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Is California running out of new AVAs?

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The state already has about 183 American Viticultural Areas, * which is a lot, but nowhere close to France’s 300-plus appellations, not to mention Italy’s 800 or so assorted DOCs, DOCGs and IGTs.

Most of California’s AVAs are along the coast, from Mendocino County down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara, which is logical, since that’s where most of the vineyards and wineries are.

It used to be that new AVAs were big news. Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview; all of the these carve-outs, in their day, excited wine lovers, and the wine media covered them heavily.

But excitement over new AVAs seems to have palled in recent years, perhaps due to the sheer number, but due also, I think, to a sense on the part of the public and the media that new appellations these days seem to be more about marketing than true terroir. The explosion of sub-AVAs in Lodi and Paso Robles may have added to this blasé attitude. In those cases, it will take us quite a while to sort through the finer distinctions between, say, Paso Robles Willow Creek and Paso Robles Geneseo District, and one may wonder if it makes any difference anyway, outside of the immediate area. Certainly, sommeliers will have a say: there’s no one like the somm community when it comes to driving interest (or the lack thereof) in a new region.

My own view? The Coast is pretty much nearly out of new AVA candidates, with a few important exceptions. As I’ve argued for many years, the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up. I have my own ideas concerning how; they tend to run along north-south (warmer-cooler) lines as well as east-west. Another important need, as I’ve also argued for years, is to appellate the Mayacamas mountains that rim Alexander Valley’s east side. This would most likely be based on a minimum elevation line. The fact is, not only do those high-altitude vineyards need their own appellation based on their unique terroir, but the public seems to have got an idea fixed in their minds of Alexander Valley wine (especially Cabernet Sauvignon), and these mountain Cabs are so different from the valley floor Cabs, it’s not even funny. There might even be room for two or more separate appellations up there, the way they did with Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. Finally, the far Sonoma Coast should be further sub-appellated. Annapolis seems obvious, as does Freestone. Maybe Occidental. Maybe others.

So there are three glaring opportunities: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Alexander Valley. Anyplace else? You could tinker here and there, with, say, Anderson Valley, or the Santa Cruz Mountains; you could add Los Alamos, down in Santa Barbara, and Pritchard Hill, in Napa Valley. You could theoretically split Carneros into Haut and Bas. You could—dare I say it?—resurrect the old “Bench” concept in Oakville and Rutherford (at the cost of provoking a civil war). Could there potentially be important new appellations in Humboldt County or the L.A. area? Maybe, but I don’t see it anytime soon. Lake County? Not until the public takes more notice of that prime growing region. San Benito? Done. Monterey? Done. San Luis Obispo seems pretty well sub-appellated, with the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. Ventura? I don’t think so.

It’s fun to play with the California wine map and try and figure out where it’s going in the future. But, of course, our glimpse into the future is “through a glass, darkly.” Who knows what the AVAs will look like in 50 years?

* According to Wine Institute’s compilation; the number is approximate

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Let’s get a new AVA for Alexander Valley’s east mountains

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Why does the Alexander Valley AVA include the mountains? It makes no sense. A “mountain” is not a “valley,” and vice versa. And yet, the Alexander Valley was given AVA status by the federal government in 1984 despite the soaring Mayacamas range that forms its eastern wall.

Even back when I was researching my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I concluded that the mountains deserved their own appellation. After all, just on the other side of the Mayacamas, the Napans had done a pretty good job of sub-appellating their peaks: Veeder, Spring and Diamond. Why, then, was the same mountain range, except on its other slope, not sub-appellated, but spooned into the nonsensical moniker of a “valley”?

When you get to 500 feet, 1,000 feet, 1,500 feet or more above the floor of the valley, you’re obviously dealing with very different terroirs. The temperature during the day is lower because, along California’s coast, you lose a degree or so with every hundred feet of altitude. During the nighttime, the temperature is generally higher at a higher altitude because of the well-known phenomenon of temperature inversion. The peaks also are usually above the fogline, which makes the solar patterns entirely different from down on the floor. The soils way up high are sparse and infertile, compared to rich alluvial dirt down below. Even the flora is distinct. Clearly, there should be a new AVA, or perhaps several, for the high Mayacamas peaks east of Geyserville and Cloverdale.

I doubt that the TTB, or the old ATF of the Treasury Department, would approve an Alexander Valley AVA today, as currently bounded. That department has evolved over the years in intelligent ways; they’ve become more discriminating in what they look for in an AVA. This is a good thing, but it naturally implies that, at least here in California, we need to take a second look at some of our more antiquarian appellations. You know I’ve long argued that Russian River Valley is in serious need of sub-appellating. I feel the same way about Santa Rita Hills. Maybe it’s even time to split Anderson Valley into Boonville, Philo and Navarro, since the Deep End is quite different from inland. But of all the miscalculated AVAs in California, none is in need of alteration as much as Alexander Valley.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


How to build an AVA

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As you read this, I’ll be on my way up to the Willamette Valley. Some of you may recall that I’m working on crafting a new American Viticultural Area for a region in which Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard. It’s in the central-western part of the Valley; as you can see, the current sub-AVAs are all in the northern part.

Willamette

The area I’m interested in is just south of McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills, so if we get approval, it will represent a steady and logical expansion southward of AVAs in Willamette Valley.

It’s been a very interesting and thoughtful process so far, so I figured it might be of interest to you, too, to see some of the stuff I’ve been dealing with. There are two main factors to consider in getting the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Treasury Department to approve a new AVA. You need a name, and you need to establish boundaries. Both can be challenging: the TTB is very rigorous, especially about the name, and my feeling is that they’ve been getting tougher over the years. Another way of putting that is that, in my estimation, they’ve approved AVAs in the past that they would not approve today.

I decided to start with the name. TTB has two over-arching requirements for a name: It has to have some documented usage in local history, and it has to have current and direct usage today. Of course, there are other parameters, but those are the big two.

One of the early lessons I learned was from another group that spent a considerable amount of time and effort to establish a new AVA whose name they more or less invented, willy-nilly, because it sounded nice. TTB said no, because the name had no roots in history. It was a big disappointment for the petitioners, and I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want to spend a bunch of time applying for something that has no chance of being approved.

We also wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that all the local growers, winemakers and other stakeholders were onboard with the name. It’s a simple matter of respect, unity and, yes, love: Love thy neighbor. In fact, my meeting today will, I hope, conclude the naming part of the deal. Then we have to begin the arduous process of delineating boundaries. We have to show that the entire proposed AVA shares a common terroir, inclusive of both soils and climate. This will require the pooling of a great deal of information, which would be difficult if not impossible if all our neighbor stakeholders weren’t part of the process.

So far everything has gone exceptionally smoothly, but I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m a big believer in Murphy’s Law, which can be mitigated to some extent through careful preparation, although it can’t be entirely eliminated, especially given when you’re dealing with a gigantic federal bureaucracy. I know something about the history of many of our California AVAs, because I reported on them at the time. There were so many unnecessary battles, so many needless delays, so much antagonism stirred up between discordant stakeholders, all because the crafters didn’t take the time to dot all their i’s and cross their t’s. I hope I’ve learned from that.

Why is it even important to further sub-appellate Willamette Valley? For the same reason we always have needed to refine the biggest appellations: to better understand them. Napa Valley has done a great job at sub-appellating itself. Sonoma County did it a little less coherently, but still, it works, although I’ve been asking for years for Russian River Valley to be sub-divided. More lately, we’ve seen in Paso Robles and Lodi how the imperative towards sub-AVAs is irresistible. France, of course, is the inspiration. This is good for the consumer, it’s good for producers, it’s good for everyone.


Thursday throwaway: wine bloggers, aging wine, and a brand new AVA

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More “aren’t they special” plaudits for young wine bloggers in this op-ed piece from the online edition of beveragedaily.com. The author lets us know that—at long last!—bloggers are “telling the story” that presumably has not been told before: wine lovers now have “real” people, AKA wine bloggers, to help them in their quest to find good wine. Not “technical” academics, not “corporate” hacks, not dinosaur Boomer critics, but “real persons” who can “provide a crucial link between the industry and consumers” and who understand, as never before, the “passion” of winemakers.

Finally! After centuries of being hectored, lectured and bullied by wine snobs ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Professor Saintsbury to Dan Berger, Parker and (ahem) me, consumers are being spoken to by their peers, people they can trust to not bamboozle them. I wrote the other day, concerning National Drink Wine Day, that apparently anybody can declare a National Something Day, so I’m going to propose that the fourth Thursday of each February now and henceforth forever be #National Wine Bloggers Day. I created that hashtag on Twitter. I’m urging my Congressional representatives to make it a national holiday. No work, no school, fly the wine flag high and let the nation celebrate wine blogging by, well, wine blogging. Remember what Jefferson immortally said: “A nation of wine bloggers will be a bloggy nation.”

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Speaking of Dan Berger, I associate myself entirely with his remarks the other day in his column, in which he cast considerable doubt on the ability of wines to age—even wines that are very expensive and that you think, for perfectly valid reasons, have the capacity to age well.

Dan writes, I have long noted the utter failure of some expensive reds to taste better with even as little as a year of age.” He adds that, as a reviewer, “It is one reason I am reluctant to assert wine has potential when I cannot be certain it does.” Consumers should take note: Dan Berger has tasted more old wines than most people ever will. I completely agree with his assessment. I’ve stored a lot of wine, mainly red, mainly California Cabernet Sauvignon, in various storages (small fridges, big wine units, professional wine lockers) and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been dismayed at the results. The wines become, not splendidly aged as one would hope, but “tired,” to use Dan’s word.

I believe that critics make far too much of aging wine. Bigtime “name” critics do it first, and then small wannabes mimic them. Consumers are left confused and frustrated, believing they have to age wines but not knowing which ones to age or for how long. I have my own theory how this all started: In France, a long, long time ago, winemakers did not know how to manage tannins. This was a problem compounded by often poor vintages caused by the Little Ice Age that struck Europe. The result was wines that really were “undrinkable” when they were young. Britain was the main buyer of French wine: Bordeaux and Burgundy, and for a while, when Britain was at one of her frequent wars with France, she turned to Portugal for wine, especially vintage Port: another wine impossibly tannic when young. What to do?

Turned out that many British consumers of wine, being wealthy, had large castles (ah, the good old days); and these castles had underground cellars where the temperature never warmed up much beyond the mid- to high 50s. Since these men bought their wines in enormous quantities rather than by the bottle (no corner wine store in those days), they stored the wines in these cold cellars, where they discovered—voila!—that after many years, even decades, the wines finally shed their tannins and became sweetly mellow. In this way there developed the custom of laying down wine for one’s children’s or grandchildren’s 21st birthdays, a custom we still see here in America.

But somewhere along the line arose the modern practice of tannin management, and lo and behold, most wines are perfectly drinkable upon release. They’re riper and softer than ever before in history, which makes them great to drink the first six years or so. My advice: Cellar stuff if you want to. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially with California wine.

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CALIFORNIA’S NEWEST APPELLATION

As far as I can tell, most of the wines from Lamorinda (just approved by the Feds as an A.V.A.) are backyard hobby efforts. The name “Lamorinda” is an concoction of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, three very wealthy suburban towns just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland, in the county of Contra Costa, so named by pioneers because it lay on the “opposite coast” of the Bay from San Francisco. I have long known men of wealth in that area who planted grapevines in their backyards, on slopes of the East Bay Hills; I’ve tasted some of their wines over the years, and they’re not bad. I don’t think anyone really knows if any one variety or family of varieties is best suited for Lamorinda. People grow everything from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. They even make sparkling wine. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Lamorinda wines to pop up on store shelves or restaurant wine lists. Maybe some local restos, but not otherwise. Nor do I expect the somm community to discover and promote the red-hot wines of this new appellation. But good luck to my through-the-tunnel winemaking neighbors, and congrats on getting your appellation! I know what it takes, because I’m going through the process myself, up in Oregon.


Hello Los Olivos! Welcome to the California family of AVAs

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I haven’t been the biggest fan of California’s AVA system, which contains far too many utterly meaningless appellations. (Sonoma Coast, anyone?)

But now, the TTB has made an eminently worthy decision, in the case of Los Olivos, which on Jan. 20 was approved to become California’s latest appellation. (The actual effective date will be Feb. 22.)

It joins its Santa Barbara County sisters, Ballard Canyon to the west and Happy Canyon to the east, as AVAs in this central part of the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley, itself also an AVA. To the north is Santa Maria Valley; further west is Santa Rita Hills. The missing link in the region is now Los Alamos Valley, which currently is a gigantic black hole stretching from Santa Maria all the way south along the 101 Freeway to Buellton. It’s not an AVA, yet, but I expect it, or some part of it, to become one eventually.

With this fait accompli of Los Olivos, I should think the appellation-izing of Santa Barbara County has reached completion (once Los Alamos comes online). At least, there are no further suggestions for additional sub-divisions I’m aware of. Readers? I’ve long thought Santa Rita Hills is overdue for a little fine-tuning: that could happen along east-west (warmer-cooler) lines, or north-south (elevation and orientation) lines, but I don’t perceive any strong impetus to get involved in the fractious and expensive fights that appellation-tinkering almost always stimulates. (Look at the nastiness of the effort to expand Santa Rita Hills a little bit to the east, which seems to have stalled, at least temporarily, as local vintners line up to take sides.)

Thirteen wineries will be entitled to use Los Olivos on their labels, if they want to. Should they? I think so, but ultimately these are complicated marketing and sales decisions. Is there a Los Olivos terroir? Yes. The soils are not complicated, the way they are in, say, Sonoma County. Los Olivos is primarily a broad alluvial plain created by the Santa Ynez River. Hills are rare: the topography, in the words of the petition, is “relatively uniform, with nearly flat terrain” that, incidentally, makes harvesting easy.

Climate-wise, Los Olivos is warmish-cool, not as hot as Happy Canyon (think: Bordeaux), nor as chilly as Santa Maria Valley (Burgundy). The maritime influence has largely drained away by the time it arrives here, 30 miles inland; due to radiational cooling, that absence of fog makes nighttime temperatures quite chilly, cooler than in most of Santa Rita Hills.

Varietal-wise, Los Olivos has turned into Rhône country over the years, although the vintner behind the push for the appellation, Fred Brander, is a Sauvignon Blanc man, one of the few in California to specialize in that variety (and how well he does it!). Although a few wineries still produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the smart money has given up on it, because it never seemed to get ripe enough (which in turn was the rationale for Happy Canyon). I always had the feeling that vintners around Los Olivos produced Cabernet for the market and not because they thought it was the best grape for their terroir.

In short, the Los Olivos AVA makes perfect sense. It’s an upscale appellation: there are no common wines in Los Olivos. (Geeks: to what famous statement am I alluding? First to identify it gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)


Appellations in Wonderland

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The more I get into the details of appellation formation here in California, the weirder things get. I feel like Alice through the looking glass: “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Wine appellations in Europe are easy to understand. The grape variety or varieties are, in general, matched to the region, after hundreds if not thousands of years of vintners having determined that the variety is perfect for the terroir and vice versa. Thus Chenin Blanc in Touraine, for example, or Pinot Noir in the Cote d’Or.

The strength of this system is that there can be no doubt that grape and appellation are a perfect fit. The French (who created this system) are sticklers for legalité; they like things neat and orderly, and the AOC system is both of those (although it does get messy at times!).

The neatness comes, of course, at a cost: Vintners must plant only permissible grapes (and in permissible ways), or else they cannot use the appellation on the label. It could be that Chardonnay grows great in Pessac; we’ll never really know, because why would a winery in Pessac make Chardonnay when their Cabernet Sauvignon will fetch such a hefty bottle price?

Still, Europe’s appellations make as much sense as one can reasonably expect. Here in California, if I understand the process correctly (and I think I do), the connection between variety and appellation is non-existent; the TTB doesn’t care what the grower plants there. If somebody petitioned them for a Mohave Desert AVA, and could fulfill all of the other requirements, they’d get their AVA, despite the fact that no grape variety I know of—certainly not vitis vinifera—could grow in the desert. To use another example, if somebody wants to grow Pinot Noir in Calistoga—where it demonstrably does not do well—they’d be perfectly entited to put “Calistoga” on the label.

The requirements TTB does want are, first, some sort of similarity of, and evidence for, terroir (soils and climate) within the proposed AVA boundaries, and evidence that the proposed name has historical antecedents. The terroir consistency is obvious and warranted, the name requirement less so. In France, appellation names are millennially ancient. Bordeaux has been Bordeaux, Burgundy Burgundy, Champagne Champagne for far, far longer than the entire history of the United States. In California, history (at least, the white man’s) didn’t even really begin until the 19th century; you can’t look to history to justify a name like Fort Ross-Seaview, Pine Mountain or Mt. Harlan, because by and large those place-names didn’t exist until relatively recently. So the TTB can’t be very fussy about historical references. Still, they want something, even if the historical connection is weed-slender: If I proposed “Mount Heimoff” it would be an utter non-starter.

Another thing TTB wants—or, to be more accurate, doesn’t want—is controversy. The last thing those bureaucrats need is for locals in a proposed new AVA, or an expanded one, to be at war with one another, waiting for TTB to be the judge and jury. They’ve been there, done that, and learned their lesson: it’s not gonna happen again. The process of appellation-ing has become so politicized that TTB has said, in essence: Don’t come to us with a petition unless you have all your neighbors on board.

I’d like, someday, for our AVA system to contain some sort of reference to specific varieties. I doubt that it will ever happen; in fact I’ll bet my last dime it won’t. But it would add greater authenticity to a system that, frankly, has become so random, so chaotic and political, that it really lacks much informative value to the consumer—which, after all, is the whole point, isn’t it?


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