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How the French once hated California wine; and a Petaluma Gap AVA

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My publisher at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, sent me this video of a speech he gave to the French-American Foundation, in New York, at an event  honoring Jean-Charles Boisset. Adam began his remarks with a memory of an exchange he had years ago with the legendary French chef, Andre Soltner, whose Lutece restaurant once was the de rigeur place for the elite to eat, back when French food defined haut cuisine.

At that time there were no California wines on Lutece’s wine list, and Adam asked Chef Soltner about it. Chef replied, “We do have California wine, but we cook with it. We do not have it on our wine list!” Ouch.

Adam’s point was that, not that long ago, the French attitude toward California wine was one of ennui. I immediately recalled an event I went to, more than twenty years ago. It was the first big wine article I ever wrote, for Wine Spectator. Many of the major French winemakers from the Rhône Valley had traveled to Napa Valley to meet up with their West Coast counterparts, the so-called Rhône Rangers, at Meadowood Resort, for a global summit on the grapes and wines of the Rhône. But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”

How far we’ve come! Today, California wine is the envy of the world. Even the French have grudgingly accepted it.

* * *

On the heels of my post yesterday about the pending Lamorinda AVA, I had a conversation today about a proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. Apparently, there’s controversy over where the lines should be drawn. Quel surprise! There always is with these appellation wars. I have a definite position on Petaluma Gap: Yes, it deserves an AVA. This is cool-climate viticulture and there are important sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing there. I’ll leave it to others to determine the precise boundaries, which at any rate will be decided on a political basis, as much as on issues of climate and soils.

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association developed this map, which is unofficial, since the TTB hasn’t yet ruled on it. Looking at it, it does seem a little too broadly drawn, extending all the way from just west of Cline Cellars, in Sonoma Carneros, out to the Pacific beaches, and from Novato in the south all the way up to north of Rohnert Park and Bodega Bay. I’d hate to see a redux of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which most everyone admits was ridiculously large; the fallout from that will take years more to sort out, even with the worthy addition of Fort Ross-Seaview. But such is the nature of these appellations, far as I can tell, that they tend to be drawn too liberally at first, for an obvious reason: nobody wants to be left out. So they include everybody, and the thing ends up being too big. Then the sub-AVA debates begin. Well, it keeps wine writers busy, anyhow.

  1. Is CA wine “the envy of the world”? It seems to me it gets a really bad rap around the world; U.S. included.
    And I say this as someone who is constantly defending the wines of this state, not someone who has made it their mission to deride it.

  2. Hi Steve-

    Thanks for your support of the Petaluma Gap. I must point out that there is no official proposal currently for AVA status for the Petaluma Gap (at least not from the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance). As a matter of fact, there exists quite a pushback by Petaluma Gap grapegrowers AGAINST AVA status. The current prevailing thought is that “Sonoma Coast” is AVA gold – why mess with that? It has always been my opinion that too many regions go for AVA status before there is good reason. Without naming names, there are a number of new AVAs where my reaction is, “Huh?? Where is THAT??”. To the average consumer, “Sonoma Coast”, while being admittedly too broad and unwieldy for those who study this sort of thing, has two identifiable positives going for it: “Sonoma” and “Coast”.

    Actively pursuing a Petaluma Gap AVA status before there is broader recognition among consumers is putting the cart before the horse. Our efforts, supported by writers like you, therefore have been in expanding recognition of the region. On my own label, I have put “Sonoma Coast” as the AVA, and feature “Petaluma Gap” prominently in the copy describing where the grapes are grown. When we find counterfeiting in the use of “Petaluma Gap” to be a problem, we will know that we have been successful in the recognition part of the equation.

    Thank you for your kind words supporting the Petaluma Gap. I invite you to contact us directly – we’d love to show you just what the Petaluma Gap is producing!

    -Paul Clary
    President, PGWA

  3. Your article is peppered with incorrect French:
    Haute cuisine since cuisine is feminine.
    Quelle surprise, also feminine.
    The French have been forced to accept that we make world class wines.
    Now, they are reduced to complaining about our higher alcohol levels.

  4. I do believe California still plays second fiddle to French Wines; in general world wide. It has taken over 20 years to get the Canadians to drink more California Wines than from France. In China and Japan; they’re still preferring the famous wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy than our California counterparts. This is not a time to be complacent about promoting and selling California wines abroad.

    On the other hand; there is much about California wines that international producers of Cabernet and Pinot Noir can be envious about. We can have higher production than the cooler counterparts and still make high quality wines. We are also not shackled with outdated Appellation Controllee laws.

    Finally; it is audacious for these French Producers who claim that we “stole their varieties and techniques”. This implies that we had some high level espionage, and we did something patently illegal.

  5. “….But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”

    Hmmmmm…..I followed ViognierGuild/Raisen’Rhones/HospicesDuRhone from the very start. Those events were very inclusive of most of the top Rhone winemakers. Over the yrs, I never once encountered antipathy/disdain/hatred on the part of these French winemakers. Those meetings were always very collegial in nature and the French came to share their knowledge and learn from what their NewWorld counterparts were doing with “their” grapes. They came to share & learn, not heap scorn & ridicule on their colleagues. Yours must have been a totally/lesser group of French winemakers at the Meadowood event.
    And labeling them the “so-called” RhoneRangers seems a bit on the snarky side. It’s a very dynamic/vigorous/legitimate organization that I’ve had nothing but positive interactions with. But, then, what would I know??
    Tom

  6. Were it not for California rootstock, the French would not have much wine to talk about.

  7. STEVE!
    The Petaluma Gap is where I buy all my jeans.

    I once spoke with one of the more active members of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association, and he told me most of the wineries weren’t pushing that hard for the Petaluma Gap AVA because a “Sonoma Coast” appellation on their bottles and grapes was worth a lot more at this point. Probably true.

  8. Regarding French disdain and terroir:
    I recall attending a WS “Wine Experience” years ago with a featured vertical tasting of one of the major Rhone producers. Many of the vintages smelled not only of “barnyard” but more distinctly reminded one of the wrong end of the horse. A consumer/attendee raised his hand to point out that most of the wines smelled of Brettanomyces. The proprietor dismissed this observation with contempt, shifting the conversation to the unique terroir of his estate. At that time Brett was not recognized in France, and it was not until several years later that a young woman form California doing an internship in Bordeaux taught them about it, but that is a story for another day…

  9. Phil Grosse says:

    Steve–
    I too was surprised at the size of the proposed Petaluma Gap AVA, until I took a closer look at the map. As a 40 year resident of Petaluma who has explored the area to the west extensively, I think the proposed boundaries perfectly describe the geographic feature known as the Petaluma Gap. Take another look. The folks who prepared this map did us all a great service by making it topographical. One can see that the dotted line hugs the ridge lines, a wider space between them near the coast, narrowing as they delineate the Petaluma River Valley on down to San Pablo Bay. Geographically and climatalogically, they got it right. I’ll leave the politics to others.

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