments that test them).
    It may exist, but doesn’t seem to be something that is useful to try to dissect – or even to come up with guidelines for ‘expressing it’.

    • A fair bit of research indicates that many concepts in science are malleable, and that those concepts continue to be useful nevertheless, so I can’t agree with your implication that science only deals with precisely definable terms. Evelyn Fox Keller’s excellent and extensive work on the concept of the “gene” is an excellent example, as is a whole bunch of research on “genomes.” But terroir — and a lot of other useful terms for understanding the world — are in part a means of dealing with the inadequacy of the reductionist approach. Reductionist approaches absolutely have their uses, but reductionist approaches aren’t sole or entirely sufficient ways of understanding the world. I think that the best argument — and the one I try to allude to here and elsewhere — is that reductionist science can describe and define some elements of terroir, but is ultimately insufficient to capture the complexity of an ultimately irreducible system, i.e. relationships amongst many species, physical places, and individual human sensorineural apparatuses, memories, and feelings.

      • Yes, but I cringe when I see grant proposals that purport to measure variables x y and z in order to ‘define the [choose your geographical area] terroir.’ I just don’t think its a very useful concept for scientists.

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