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Thinking about appellations



I’ve been thinking about appellations lately, partly because I’m still reading—and immensely enjoying—Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, which contains so much useful information about them in France—but also because the nature of my work at Jackson Family Wines includes research into this area.

In France the issue of appellations is more or less settled. The regions are so ancient, their proclivities so well understood, that the names and boundaries, however complex, are simply codifications of realities that have been determined for centuries. There are of course outstanding questions—and there always will be—such as expanding the borders of Champagne, or who should be a St. Emilion Grand Cru, or should Alsace have a premier cru level. But, by and large, France’s appellations are fixed, and they make sense.

Here in California, the situation is anything but. Our existing AVAs are fixed, I suppose, to the extent that the TTB, which is an arm of the Treasury Department, has recognized them, and so—as with any government program—they are unlikely to be changed. Yes, an AVA may be tweaked around the edges: witness the Russian River Valley’s southern expansion, or the proposals to extend Santa Rita Hills to the east. But, as anyone knows who has studied our AVA process, it is haphazard to the point of chaos. It is true that politics in France also rears its head in appellation discussions, but in California, politics seems to play an outsized role. And our TTB—which also regulates firearms and ammunition—has not exactly shown itself to be the most intellectually logical place in the U.S. government for such things as regulating wine regions. What TTB seems to want is to avoid getting caught in internecine battles. And who can blame them?

Still, the TTB is what we are stuck with. Knowing how arbitrary the approval process can be, how political it is, with personalities and money wrapped up into considerations of terroir, and how bureaucratic is this arm of the government, how and why, then, should the consumer even care about AVAs? Well, the average consumer doesn’t. Let’s face it: price, variety, brand, availability and even label design play a greater role in the selection of wine than appellation. Then, a step up from the “average consumer” is the “informed consumer.” He or she does care about appellations, to a certain extent: Napa Valley means something to him (general approval, an expectation of greatness, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon). But beyond that, his awareness of appellations dims.

Who, then, is the target of the ever-expanding list of American AVAs, which now numbers—well, Wikipedia says 230, although that seems low to me. I think it’s mainly wine writers. They care about appellations, even if no one else does. When Paso Robles subdivided into eleven AVAs, do you think Americans lifted their glasses and toasted the birth of El Pomar and San Juan Creek? I don’t. But wine writers duly took note (and the gatekeepers who read them did, too). The writers who wrote about it felt they had to “understand” this move—it must have meant something, right? Otherwise why would the U.S. government have blessed it?—and they therefore gave Paso Robles more publicity than it ever would have gotten. So in this sense, appellations are just as much about P.R. as they are about terroir.

Well, yes…and no. It’s obvious that there must be terroir distinctions for grape varieties. We feel that intuitively; we know that experientally, through the feelings of our own bodies as we transit across various California landscapes, even those limited to the coastal regions. We “get” that Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Syrah (to mention only the more terroir-sensitive varieties) perform differently in different places: taste differently, ripen differently, have different acid profiles. Therefore we—the more thoughtful wine appreciators—are implicitly biased in favor of terroir distinctions, or appellations. The question, and it’s a huge one, is: Are these appellations, as defined by TTB, meaningful reflections of reality, or are they just examples of “he who has the most money, and the best lawyers, wins”?

There is no clear answer. Not every question that sounds as if it has an answer actually does. Still, I would argue, the effort must continue: to delineate individual appellations, based on terroir. We must resist the conclusion that it’s all a bunch of B.S., just because so much of it has been in the past. We have to work with the TTB—unfortunate as that is—to more precisely define AVAs like Russian River Valley, or Santa Rita Hills, or Santa Lucia Highlands, or Anderson Valley, or Alexander Valley, in order to zero in on particular local distinctions. This is important work. It may never be properly appreciated by hundreds of millions of consumers, nor need it be. But we owe it to wine, to the earth, to honesty and to ourselves to continue to try to understand it.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “… how and why, then, should the consumer even care about AVAs? Well, the average consumer doesn’t. Let’s face it: price, variety, brand, availability and even label design play a greater role in the selection of wine than appellation. Then, a step up from the “average consumer” is the “informed consumer.” He or she does care about appellations, to a certain extent: Napa Valley means something to him (general approval, an expectation of greatness, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon). But beyond that, his awareness of appellations dims.”

    I invite Steve’s readers to click on this link:

    How many folks can recite even a low double digit [< 25] number of these AVAs?

    (As challenging as naming a low double digit [< 25] number of grape varieties on the Wine Century Club list.)

  2. I think you are aware of the efforts of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, which we call our “neighborhoods initiative,” to explore the diversity of the Russian River Valley. Our goal is to systematically determine whether specific wine sensory characteristics, including unique aromas and textural attributes, can be consistently identified as originating from a particular Russian River Valley neighborhood. To us, the idea of “sub-appellating” the Russian River Valley is an anathema—we are a mature, cohesive and strong AVA and want to keep it that way—but that in no way stops us or other wine enthusiasts from exploring the diversity that the Russian River Valley has to offer. We are going about it in a rigorous, scientific way, and see it as a logical next step that we (growers and winemakers) can take to become more familiar with the Russian River Valley. You can learn more about our efforts by going to and navigating to the “our neighborhoods” tab.

  3. California AVAs seem internally focused, that is they’re about what the locals see as distinguishing characteristics — and about ego. Most AVAs mean nothing to the wine shopper so it really has little to do with the customer.

  4. Mr. Gantz–

    Kudos on the good work that you all are performing on behalf of further understanding the RRV AVA.

    But, why in the world do you think that this is information for the wineries and growers and not for the consumers?

    Wine is about the consumer, not about the producers. And the way you work with the consumer is to publicize your findings through every medium possible and then place it where it belongs–on wine labels.

    Your argument about finding “sub-appellations” anathema is no different from those who complain about such sub-appellations as the Russian River Valley. That is why your RRV labels are already burdened with the need to mention Sonoma County.

    Keep up the good work, but do open your mind to the real reason why RRV exists–as a means of informing the consumer.

  5. “Most AVAs mean nothing to the wine shopper so it really has little to do with the customer.”

    It was not the producers but the consumers who forced the issue re appellations three decades and change ago. That the producers have been forceful in using the issue for their own purposes is not surprising and has caused some very strange and inconsistent decisions to be made, but there is a large body of the consuming public, especially at the upper end of the price scale who care very much about appellations. And apparently the wineries believe that as well or they would not use those AVA names on their labels.

  6. Mr. Olken,

    Sorry if I created a misimpression–I agree completely that this is about the consumer writ large. As I stated in my post, we think our exploration is of interest to anyone who is enthusiastic about the Russian River Valley and its wines. The “we” to which you were referring was meant to mean the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, which is an organization of growers, winemakers and others interested in promoting the Russian River Valley as a premier region for growing cool climate grapes.

    As far as consumer engagement is concerned, that is a key aspect of our neighborhoods initiative, which began last year and is conceived to be a multi-year effort. We were delighted, for example, to read Virginie Boone’s excellent article regarding our initiative in the July 2015 issue of Wine Enthusiast. In fact, Russian River Valley Winegrowers events such as “Single Vineyard Night,” November 4 in San Francisco, give the consumer a chance to experience the diversity of the Russian River Valley first hand. Perhaps you’ll join us?

    Anyway, thanks for your input and if you’d ever like to discuss the neighborhoods initiative in more detail, I’d be glad to chat.

  7. 1. Appellations in France are not as fixed as myth would have it. Take a look at the chart in the Lewin book, p. 12 (you can see it on with the “Look Inside” function), and you’ll see a huge increase in the percentage of appellation wine occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Why? Politics. The Mitterand government thought (rightly or wrongly) growers would get higher prices if they were in AOCs, and so it permitted the creation of AOCs right and left.

    2. The system is gradually breaking down in France as it is in Italy — many of the young, dynamic producers, especially those in regions that have not historically commanded high prices such as Languedoc, Roussillon, Beaujolais, and Loire, are foregoing AOP status and just labelling their wines vin de France or vino d’Italia.

    3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know, the US AVA designation has never limited grape types and imposed other standards (maximum or minimum alcohol, chaptalization permitted or not, etc.) the way they are limited in France (and I think Italy, but I know less about Italy than France). Which leads me to . . .

    4. It may be, as Charlie says, that there was consumer pressure to create the AVA’s, but if so, it was the producers who seized it as a marketing tool and made sure that there were no real standards other than location involved. I recall in the mid-1980s having lunch with Christian Moueix and someone who was visiting on behalf of whatever organization was charged with setting up the AVAs — he had no understanding at all of what an AOC was, but he was getting a nice, paid trip to France affording him the opportunity to taste lots of great wine, and after he came back, the concept would go through with its marketing function.

  8. Dear Claude Kolm, thank you for your comment.

  9. Tone Kelly says:

    I believe that it is too early to establish appellations in the US or most new world countries. It took hundreds of years to determine the boundaries of the old world appellations. Even taking into account that the pace of life moves much faster today, I believe that it still takes several lifetimes of growing and tasting wines from different parts of an area to determine the boundaries of what an appellation is. Today’s US appellations are political and business driven. Who is in and who is out determines the line and no one wants to be “out” if the appellation is perceived to be “the in thing”. True taste definition often takes generations. It took hundreds of years for the monks of Burgundy to get it right and they had no political/business pressure to get it right correctly.

  10. Bob Henry says:


    On the daunting challenge of your “neighborhoods initiative,” consider what David Hirsch is up to in his vineyard.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpts from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food and Wine” Section
    (March 8, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “Vintner [David Hirsch] Creates Pinot Gold from Sonoma Coast’s Mysterious Mother Lode”


    By Jon Bonné
    Chronicle Wine Editor

    For all the acclaim, the secrets of [David] Hirsch’s success remain a bit of a mystery, at least on the surface. For most of 30 years he has been trying to decode a wild jumble of subsoils that include rocks of all types mixed with everything from porous sandstone to impenetrable clay. It led him to divide his 71 vineyard acres into 60 DIFFERENT BLOCKS, EACH WITH ITS OWN SOIL SIGNATURE, EACH FARMED ON ITS OWN. “If you’re focused on the site,” he says, “you’re looking for what’s happening underground.”

    Such lack of consistency is extremely rare among vineyards, which makes the site defy easy comprehension. As his winemaker Mark Doherty puts it: “There’s no elevator story.” The best comparison, inevitably, might be to the Burgundy’s endlessly divided lieux-dits, where quality has been divined row by row, but only after centuries.

    . . .

    But for Hirsch, working to decode one’s own land is very much a vintner’s prerogative. As inspiration, he cites none other than Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s immortal Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, who continually revises vineyard practices “like he’s someone with a real problem in the market,” Hirsch says.

    . . .

    Hirsch wasn’t convinced of the potential for wine [when he purchased a 1,100-acre former sheep ranch in 1978]. He had an agronomist make a map of soil types, thinking he might harvest shiitake mushrooms. They discovered a wild patchwork, the result of the uplift of the ancient seabed and the constant grinding of the San Andreas Fault just a mile west. This mix, called the Franciscan assemblage, is found all along the coast. But in Hirsch’s case it is at an extreme.

    . . .

    [… during a 1980 visit, vintner Jim Beauregard, a friend from Hirsch’s Santa Cruz days, suggested the site could be famous for Pinot Noir. The first vines went in, almost as a lark.]

    . . .

    [Hirsch says] “The most significant terroir in our case is the San Andreas Fault.”

    . . .

    … A soil specialist spent 18 months digging pits. Then Hirsch and his longtime vineyard manager, Everardo Robledo, began to plant dozens of new blocks across 27 acres. They balanced mineral content using alternative formulas developed by soil scientist William Albrecht, then carefully managed water to drive roots down into the subsoils. Now each block is farmed and harvested individually.

    This becomes dizzying, even as Hirsch pulls out detailed charts to explain. Take field 12. Soils switch as frequently as every 20 feet; on less than 6 acres sit five Pinot clones and a Chardonnay plot on three different rootstocks.

    “We gave up trying to master it,” Hirsch says. “We just sort of settled in and got comfortable with the uncertainty and the complexity.”

    That complexity helps explain why a signature in the glass is so elusive.
    [Winemaker Mark] Doherty vinifies each block for the Hirsch Pinot Noir separately, using indigenous yeasts. A sample from block 8A-1 — Pommard clones aged in new oak — has brilliant floral notes and refined tannins. The equivalent from 8A-2, just a few feet away in the vineyard, is almost halting in mineral intensity. But Hirsch insists that the final blend — from 33 blocks in 2006 — be a snapshot of the whole site.

  11. Thanks, Bob. My neighbor, Tom Dehlinger, undertakes a similar micro approach to his vineyard. One of the luxuries of farming, in my view, is the opportunity to try to really know one’s site intimately, based on years and years of real world experience. It is what excites us about the broader exploration of our AVA.

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