R.I.P. Tulocay. Here comes Coombsville!
I knew it. Knew that getting involved in another dustup over AVAs is like wading into quicksand. It’s easy to get in, hard to get out, and the more you try to disengage, the more stuck you get. Last week it was the flap over Calistoga and the Federal government’s proposal to make it harder to create “nested” AVAs. This week, that same Federal government — via the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which oversees AVAs — announced it will no longer consider creating a Tulocay AVA in the southeastern Napa Valley. It was only the second time in many years that TTB has pulled an AVA application from consideration.
Now, such a “sure thing” had been this Tulocay AVA that it was assumed up in Napa that it was just a matter of time before it happened. Alas, such was the furor over “Tulocay” that TTB yesterday yanked the application “because of questions regarding the actual name of the proposed viticultural area.” It’s as dead as Hillary’s presidential campaign.
The details, as I write, are these. The original petitioners for a Tulocay AVA, back in 2006, were Aaron Pott, then winemaker at Quintessa (now a consultant) and someone called Marshall Newman, from Newman Communications. They proposed to appellationize [is that a word?] 11,200 acres, of which 900 were planted to grapes. The name “Tulocay” is of Native American origin.
Everything seemed to be rolling along, and Tulocay seemed destined to become California’s latest AVA, joining other luminaries such as Lime Kiln Valley, Merritt Island and Salado Creek. But a funny thing happened on the way to AVA-hood: Somebody wrote TTB a letter charging that the creation of a Tulocay AVA would cause “inestimable economic damage” to his brand.
That was Bill Cadman, the owner of Tulocay Winery. His objection sprang from the fact that he has been able to use the word “Tulocay” for decades on wines not made from the Tulocay region (e.g., his Amador County Zinfandel). He feared that if “Tulocay” became law, he would no longer be able to do so.
Art Resnick, the chief spokesman for TTB, emailed me the official Notice of withdrawal. It said that the agency had received 20 comments on Tulocay during the comment period: 8 in favor and 12 against, with the naysayers urging instead a “Coombsville” AVA in the same region (and based on a different set of historical facts). The Notice also said that TTB was contacted by Cadman’s lawyer (who’s with the San Francisco firm of Hinman & Carmichael), who urged TTB to use “extreme caution” in considering the Tulocay AVA. This is lawyerese for “We might sue you really bad if you go ahead with this.”
TTB saw the light! (Or felt the heat, which is the same thing.) Their conclusion: “After careful consideration TTB has determined that it would not be appropriate to proceed with the establishment of the proposed Tulocay American viticultural area…”.
In other words: Here comes Coombsville!
Now, what are we to make of this whole brouhaha? I, for one, am getting a headache trying to follow the whirlwind of politics, business, egos, lawyers and government bureaucrats that infests every discussion of AVAs. They used to be so simple and charming: It was all about weather and dirt and history. Now, it’s the lawyers’ full employment act. I have a suggestion: Let’s just let individual wineries have their own AVAs (like Chateau-Grillet has in France). No fuss, no muss, no drama. After all, it’s not about the AVA, it’s about what’s in the bottle, anyway.
P.S. What if someone starts a Coombsville Cellars before the AVA goes through? Do they get grandfathered in?