The Vile and the Noble

On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World


Direct all correspondence to Marion Fourcade, Department of Sociology, University of California-Berkeley, Barrows Hall 410, Berkeley, CA 94720-1980 & Max Planck-Sciences Po Center, Sciences-Po, 28 rue des Saints-Pères, 75007 Paris, France; e-mail: or


This article examines the concept of terroir—a French word that captures the correspondence between the physical and human features of a place and the character of its agricultural products. Tied to the protection of economic rents threatened by competition and fraud, the practice of classifying certain lands, grapes, and properties both substantively and qualitatively has become the organizing principle of the entire French wine industry. Often derided as snobbish monopolistic practices by New World producers, the notion terroir in France and its rejection in America both exemplify how the “principles of vision and division” of the natural world are always intertwined with the “principles of vision and division” of the social world. The present article discusses these affinities through an analysis of wine classifications in the French regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and some of the critiques they have given rise to, in the United States especially.