Ross and Terroir
I’m pretty obsessed with Brown, i.e. the University in Providence, RI. And when someone from my school who happens to make it to this little corner of Yunnan, well, it’s pretty exciting.
Ross works for a pretty interesting marketing/pr company that forces sabbaticals upon its employees. Every three years they are required to come up with a project, one that enables them to explore a topic they’ve been meaning to get to, which hasn’t been possible with life (work and otherwise) always getting in the way. Not a bad deal. There is even funding involved upon acceptance of the project proposal.
As a longtime wine fan and marketer, Ross taught me the concept of “terroir,” (pronounced a bit like tear-w’are) which is an indicator of place, tying a wine back to the land of its origin. The more complicated definition is expanded to designate a group of vineyards from the same region that shares soil, weather conditions, and type of production and, hence, character. It has also been described as, “the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.”
Basically, terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, a model in place that has attempted to label wines throughout the world. In other words, AOC is somewhat of a branding style guide for a select set of wines. Naturally, some people find issue with this type of classification, and the question, what is terroir, in some circles proves controversial.
Ross came to China to learn about tea, which seems to share quite a bit more with wine aside from their obvious commonality as popular beverages. In the Middle Kingdom, where people take their tea as seriously as the French take their wine, the first easy similarity is that varieties are named where they come from (e.g. Longjing, Anji, Pu’er, etc.). Looking back to a time when terroire was less of a regulated branding distinction, it was extremely important to know the right merchant to find the right wine. Very similar to finding the right tea in today’s China where you can pick-up varying levels of tea quality anywhere from the source to the supermarkets of major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. There are a range of tea houses in the middle. Speaking of which, tea houses and plantations are places where tea enthusiasts have a chance to sample the tea they might buy without the expectation of a definite sell. Sound similar to this custom still employed today at many wineries in France and beyond? Ultimately the buying of tea is supported by a system based on trust.
And it all starts at the beginning – back at the growing process, and to the place. Quality soil, weather conditions, and production will influence the quality of the tea. And don’t forget good water, which, as Ross pointed out, also reflects place.
After three weeks of traveling around China sampling teas from the markets of Shanghai with our friend Tracy Lesh to travels in Yunnan between Dali and Xishuang Banna, Ross spoke like a pro with a number of the guests quite eager to get his advice both on wine and tea purchases both in Dali and back at home. It turned into a lively discussion with one guest (Yvonne) talking about the changing habits of tea consumption in the UK. Apparently when the Brits first caught whiff of teas coming from the East, they had no idea what to do with the stuff and, after they gave up boiling and trying to eat the leaves, literally came up with the idea that tea sniffing parties should be organized.
The comment that kept me thinking for the rest of the evening was a Gertrude Stein quote that Ross slipped into his discussion in reference to the American inability to leave well enough alone, “if perfection is good, then more perfection is better.”
Will terroir become the basis for a systematic branding and quality control system in China as it has elsewhere?