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How to brand a world class wine region

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In California (as everywhere), wine regions want to be thought of as special. A region that’s perceived as special can charge more money for their wines, which in turn lets them invest in their viticulture and enology and make the wines even better. This is why every wine region in California is secretly jealous of Napa Valley (not that they’d admit it).

But not every wine region can be special. It’s a law of the universe. In this day and age of marketing, though, wine regions do the most amazing things to promote themselves as special. They form regional associations, charge dues, and hire publicists to, well, publicize their attributes and paint them in the best possible light. Nothing wrong with that. If you’re a wine region and you don’t blow your own horn, you’ve got a problem.

Which makes it all the more remarkable when a new wine region comes on the scene and achieves fame even before they have a functioning association and with hardly lifting a finger to promote themselves. I’m talking about the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Sta. Rita Hills (as the name must appear on the label to avoid a conflict of interest with Chile’s Santa Rita Winery) is probably most famous as the main location of the movie Sideways, but that film did not create SRH’s fame. I can’t even recall that the words “Santa Rita Hills” were ever uttered in the movie. (If anyone knows, please tell me.)

Besides, wine critics are not about to salivate over a wine region simply because it’s in a movie.

No, the critics began praising SRH in the ‘90s, and the pace has simply accelerated in the 2000s. Today, I think it’s safe to say that SRH stands as one of the greatest places in the New World to grow Pinot Noir (and they do a great job at Chardonnay and Syrah and Pinot Gris and perhaps one or two others).

And they got there on their own — not with fancy marketing packages and press kits and events with celebrity auctioneers. Not with spin and hype. Not by luring in big spenders with resorts and great restaurants and golf courses. They did it the old-fashioned way: They earned it. (I can still hear John Houseman saying those words.)

They earned it through the dogged efforts of people like Richard Sanford, who was there (with his partner, Michael Benedict) when everyone else thought they were crazy. They did it through the pioneering of guys like Brian Babcock …through the vision and hard work of a younger generation of idealists, like Greg Brewer, Steve Clifton, Wes Hagen and Kathy Joseph. (I could go on and on, and I apologize to others, equally important, who are not on this list.) They put the Santa Rita Hills on the world wine map for the most fundamental reason of all: the quality of the wines.

It’s an important lesson for California’s other wine regions (there are more than 100 AVAs, with more on the way). Quality comes first. Figure out what you do better than anyone else, and then do it. Fame will surely follow.

Here are 8 amazing Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs I’ve had recently. It’s no coincidence that 3 of them come from the Cargasacchi Vineyard (which happens to be all Clone 115). The italicized numbers are my Wine Enthusiast scores:

96 Sea Smoke 2006 Ten Pinot Noir
95 Melville 2006 Estate Carrie’s Pinot Noir
94 Samsara 2006 Melville Vineyard Pinot Noir
94 Bonaccorsi 2006 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir
94 Loring Wine Company 2006 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir
94 Coup de Foudre 2006 Pinot Noir
94 Hitching Post 2006 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir
93 Rusack 2006 Reserve Pinot Noir

P.S. Please visit my weekly blog at Wine Enthusiast.


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