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Posted by on Oct 21, 2013 | 2 comments

Wine, Place, and Pilgrimage


I spent the last three weeks of September in Northern Spain, walking sections of the Camino de Santiago and drinking Spanish wine. Spain, like France, has instituted a form of appellation controlée. This means that in order to put Rioja on a bottle, for example, the wine must come from the Rioja region. The philosophy behind the appellation controlée is the concept of terroir: the idea that places give unique characteristics to wine. Roger Scruton, in his book “I Drink therefore I am” explains:

From the moment of my fall, I was a terroiriste, for whom the principal ingredient in any bottle is the soil.  By ‘soil’ I do not mean only the physical mix of limestone, topsoil, and humus.  I mean the soil as Jean Giono, Giovanni Verga, or D.H. Lawrence would describe it: nurse of passions, stage of dramas, and habitat of local gods… There in the glass was the soil of a place, and in that soil was a soul.” (12,13)

Soil, as I have come to know since marrying an Agrologist, is important. Soil varietals, drainage, bedrock depth, organic material, and horizon sequencing change a place like little else can.  It determines our diet, scenery, architecture, and even lifestyle. But for the terroiriste, soil is more than any one physical characteristic.  Here, soil is like allegory: a visible, corporeal access to the invisible, the spiritual.

Scruton holds that places gain their meaning from “poetry, history, the calendar of saints, the suffering of martyrs (12).”  Pilgrimage is predicated on a similar idea: a particular place has an essence to it that cannot be encountered anywhere else.  Most people I met on the Camino viewed pilgrimage as a personal, spiritual journey. It is about taking the time to think about who you are as a person.  The destination? An excuse to be out on the road.  Historically, an important element of pilgrimage was penance—the outward expression of inner reflection and repentance.  In that way, the journey itself was important.  But the destination was more important.  The place to which pilgrims travelled was intrinsically more spiritual.  Seeing or touching the bones of the saint buried at Santiago brought healing and made people holy.  The place mattered, and the ground (the soil) was holy.

Ancient Romans believed in spirits that governed over and protected particular places.  Such a spirit was called a genius loci.  In many parts of the Christian world, this idea transferred to local saints.  The term is still commonly used today to mean the ‘spirit of the place’ in an existential sense. These days, the significance of place belongs to the realm of phenomenology.  The focus is on the human experience, and this is of particular importance to architects and developers who seek to create different genii loci with what they build.  The objective reality of place, of the soul or essence of a place, is not discussed.  The objective reality of place, if it exists, does not seem to be of much importance.

The phenomena of place is a popular topic.  But what about the noumena of place, if you will?  Do places have an essence to them, a unique, objective reality?  It cannot be denied that people feel the importance of place in the context of wine, pilgrimage, or soil.  I have often heard people who have lost their land (usually farmers or refugees) talk about leaving their land as losing a part of them; it is an amputation.  Roger Scruton says that “Wine offers a glimpse of the world sub specie aeternitatis (34)”  But I’m not sure I agree.  Sub specie aeternitatis refers to that which is eternally true.  But place cannot have an eternally true essence, because it is changed and developed by the people who work it, by the different saints, miracles, and martyrs.  If places have souls, as it were, then those essences must be more similar to a human soul than to a Platonic Form: they must be open to change, to development, and to human experience.

Philosophy alone cannot tell us whether the soul of a place is a human construct or an objective reality of place, a true soul. But perhaps with a good pair of hiking boots, a wine glass, and a corkscrew, we can make our own steps towards the answer.

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I come from a land of big skies, big mountains, and comparatively low provincial tax. I like books, beer, and being outside. Also wine.
  • People are going to start wondering if you are not in fact a dipsomaniac if you don’t stop writing posts about imbibing. . . .

    On more substantive matters, what if place, practically speaking, is just window-dressing at best and tribalism at worst? How is the concept of terroir anything more than cultural snobbery that allows the Roger Scruton’s of the world to look down their noses at the poor schmucks that drink Charles Shaw? How is the enforcement of appellation controlée anything more than Eurocentric protectionism designed to thwart burgeoning vinting in the Americas and the rest of the Global South?

    These practical concerns ramify from a fundamental theological mistake. As theologies of place develop stronger and stronger arguments for the appreciation of the particular, I wonder if they are not bringing in a baleful provincialism in through the back door. The wonder, to me at least, of Paul’s gospel was that it broke down barriers—ethnic, religious, sexual, geographical—none of these could hold a candle to the unity that is found in Christ. The people of God should thus always be destroying barriers to the alien and uninvited. A theology of place that is too robust, to reminiscent of the local geniuses of antiquity undoes all the leveling work that the gospel has and could continue to do.

    • Robyn Boeré

      Start wondering? I thought it was obvious.
      You make multiple good points, and have unearthed many of my own concerns with the essence of place. This was my first foray into the topic, and my plan was to start from a generous position towards the idea, and then let the doubts come rushing in. You have helped greatly with that. Scruton’s book does smack of snobbery; I love wine, and still have trouble reading his rants about the travesty of the Australian wine industry. I think Australians
      make a wonderful, dry wine… something the climate of France can’t produce.
      Furthermore, he often talks of the ‘France réel’ under the current
      devastation of modernity and whatever else. But I keep wanting to ask:
      which ‘france réel?’ Pagan ‘France’ of antiquity? Gaulish France?
      Christian France? Post-revolution France? The idealized France of his imagination? Hence my conclusion that if such an essence of place exists, it must be open to change and development. Just as the physical
      soil of a place changes over the centuries due to many cultural and
      environmental factors, I believe that if there is an objective essence to
      place, it must be able to change as well.

      That conclusion, I believe, relieves some of the criticism (rightly) levelled in
      your final paragraph. As is, perhaps not evident in my post, I do not hold a
      robust philosophy of place. I am open to the idea (that places have a
      ‘soul’), but not convinced.

      I will finish with two final points: The first is that I don’t know that the idea of having an essence of place destroys unity. Unity is not the same as a sameness, and I don’t believe that we are called to abandon all difference in order to create that unity. I believe that the unity found in Christ is brought about through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and has the power to transcend both time and place. Secondly, I was impressed in Santiago de Compostela that the essence of that place, the holiness of the crypt of Santiago, brings together thousands of people every year into unity of purpose and destination.