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 Missouri's Terroir d'Exception. Story by Charles Reineke.


The French call it terroir, a practically untranslatable word describing how that nation's special soil imparts subtle, sophisticated qualities of taste to their wine. Of course, France being France, the term also means much, much more.

Terroir is dirt: clay or sand, gravel or chalk. It is climate: sun-blasted plains or foggy coasts, crisp Alpine cold or humid Mediterranean heat. Terroir is how water flows during a rainstorm, the angle of the sun against a hillside and the direction of the wind in late summer. English wine critic Hugh Johnson has described terroir as the "whole ecology of the vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts to autumn mists, not excluding the way the vineyard is tended, not even the soul of the vigneron."

Like few other Americans, Elizabeth Barham, an assistant professor at MU, can appreciate both the value of terroir and the worth of the not-so-humble vigneron who tends the vines.

As a youth she studied French culture and language, eventually perfecting her skills at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Université de Provence in Aix-en-Provence. As a doctoral student from Cornell, she spent months in the French countryside, examining how the long, sometimes painful adoption of cooperative food and wine production and sophisticated marketing have helped to make French wine, cheese and other high-value farm products the envy of the world. For her contributions to ensuring the continued vitality of that system, the French government in 2004 named her a Knight in the Agricultural Order of Merit.

Unlike other scholars fascinated by the mystique of France's great cuisines, however, Barham confesses her investigations have always had something of an ulterior motive. Barham believes producers of new-world food products, winemakers chief among them, are creating delicacies every bit as distinctive as those of their European peers. And that many of those producers are Missourians. Sacre bleu!

It's time, Barham goes on to say, that Missouri's winemakers and small farmers take a page from the French, banding together to produce and market items whose names become so synonymous with the virtues of the local terroir d'exception that they would bear its name, or appellation, exclusively. The French, she adds, think this is a great idea.

"They have, in fact, been the biggest supporters of all countries, including our own, for adopting systems of label of origin, appellations or 'geographical indications' in World Trade Organization-speak," Barham says. Missouri doesn't have the traditions of Europe, she concedes. "But we have a great deal of regional environmental sensitivity and information. Our challenge now is to get Missouri's regional producers thinking collectively, not just thinking of one another as competition."

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©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.