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.
“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.
I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.
The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.
This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”
Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?
Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.
But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)
It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.
But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?
There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.
This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.
Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.
My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.
When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).
We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.
But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.
And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.
And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!
Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.
One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.
But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:
If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.
The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.
The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:
I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.
And my favorite:
Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.
I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.
I’m in Carneros today, visiting one of Jackson Family Wines’ newest estates, Carneros Hills, on the site the former Buena Vista vineyard and production facility on Ramal Road, on the Sonoma County side of that sprawling appellation, just over the Napa line.
Well do I remember the acclaim and hope that greeted Carneros’s emergence as an appellation on the wine scene. Los Carneros (the proper name) wasn’t declared an American Viticultural Area until relatively late, 1987,* by which time its neighbors—Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, even little Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley—already were AVAs. Why it took Carneros so long, I don’t know; perhaps it was because it crossed county lines, which was something the TTB hadn’t encountered before. It’s not as if Carneros was a new place to grow grapes: the Carneros Quality Alliance says wine grapes were first planted there in the late 1830s, and by the 1870s, the first winery had been built.
With the formal creation of the Carneros AVA, the wine media went nutso over its prospects. This was just about the time I became a professional wine writer (although I’d been studying the wine industry and closely following developments in California for a decade prior to that). If I can sum up the general impressions conveyed by the then-famous writers, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was: At last! America’s (or California’s) “Burgundy” has been discovered! Finally Pinot Noir is being grown in the proper place, and vinified into wine by the proper winemakers! Now we’re going to see some world-class Pinot Noir! (Good Chardonnay, too, but it’s curious that Chardonnay has never “starred” in a California region or, to put it more bluntly, no region in California ever rose to fame on Chardonnay alone, the way Chablis, for instance, or Puligny-Montrachet did, in France.)
The excitement continued through, I’d say, the mid-1990s, but gradually subsided. Other Pinot Noir areas eclipsed Carneros: Russian River Valley (1983), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley now called Santa Rita Hills (2001), the Santa Maria Valley (1981), Anderson Valley (1983). It’s also curious that, while several of these preceded Carneros in the date of getting appellated, it was Carneros that generated the most excitement among the critical community at that time—at least, in my memory. The reason for that may well have been that wine writing in California in the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Bay Area and Northern California critics (it still is, although less so), who naturally would be expected to pay more attention, in those pre-Internet days, to their own back yard than to something far away.
By the early 2000s Carneros had lost much of its luster among that community. The reasons were varied, and had as much to do with law and social custom as with wine quality. One factor that led to the diminution of Carneros’s reputation was that the region, while a large one, simply lacked a critical mass of small, boutique wineries, the result of zoning regulations whose practical impact was that only large, well-heeled wine companies could afford to buy in. (The situation in, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley was the exact opposite.) We can argue over whether a large wine company has the will to craft small, artisan wines, or not; but what is unarguable is that the critical community loves small, artisanal wineries, and is prepared to give them more of a break (if you will) than it is to large wine companies—an inequality of treatment that isn’t fair; but it is what it is.
I myself, during my years as a wine critic, had no problem with Carneros. I gave lots of its Pinot Noirs high scores: Etude was one of my perennial faves, as were MacRostie, Donum, Saintsbury’s single-vineyard bottlings, Kazmer & Blaise (the small project from Michael Terrien), Hartford, Signorello and the occasional Acacia. As for Buena Vista, it fared well, but wasn’t exceptional: some scores of 90, 91 and 92 points, but nothing more dramatic. Why that was, is hard to say. The wines seemed unable to push their way through excellence to brilliance. It’s always hard for a critic to discern why this is with a winery; the temptation to yield to simplistic explanations should be avoided. But wine writers hate to say they don’t know everything.
The Buena Vista winery and brand themselves have, of course, undergone vast changes in modern times. Once California’s oldest winery (1857), it went through several ownership switches; I’ve lost track of all the corporate parent companies, although I certainly remember Beam’s overlordship, when the great winemaker (and my friend) Nick Goldschmidt oversaw its production (along with that of Clos du Bois, Atlas Peak, William Hill, Gary Farrell and others). In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset bought the brand name and the original stone winery, in Sonoma Valley. The next year, Jackson Family Wines purchased the Ramal Road vineyard and production facility, and announced the formation of a new brand, Carneros Hills.
Which is why I’m here today. The company has high aspirations for the estate. It ought to be able to rise to levels unattained in its prior history; the terroir is just fine, and the Jackson family has sunk a small fortune into winery improvements. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.
* I relied upon Wine Institute data for this 1987 date. According to the TTB’s website, the date of approval for Carneros was 1983.
Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?
That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?
I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.
It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.
I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”
This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.
Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.
Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.
After a couple years of back-and-forth, the TTB has approved putting a petition for a new Fountaingrove District A.V.A. up for public comment.
I’m not big on most A.V.A. petitions in California, which seem silly to the point of meaningless, but in this case, I give it a qualified thumbs up. The new Fountaingrove appellation, if approved, will cover 38,000 acres—a little bigger than Knights Valley, a little smaller than Arroyo Grande Valley. It’s in the eastern part of Sonoma County, stretching from the Russian River Valley, in the west, through Chalk Hill to the Sonoma-Napa line. If you’ve ever been there, you know this is hilly country; the elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.
According to the TTB (and I’ve been unable to find a map of the appellation, so I’m putting this together by reading the application), Fountaingrove District also touches the boundaries of Knights Valley, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Calistoga and Sonoma Valley. That makes it sound kind of sprawly. This is an area of Sonoma that’s not well-traveled and in fact is rather remote; TTB says there are only 35 vineyards covering a mere 500 acres. The region would be characterized as a warm Region II, going by the U.C. Davis scale.
The reason I’m in favor is because the Fountaingrove name is a very old one, with a long winegrowing history. A utopian colony called Fountain Grove was established there in 1875. By 1880, there were at least 2,000 acres of grapes, and by 1900, the Fountain Grove Winery had been established. It survived Prohibition by producing grape juice.
In my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I wrote: “In the 1930s, the old Fountaingrove Winery, north of Santa Rosa, grew some, or is said to have grown something called Pinot Noir.” I got that information from the 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines, by Mary Frost Mabon, then the Food and Wine Editor for Harper’s Bazaar (and one of the first serious female wine writers). She wrote, of Fountaingrove, that the winery was bought “in 1937…by…a gold-mining king [and] racehorse-breeder,” proving that rich people bought into wine country lifestyle long before the present era. Concerning the Pinot Noir, Mary wrote (somewhat ambiguously) that “You will find the ’35 [Fountaingrove] labeled ‘Sonoma County Pinot Noir’ under both the Schoonmaker and Colcombet labels.” Yet in her review of it, she refers to it as “Fountaingrove Burgundy” and calls the ’35 “one of the top wines of California…velvety, smooth, and well-finished, as they say, with much character, a good bouquet, and a dark color,” although she also added that “it is a wine that matures very slowly and needs age.”
I just wanna point out that this is good, clean wine language. The flowery stuff wasn’t invented until my day, but Mary’s description pretty much tells you all you need to know about that wine, doesn’t it?
Anyway, speaking of Frank Schoonmaker, I have also his (and Tom Marvel’s) 1941 book, American Wines, where they say “Fountaingrove’s hillside vineyards at present include plantings of Pinot Noir which are among the largest in the state”; they call Fountaingrove “[one of] the important fine wine vineyards” in Sonoma County.
Whether that long-ago wine actually was Pinot Noir, or something else, we will never know. Julian Street, in his 1948 book, Wines, tasted a Fountaingrove “Pinot” and remarks, “…the Cabernet and Pinot Noir from this vineyard revealed them to be identical in color, bouquet, and flavor. They were fair wines, but the twinship was a little surprising.” Well, that’s the way it used to be done before Big Gummint moved in and made people tell the truth.
At any rate, even if the terroir wlll no doubt be further understood, the Fountaingrove name does have provenance in this part of Sonoma County, which is more than you can say about some of these appellations. I’d guess the petition will be approved, and one of these days there will be a Fountaingrove District, the hundredth-and-something. What they do with those 500 acres of grapes is anyone’s guess, but good luck.