The Sonoma County label war heats up
Oh man, this is gonna be a good fight. Some of Sonoma County’s most powerful organizations want to force the county’s sub-appellations to include “Sonoma County” on the label of every bottle of wine made there.
The Sonoma County Vintners is pushing the idea. Its executive director, Honore Comfort, was quoted in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat as saying that adding Sonoma County to all the county’s appellations [e.g., Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, etc.] will bring “significant potential benefit to Sonoma County wineries, grape growers and tourism.”
The Press-Democrat, however, cited a couple vintners, among them Tom Hinde, president of Flowers, as being more skeptical. Hinde predicted “vibrant debate” around the issue. Greg Bjornstad, of Bjornstad Cellars, told me, “I’d be concerned about an extra layer of compliance that wineries would need to adhere to, much less any extra expense for redesigning labels to include new verbiage,” although he added, “On the up side, I suppose it could help bring some more recognition to Sonoma.” Other winemakers are all in favor. Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, told me, “I think it is a wonderful idea…If we ever want the consumers to understand appellations, like RRV or Dry Creek Valley, we need to start broad geographically with the county.” Having a broader “Sonoma County” identity on each bottle, he believes, “reinforces the message to the consumers that Sonoma County is NOT Napa!”
Sonoma’s always had a Rodney Dangerfield attitude with respect to their neighbor “over the hill,” Napa Valley. This proposed new move is an effort to promote Sonoma to the consumer as vigorously as does Napa (which pushed through its own so-called “conjunctive labeling” law in 1987). I’ve written many times, both here and in my books, about how Sonoma was in such a hurry to sub-appellate, in the 1980s, that they carved up their county like a holiday turkey before anyone really understood its terroir. Napa Valley, on the other hand, took more of a wait-and-see approach, and today, their sub-AVAs — mainly mountains and the towns along Highway 29 — make much more sense than do Sonoma’s, which resemble a cracked up Humpty Dumpty.
There is a sense of too little, too late to Sonoma’s conjunctive labeling proposal. True, if “Sonoma County” appeared on every bottle of wine coming from there, there probably would be “100 million faces [of Sonoma] on retail shelves and wine lists,” in the words of Nick Frey, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission’s president, who’s in favor of the idea. But “Made in China” appears on hundreds of millions of products and nobody rushes out to buy them because of where they were made. It’s also not clear to me that there wouldn’t be a corresponding dilution of Sonoma’s sub-appellations. Russian River Valley, for example, has tried so hard, and with so much success, to advance its reputation. How would appending “Sonoma County” to it help? It might not hurt, but if I were a Russian River Valley winery, the fact that “it might not hurt” my business is hardly an encouraging reason to support it.
There’s also the problem that what worked for Napa Valley will not necessarily work for anyplace else. To mimic a competitor’s business model is seldom a formula for success. In business and elsewhere, we see that in order to achieve something lasting, you have to come up with something original. Besides, I don’t think that origin is as important as it used to be. The consumer now has access to wines from everywhere in the world, and is guided by factors far more important (to him) than appellation. Price, good reviews, peer recommendations, wine type, shelf talkers and even label design play more into buying decisions, I suspect, than where the grapes were grown.
Sonoma County, like all wine regions, suffers from an inherent tension: each winery wishes to promote itself above all the others, and sometimes that involves competing against its neighbors. A winery that promotes its greater appellation runs the risk of hurting itself by make its competitors more illustrious. This is why there has always been an historic push-pull within regional winery associations. If you’re a winery, belonging to a regional association is a double-edged sword, because a rising tide lifts all boats, not just your own. I’ve said before that the best way for Sonoma County wineries to promote themselves is to make the very best wine they can. We’ve seen throughout history that that’s how great wineries survive and thrive, not by tinkering with what they say on their labels.