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GP 30 August 2006: Terroir

The Kingdom of Hawaii.  It’s hard to remember that a monarchy and a reasonably elaborate society preceded us in Hawaii.  Even if Manifest Destiny rudely mowed down everything in its path, there was a Hawaii before Dole Pineapple took over and before the missionaries put a gloss on our seizure of the islands.  The miracle since is that neither the U.S. military, the planters, tourism, nor migrants from East and West have managed to wipe away its history.  Language, myth, and custom have survived here better here than anywhere else in the United States.  Just the other day we received an Island message across time and space that started, “Aloha kakahiaka!!,” and ended, “Malama pono.  Mahalo.”  With a world tending to one look, one feel, and one soul, Hawaii, of all our states, retains its sense of itself, a place apart.  Its flag, as best we can tell, predates its entry into the Union.  Half Union Jack, and half Stars and Stripes, it is the hallmark of a society that was once a Kingdom, then a Republic, later a territory, and only belatedly a state. 

Living Treasures.  Borrowing from Japanese tradition, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii has taken to anointing locals who’ve made a mark in science and culture ‘Living Treasures.’  While our other states manage to honor a poet or two, Hawaii has found a way to salute an array of figures distinguished by breadth and wisdom. 

In some cases, it goes a bit overboard, celebrating people whose time has not come.  Surely this is the case with the rather young author Maxine Hong Kingston, who has written so well of Chinese-Americans in The Woman Warrior and China Men.  Like many newcomers, she never really intended to stay in Hawaii, but stay she has, and now feels part of it.  As a recent ‘Living Treasure,’ she has fused with its tolerant spirit and acknowledges that it has special traditions that are like no other: 

“Hawaii has all kinds of traditions and ceremonies that are not immediately apparent,” Mrs. Kingston says.  “I didn’t know about this one until I was made a part of it.  This tradition comes from ancient China via modern Japan.  In the same way that we designate paintings and monuments and mountains as treasures, they designate certain people as Living Treasures.” 

Terroir.  What Hawaii’s got, despite all the imports from so many directions, is ‘terroir,’ a sense of place which wine and coffee folk narrowly interpret to mean a combination of earth and climate that makes vintages from one little region indelibly different from those of another, though the huge wine companies are trying to produce a universal, one-taste wine that comes from everywhere and nowhere.  The fight between globalized, manufactured plonk and village wine has been dramatized in Mondovino, a movie about the twists and turns of the wine business, where the economics of mass production threaten to make sipping insipid. 

But, in Hawaii, we are talking about a much broader idea of ‘terroir.’  It’s not just about chemistry, and sun, and the seasons.  It’s about localness in many senses—language, and art, and mores, and spirit.  It is a composite of myth and air and people like no other. 

Joe Rosenthal Dies at 94.  On August 20th, Joe Rosenthal passed away.  He was the AP photographer who took the most famous shot of World War II.  Rejected for war service, Rosenthal captured Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag over Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945.  Its fame does not stem from the fact that the Stars and Stripes, like many flags, photographs so well.  It was because it was a record of valor at Iwo, bravery at one moment atop one small place on this globe.  A special time in a special place: 

Mr. Rosenthal accompanied the early waves of a 70,000-man Marine force ordered to seize Iwo Jima, a seven-and-a-half-square-mile spit of black volcanic sand 660 miles south of Tokyo. The island, defended by 21,000 Japanese troops, held airstrips that were needed as bases for American fighter planes and havens for crippled bombers returning to the Mariana Islands from missions over Japan. 

Gevrey-Chambertin.  After all the shouting is done and the wine writers brushed aside, you could probably lead a fulfilling life if you gave up all the noodling about what to drink and simply settled down to burgundies. They are mellow but never watery like their pinot noir cousins in the United States.  They will cost you a pretty penny, but at least you will not have to talk or think about wine platitudes.  You will just drink right without all the commotion. 

A wayfarer just brought a Gevrey-Chambertin to us in her backpack, and it was all it should be.  “Gevrey-Chambertin is one of the communes of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, and more specifically of the Cote de Nuits, the northern section of the Cote d’Or.”  “At one time, practically every vineyard tried to tack Chambertin onto its own name….  In 1936 the French authorities stepped in and decided who had the right to the name and who had not, and the matter was settled.”  “Chambertin has a great history and a great reputation, and there can be no wonder that the other vineyards of the town have wished to capitalize on it” (Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, pp. 253-54).  It pays, we think, to find a commune, perhaps Chambertin, where you feel at home. 

Brands Are Not Enough.  Last week we talked about the confused state of advertising and the parlous state of many brands, suggesting that it’s hard to come up with a message that sells anything when you throw in everything including the kitchen sink.  But brands need more than a clear message.  As brands have become global—with cost reductions and cheapened manufacturing methods and with statelessness—they have become croissants without the butter.  There’s no there, there. Brands now come from nowhere. 

It’s not enough to be a brand anymore.  The product must come from a time and place—Hawaii, Iwo Jima, Chambertin.  It must have locality, and tradition, and cultural richness, defying the anonymity which global marketeers so cherish.  We want to know what must go into it to make it great; we want to know who made it; we want to know just how it is traditionally used to afford value and pleasure. Brands are only two-dimensional: symbols ring with complexity.  It is symbols we need. 

P.S.  Do you notice that every car looks alike these days?  A sameness which gives us no real reason to buy one over another.  It makes you want to go out and buy a Confederate Motorcycle—clunky on the outside but very tech on the inside.  You should hear the scorn avid motorcyclists heap on Harleys and the Harley crowd.

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