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Thoughts on the proposed new Eagle Peak appellation

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I always have mixed feelings about AVAs. Are they helpful or hurtful? To what? You ask. To our understanding of terroir, of the sense of place they purport to convey.

Of course, an AVA does nothing of the sort. Its appearance on the label guarantees only the geographic origin of the grapes (and not even 100% of them), with certain descriptions of soils, climate and other geological and physical features that tell us little or nothing of what the resulting wines will be like.

So in a sense, few of us should care; and in the case of monstrosity AVAs, like Sonoma Coast, Central Coast, San Francisco Bay Area and even to some extent more compact ones such as Paso Robles, the formal existence of the AVA is almost irrelevant. Other AVAs (Chalone and Mount Harlan come to mind) strongly suggest a direct influence of place on wine. Oakville, too, might qualify; so, too, are Arroyo Seco, Rockpile, Spring Mountain and Carmel Valley examples of coherence. But one cannot say this about many other AVAs.

Now the federal government has opened the comment period for a proposed Eagle Peak AVA to be scrutinized by the public. I was first made aware of this pending decision some time ago by Jake Fetzer, who runs Masut, and is one of the guiding powers behind it. The region encompasses 26,000 acres (according to the TTB public notice) in east-north central Mendocino County, in what looks like (from a topo map) a very rugged, mountainous landscape.

Twenty-six thousand acres is middling for an AVA. That is roughly the size of the San Bernabe Vineyard, in southern Salinas Valley (said to be the largest contiguous vineyard in the world), midway in size between Chalk Hill, which is slightly smaller, and the somewhat larger Santa Rita Hills.

The TTB petition describes the climate in the region as “transitional…between the cool, wet climate of the Pacific coastline and the warmer, drier air of the interior valleys.” This description could apply to almost anywhere between the beaches and 40 miles inland. The temperature doesn’t appear to get too hot, compared to, say, the Central Valley: the TTB petition calls it “moderate” due, “in part,” to “coastal fog.” This is interesting: “Although the Coastal Range blocks the heaviest of the marine fog from moving further inland, some fog does enter…through a gap in the Coastal Range,” which makes it sound more or less like the Templeton Gap, in Paso Robles.

I don’t not know what varieties are thought to do best in the proposed Eagle Peak area. Currently only 120 acres of of vineyard are planted, scattered across 16 commercial properties. Masut specializes in Pinot Noir (I haven’t reviewed their wines in years because that’s Virginie Boone’s territory), but I am making the (perhaps mistaken) assumption that Pinot grows there. But, to make comparisons again with Paso Robles (which by the way is 25 times larger than Eagle Peak), Paso too grows Pinot fairly well, but only in the extreme west; most of the region is too hot for it, and that may be, at first glance, the same situation with Eagle Peak.

Jake Fetzer is a young idealist, and I do not believe he would lend his efforts to something that lacked authenticity. He must believe in the place-ness (to coin a word) of Eagle Peak, and its ability to yield fine wines. I don’t welcome every new AVA in California, but something about this one feels right.

  1. (First, full disclosure; my firm works with Masút Vineyard and Winery.) I agree that the American AVA system doesn’t always protect a unique place where grapes display a character unique to the AVA. Many are created and used primarily for marketing reasons. But even that is beneficial, I believe. Without Sonoma Coast, Central Coast, San Francisco Bay Area, or Paso Robles, the customer would have less information on which to judge a wine for purchase, likely not understanding why one wine costs more than another if they were all just labeled “California” or “America.” Costs do vary, as the cost of farming is unequal between Paso Robles and the Central Valley or Virginia, and quality and style vary as much too.

    Over time expectations of quality and which grapes excel do appear in the more defined AVAs; Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is more highly regarded than Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (despite superb examples of the latter).

    The Eagle Peak AVA was created because the mountain vineyards clearly performed differently than the encompassing Redwood Valley AVA’s valley floor vineyards; it makes sense to differentiate such geological extremes as valley versus mountain range. Ultimately, those AVAs that can prove themselves for an inherent uniqueness displayed in the wines will command the esteem (and prices) they deserve.

    Even given my noted bias, I do think the new AVA is well-suited to Pinot Noir, which is more sensitive to vineyard geography. I’ve tasted through several vintages and specific vineyard blocks of Masút’s Pinot Noirs, and they show an extraordinary amount of individuality to my palate that clearly comes from being grown in the Coastal Range.

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