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Time for a new sparkling wine AVA in California

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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”.)

sparkling


* * * * * *
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.

  1. “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.”

    When I see the word ‘consumers’ in this context I assume it’s referring to the vast majority of people who buy their wine at supermarkets or big box stores but your assertion doesn’t jibe with that. Do you mean to refer to wine geeks or the average wine drinker? I think the latter knows varietal first, brand second and appellation third (or fourth if you consider many don’t realize that thought they may know a wine is from Napa they don’t necessarily know that that is it’s appellation).

    For example, I was at a tasting recently where a Cava was poured with five people who drink wine regularly. Most of them knew that they liked Cava but none knew exactly what the word meant. One thought it was a grape, two knew that it was from Spain and nothing more and two thought it meant “Spanish sparkling wine.” When told it was an appellation they all got it in a kind of, “oh, of course!” kind of way but that’s just not what they generally think of.

    Presumably you’re speaking to, and about, a more educated consumer…

  2. I love it! I’m curious though, what would be the name? Sparkling is just so generic, whereas Champagne, Cava and Prosecco are more memorable.

  3. I thought I was paying attention while reading your thought provoking post, but now I’m not sure. What’s a postcard???

  4. AJ if you look next to the typewriter, where your 8 track used to be, you see a stack of postcards.

  5. Kevin I don’t know but if we get the smart people working on it they’ll come up with something.

  6. Though I love the idea, I’m not sure the idea of a super-AVA in the regard you suggest would fly with the Feds. However, and in the same breath as the idea of Meritage, perhaps an improved proprietary name could be generated and promoted by producers from the finest sparkling wine regions. They could create their own rules and promote it on their own terms. Hmmm…I see an internet contest coming on!

  7. You read it here first: I suggested “Calpagne” a few years ago.

  8. But wouldn’t following the Cava gerrymandering sort of dilute the principle of place and uniqueness that is or should be the basis for an AVA? I know alot of AVAs may be gerrymandered and you find AVAs where regions associated with grapes from diverse climates grow, ie. pinot noir and Cabernet growing side by side or nearby each other. I could see the larger AVA ala Cava model offering strength and marketing power but in terms of AVA as a typicity or “purity of place” the large disconnected AVA model strikes me as a concession and a compromise of principles?
    I have thought about this Sparkling wine AVA since Richard Sanford first suggested to me that the area west of the Sta Rita Hills could produce Sparkling grapes. (Though now I know it probably does not get cold enough there every winter to provide sufficient chilling hours. )

  9. Peter I knew somebody would point this out and I’m glad it’s you. Yes it would “dilute” to some degree the sense of place but there are 2 things that in my mind outweigh that disadvantage. One, the publicity that would result in such a move and two, as I suggested perhaps the new term could be bipolar the way, say, “Green Valley-Russian River Valley” is. That way the actual source of the grapes would be communicated while assuring the public that the wine does indeed come from the coveted “Champagne Zone” of California.

  10. The only problem is that there are several wineries producing fantastic sparklings outside of California and it would lower the perception of their quality. I am sure the folks that produce sparklers in Michigan, New Mexico, Finger Lakes, and Long Island would be upset.

    I would not be happy if I was producing quality sparklers outside of California that recieve numerious awards and high ratings and then an AVA is devoted to higher quality sparklers only from California.

    If several sparkling ava’s were created then it could work. (example: Eastern American Methode Champenoise, Upper Midwestern methode champenoise, West Coast methode champenoise, Northwest Coast methode champenoise, Southwest Coast methode champenoise )

    The focus should be on the production method as well as the ava.

  11. I suppose, if it could be called “California Champagne Zone”, you might be on to something. But, I do not see how an AVA could be designed that only could be used for sparkling wine, and since it could not be, it probably would have a hard time promoting itself as THE SPARKLING WINE AVA for CA.

    The other thing that strikes me in this discussion is the question of sales level. Is there anything to suggest that using names like Carneros, Russian River Valley, North Coast, Arroyo Grande Valley on the existing sparkling wines is hurting their sales? I see your point of trying to get a “brand” attached to CA bubbles the way Cava has come to be attached to Spanish bubbles, but I am having a harder time seeing the benefit.

    Still, no harm in talking. As you say, maybe some smart head somewhere will figure it out.

  12. Brandon, well you could make the same complaint about outside of California Merlot or Cabernet producers being outshined by Napa Valley.

  13. I have to say I agree with Mark. The AVA thought brings the TTB into a idea which could easily be handled by a proprietary name by an organized association (i.e. Meritage-like). This would allow producers from all over the country (to brandon’s point) could join and agree to adhere to certain quality standards in exchange for a seal (or some other distinguishing emblem) as you suggested above. As a former sparkling wine maker I think this is a fabulous idea. There are too many people in the US that think of all sparkling wine as Champagne and this would be a great way to market American Sparkling wines and change that misperception in the process.

  14. Berenice Axisa says:

    I think its a very good idea. With more and more wine on the supermarket shelves, I think producers need to help the customer choose their wine. With the rise in consumption of sparkling wines I think that being recognized is key. Developing the AVA now would raise more buzz and therefore more interest. As the Spanish developed Cava and the Burgundians developed Cremant, I think its time for Americans to bring it on.

  15. If there were ever an AVA for Sparkling in Cali, Green Valley Sparkling sounds like a winner. This “sub” AVA is perfect for the picking. It is cooler part of the larger RRV which would allow for a longer maturation period (although 18-19 brix comes quickly!). Besides, Green Valley really needs its own gig. No one wants to be a “sub” of anything. And it’s already planted to varieties conducive to lovely sparkling wines. Chard, Pinot and dry brut zero Gewurzt;)

  16. What about using the existing AVA’s names. A bottle could be labeled with the words ‘Sonoma’ and ‘Sparkling’ this way the customers AVA knowledge would still work for them. We could find our favorite AVA for the bubbly.

    I think that TTB requires some continuity to the soil type, so your idea of a coastal could work, but vineyards would have to have similar soil types. The only non-contiguous AVA I know of is the islands in the sky Mendocino.

    I think a lot of grapes are actually grown in the Lodi AVA, I think the producers actually try to use branding to promote themselves. AVA’s might not matter in such a small market, brands do.

  17. Randy: Share your liking for the wines of Green Valley but most great sparkling wines come from other places, Iron Horse notwithstanding.

  18. i like the idea of a coastal sparkling appellation, but it must be a multi-state appellation, including the leelanau peninsula of michigan, if it is to include all great sparkling wine regions :)

  19. Steve,

    Well written and interesting as always but I couldn’t disagree more.

    I spent the first few years of my career in CA sparkling wine. The old axiom of “you can’t change peoples’ tastes and preferences overnight – they change slowly over time” is still very true. Most wine consumers use sparkling wine only a few times a year (though most will confess they love drinking it anytime). To that end, AVA is not going to help increase the use of this product. One of my biggest frustrations working with the sparkling winery was using beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make bubbles over still wines. I suppose it’s the same reason Domaine Chandon swapped out much of their Carneros fruit for still wine production and bought less expensive grapes from cheaper AVAs to make the bubbles. Why make a sparkling wine that you have to discount heavily to drive sales at near $20 when you can sell high end Chardonnay and Pinot Noir all day long for prices north of that (well, before the economy nose dived)?

    In addition, AVA in any wine to me is suspicious due to the 85% AVA only requirement. When I can blend 2% Petite Verdot into a wine and see how much it changes the profile, how much can 15% of non-AVA fruit affect a wine? It reminds me of the day at the Napa Valley winery I worked for was receiving Sierra Foothill Cab…heart breaking.

  20. tannic: all good points. I was just trying to generate some buzz for sparkling wine. Like Charlie Olken said, it doesn’t hurt to talk about it. It’s sad to see this brilliant category struggle.

  21. Steve,

    I’ll be generating a buzz with sparkling wine…

    Here’s another problem with the product: saving an open bottle.

    In sparkling wine, size truly matters if it’s MC (why talk about Charmat at all?) due to secondary fermentation and en tirage. I can’t drink an entire bottle, nor should I. Splits are wasteful in their own right, same amount of packaging with a little less volume of glass and back to the size/taste issue.

    Perhaps this category is meant to be pure luxury and for celebratory occasions only after all? Sadly, the ginormous producers may be the only viable product us average Janes and Joes can reasonably afford.

  22. Steve – always good to get some discussion on the points, but given the difficulties in getting even the most reasonable of AVA’s approved if they in any way overlap or encompass existing AVA’s (no matter how good or poor the original AVA is in identifying the unique area), I just don’t see how it could ever get done. It does make me wonder, however, why any of the existing AVA’s do not do more to promote the sparkling produced from grapes within their appellation. Barely two come to top of mind when associating “AVA” and the words “sparkling wine” – Caneros, perhaps because of the visitability of Domain Carneros, and the Russian River Valley, probably because of the size of Korbel and the fact it is located along the Russian River (Korbel still refers to its sparkling wine as “California Champagne”). Of course, there are many good sparkling wine producers that do justice to the reputation of their AVA, but in any marketing of the area, sparkling just seems to be an after thought.

  23. Morton Leslie says:

    As far as I’m concerned as a buyer of sparkling wine there is already a piece of information on the bottle to guide the consumer. It is the Anderson Valley AVA and, dare I say, the name Roederer.

  24. sparkling wine is non vintage, the goal of the winemaker is to make something that does not change from year to year. That is why the big French Champagne houses have massive libraries going back many many years so that they can compare and produce consistency.

    This is why AVA and vintage do not matter, only THE BRAND matter.

    If you worry about what AVA your Champagne comes from then you don’t have a palate worth catering too. AVA is a marketing tool for still wine, and BRANDING is how sparkling wines are sold.

  25. Jim–

    I am a bit surprised that Steve did not call you on this, and maybe he still will. In the meantime, let me make a stab at the weakness in your argument.

    It is very clear that the Champagne region and the producers there are working overtime to protect the Champgagne appellation. They do, of course, compete with each other on the basis of brand, and so do Mondavi, Beaulieu, Beringer among the big house brands and even Bond, Screaming Eagle, Colgin et al among the cults.

    You miss the point that Steve is making. For the product from that region of France, being called Champagne is big-time and they know it. Everything else with bubbles in France, and indeed, in Europe, cannot even reference Methode Champenoise. That was why the Spanish gerrymandered the name Cava. It is meaning as an appellation but it has, they hope, value as a “branding” name.

    I don’t see how a CA AVA can work for a type of wine. As to whether a category can be created similar to the made-up category of “Meritage” is a different question.

    But, they can be no denying (this is not global warming, after all) that both the CHAMPAGNE name and the CAVA name are intended to as categorical brands that go beyond winery name.

  26. Larry Chandler says:

    There are festivals for varieties, festivals for regions, why not a Sparkling Wine festival? Sparklers from all over could be sampled, maybe some blind tasting contests, and food to match? Would enough producers be interested?

  27. I thought we already have the CM/CV (classic method/classic varietals) labeling in the U.S why not educate about what already exist rather than trying to confuse.

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