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?
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.
We have another tasting coming up this Friday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I will be writing more about that later, but I just realized that Anderson Valley was probably the last appellation of significant importance I can remember emerging in California—even though it was officially declared way back in 1983.
I mean that, for the wine press in general, Anderson Valley didn’t really hit our radar until the 1990s, and even then, it was primarily known for Alsatian varieties. Even in the early 2000s, I think if you’d polled most knowledgeable wine writers about the best Pinot Noir growing districts, Anderson Valley would barely have made the list—if at all. (Some oldtimers may disagree.) And yet, today, Anderson Valley—that pretty little cleft of land along the Navarro River tucked in between the Mendocino Highlands—is universally recognized as great Pinot Noir terroir.
So when I ask, Is California appellation-ed out, what I mean is that I think there may well be no more super-appellations in our future. The ultimate frontier may have been reached: We’re plumb out of space. Yes, we’ve had some pretty good AVAs declared in recent years: Ballard Canyon and Coombsville are superb. And yes, we’ll have more tiny little carveouts from larger AVAs: Pritchard Hill is long overdue, although legal and personal issues may prevent it from happening anytime soon. And yes, we’ve had Lodi split up and Paso Robles go positively schizo on us: if there are any master sommelier candidates who can rattle off all of its new sub-AVAs, I’ll personally promote you.
But these are all relatively small, narrowly defined appellations within greater appellations whose value has long been recognized. What I’m talking about is a brand new winegrowing region, not contained within an existing one, that comes out of nowhere and grabs the critical imagination. The Santa Lucia Highlands once did that. So did the Santa Rita Hills.* But the days of new stars emerging onto the pantheon are, I fear, over—and necessarily so. We’ve simply run out of land along the coast.
Oh, I suppose somebody could discover and develop some area way to the north—Humboldt County—or way to the south—Ventura. But it’s not terribly likely. Even if those places had the terroir to produce remarkable wines, the money isn’t there to invest to exploit them because it [the money] is too busy elsewhere, in existing appellations that are far more profitable to sell. Who would spend much money on a Humboldt County Pinot Noir? Even Marin County, which can make very good Pinot (and Riesling), will always remain a curiosity; I can’t see Marin having dozens of wineries, like Anderson Valley does, and becoming a contender.
If the coast is shut down, then the only place you can go in California is east, inland: and inland wine just has not proven to have the appeal of coastal wine. Lodi, however much you want to love it for being the underdog, and however good its old vine wines can be, simply doesn’t have selling power. The Sierra Foothills and its various sub-regions seem to have reached whatever peak they’re likely to have in the foreseeable future. Temecula? I don’t think so. Lake County seemed for a while to have a future, but that vision has evaporated, and is not likely to resurrect in the consumer’s mind, not even for good Cabernet Sauvignon, which doesn’t have a chance of competing against Napa Valley or Sonoma County and its sub-regions.
How does it affect the psyche of California wine to have finally run out of room for new AVAs? We’re told by historians that when the westward expansion of America, which is to say the westward expansion of European civilization, hit the Pacific shore, a certain turn inward ensued. An alternative explanation is that outer space became the new frontier. But we’ve seen how that exploration has slowed down since the Moon landing, despite the fabulosity of the Hubble telescope and the Pluto flyby. And we’re not likely to develop extra-Earth vineyards in my lifetime, yours, or your grandkids’. (Where would they go? Titan?) In truth, America’s obsession with what it means to be “an American” may be the sublimation of the fantastic energy that went into 500 years of Europe’s drive to the west, only to be stymied. Once it ended, where was that energy to go?
Well, a good place, I’m sure. There’s always room for improvement, isn’t there. We were a bit hurried in California in developing our appellations, which now must number close to 130. Many if not most of them were done for political, personal and financial reasons that had little to do with authentic terroir. So perhaps, now that the appellation frontier has ended and we have some time on our hands, we can revisit our important appellations to more fully understand them. I’m talking about places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, the Russian River Valley, even Alexander Valley. Admired as they are, these are stupid AVAs that have little meaning, beyond P.R. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and get down to the business of sub-appellating them in ways that make sense.
*Yes, geeks, I know SRH was carved out of Santa Ynez Valley. But it really was the equivalent of an exciting, brand new and hitherto undiscovered Pinot Noir area.
My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:
- a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
- nice, ripe California fruit
Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.
Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.
Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.
La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.
Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.
Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.
Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.
Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.
Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.
Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.
The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.
Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.
As a longtime pot enthusiast, and the current holder of a California medical marijuana card, I’ve been glad to witness the acceptance of weed in America. If you’d asked me twenty years ago if I thought the legalization of marijuana (or gay marriage, for that matter) would occur in my lifetime, I would have said, No, especially not gay marriage. And yet, look how far we’ve come!
Yay America! Give yourself a pat on the back.
Still, I must admit my jaw dropped when I was reading the June/July issue of The Somm Journal and came across, on page 34, an article entitled “California Artisanal Hashish.” No, I thought, it can’t be what it looks like; this hash must have something to do with corned beef and potatoes for weekend brunch. (But why would that be in Somm Journal?)
It was only a few seconds later, reading the article, that I realized it was indeed about hashish, and specifically, how “Emerald Triangle farmers are fighting for the AOC classification as California reevaluates its medical cannabis industry.”
Hashish in Somm Journal? AOC classification? Photos of a dude tasting his “aged, artisanal hashish”? Yikes.
Well, Somm Journal is from the redoubtable Andy Blue and his business partner, Meredith May, two of the most successfully entrepreneurial publishers/editors in recent California history. Coming on the heels of The Tasting Panel magazine, maybe Andy has some new triumph in sight: The Smoking Panel magazine. And why not? If weed is going to be a legal, multi-billion-dollar industry in California (it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry, but there’s still a huge fight between the feds and the state concerning its legality), then it’s going to need its own industry magazine. And who better than Andy to bring it to us?
What’s interesting, and something I hadn’t completely understood although I should have foreseen it, is that some of the same issues we see in beer and wine are now happening in marijuana production. Namely, the fight between large, industrial producers and small artisanal ones. We see that front and center in beer and wine, where artisans complain that the majors are producing soulless, chemically-treated and mass-produced products—a charge to which the majors are being forced to respond–and a new generation of consumers is siding with the artisans, and is moreover willing to pay a premium. Apparently, the same thing is happening with weed. “[S]econd- and third-generation farmers are coming out from the shadows to protect their heritage against the current trend of large corporations controlling cannabis production.”
Are they coming out of the shadows, or out of the smoke? Probably both. Regardless, the issues are timely. Heritage pot? Well, we have heritage clones in grapes, so why not in marijuana? Artisanal production? We celebrate craft beer, and in wine, all you hear about from somms these days is small artisanal producers. But an AOC system for weed? Yes. “California cannabis farmers are working with legislators to build appellation zones into upcoming regulations,” Somm Journal tells us, adding, “…wine-style AOC classification is what will save the farmers and allow California to become the only producer of artisanal hashish globally.”
That’s big thinking. Planetary, CGI thinking, even though Bill says he never inhaled. And no growing region is better suited to be the first appellation for hash and pot than the Emerald Triangle, that three-county (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity) hub, north of San Francisco, that’s been famous for weed-growing for decades. Anyone who lives there or has traveled through the rugged mountains knows the stories of plantations hidden deep in clearings in the forest; of innocent hikers getting their heads blown off as they unwittingly intruded into someone’s pot farm; of the local constabulary raiding fields, or the DEA showering down herbicides from helicopters; of pot gazillionaires who expanded into other, more legal, industries, including—gasp!–wine. (What, you think that didn’t happen? I first wrote about this in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)
Well, good for the pot farmers! And I will happily endorse the Emerald Triangle as the first weed appellation in the nation. When that happens (and I have no doubt it will), it will be only a matter of time before the Emerald Triangle is sub-appellated into smaller terroir-driven pot districts. Or is that too far-fetched? It’s one thing, I suppose, for wine experts to sit down at a formal tasting and discern the distinctions between, say, Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But somehow, it seems trickier to get high while determining the precise characteristics of, and differences between, pot from Yorkville, Willits and the Sinkyone Wilderness. I mean, you can’t spit. And who would take notes, or even remember the next morning? I have no doubt, however, that intrepid analysts are already hard at work at it, even as we speak. To them, I lift my glass of wine, followed by my medicinal pipe, and say, L’Chaim!
In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.
Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.
Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.
Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.
This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)
Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.
When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.
This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.