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Appellating an area tends to restrict the range of varieties grown there


Was chatting yesterday with Matt Dees, the talented young winemaker who’s doing such a great job with Bordeaux varieties (as well as Syrah) down at Jonata Wines, in the Ballard Canyon part of the Santa Ynez Valley. A handful of local wineries and growers have petitioned the TTB for a Ballard Canyon appellation (which they tell me they expect to be approved pretty soon). They’ve formed a Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance whose website says “…the Alliance feels that the focus of the AVA will be Syrah and its Rhone counterparts, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc…”

 Well, Jonata also makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, not to mention Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, which are hardly Rhone varieties, so I wondered how Matt (who’s an integral part of the Alliance) felt about promoting it as a Rhone zone. Pretty good, as it turns out. “We’re making our own history, writing our own rules, learning what that little AVA does best,” he told me, adding, “and it’s obvious to me it can do a lot of things well.”

No doubt most appellations can do a lot of things well. Napa Valley used to make everything from old field blends to Johannisberg Riesling, Gamay and Pinot Noir, and from what I remember, most of them were pretty good. It’s fashionable today to say that Napa is “inappropriate” for many varieties, but that’s not really true. What’s true is that the conventional wisdom has shifted from “We can grow everything in Napa” to “Napa’s only good for a narrow range of varieties.” So the majority of the varieties Napa used to grow are long gone.

Who wins and who loses under such a scenario? I suppose you could say the consumer wines, because she has access to some of the greatest Cabernets in the world, now that Napa’s become a virtual monopole. But this has come at two costs: (1) the world will never know what a properly made Napa Valley Pinot Noir tastes like (with certain exceptions, like El Molino), and (2) the monopolization of Napa by the Bordeaux family of varieties has sent prices sky high, well out of reach of the ordinary consumer.

I’m certainly not saying that the Ballard Canyon people shouldn’t specialize in Rhone-style wines. That horse is out of the barn, the wines are very good, and prices will probably be going up. I do wonder at all the wines we’re not able to taste anymore in California. How about Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? There’s never been much, but Longboard did a fine job. How about Sonoma Coast Sangiovese or Grenache? I bet there are fabulous sites up on those ridgetops, but the Sonoma Coast is becoming a Burgundian monopole (with Burgundian prices), so it’s not likely a vintner or grower will have the audacity to plant much beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

  1. One could argue that the consumer actually loses because of the loss of choice. If you want a Napa wine, you can’t choose to buy a Napa welschriesling. Also, with the “monopolization” of Napa by cabernet sauvignon and its frat brothers, one might think it would drive price down because of the intense competition amongst so many wineries, but so few different varietal wines. If there was more varietal diversity (as in the past), only a handful of wineries may actual produce cabernet sauvignon and could charge higher prices because of the relative rarity (assuming quality were still high).

    It will be interesting to see when, if ever, an AVA is defined by cultivar and/or yield limit like with French AOP and where. It would be an interesting endeavor.

  2. It’s incorrect to say that “the monopolization of Napa by the Bordeaux family of varieties has sent prices sky high.” It’s the other way around. Winegrowers gravitate toward whatever brings them the greatest return. If a particular variety brings a higher price, they plant it. This fact actually stabilizes prices, though it is hard to distinguish given the success of certain varieties in certain AVA’s. If you, and Laube, and Parker all of a sudden decided that Riesling was the prize variety in Napa and convinced your disciples that it was worth $50 you would soon see a lot of hock bottles coming out of the valley.

    Don’t do it, by the way. You’ll put a lot of barrel suppliers out of business.

  3. Steve – a “monopole” is a leiu dit owned by a single entity, not a region dominated by a single variety, and I don’t think I have ever seen the term used outside Burgundy and Champagne. Just a helpful reminder, as I recall that you have railed against the abstraction of French terms.

    I remember the days when you could get decent Riesling and Gamay, and middling Pinot, out of Napa. You don’t so any more, because Riesling and Gamay didn’t sell well enough to justify the cost of growing and making them, any more than that gorgeous old head-trained Palomino (or was it Burger?) that Cyril Saviez had at the northwest corner of Larkmead and the Trail.

    Most of the up-Valley Pinot is gone and good riddance. It is just too hot to do justice to the variety. That’s not appellation chauvinism or conventional wisdom, it’s just common sense. There is more good Napa Pinot today than there was 30 years ago, it’s just called Carneros, or Coombsville, or Wild Horse Valley.

    You have been all over the board on the value of “appellation.” Seems to me that for an appellation to have meaning it begs to be defined as a contiguous region where wines of a particular type do best – “type” being largely defined by grape varieties. The fact that Oded could make a great Russian River Cabernet tells me that the appellation boundaries are poorly drawn. Boundaries can be so poorly drawn that the appellation has no meaning as anything other than a cheap marketing gimmick (ahem… Sonoma Coast? Sonoma County?).

    That said, I accept the marketing power of a good appellation. A compact geographic region such as Ballard Canyon absolutely can be sold as “good wine is made here” but it is important for the participants in the marketing effort to be inclusive of the varieties that do well on the ridgetops and hillsides, as well as those that thrive on the lower terrain.

  4. John sez: “gorgeous old head-trained Palomino (or was it Burger?) that Cyril Saviez had at the northwest corner of Larkmead and the Trail.”

    I believe that it was FrenchColombard that Cyril was growing there. Nearby, Larkmead has a tiny/very old block of TocaiFriulano (actually most probably Muscadelle de Bordelais). Neither one are what you’d call big money-makers.

  5. David Rossi says:

    I think Russian River is still a very diverse AVA. Pinot, Chard, Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Sauv Blanc and even some Gewurtz. Not much Cab, but otherwise a lot of diversity and done pretty well on all fronts.

  6. Tom – You could be right; I recall someone telling me that Saviez thought it was Colombard. But the clusters looked wrong and many of the vines had leaves with really deep sinuses. It may have been misidentified AND a mix of varieties as well. I never had the chance (or really the need) to talk to Cyril about it. Heck he could have sold it to Hans Kornell as Chenin and nobody would have been the wiser or the worse off.

    Those vines were beautiful examples of symmetrical Goblet pruning (I was studying them as an example of pure spherical leaf angle distribution in the vine canopy) and self-regulating dry farming. Not much of the lower elevations in Napa are farmed this way any more, much less with these grape varieties. The soil I recall was a deep bed of shistous gravel very similar to Three Palms. I hope it’s planted to Merlot now.

    And I think that’s the point. The consumer makes the choice. Once they start paying more for some varieties from an appellation, and less for others, growers are going to move to plant what gives them the best ROI. Not too many people are going to grow pretty good Colombard when they can grow very good Cabernet on the same ground. That block of Friulano will only stay there as long as guys like Petroski are dedicated enough to make it worth growing.

  7. David Rossi, RRV is a big place, so big it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It needs to be broken into smaller AVAs, IMHO.

  8. Matt Dees,

    Fan of the Jonata line-up since the 2005 El Alma de Jonata blessed our cellar. Glad to see the new Ballard Canyon AVA spring to life. Whether it will be known as a Rhone-varietal AVA or not, we know the caliber of what can be done there across varietals from what you’ve concocted… Cheers to you, and cheers to breaking down these AVAs further for the sake of distinction.

  9. David Rossi says:


    Fair enough. RRV like Sonoma Coast is Nebraska-like in dimension.

    So your point is well made, but let’s tackle splitting up Sonoma Coast before RRV.

  10. I seriously doubt that just because someone – anyone – describes an area as perfect for growing this or that grape, that someone won’t push the envelope.
    Look at the Santa Rita Hills. There’s Sangiovese, Grenache and Dornfelder in an area “perfect” for Burgundy varieties. Sure they’ll be different there than they are at Ballard Canyon, Antelope Valley or Temecula for that matter.

  11. Seems the AVA group did their homework before they submitted the application for an AVA designation. It is probably better to be pigeon-holed for a narrow range of varieties than none at all. I think that to be everything to everybody plan only really gets you known for is weddings. Then I would beleive the viticulture would suffer because there is no consistancy or focus on what does well why, and how growers are trying to raise the bar.

  12. Keasling,

    I will pass on your comments to Matt.

    Steve, thank you for the mention of what we are up to at Jonata. I have met many a wonderful winemaker, and Matt is certainly something special.

  13. John Roberts says:

    I say cheers to those wineries that exist in one of these monopolized regions (aren’t they all then? the successful ones anyway?) and grow a great variety of varietals – the Truchards, Hendry, Prager, Biale to some extent.. the Thackreys and Boony Doons,. and on and on. Examples abound in all regions. We must reserve our temptation to be alarmists and realize our own temporality.

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