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Further thoughts on appellations

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One of the hardest parts of being a wine writer in California is explaining the differences between appellations. It’s hard because, in many cases, the differences aren’t all that stark.

The way I look at appellations is through the lens of history. As the late, great Alexis Lichine wrote (in his Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, the single most informative book I read when I was coming up in the field), “Fine wines always bear the stamp of the place where the grapes were grown and…the more restricted the place, the better the wine.” The French had inordinate respect for, and understanding of, the qualities that terroir imposed on their wines, so, for example, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, Margaux and Pauillac were deemed different enough from each other to warrant their own appellations. And “the system reaches its logical conclusion in Burgundy…”.

It’s only natural that the founders of the modern California wine industry wanted a similar system of appellational control. They’d been egged on for years by the likes of Frank Schoonmaker, so, with the cooperation of the Federal government, our own American Viticultural Area program went into place, in the early 1980s.

Once an official appellation has been declared, people start looking for the things that make it distinct. The only problem is that “distinctiveness” is irrelevant to the government’s declaration of an AVA. They care about other things—especially political unity—but government bureaucrats had no intention of actually tasting wines to see if they were “typical” for their appellation. So they left that sticky wicket alone.

Well, here we are, more than 40 years later, and writers, critics, sommeliers and others still try to figure out how AVAs are different from each other. The situation here in the U.S. isn’t made easier by the relative ease with which appellations are approved. I think everybody realizes that Oakville (for instance) is not really a single terroir, but at least three: east, west and the flatlands in the middle. So if you’re looking for an “Oakville” character, good luck finding it, especially if you’re trying to distinguish it from, say, the Rutherford Bench, or the east side of St. Helena or even Coombsville, and you’re tasting blind. For one thing, we grow our grapes riper than the French ever did, and there’s general consensus that ripeness trumps terroir, making everything taste more alike than not. (This is not an argument for unnatural underripeness!) For another thing, contemporary winemaking techniques tend to be similar to each other, for a variety of reasons. Thus telling the difference between AVAs isn’t as easy as it was for the French 100 years ago.

I’m running into this because we’re planning an event down in L.A. for early December, and as part of that I’m trying to pinpoint exactly how the Santa Maria Valley puts its terroir fingerprint on its wines, especially Pinot Noir. Having tasted hundreds of SMV Pinot Noirs over the course of my career, I think there is a distinct fingerprint; I feel it in my bones, experience it in my taste memory, and can make a case. But the case ultimately is not provable, for the simple reason that we’re not talking about a “right” or “wrong” answer (2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer, anywhere and everywhere; “Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is silkier than Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir” is an assertion of belief, and is not fundamentally true in all cases).

Therefore, we can only make generalizations about appellations. Of course, the more wines we taste, and the more we study the details of climate and soils, the more we can point to the distinguishing features of an appellation. But when you factor in the human part of winemaking—clonal selection, vineyard trellising, harvesting decisions, fermentation routines, oak regimens, the whole nine yards—things get considerably more complicated.

A perfect world would be one in which external reality mirrored what’s in your mind (and vice versa). But, of course, the curse, tragedy and glory of being human is that external reality has a way of turning out to be not the way we thought or hoped, leaving us forced to reconcile the two, which isn’t always easy. I’m sure there’s a Santa Maria Valley terroir to Pinot Noir, just as I’m sure there’s an Anderson Valley, a Green Valley, a Carneros and an Edna Valley quality. I’ve spent my career trying to find those qualities and write about them. But I’ve always been aware that the exception, far from proving the rule, merely makes the rule obstinately hard to discern.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Maybe one aid in your quixotic quest is to go back and taste old vintages — by which I mean truly old wines dating back to the 1980s.

    Put out a call to the pioneers of Santa Maria Valley to dip into their wine libraries and assemble for a comparison tasting hosted by K-J/Jackson Wines.

    Perhaps the “signature” of Santa Maria Valley wines will speak to you more clearly than today’s wines, made from a wider array of clones and vineyard management practices and riper grapes.

    ~~ Bob

  2. Despite what many assume, AVA’s are NOT terroir-driven, but should be viewed as collections of contiguous terroirs assembled for the purposes of marketing a region’s wines. There may be a unifying “theme” such as proximity to a “cool ocean breezes”, but terroir can only be expressed at the vineyard level and if an AVA has 2000 ft. of relief and a 20 inch rainfall gradient, and includes 10 different soil series – the idea of a gout de terroir shared by all the wines from the AVA is at best laughable. The effort to create a terroir-driven AVA is actually hindered by TTB rules which will not permit AVA boundaries to be defined by physical transitions that influence terroir (soil series boundaries, geologic contacts, etc) so petitioners, even if they desired to do so, could not create truly terroir-defined AVAs.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    For those visiting Napa Valley who wish to experience the nuances of Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from discrete appellations, see this Napa Valley Register article (May 21, 2010):

    “At Conn Creek’s Blending Room, Visitors Meet the Valley’s Appellations and Make a Bottle of Wine”

    Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/at-conn-creek-s-blending-room-visitors-meet-the-valley/article_a19f5758-6497-11df-8d7c-001cc4c03286.html

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