Driftless Terroir: Drinking Deeply From the Cup of “Somewhereness”

By Erik Flesch

This is the 108th “Driftless Terroir” column, first published in Voice of the River Valley magazine in August 2013. I penned the inaugural column as an architectural designer fresh out of graduate school and eager to share a viewpoint that explores the relationship of geology and organic architecture in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin-trained designers. However, I have reveled each month since in the contributions of words from friends, new and old, who have expressed how they see the nature of the Driftless Region materialized in all manner of creations around them. 

Erik Flesch

This forum has been an experiment in curating ideas and in welcoming minds to join a dialogue about inspiration from nature. I have been proud of the broad participation by thinkers from across the region who have wildly different backgrounds, but have shared an honest excitement for articulating the essential nature of the Driftless Area from many different angles. In doing so, 38 different voices have scratched the surface of a topic exploring 13,000 years of human life on an evolving landscape laid down some 450 million years ago — and proposed that the Driftless Region is distinctive, desirable and worth celebrating. Together we have taken the concept of terroir, borrowed it from the world of grape growing and wine tasting, and used it to carry on an accessible and welcoming dialogue on the mechanisms of a subject of great importance to human survival, health, joy and delight. These 108 “Driftless Terroir” columns to date have constituted a set of proposals that have something in common with respect to the deep questions: Where am I, how do I know it, and what should I do?

Each place has a distinct character that can be tasted in its fruits, and inform a way of life if the sum total of all environmental factors are given the chance to exert the full force of their reality. Bedrock geology, topography, solar orientation, climate and the torrent of downstream biological consequences that result — from the soil microbial life to charismatic megaflora and megafauna: All these together define the available substance and overall experience of placeness from which a flavorful identity bursts forth for the humans who inhabit it. The manifest character of terroir is good if it pleases the senses. Rather than being considered provincial or possessing any single specific flavor, such as dirt or flint or chalk, a contemporary understanding of terroir character acknowledges that it is nuanced, different in each context, and highly desirable once identified and associated with experience.

Flesch_Terroir Diagram

Speaking philosophically, terroir is a powerful force of being — both metaphysical, by which I mean relating to the existential nature of things, and epistemological, by which I mean relating to human knowledge of things. The character of terroir materializes automatically in the realm of nature, but the subject of how terroir can manifest itself in human creations is a matter of great interest and controversy. According to some philosophical viewpoints, there is no distinction between the metaphysical and the manmade — particularly since the power of terroir is so often self-evident in the creations of the winemaker, the chef, the architect, the artist and other creative place-makers in the realm of the man-made. When that “taste of place” can be identified and differentiated from that of a different place, a place name can be applied — an appellation — and origin stories and romantic odes can be told. Sometime myths and legends are born. Sometimes debates come to pass.

What are the mechanisms for manifesting the taste of place within the human-built environment? Are they accidental, automatic or otherwise outside our ability to control; are they the work of supernatural forces beyond our ken that must be revealed or conjured; or are they intelligible and able to be coaxed out scientifically and artfully when desired? Part of the motivation for answering these questions comes from looking around at the natural landscape and absorbing an optimistic sense of life, and a feeling of hope and promise about what is possible here in the Driftless Area natural frontier. We see things we like or love, and want to accentuate the feeling of awe and appreciation. We don’t want to ruin something special, beautiful or fragile. I believe that the hills of our rural plateau of Paleozoic carbonate rocks are a kind of classroom of exemplified lessons that provide us with data, both sensory and conceptual, for inspiration and an opportunity to make good choices about matters of food and beverages, architectural design, art and music that can guide new choices. Beyond fleeting gratification, defining our terroir can relate our aesthetic wishes to matters of land use, regional planning, economic development and other practical matters as we advance our communities into the 21st century. Check out the agendas of your local city councils and you will see that without a clear voice and direction, the viewpoints that make things happen are not necessarily sympathetic to the celebration of our unique place. 

Each natural place has a distinct character that can be tasted in its fruits, if the sum total of all environmental factors are given the chance to exert the full force of their reality. But what are the mechanisms for manifesting the taste of place within environments of human creation?

In these nine years in this forum, exploring my personal viewpoint that the formula for creating terroir character involves the scientist, the farmer, the chef and the architect (accepting here Frank Lloyd Wright’s view that architecture is “the mother art”), I personally have waxed poetically on Driftless bedrock geology, the native-exotic paradox, hop bines, astringency, Wisconsin wine, seasonal festivals, grilled cheese, Cornish stone mason Charlie Curtis, karst topography, violets, malolactic fermentation and prairie chickens. Many others have waded into this wonderfully fun and fascinating territory to add further flesh to the bones of a Driftless terroir model that this body of writing represents, sometimes with humor or poetry, always with exuberance. Thanks to all who have joined me on an adventure and drank deeply from the cup of “somewhereness.” Find an archive of past issues at www.voiceoftherivervalley.com. 

Erik Flesch is the director of The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in Platteville. His background is in architectural design and geology. He lives in Mineral Point with his wife, Sara, and can be reached at erik@driftlessterroirstudio.com.