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Playing “what if?” with California wine regions


It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.

  1. Steve:

    It is a fun game. But what I can’t figure out is what your argument is for regional naming being better (in one way or another) than a varietal naming system.

    One of the obvious problems with a regional naming system is the way it deters growers from planting grapes other than what the law says may be planted so that the region’s name may be placed on the bottle. This deters innovation and variety and surprise.

    Also, Can we be sure that no other varieties besides Pinot and Chard can produce profound wines in the Burgundy region? I’m not so sure. But there is little motivation under the current system to find out.

    I think the system we have is better for the consumer.

    That said, a little more regulation wouldn’t hurt. For example, can we please get the term “old vine” regulated???

  2. @Tom Wark: Add my name to the list of people who would support regulations for “old vine.” Also: “reserve.” You can’t have a “reserve” without having a “regular.”

  3. I couldn’t imagine a Rutherford without the beautiful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from El Molino…

  4. I really enjoy “what if” questions and historical contingency is a fascinating and complicated game. With the varietal designation argument certainly a sense of place can be lost, though diversity and can be gained, and the grass is always greener when thinking that a defined regional profile could be a narrow but higher quality thing. In some ways I like the fact that the CORO program in Mendocino (whether it is a success or not) dabbles in regional definition. On the other hand, I really enjoy the fact that we, for example, are growing 13 different Italian cultivars. When I think that in some areas of Europe that me and all of my neighbors could all be, say, growing Pinot makes me cringe. The marketing question looms large though. Of course in Willamette Valley it is all Pinot, but they are short sighted and never heard of Italy or Austria there…

    I propose one alternative question: What if there was no Cabernet? Turn of the century Sangiovese was everywhere. Nebbiolo carpeted the Central Valley. To-Kalon was half Refosco for Christ’s sake. Merlot did not exist until the 1960s. The fact that we have this French cultivar thing (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah) is pure historical contingency based on the success of a few powerful people and peculiar social developments. By all the historical numbers the grocery store shelves should be filled with Sangiovese, Primitivo and Nebbiolo with French stuff relegated to a few dusty bottles in the corner. And in Italy, varietal naming becomes real fun…

  5. In the 1930’s Napa, and other agricultural towns in California were better known for Steinbeck like poverty of migrant workers. Wine was a rich mans game, with the exception of Catholic immigrants from southern Europe. You would never have named a “Napa” anything, just as you wouldn’t label something a “Merced Red” today. Even today would never go into a restaurant in SF or Chicago and say “what kind of Stockton do you have on menu?” Maybe a gun shop would have something, but not a wine shop.

    Varietals were the only real differentiation, and as wine knowledge grows in years to come we can associate superior regions for these varieties. Our wine is already superior in my opinion. If only our country made cars like we make wine, I wouldn’t be driving an import.

  6. To me, when breaking ground in a new region, those external references are critical to confidence building – we make Pinot Noir, “like what they grow in Burgundy, because…” Something to provide consumers with the confidence to part with a typical price for a good bottle of wine! (Well, for those consumers who don’t know to follow Steve’s recommendations.) Then enough players/producers start creating wines of excellent quality in a region and the external references are no longer needed. First level recognition achieved: REGION

    At that point, here in US, the region is likely recognized for a particular varietal, since in general, planting the right thing in the right place yields best results. And since most people take the safe bet – my neighbor gets $100 for his Cab, I’ll do one too. Once a region is recognized for quality, we can take experiment and refine, and discover ideal varieties to express the various nuances of that region. Cabernet Sauvignon put Napa on the map for sure. Now that we generally agree Napa soils and climate make great wine, gutsy types start mining the nooks & crannies, the cool spots and hot spots among the 33 different soil series in Napa Valley to determine which varietal shines brightest in expressing those specific conditions. And other pioneers take the varietal to new regions and use Napa as the reference. Taking it to the next level: VARIETAL within REGION and varietal expression across regions.

    Sadly, we take a poor detour here if we think varietal is everything – post “Sideways” pinot noir was put anywhere and everywhere with sometimes not so great results.

    Lastly, we’re Americans, we love competition. Who does it better? Final level of recognition: PRODUCER

    I think eventually you trust the producer. You say, that fun character who produced VGS up on Mt. Veeder thinks this wacky blend would be good? I’ll try it…

    I’m a blender, and I always say we clever Americans started marketing Bordeaux grape varieties by name because we didn’t know a way to market a “Bordeaux blend” without using a protected place name. Then laws came along to protect varietal labeling which is a double-edged sword as it implies 75% one varietal makes a better wine, and blends still struggle to find respect in minds of some buyers, even with the Bordeaux reference point.

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