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What’s real and what isn’t with appellations?

22 comments

I’m going to write a piece on the Atlas Peak AVA in the January, 2011, edition of Wine Enthusiast, so I’m not about to spill the beans here! But I do want to segue into a topic I was reminded of during my drive around the mountain, yesterday, when my host was Jan Krupp, one of the partners in Stagecoach Vineyard.

He was talking about how the growers and winemakers on Atlas Peak want to be better known, since the general feeling (with which I agree) is that Napa Valley’s other mountain AVAs — Diamond, Veeder, Spring and Howell — are more famous and esteemed than Atlas Peak. Although there are some pretty good historic reasons why that is so (and I’ll write about them in January), it set me thinking about AVAs, their reputations, and the role the media plays in establishing the latter.

If you think about it, AVAs, or appellations, are basically political entities. Yes, they’re supposed to be based on real soil and climate patterns, and, yes, the U.S. Treasury Department, which has the responsibility of okaying them, makes petitioners jump through a lot of hoops to prove their case.

But what many people don’t know are all the compromises involved,  especially over precisely where the boundary lines are. I’ve never heard of an AVA application to Treasury that didn’t take years of wrangling over who would and who wouldn’t be included. And, as those of us know who’ve covered California for a while, some of the AVA lines make no sense at all. Jan Krupp, from a high point on his property, pointed out one of the Atlas Peak boundary lines to the west, and it seemed to go right through the middle of a field. Nothing at all to suggest why one side is Atlas Peak and, an inch away, you’re entitled only to “Napa Valley.”

So I wonder. Since Atlas Peak is an official AVA (since 1992), do we assume that there is something called “Atlas Peak terroir” simply because it’s an appellation? And do we media hounds then go out seeking that “Atlas Peak-ness” and, lo and behold, “find” something we dub “Atlas Peak terroir” ? Because, after all, if that’s the way things work, it’s pretty bass-ackwards, IMHO.

We stole, err, borrowed our AVA system from the French, who have had a lot longer to figure out appellations that are small and compact and really do make sense. I have no doubt that there’s a Côte-Rotie terroir. I believe there’s a Chambolle-Musigny terroir. Ditto for Pauillac. But then you have a day like I did, traversing up and down the mountain, looking at it from various perspectives, and you appreciate how complicated things really are up there. Different elevations, exposures, different soil patterns and, as Kan Krupp informed me, different weather patterns. When you throw in, on top of that, that some growers are less diligent than others, and some winemakers pay less attention to detail, you can see that defining “Atlas Peak terroir” is not as easy as it seems.

And yet, that’s never stopped wine writers from trying! As I will, when I write my article. For those of you who don’t have the pleasure of being employed as a wine writer, you should know (I’ll probably be killed for revealing this) that we take a sacred oath on entering the profession: “I swear to Tchelistcheff that I will discover terroir within every single appellation, and will faithfully write about it.”

I’d love to hear from some of my fellow wine writers: Do we sometimes write about appellations as if they’re God-given and must therefore possess some inherent truth of terroir? Is there more of a marketing angle to appellations than a natural one? Or do appellations actually have singular personalities that we can all agree upon?

  1. I’m not a wine writer, but I do use some of the Krupp Brothers incredible Stagecoach Cabernet grapes to make wine and if the result is any indication, there is most definitely an “Atlas Peak terroir.” It is very obviously different from Oakville, Rutherford Dust, Calistoga, Mt. Veeder and any of the other appellations in Napa. So, my “vote” is yes, there is a particular terroir to the various Napa appellations – though I’m sure, as you pointed out, there is overlap as in Atlas Peak and Napa Valley and as in Stag’s Leap, Yountville, Oak Knoll, but, generally, I think the terroir is there – perhaps not as specifically defined as Bordeaux, but there.

  2. Shameless plug – see pp 27 – 29 and 81 – 82 of “Washington Wines & Wineries” (first edition) or pp 13 – 16 of the new (second edition) for my thoughts. As for terrior – if they say they have terrior, you may be sure that they don’t have terroir.

  3. We should remember that AVA designations are, first and foremost, “basically political entities,” as you pointed out in the opening of this article. As you further illustrated, there are numerous hoops through which the participating/competing wineries must jump before the AVA designation happens. During this entire process of making political and enological sausage, there is (sometimes) a fair amount of infighting — Steve alludes to this as sometimes there’s no sense as to who is included and who is excluded; again, politics and human nature.

    The feds have apparently taken the position that if enough interested parties see a benefit (monetary or otherwise) in establishing an AVA, they will play along as long as the participants make a decent enough case — thus the long process about soils, weather patterns, etc.

    Yes, we borrowed the system from the French but they’ve had centuries to sort out their terroir (separate topic about what they include in the definition of terroir that goes WAY beyond the political definition of an AVA here in the US). We’ve been at it for 150 years, at most, and in most instances, many years less than that.

    I see it as the growers and the government establishing the boundary lines and then the free market fills in the gaps of shading, nuance, distinction and all the other colors that make up the broad tapestry that is wine. As subjective as wine can be, that will take quite a bit of time, effort and discussion — and, like art, I doubt that we will ever have 100% agreement about what a particular AVA “tastes like,” outside of a few broad stroke flavors that seem to stand out to most folks. Filling in the details is what makes it interesting and gives people like our esteemed host a paycheck. ;)

    So there may be some “chicken or the egg” syndrome at work here, and it does take time for the character of an AVA to show itself. How many times do we see the “sorting out” process of which grapes to grow in which mesoclimates taking some decades to achieve consistent results?

    It’s an ongoing process that can take decades to sort out — and even then, people will wrangle over the details . But that’s part of the fun, right?

  4. Sherman, it is part of the fun. It’s also the wine writers full employment act.

  5. Here is my take on terroir. It exists but it is not the key component to greatness no matter how vociferously its acolytes claim that it is. I don’t care if a great RRV Chard smells like it comes from Oregon or the Santa Lucia Highlands as long as it has focus, balance, depth, range and appropriate levels of fruit for its type and age.

    That said, of course there is terroir–or a common character that a certain piece of turf will produce under more or less common variables. This is not some new concept dreamed up by latter day wine writers. The so-called Rutherford Dust existed as a descriptor and explanation for that common character that could be derived from the wines of the West Rutherford Bench and much of the alluvial soils that lie west of the Napa River in Rutherford long before old guys like me or young guys like you ( ;-} )started writing. I can pick it out in blind tastings and so can you.

    But what kills the whole concept of AVAs as having boundary-to-boundary “terroir” is that so many AVAs were never formed on that basis. Not only is the Napa Valley dramatically different from Carneros to Calistoga, but it changes again in pockets like the hillside AVAs, in Stags Leap, et al. And then there are the places included in the AVA for “Historical reasons”. While I have nothing against the wines from Chiles Valley and Pope Valley, and there are lots of very fine examples from the likes of St. Supery, Peju, Green and Red, Volker Eisele et al, these upland valleys have very different growing seasons from almost anything on the valley floor or the rest of the bayside and hillside places.

    The Russian River AVA is equally misleading, as is Sonoma Coast, North Coast, Central Coast, San Francisco Bay, etc.

    I would differ with you a bit on the phrase, “It takes time for an AVA character to show itself”. It seems to me that places that have commonality of character show themselves almost immediately once we get a look at a reasonable number of wines. Santa Lucia Highlands and Freestone come to mind as new places that do not need decades of sorting out.

    The Lodi AVA may need decades of sorting out, but that is because Lodi is too big to have one definition of its character–and most of the wineries out there are either new or unheard of. The big players, save for Delicato, seem to source their grapes from west of Lodi in the Mokelumne River AVA, a sub part of the Lodi AVA. There are identifiable similarities among the wines of M & D Phillips, Jessie’s Grove, and others in that area. But try tasting the wines of the Lange Twins. It is not just winemaker preference that makes them different. It is because they are not, for the most part, sourced from the deep, rich soils west of Lodi town.

    What bugs me most about the notion of terroir is not that it does not exist, but that it is required to exist for a wine to be considered very good by some people, and secondarily, that the distinct CA terroirs are often dissed as non-existent because they do not conflate to French terroir character.

    The AVA system is badly flawed, but I still prefer it to what we had three decades ago in which we knew that Dry Creek Zins were different but we did not recognize that difference in a useful nomenclature system. I prefer to know that Cabs are from Alexander Valley or Sonoma Valley or Russian River Valley than plain old Sonoma County even though there are broad differences between places in those AVAs.

    Regardless of their flaws. I still like the AVA system. I just do not see how one can ascribe one unique “terroir” character to the wines from so many of those oversized, gerrymandered AVAs.

  6. ” Sherman, it is part of the fun. It’s also the wine writers full employment act. ”

    Amen to that, brother.

  7. Sergio Traverso says:

    Well Steve, you have quite a bit to munch on the AVA subject, something you already know, but allow to throw even more spice to this dish. Let’s start with the comment that you made that “we borrowed the system from the French”. It seems to me that we mainly have borrowed bit and pieces, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that we took the “whole” system from them. For example, a monumental difference is that they didn’t have to go to the BATF for approval of their appellation rules because those were slowly simmered in the course of centuries and the chefs were the local people, the winery owners and growers. Several generations of them. Take for example the Medoc which is clearly divided into different areas starting from St-Estephe all the way to Margaux, but what is significant is the five growth classification which are unrelated to the local appellations. In brief the classification has more to do with the terroir of each property than their geographic location. My guess is that the classifications of 1855 took at least 200 years of cooking before it was served on the table. Another critical difference is that the French system of appellation imposes and limit the grape varieties that can be grown in each region. The AVA does not, leaving that choice to the winery, which is a good thing.

    On the other hand I fully understand the frustration of Jan Krupp when he points out the arbitrary division line that separates one field between the Atlas Peak AVA and the mere Napa Valley appellation. That reminds me of a stroll I was taken over the hills of St-Emilion in the company of the owner one of the first growth wineries there. It was early Spring and it had rained the day before yet the ground under his vines didn’t show it. The he warned me by saying “mind that now your shoes are going to get stuck in the mud because we are entering a non classified vineyard”. In three short strides I had mud in my shoes and I was trying hard not to slip. Well that is the sort of division line that makes sense and that is real.. So that would answer one of your questions, or to use an old cliché one could say: Yes Virginia, true terroir do exist.

    So, here we are in California trying to find our identities about our terroirs, and for that we have to address the BATF. At the same time we travel to Europe and try to absorb as much as we can during our visits there. Surely, confusion is bound to happen.

    As you know I am not a wine writer, but I hope that as a winemaker I can add to this interesting and very polemic subject. As such I would like to pass to my fellow winemakers the following three points: a) put the BATF dictums and the French appellation laws in the background as a reference to be taken into accounts only when it makes sense to you, but above everything else exert the most precious thing we have in making wine in the New World, and that is the total freedom from established rules and traditions because it is up to us to create those in each place where we make our wines. b) Take some of the importance away from what you feel you have to describe on the label as something necessary for conveying the identity, quality and character of your wines. What I mean by that, is that if the current system of appellation we have to live with is imperfect, let your great grand children decide if they want to follow it. Or better than that, lets hope that by then they have a better system and that they have have play a part on that improvement. c) Do not leave to the BATF, nor to anyone else, the definition of the terroir where you are making your wine. That knowledge is the responsibility of the winemakers to acquire; yet one must be humble in approaching such a task because after all we have only one chance every year to collect information.

    Finally, let me share with you that soon I will have my own blog so I can be your fellow blogger. Saludos!

  8. Steve: I considered doing that story 5 years ago. I arranged a big tasting and could not discern any unifying Atlas Peak characteristics. I’ll be very interested in reading what you come up with.

  9. It’s a mistake to tie much in the way of identifiable terroir to any large appellation and even some small ones. It is most easily seen at the vineyard level in California. Any winemaker that farms several dissimilar vineyard blocks sees terroir routinely within his lots with each vintage. Where adjacent vineyards share the same soils and climate, they may also share terroir.

    It is also a mistake to say American appellations were copied from the French. When people began putting Napa Valley or Sonoma on their wine labels a long time ago they were really only stating a fact that might have an impact on someone’s buying decision. Copying the French wasn’t so much on their mind as much as giving the consumer a piece of information about where the wine was grown in California. That the wine wasn’t from Sacramento, or Lodi, or Fresno, but a small coastal valley where there were some rather well known wineries making some excellent wines. The AVA system was created because there were many statements of origin being used or about to be used on wine labels that needed better definition. The system was put in place to define these marks, irrespective of whether they meant anything in the bottle.

    In essence this was the same process that resulted in the AOC, just a shorter time frame. In the U.S. all the AVA’s need is time, and things will get sorted out. And the one inch thing, that one inch this way or that means a different appellation, this exists in any appellation anywhere French, German, Italian or American.

  10. As others already posted, there are fundamental differences between the American Viticultural Area (AVA) concept and the French AOCs (appellations d’origine contrôlée).
    According to French Wikipedia, the AOC is an “official certification of quality” sanctioned by a government bureau/office subject to the Ministry of Agriculture and enforced by an official agency of fraud repression.
    “The AOC identifies/certifies a product’s authenticity and typicity in compliance with its geographic origin; and its main goal is to render these signs of character and quality easily recognizable.
    This nightmarishly bureaucratic “official certification” process involves the specification of: orography; zones; soils; climates/mesoclimates; vineyard classification (Grand Crus, Premier Crus, [1er, 2ème, 3ème, 4ème, 5ème, A, B] Grand Crus Classés, Cru Bourgeois…); red and white varieties permitted; viticultural practices (vine density per hectare, no-irrigation/irrigation, pruning and trellising methods, canopy density); harvest regulation (manual or mechanical, grape yields, minimum-maximum Brix levels); wine types (still, sparkling, sweet…); winemaking practices for each type of wine (fermentation methods; minimum and maximum ABV, residual sugars, sugar addition/chaptalization); aging vessels permitted; minimum aging periods…
    An AVA, on the other hand, is merely a “designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), United States Department of the Treasury.
    “And, unlike most European wine appellations of origin, an AVA specifies only a geographical location from which at least 85%(?) of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown.

  11. Peter, you’re right, of course. My point is that wine writers feel obsessed with discovering the terroir properties of AVAs, even though there may be none. In this, they’re driven by winemakers themselves, who insist that there are terroir properties, and also by people like MWs and, to some extent, MSs. So while an AVA may be only a geographical location, the people who create “reality” — wine writers, winemakers and wine service professionals — insist on imputing certain qualities to it. Those qualities may or may not actually exist.

  12. Call me crazy, but I’m not convinced that a spot with 6-year-old vines has any real terroir yet revelaed; not enough to write about in that context, anyway…

  13. Dude–

    As right as that idea may be for virtually any piece of dirt, it is also true that half a dozen vintages (which probably occurs ten or more years after planting by the time its wines come to market) can begin to establish a pretty fair notion of what the potentials are both as to structure and as to character of an area.

    Both the Santa Lucia Highlands and the yet to be created Freestone areas fit into the category of showing themselves early on.

    We can go back to comments Steve made weeks ago about the Westside Road area. It had identifiable characteristics for the area that covers Rochioli, Allen and other vineyards directly in its heart long before the RRV AVA was established. Green Valley (of RRV) showed itself from the very beginning. So, it can happen–and often does for those areas that truly have something unique to say.

  14. Sergio Traverso says:

    Morton, I agree most heartily with the point you make that “it’s a mistake to tie much in the way of identifiable terroir to any large appellation and even some small ones.” And, I also agree with your further comments about winemakers observations on different terroirs within the same property.

    It might take another hundred years for each piece of the puzzle to fall into place before we get an appellation system that makes sense.

    So Steve, do you have enough patience to get the right answers to the three (very good) questions you posed at the end of your blog?

    [I wonder if wine writers reincarnate again as wine writers when they return to this world? or, due to an unexpected twist of karma they are faced with having to settle with the job of a winemaker next time around?]

  15. Sergio, I am increasingly loathe to come to definitive conclusions about almost everything! I think it’s a yin yang: with certain delimited appellations, there is terroir — and there isn’t. Now you see it, now you don’t. I am pretty sure that wine writers who think that a particular appellation has terroir — and who then go looking for it — armed with research concerning what other famous writers have written — are probably going to find what they’re looking for. Indeed, it would be surprising if they didn’t. At the same time, the more I understand Atlas Peak — its climate, elevations and soils — the more I can believe that it should have terroir.

  16. Sergio Traverso says:

    Steve, I totally get your point. Ying Yang is perhaps the best way to describe the issues around terroir. An there is no question in my mind that you indeed found terroir in Atlas Peak, o even more than one. I am looking forward to read your upcoming article.

    I am also thinking that I should pay a visit to your friends, the Krupp brothers. You have definitely “peaked” my curiosity about Atlas Peak (sorry, I have a weakness about playing with words). Seriously, it has been decades since I took my Norton for a ride up there and it’s time to get reacquainted with the mountain (I will take my land Rover this time though). But, I will wait for your article and then call them to introduce myself and ask for a visit to their vineyard. Again, looking forward to all this.

  17. It’s trite to say but anything that people have to decide on is political in some respect. Appellations are no different, maybe more so given the passions of winegrowers for their identity and reputation which is so necessarily tied up with geography.

    I see a distinct difference between old world appellation systems for which the driving force was the prevention of fraud as against the new world systems which search for a collective uniqueness to define a point of difference from neighbouring appellations.

    The Venus and Mars of this is that in the old world, France particularly, appellations have tended to append more famous neighbouring appellations names to their own to adopt some of that reputation (look at the variants of Romanee and Montrachet) while in the new world such cosying up would be unthinkable.

    In the short term new appellations matter more to the producers than wine drinkers but if they stick and gain traction we only have to look back to the famous examples from the old world to see how important, and valuable, they can be.

  18. Roger, in some respects, appending “Sonoma County” to (say) Russian River Valley is like those neighboring appellations appending Romanee and Montrachet, isn’t it? Where the County hopes to trade off some of the reputation of the smaller appellation.

  19. Since Paso Robles AVA wasn’t mentioned, I will add a couple thots: First is, go try to get a new AVA and do so without providing soil types, exposure, wind patterns, creek flows, temperature splits, etc. We all know you can’t get a new AVA without producing all the above plus plenty more. As for the comments that different growers, different vintners have different methods and ideas re: not just winemaking but more importantly grape farming practices, there is one universal tenet that AVAs must have to be somewhat uniform…and that is the concept of low yields are essential for premium quality wines, regardless of terroir.

    As for the comment, “someone who claims to have loads of terroir…probably doesn’t”, I would respond with this: Assuming there is an abundance of all things necessary for world class terroir, there will be a very uneven product produced, if grape growers are not on the same page re: low crop yields. Not many yrs ago, here in Paso, the same fields now in grape vines were planted to barley, oats, and hay. Those farmers got great returns when their barley made 5 tons/acre… ie the more the better. Vintners of any stripe, if making wines for the upper end market, literally need to force growers to give up the concept of “more is better”. Parenthetically, low yield growers should be rewarded with higher $/ton, and in fact, most are. Still, some vintners do not see fit to compensate a grower with higher $/Ton for lower crop yields. Typically, these folks end up with just desserts: poor to lously wines.

    If we have a problem of un-eveness of quality here in Paso, I will bet 9 times out of 10 it isn’t a terroir issue, it is a crop load issue. Those same farmers who used to grow barley and oats? Well, guess what many of them are growing now? That’s right , wine grapes. And the disconnect between “more is better” and low crop yields is the main problem we have in Paso(elsewhere too), but virtually all Paso wineries who are known for their great wines…all subscribe to low crop yields, roughly 1.5 to 2.5 tons/acre. It is a hard sell to many long time farmers to make the leap to low yields, especially if the terroir is unimpressive. But, you show me a westside grower who is loaded up with terroir, and i will show you someone who is hanging roughly 2-2.5 T/acre…or less. Low yields, NOT just terroir, are far more important to producing a well recognized, premium Paso wine… at least at the vineyards and wineries known for their consistently great wines.

  20. As the only respondent who has penned, researched and seen two AVA petitions through the process, i can speak to this issue with a good deal of expertise.

    First, there is no BATF involvement in this process. All petitions go through the AVA office of the TTB in Petaluma, CA. There is a handbook available to the petitioners, and the process has become much more detailed and scientific since my first AVA petition for the santa Rita Hills was submitted in 1997 and approved in 2001. I also wrote and researched the petition for the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA between 2006 and 2009, which (contrary to Steve’s assertion) passed with zero opposition during the public comment period.

    The main problem with the AVA process is that the TTB will not allow petitioners to use GPS points to designate boundaries. It would require nothing more than them opening their eyes and saying ‘yes’, entering into the 21st century, and allowing the boundaries to become much more precise. My last request (or more accurately, plea) was met with indifference. ‘We don’t allow that.’ I couldn’t get an answer in how I could petition the TTB for a rule change in that specific petition element.

    Remember, and here is the crux: the AVA is a DESCRIPTIVE process, and NOT PRESCRIPTIVE in the way a French AOC functions. In no way does an AVA guarantee typicity, quality or specific character in a wine. I have never used the terroir in a petition (I am currently working on my third AVA petition for the Ballard Canyon subregion of Santa Barbara County), and I never will. Terroir is one of those words we borrow from the French to make us feel like we know what the hell we’re doing. It’s a word we haven’t earned and a concept we shouldn’t apply. At least for another 500 years into the history of New World winegrowing.

    As the process stands, boundaries must be created by following contour lines, or connecting the dots on two notable and describable points on a 8.5 minute series USGS Topo map. This is the problem. Well one of two problems: 1) we can’t accurately describe an AVA boundary using existing markings on old USGS maps because the TTB refuses to move into the 21st century (by allowing GPS denotations in the petition process) AND 2) we have to draw a line somewhere. Should we bisect properties where soil series change? Usually, at some point, we’re going to piss off someone by the virtue of drawing that line. That’s the benefit of hiring an AVA consultant like me. I have no skin in the game, and purposefully draw a target on my back to keep threats of litigation off those involved in making wine and owning property. I get to make a decision based on the soil, the climate, the wind and fog patterns, and those decisions will be second guessed for decades, and hopefully centuries to come.

    I take this process as seriously as I can within the contraints that the TTB places on me. And even though I talk a lot of smack about their reluctance to allow GPS technology, the Petaluma office has been an excellent resource and amazingly responsive to all my needs as a petitioner. Is the process perfect? Of course not. Is it designed to try to inform consumers about the influence of specific climates and geologies on wine style? I think it is, and we are continuing to evolve the process as we slowly develop a bona fide wine culture in the United States.

  21. Hi Wes, I’m glad Happy Cyn passed with zero opposition. In my 20 years of following AVA petitions, plus my historical research, I’ve concluded that dissent is more the rule than the exception.

  22. You are absolutely correct. This is why we try to bring all neighbors into the process as early as possible and allow them access to the process.

    In working with the Ballard Canyon group we discovered Fred Brander was putting final touches on the Los Olivis AVA, so we got together, had a glass of wine and decided to share a border…use the same points to make our eastern border and his west. It’s this type of cooperation that should make the TTB think: wow, Santa Barbara winegrowers really seem to get along, and a border that fits like a puzzle piece should show the world that we all agree where one AVA ends and another begins.

    Good discussion here, cheers!

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