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