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The box of being in an unknown appellation

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Jacob Fetzer sent me a question via email yesterday:

Why do some wine regions never make it to the big time?  Is it really the growing “area” that hold it back? Or the money/expertise/big names that are missing?  Take Anderson Valley, before Duckhorn, and others who “migrated” there, it hadn’t showed its potential, and maybe hasn’t yet.   Redwood Valley seems to grow decent grapes, but it seems to me that is on a downward trend.

Warmest Regards,

Jacob Fetzer,
Third Generation

Jake is a member of the pioneering Fetzer family, who sold their winery to Brown-Forman nearly 20 years ago. Nowadays, Jake owns (with his bro, Ben) Masut Vineyard and Winery, which produces only Pinot Noir. I had my problems with their bottlings, which bore a Redwood Valley appellation, in the early 2000s. But I did give 90 points to a 2003 Block 7 Pinot, which seemed to show the potential of the terroir. Then I didn’t get anything from them for a long time, but I see that Virginie Boone just gave their 2009 Pinot quite a high score. Interestingly, that wine bears a Mendocino County appellation, not Redwood Valley. At first I thought, given Jake’s email, he and Ben had decided to drop Redwood Valley on the label, in the belief it was more harmful than helpful, and replace it with Mendocino, which is perfectly legal. However, I called Jake to double-check, and he explained that, no, they discovered they’re not really in the Redwood Valley appellation, but just on its border. So bye-bye Redwood Valley.

Anyway, here’s what I replied to Jacob:

It’s a mystery I’ve written and wondered about for a long time: How does a region get famous?

If you look at recent history, there are some clues:

1. It must be coastal, i.e. cool climate. Anderson Valley was (and Carneros, and Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Rita Hills). I’m not sure that Redwood Valley would be considered coastal.

2. It must become famous for a family of varieties, e.g. all the above appellations became famous for Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Chardonnay. I’m not sure that Redwood Valley is famous for anything in particular.

3. Then there’s the hard to define “buzz” factor. Sommeliers get interested – writers and critics jump onboard – rich men want in – the magazines start giving the big scores. Again, that hasn’t happened with Redwood Valley. The same can be said for Lake County.

It may not be fair, but it’s reality.

I might have added that it doesn’t hurt to have an outsized personality to promote an unknown region. Look at Gary Pisoni and the Santa Lucia Highlands.

But back to Redwood Valley. It’s a pity, it really is, when vintners find themselves in the box of being located in a lesser known appellation. I don’t think the average consumer, or even the fairly sophisticated Pinot Noir drinker, has a bad impression of Redwood Valley. I just don’t think they have any impression of it at all. The question is, how do the vintners make consumers aware of Redwood Valley (or any other lesser known area). In the case of Redwood Valley, it may not be possible, at least, not in the short run. Their website lists only eight wineries, of which one, Germain-Robin, isn’t a winery at all, but a distiller of brandy. Of the remainder, only a handful produce Pinot Noir. The others make everything from Zinfandel to Italian varieties to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. So there’s an identity problem.

It seems to me that, if a winery is located in a place like Redwood Valley, it should promote itself, rather than the region. Of course, these two things are not diametrically opposed. You can do both. But the accent should be on promoting the winery. The example of Mas de Daumas Gassac, which is a winery in France’s Languedoc region that is officially classified as a mere Vin de Pays, is instructive. Daumas Gassac despite its isolation in a rustic region and lowly classification is in high demand and has been for many decades, because they got off to a great start, in 1978, by hiring Emile Peynaud as their enologist, and also because they were fortunate enough to be discovered by Kermit Lynch, of Berkeley’s famous Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Kermit is one of the few merchants in the country who can launch an unknown winery to fame the way a famous writer/critic can.

There are closer to home instances of wineries in the middle of nowhere hitting the bigtime. Chalone did it in the remote Gavilan Mountains, and Calera did it in a mountainous region of San Benito County called Mount Harlan. Of course, both those wineries established themselves decades ago. It may have been easier back then, when competition was much less.

Jake also told me they’ve applied for a brand new appellation, Eagle Peak. If approved, Masut will be the only winery in it, just like Chalone and Calera were at the time of their formations. I told Jake, “That’s great. Get yourself a brand new appellation, get some good critical reviews, and it could be a whole new ballgame.”

  1. Really interesting food for thought, as usual, Steve. Thanks for your unique voice in the industry.

    In response, here’s my own recent experience: I was at Whole Foods in downtown Oakland the other day. They’ve been expanding their wine section in interesting ways. I grabbed a bottle with the label Vinegarden by Ceago. It was a field blend from Lake County. I was skeptical. Redwood Valley? Really? Lame, but I thought for a sec–is that Silicon Valley? No–must be Lake County.

    I was reluctant to purchase a bottle from the region. Odd, right? But the bottle had a Demeter seal, which impressed me. Anyone who goes to that extent in the biodynamic world–to get certified–I figured, had to be good. The petting of the land. That buried ram’s horn under the moonlight.

    Suffice to say: the blend really delivered. Everyone here loved it. After dinner I took the trouble to find their website (not featured on the lable–vintner dudes!–put your URL on the label!)and discovered Jim Fetzer in vid on the home page. A nice surprise. Anyway, now I plan to write a post about the wine for my own peeps.

    Two thumbs up for Germain-Robin, btw, and Ansley Coale over there.

    Lisa

  2. I think the word they might be looking for is marketing. Unless you get the buzz out to the right publications, right radio adds at, of course, the right time, nobody is going to know what appelation you are from. Then again, Don Sebastiani made a speech a few years ago where he explained that most consumers don’t even look at the appellation when buying wine. People he talked to in stores thought that Smoking Loon was from Australia. But marketing isn’t always the silver bullet either. There are bigger regions with more wineries with more years of existence but many consumers do not know where they are. I lived in So Cal for a number of years and many people did not even know there were wineries in Temecula and they leved not more than 20 min away.
    I am not sure it will ever be a clear cut reason why some areas get glory and others fade away.

  3. Lisa, yeah, Jim Fetzer has been serious about biodynamic for decades. I featured his winemaker, Javier, in my last book, “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.” You should visit Ceago sometime, although it is pretty far away.

  4. Thanks for the post Steve. To clarify, the vintages of Masut in the early 2000’s were not made by us, but by my uncle Jimmy for my dad. My father never intended to re-enter the wine business after they sold Fetzer, he was content with just being a farmer. He wanted to use those couple of bottlings to help promote the vineyard and to show that is could produce quality fruit. The last vintage was 2003, so we weren’t avoiding you Steve!

    Our new project is really something completely different. To be honest it came about unexpectedly after the passing of my father. We were making home wine, as we did every year since we were in grade school, and really felt we needed to continue our family heritage. We saw that out family was known for its pioneering of Organic viticulture, and most of the family had pursued that marketing angle with their new brands. I think that is great. But my brother and I saw things a bit differently. Yes we grow organically, but our ultimate focus was making the best wine possible, pinot noir, and no holds bar.

    My industry friends, Greg La Follette (La Follette Wines) and Brian Maloney (Deloach) and Ginny Lambrix (VML Wines) were already very supportive and enthusiastic about the vineyard, and so in 2011, in honor of our dad, we released the first vintage of our estate Pinot Noir.

    The proposed AVA “Eagle Peak, Mendocino County” is a mountainous area to the west of Redwood Valley. If anyone would like me to send a summary of the proposed AVA just let me know. Thanks again for the discussion.

  5. Hey Steve-

    “You should visit Ceago sometime, although it is pretty far away.” last time we had you up to Lake County and Ceago it was via private Helicopter from Oakland Airport…pretty far?

    FYI – We are about to apply for two new sub AVA’s here in Lake County. Your points are very well taken. Big Valley – Lake County and Kelsey Bench – Lake County.

  6. Steve, Jake Fetzer sent me his Masut 2009 as a press sample and it is very, very good, regardless of where it came from! I do not give scores for the publication I write for, just reccos…

  7. Rick, hi to Sharon! Yes it was a heli and I’m grateful it was provided. But most people have to drive including me, if I ever visit again.

  8. Ceago Vinegarden is worth the trip. It’s a gorgeous winery located right on Clearlake. You can arrive by boat or by car and they do have some great wines.

  9. Their wine is actually made in Hopland at Rack and Riddle.

  10. Jason Carey says:

    There are many many exciting things going on.. they are tap wine, more so called natural wine.. more experimentation with technique and grapes. all sorts of stuff.

  11. Hi Steve,
    Just wanted to let you know I posted a response to the unknown box problem:
    http://rosadorowine.blogspot.com/2011/04/fetzer-heimhoff-appellations-and.html

  12. Pietro,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful blog! Have you ever read through your AVA and plotted on a topographical map? My guess is that the majority of winegrowers out there never do. Furthermore, have you ever noticed how different publications (i.e. visitor magazines, grower commissions, wine publications, etc.) are generalized and often differ? I did, and I investigated!

    My comment above explains that I did not make the wines in the early 2000’s, but I did crack a smile when you said I was an idiot and I should be fined :) I should actually be rewarded for trying to educate the public on our growing areas.

    Just a thought, maybe instead of the “put downs” we should focus on growing better grapes, and making better wines.

  13. Cheers Jake,

    Well said. I agree that in the end it is all about growing better grapes and making better wines, with or without an AVA, which can be a plus or minus just as you stated. I edited by the way, and should rememer not to blog before breakfast – my bad. It is
    a big conundrum the AVA box, and big names are expected to represent so that us little guys can ride the coattails when we all need to step up and shoulder the responsibility of living up to the full potential of an AVA. This may be your burden.

    In Europe we would likely go through a tasting panel to see if we met some sort of minimum AVA standards. Maybe we should follow?

    But, you damn well better know where your AVA lines are as a steward of the land, whether the majority of growers do or not, though I suspect they do when it affects their crop price.

  14. Pietro,

    What’s ironic is that one of the authors of the RV AVA told us we had been included within the boundaries back in the 1990’s. In the early years AVA’s were drawn rather lazily and broad, and I am not sure you could get away with that now. Cheers mate!

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