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The Whispering Pines: A Bowdoin "Terroir?"

The Whispering Pines

Story posted February 24, 2010

Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations

It has been said that a Bowdoin education draws in some measure from the College’s location in Maine, from the social and physical landscape of the community in which it is rooted, and from being steeped in a rich brew of history and tradition. At times the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical may be crossed without our being entirely aware of it. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a seminar on the “Science of Food and Wine,” offered by Professors Richard Broene (Chemistry) and Barry Logan (Biology). The guest lecturers were Julie Johnson '76, owner of Tres Sabores winery in the Napa Valley of California, and her son, Rory. As it turns out, a number of vineyards owned or operated by Bowdoin alumni produce outstanding wines.

In her presentation Julie introduced the French term terroir, which embraces elements of the regional and local landscape and the cultural practices of viticulture that give a wine its distinctive character. It is a word that is sometimes applied to other agricultural products, such as tea, coffee, honey, or cheese – foods in which the influence of soils, microclimate, and genetic variation are inseparable from decisions about harvesting, processing, and storage.

As the seminar progressed it became clear that winemaking, like so many other complex endeavors, is a challenge and a puzzle with many pieces. It may take years or decades to assess the wisdom of matching grape vines to a particular landscape and even longer to explore the subtleties of terroir that may be expressed in a vineyard's wines. Even if one controls for the age of the vines and the varieties of grapes being grown, slight variations in drainage, temperature, or seasonal exposure to sunlight within a vineyard will affect the timing, quality, and quantity of a harvest. Add to these factors the winemaker's decisions about handling, processing, blending, bottling, and storage, and you have a situation where the combinations of variables, while not infinite, constitute a very large number. Unpredictability, in the form of weather patterns or equipment failures, constantly reshuffles the deck.

Is there then a distinctive Bowdoin terroir, a character that may be traced through generations and across the diverse talents and experiences of alumni whose lives were rooted in the sandy soils of the campus during their student years? Some may find Bowdoin in the faint scent of salt air in a grove of pines or on a playing field of freshly-mowed grass. Others may hear it in the voices of classmates, teammates, and professors, and still others in the ways in which they see and think about the world. Whenever alumni meet with students – at a Bowdoin Club event or a hockey game, on Reunion Weekend, or in the communities in which they live and work – there is a mutual recognition of a shared Bowdoin heritage, despite the years, life experiences, and perspectives that may separate generations.

In many ways the challenges facing the winemaker – balancing complex variables, coping with uncertainty, and anticipating the long- and short term consequences of decisions – are familiar to each of us. We draw from our own hard-won (and admittedly incomplete) knowledge to make decisions in an imperfectly predictable world, where outcomes are by no means assured. Parents know all too well the mixture of pride and anxiety that accompanies each step taken by their children on the road to independence. Teachers strive to identify and bring out the true potential of students, and coaches try to build a team whose performance exceeds the sum of the talents of individual players. Researchers pursue questions that expand the boundaries of knowledge, despite the possibility that the answers may prove to be elusive. Entrepreneurs and investors gauge opportunity and risk on the basis of precedents and on estimates of future macro- and microeconomic trends.

In any endeavor, the results of our efforts may not appeal to every palate or be appropriate for every context or point in time, but we can learn to understand the landscapes of possibility and constraint that inspired the attempt. That ability to appreciate the fruits of our own labors and of the labors of others may represent the best of a Bowdoin terroir.

Pictured above:
The Whispering Pines

Is there a distinctive Bowdoin "terroir," a character that may be traced through generations and across the diverse talents and experiences of alumni whose lives were rooted in the sandy soils of the campus during their student years?