The Appellation Myth
I’m from New York City. You gotta problem with that?
Readers of this space may recall that I have mixed feelings about appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). As a concept, AVAs are indispensable in helping us understand wine. The origin of grapes has fascinated wine lovers at least since Thomas Jefferson inspected Haut-Brion and noted the specialness of its soil. Here in California, we use appellations telegraphically; the phrase “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” connotes something special and inchoate deep within our souls.
And yet, I have often said that what’s important is not where a wine comes from, or who made it, but the actual stuff in the bottle. When you taste as much as I do, for as long, you learn one thing: You can find delightful and dreadful wines anywhere. I have had the most awful (and expensive) Napa Valley Cabernets, and so have learned to minimize my expectations based merely on origin.
The end result is that there’s a part of me — the part from New York City — that thinks, “appellation, schmappellation.” I believe in appellations, and I’ll refer to them as long as I write about wine. But I don’t want to give them any more power than they deserve, or be their slave. A little bit of appellation-mania goes a long way.
Well, the above is a rather long-winded preparation for a critique I want to make on this article by Clark Smith, the respected former head of Vinovation, and now connected with Appellation America, where he’s running something called the Best-of-Appellation [BOA] Evaluation Program.
You can, and should, read the article yourself. Briefly, Clark and his team at the BOA are setting out, in his words, “to distill the specific wine characteristics associated with the natural and cultural traditions of each region.” And by “each region,” he means “each of the 307 AVAs” currently recognized be the Federal government. To accomplish this, Clark will map the vineyards within each AVA “so we understand the soil and climate of every wine we taste,” and then have each winery fill out “Product Information Forms…to document grape growing and winemaking practices.” Finally, the team will “research the role of history and market influences on these trends so that a comprehensive and unique profile emerges.”
This is extraordinarily heavy lifting, a lifetime of work — interesting work that will provide wine geeks like us with good reading, in the form of the BOA’s “Blue Book of Appellation Taste Profiles.” The book will “identify wines which exemplify their place of origin” based on BOA’s analyses, thus making the book “the criteria against which wines are judged for typicity.”
Why does this make me uneasy? In part it’s because of my ambivalence toward appellations. They’re important, but not overly so. Just as I’m from New York, and so you can infer certain qualities about me, you can’t really know me simply on that basis. You can’t really know me by any data. Same goes for wine. Even Clark concedes (as he must) that “multiple styles…are found within an appellation,” styles ranging from “fruit forward [and] ethereal [to] tannin bomb.” Which is as I’ve said: styles within appellations vary so widely that the concept of appellation loses its force and to some extent its raison d’etre. Appellation becomes more like eye color than some kind of over-arching determinant of a wine’s character.
The other source of my uneasiness is that there’s an appellation-literary complex in this country that seeks to make money off the propagation of the appellation myth. Think about all the books that have been, and will be, written explaining appellations. My own bookshelves are stuffed with them. A beautifully-written book on terroir (as, for example, anything by the immortal Hugh Johnson) is an intellectual and artistic delight. I respect and support Clark’s effort and wish him luck. But to codify all of America’s AVAs into a kind of municipal code, which is what the Blue Book will be, seems to me a bit too much.