“Twenty Questions About Terroir”

Note: This piece was originally published in a slightly different form in Oct. 2021, in Disgorgeous Zine Volume 3: Terroir. Find stockists and support the zine here.

Where can we find terroir: in the grapevine itself? In the bedrock from which the vine grows?

Good questions, but both wrong, and there are only eighteen remaining to find the truth.

Terroir is not a vegetable, and it is not a mineral.

Terroir is an animal.

Take a microscope. Peer at the strata of limestone below this vine. See them: tiny tunnels left by busy, rock-eating fungal hyphae, mining nutrients out of crystal, turning dead matter into stuff a plant can use. Vine roots corseted in mycorrhizal latticework.

Are we still playing 20 Questions?

Step back and look at the limestone. Its making: a thousand thousand generations of comma-shaped shellfish swimming in their shallow, warm sea before falling to death and transfiguration.

The hills of the Piedmont were once the waters of the late Miocene, with their sea otters and kelp forests; the slopes of the Jura were once swum by the paddling bulks of plesiosaurs.

Do you see their rippling shadows approaching, through the bottle-green murk?

Turn your eyes to what those hyphae have mined out of the graveyard (in l’Etoile, you stand on the memory of long-dead starfish): watch potassium or magnesium animate the plant, busily ripening. Budbreak to flower, flower to cluster, fruit against the expectation of death. Squeeze the grapes. Taste the juice.

What do I taste?



Nothing—that is, until the penultimate animal. The animal that transforms the juice made from what other animals mined from the ancient graves of yet other animals.

Yeast. Is yeast terroir?

Terroir is yeast. And terroir is long-dead underwater creatures tilled into living soil by fungi and earthworms. Terroir is the aromatic potential of those living nutrients unlocked by fermentation. Terroir is metabolism. It is things that run and eat and shit and die. It is a mind that, sniffing, imagines starfish and lattices; that swallowing, talks to God and sleeps without screaming. It is consumption and motion. It is not a crystal, not a leaf.

Some of you are raising your hands now.

Aren’t kelp and other plants components of sedimentary soils, too? Don’t fungi form a different kingdom than Animalia?

And a sarcastic voice, in the back:

Is grape an animal? Is melted sand?

Here’s a couple for the fourth wall:

Why start with a framing conceit if you’re not going to follow through?


You came right up to deadline for this?

But you still have time to ask the only question that matters, in a quiet place, lit by moonlight, crouching over the reflecting pool, and you will see the answer written in your face.

James is a Brooklyn-based wine person who draws and teaches the Children’s Atlas of Wine. He is not good at playing 20 Questions.

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