Time for a new sparkling wine AVA in California
The last few months have seen the usual Fall influx of sparkling wines coming in for review, as the wineries try to get their scores posted in time for the holiday season. So this time of the year always gets me thinking about California bubbly.
As good as it is — and it’s become quite good on a world-class level — California sparkling wine suffers from an identity crisis. As everybody knows, sales for years have been flat or down (as they are for sparkling wines of all regions, including Champagne), and if you ask the average, or even the semi-knowledgeable, wine lover what they know about sparkling wine, he or she would probably run out of things to say, beyond “It’s bubbly.” That’s compared to, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, which would likely elicit something about Napa Valley, or Pinot Noir, which might bring forth comments about cool climates and could even turn up references to specific regions, like Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills.
But California sparkling wine? Does anybody even know where it’s grown? Does anyone know if it matters where it’s grown? Granted, some might surmise — if they knew — that, since it’s usually comprised of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it ought to be grown in cool regions. But someone else, equally knowledgeable if a bit mischievous, might remind them that, since the grapes that go into sparkling wine are picked less than ripe, it hardly matters where they’re grown. This is, of course, a specious argument, but it underscores the point that one of the reasons California sparkling wine doesn’t do better with consumers is because they’re unable to associate it with a region or appellation, and if there’s one thing consumers can get their (already information-sated) minds around, it’s appellations.
In Spain (as I was reminded re-reading Tom Stevenson’s wonderful “World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine”), when Spain was told by the EU that the regulations demanded that appellations be linked to specific growing regions, that country shrewdly gerrymandered their various Cava production areas so that all of them, scattered across the nation, can now officially be called Cava. That ploy was taken due to the eccentricities of the EU system which we, in the States, of course, don’t have to care about. But it set me thinking: Why couldn’t California create a new appellation (or American Viticultural Area, as they’re called in America) that would encompass the best sparkling wine-growing regions?
Would it be legal? Well, I think so. An AVA is only an indication of geographic origin. If we drew up a sparkling wine AVA that ran from, say, Anderson Valley (Roederer, Handley) through Sonoma County (Iron Horse, J), Napa Valley (Schramsberg, Mumm) and Carneros (Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon), then down through the Arroyo Grande (Laetitia), it would constitute a defined geographic area. And since AVAs are allowed to cross county lines (e.g. Carneros), that’s not a problem.
One potential problem could be a clause in the TTB’s statutes (the TTB is in charge of granting AVAs) that requires “Evidence that the name of the proposed viticultural area is locally and/or nationally known as referring to the area specified in the petition,” but I think that could be dealt with. It might not be easy, but it could be done, probably using the (admittedly politically-fraught) word “coastal”. Other than that, TTB’s additional requirements, such as evidence of distinguishing geographical and climate features, should present no difficulties. The band of any sparkling wine AVA would probably include U.C. Davis climate regions I and II or (in the case of Napa), lower III, and lie within a 5-30 mile distance inland from the Coast.
Imagine if there were a sparkling wine AVA. The marketing and P.R. firms, and the wineries themselves, would have a ball promoting it. Think of the maps, the brochures; there could even be a special seal on the label. Of course, sparkling wine producers from outside the appellation would howl, but there’s nothing wrong with a little controversy (or buzz, as the case may be). This might even be a good opportunity to get the message across, at long last, that sparkling wine is not just something for weddings and New Year’s Eve.
From the consumer’s point of view, wine buyers really would be the utmost beneficiaries of a new AVA, because they would have one more powerful piece of information at hand when making a buying decision: the best sparkling wines really do come from that narrow coastal strip between Mendocino County and San Luis Obispo County (and I suppose Santa Barbara County could get into the act if they wanted to, if someone in the Santa Rita Hills got serious about sparkling wine, which, of course, they’re not likely to, since a SRH Pinot Noir is worth so much more than a SRH bubbly would be. But that’s another story).
I can’t think of single case in which getting an AVA didn’t help promote its grapes and wines, especially those along the coast that make superior wine anyway. Look at the history of AVAs in California, from Napa Valley through Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa, err, excuse me, Sta. Rita Hills. So, all you coastal sparkling wine houses, how about it? You have nothing to lose but your, uhh, lack of sales. (And maybe TTB would let you continue to use your existing appellation along with the new one, e.g. “Anderson Valley/California Coastal”.)
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Dept. of What were they thinking?
Got a nice holiday greeting postcard from the “Sweet and Fortified Wine Assocation” wishing me best wishes, etc., which was very nice of this trade group I’ve never heard of. I’m always happy to hear from a wine association I can learn more about, but in this case the postcard had no contact information at all. Not a website, not an address, not a phone number, nada. Just the group’s name.
As it turns out, they have a website, but it’s perhaps indicative of the weakness of sweet and fortified California wines in America that they would send a postcard to a critic, without any way of finding out who they are except through Google.