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On “Walking, Talking, and Tasting with Winegrowers in Central Ohio and Eastern France”

From Mark Anthony Arceño:

As an anthropologist, the central theme of my work revolves around relationships among food, place, and identity. I am all about “learning through food,” or in the case of my contribution to the upcoming fall issue of Practicing Anthropology, wine. Over the past two years and counting, I have been learning how winegrowers (those who sell wines they produce from their own grape harvests) in central Ohio, USA, and Alsace, France, are making sense of changes in their vineyards, wine cellars, and tasting rooms. I have also been learning about how their wines are indicative of not only the places in which they are made, but also of the very people who produce them, all the while considering how those places and people inform what (or whom) those products reflect.

Tasting side-by-side Riesling (2015, 2014, and 2013) from the Grand Cru Rosacker reveals differences in taste. That is, the literal taste of the grapes grown in place is perceived as being different. What might be the cause(s) of those differences?

My learning is done through ethnographic approaches that engage the senses, such as walking interviews that allow me to use the environment to spark conversation, and wine tastings that provide for a natural conclusion to earlier discussions of the grapes I had seen in the vineyard just moments before. As I begin in my upcoming article, I first question which of the senses is deemed most important. On one hand, it’s a trick question, because I think they are all important and must be utilized in order to create the richest accounts possible of my time in the field. On the other hand, I have begun to think (at least in the context of my research) that it’s all about the ability to taste. Whether we are able to conduct fieldwork on site or must do so virtually (by choice or by circumstance), tasting the foods and drinks we study allows us to use senses beyond that of sight (the typical answer to my question). In so doing, we are provided opportunities to savor such experiences which help us to establish further trust and connections with those who help us conduct our research.

Photo reviews with the winegrowers I worked with allowed me to check my own understanding of the moments in time I captured, while also eliciting additional insights provoked by the images themselves.

As I continue to pour over my fieldwork data, I am struck by the multiple avenues of archiving sensory data: audio files on a recording pen or my cell phone from my interviews, photos that I took and later reviewed with informants, recorded videos of winegrowers showing me how to prune, and interview transcripts and headnotes I scribbled down before, during, and after spending time in the field. Encapsulated therein are sounds and images, as well as recollections of how I felt, what I smelled, and what I tasted. The “tastes” or goûts of the places I have visited throughout central Ohio, USA, and Alsace, eastern France, however, have been a bit more difficult to pin down. As much as we might idealize a particular flavor profile, perceptions of taste are not uniform. That said, the souvenir bottles (the literal French translation of which—i.e., bottles of memory—does not go unnoticed) from many of my research sites remind me that their contents serve as time capsules of archived taste data—at least until they’ve been emptied and then I’m back to relying on words and memory. They evoke experiences shared in a particular time and place1, inclusive of the people I worked with and the winegrowing tasks I learned about and completed through my participant observations. 

The cloudy coloration here is a reflection on standing rainwater of the grey skies on the day that I visited this soaked vineyard.

For me, this brings to mind the importance of Clifford Geertz’s concept of writing with thick description2, using our words to create as complete a mental picture as possible of what it is like to “be there”3 (especially given that those ethnographic moments have already passed). This includes but is certainly not limited to the sensory contexts in which our observations and experiences took place. As much as I would like to claim that an uncorked bottle of wine will taste the same as when I first tried it in the field, I do acknowledge that the actual taste and memories associated with it will have changed over time; they become complex and intertwined alongside the accumulation of other experiences. And so, I return to my question of the most important of the senses, as I relegate my awareness of how something tastes—or how the ground felt beneath my feet, what sounds were being emitted by various forms of wildlife, whether I could smell fermenting grape juice before I saw the bees, and so on—to words carefully transposed into a written, visual form, such as this. It is within these tensions of sensory experience that we may begin to recognize other forms and expressions of data beyond the purely visual within our (and our informants’) lives. 

Cheers! Santé ! S’gilt !

arceno.1@buckeyemail.osu.edu / @learnthrufood

1See Hammer, Brent. 2011. Terroir and Cultural Identity.” Diversipede 1(1): 22-34.
2Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3-30. New York: Basic Books.
3See Roncoli, Carla, Todd Crane, and Ben Orlove. 2009. Fielding Climate Change in Cultural Anthropology. In Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions. Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, eds. Pp. 87-115. New York: Routledge.

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