Bounty by the County

The stateís winemakers and food producers arenít exactly key playersin the global economy. A Mizzou professor aims to change all that.

"You must note that it was the producers, not the politicians, who pushed for these laws," says Anne Richard, director of the Paris-based government office responsible for certifying France's 47 AOC cheeses. Without appellations, Richard contends, thousands of farmers would be unemployed, and numerous breeds of cows would have gone extinct.

"A lot of these products are made in areas which are very difficult to farm or do anything else with," she says. "These communities would have disappeared without their cheeses. Instead, they specialize and perfect them, and they can sell them for 30 percent more than the average cheese. The money goes right back into the regions, the farmers make a good living and continue to make their product better. All in all, we call it a virtuous circle."

Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc, the Italian consortium that oversees Denominazioni di Origine wines, says vintners are constantly seeking new ways of marketing place-based labels in response to increasing competition from non-European wines.

Jerry Smith planted his first vines 26 years ago in 
Commerce. He and wife Joannie also run a local-foods 
restaurant  at their River Ridge Winery.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Smith planted his first vines 26 years ago in Commerce. He and wife Joannie also run a local-foods restaurant at their River Ridge Winery.

Take the serial-number system that Federdoc is now piloting: It allows a consumer anywhere in the world to visit a Web site and find out exactly where and when the Chianti he just purchased was bottled. "We want to show there's a lot of work behind the name on the bottle," Curbastro notes, arguing that the same cannot be said of many American and Australian vintages — especially those enhanced by a myriad of technological innovations.

"You cannot take a juice, and split it into twenty different components with a Spinning Cone Column and rebuild it," Curbastro maintains, referring to a technology marketed by Australia-based Flavourtech. "That's not wine. It's a juice. Call it juice with alcohol if you want. The same goes for this business of oak chips for giving barrel taste. It's easier and much cheaper to add chips to the wine, instead of aging it one year or two years in a wood barrel that costs $700! But it's not the same as barrel-aged."

On a recent Wednesday morning, Barham moseys around Trader Joe's in Brentwood inspecting labels on produce, wine and cheese. "There's nothing here at all that tells me where these were grown," she laments, setting down a bag of blue and red small potatoes. "It's too bad, but it's typical."

Barham is on the lookout for American foods that she thinks could benefit from an appellation similar to Porto's. "No offense to the Idaho potato, but it wouldn't be enough just to say 'Idaho' and show a map of the state," she notes, gripping a silver bag of spuds with the red, white and blue "Grown in Idaho" emblem. "The Europeans wouldn't like that. Idaho, what does that mean? It's such a big state, you know. I think there's an area around the Snake River which produces a lot of the really best potatoes, so maybe those are the ones that could get a label of origin."

The cheese aisle, chock-a-block with domestic and imported choices, calls to Barham's mind the recent musings of a friend who has grown to loathe grocery shopping. "She said she'd just rather have two big signs above the shelves: one saying, 'WHITE CHEESE,' and the other saying, 'YELLOW CHEESE,'" Barham recounts. "I was horrified. To be condemned to such a universe: That's Beth's version of hell!"

Barham and her husband, a carpenter, own 200 cookbooks and were married eight years ago in Ithaca, New York — in their kitchen. Each evening the couple cooks from scratch in a kitchen filled with Fiesta pitchers and lime-green Le Creuset cast-iron pots. Duck confit is a favorite. For dessert the professor loves nothing more than an odiferous Rocquefort, and perhaps a glass of Porto.

While growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Barham had no particular appreciation for artisan foodstuffs. "My mother had plastic fruit as decoration, which she rubbed and dusted. My dad, he loved to cook, but he didn't garden. I'm a suburban girl, as average-American as they get."

Barham's foodie metamorphosis took place during her junior year at Vanderbilt University, when she studied abroad in Aix en Provence, France. "Going to the outdoor market every Saturday morning, seeing all the fresh fish, the olives, the cheeses, the spices — that was the '70s; you saw nothing like it in the U.S.," she remembers. "It was transformative to see that there were people in the world living so differently in terms of food, and it was a way of life so obviously better and healthier than ours. It left me always feeling like I wanted to make America's food system better."

For her Ph.D. in rural sociology at Cornell University, Barham crisscrossed France in a flame-orange VW bus for an entire year, talking to farmers and vintners. Since taking up her Mizzou post, she has dissected the intricate AOC labeling system and mastered the histories of Porto, Châtaignes d'Ardèche (French chestnuts) and Ribera del Duero (Spanish wine) — growing ever more convinced that labels of origin could be a boon for rural America.

"Under globalization, it's really hard for small farmers to compete against mass-marketing," Barham says. "They need something that's distinctively theirs, that no one can take from them."

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