The box of being in an unknown appellation
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.
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.”