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Refining the Russian River Valley AVA: another start

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Maybe something will come of it this time–“it” being the latest push to establish sub-appellations within the greater Russian River Valley.

People have been talking about it forever. More than ten years ago, when I was doing the research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the controversy already was old. As I wrote, “Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined.” Some new appellations suggested at that time by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association (RRVWA, but nowadays they’ve dropped the word “association” so it’s just RRVW) were the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges and the Santa Rosa Plain (although the latter two had major overlappings), but separately, Rod Berglund, at Joseph Swan, added Sebastopol Hills and Windsor Hills, Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield) suggested splitting Green Valley into “Upper” and “Lower” (based on elevation), and Bob Cabral (who just announced he’s leaving Williams Selyem) favored a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off, beyond Wohler Narrows and Gary Farrell (and if you’ve driven out there, you know it looks and feels very different from Westside Road closer to Healdsburg).

This latest initiative, announced by Chris Donatiello, currently head of the RRVW, is interesting in that it refers to any potentially new AVAs as “neighborhoods” and to the push itself as “the neighborhood initiative.” I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions that resulted in the choice of such a richly connotative word. Perhaps, given the history of flashpoint divisiveness that has accompanied every AVA battle I’ve ever witnessed (from Santa Rita Hills to Fort Ross-Seaview), the RRVW decided that calling the regions “neighborhoods” would humanize the discussion. Maybe the idea of a “neighborhood” is more expansive than that of a region whose boundaries are hard-wired on climate and soils. Terroir can be awfully exclusive: I mean, let’s say the presence of Goldridge soil is pertinent to your definition. Exactly where does Goldridge start and stop?  It can be a matter of feet–and if I’m right outside the Goldridge zone, but I want into the new appellation, I’m going to be pissed off if you don’t let me in. I might even hire a lawyer and fight. So maybe calling them “neighborhoods” is so that the boundaries can be more elastic.

At any rate, it’s a good thing the discussion has resumed, and I hope that it results in some new AVAs. As readers of this blog know, I sometimes poke fun at California AVAs (because it’s so easy to), but at heart I’m a big admirer of them. They’re the slipperiest things in the world to get your arms around–but we’re better off with them than without them, because they do help, however limitedly, to understand why some wines are the way they are. At the elite end of wine, at the kind of wineries that are so common throughout the Russian River Valley, vintners try their utmost to produce wines with minimal intervention so that their terroir can shine through. So it’s only proper that that terroir should have a name.

You can’t be a fan of wine without having some interest in geology, climate science, geography, political history and associated fields. As a geek, I love studying topo maps (showing physical features) and political maps (showing streets, towns, river names and so on), trying to piece together how everything ties in. Right now I’m looking at the giant map the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission put out in 2007 of the Russian River Valley (including Green Valley and Chalk Hill). Because of its topo features, you can clearly see how the flats we call the Petaluma Gap allow maritime air to funnel into the valley, traversing past Cotati and Rohnert Park like a bowling ball taking aim at the southeastern valley (the Laguna Ridges). At the same time, another break in the coastal hills, this one coming up from Bodega Bay, brings that cool, moist air into the southwestern valley, into the heart of Green Valley. (Berglund’s Sebastopol Hills seems to lie at the junction of the Petaluma Gap and Bodega Bay intrusions.) Of course, as you move north in the valley, you lose that coastal influence with every mile or so (local conditions depending), so that it’s largely spent by the time you reach, say, Oded Shakked’s Dakine Vineyard, on Westside Road, where you’re almost in Dry Valley (and Dakine is, of course, where Oded grows excellent Syrah for his Longboard brand).

The Russian River Valley obviously needs clarification. At 96,000 acres, it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California, according to the Wine Institute–bigger than Santa Rita Hills, Arroyo Seco and Atlas Peak combined. It’s true that Napa Valley, at 225,280 acres, dwarfs Russian River Valley, but Napa already is divided into at least 16 sub-appellations, and quite successfully; in my opinion, Napa’s appellations were drawn up more or less sensibly, although they could stand further refinement (I’d divide Oakville, for instance, into East and West, and might even reconsider Benches for Oakville and Rutherford).

The task the RRVW has given itself will not be an easy one. Even if there’s widespread agreement among all parties as to names and boundaries–a big “if”–the biggest challenge is suggested by this sentence in Donatiello’s press release: “The diverse personalities within the Russian River Valley are shown as much in the people that inhabit this area as much as the wines grown here.” This statement tacitly concedes that the total impact on a wine includes not just climate and soil, but “personalities,” or what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, refers to as cru. It is not simply terroir, as such; it includes “the primary role of…man’s efforts,” taking into account his “observation, ingenuity and hard work.” How you roll these things into establishing the boundaries of an appellation is beyond me, but somehow, it has got to be done.


California AVAs as splintered broomsticks in “Fantasia”

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The Federal government, in its bureaucratic wisdom, is exhaustive in spelling out the rules and regulations concerning American Viticultural Areas, defining everything from the percentage of grapes required to originate from the AVA to the point size of the appellation on the label. So complex has the process become that the Tax and Trade Bureau, the responsible agency, issued a 27-page Manual for Petitioners.

But there’s one thing that TTB does not and cannot do, and that is to describe the organoleptic qualities a particular AVA should have. Nowhere in the Manual will you find a description of, for instance, what the Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon ought to taste like, much less how (or if) they differ from the Cabernets of Paso Robles or Atlas Peak.

Petitioners to the government, who wish to establish a new AVA, need to document all sorts of things: not only where the proposed boundaries are, but upon what criteria they were established; how and why the proposed name is “appropriate”; whether or not the proposed name could be confused by consumers with existing brand names; how the AVA’s “distinguishing features” differentiate it from surrounding areas, and so on. So extensive are all these regulations that AVA petitioners usually must hire professionals to prepare the paperwork, and the process itself lasts for years.

Wine writers, of course, have a different set of concerns. We like knowing about the technical stuff (that’s why they call us geeks), but above and beyond everything else, we insist on trying to understand just what it is about any particular AVA that expresses itself in the resulting wines. This understanding can be elusive; it’s the stuff of endless seminars and studies, none of which is ever conclusive and probably never can be. Call it the Wine Writers Full Employment Act: as long as there are AVAs, there will be people struggling to analyze them. Including me. My latest excursion into AVA Land is with the upcoming Pinot Noir Summit, where, after some back and forth with the organizers, I finally decided on this topic for my panel: Carneros vs. Russian River Valley: Is there a difference?

It sounds a little simplistic, but the best questions are the most fundamental ones. After all, if there’s not a difference between two neighboring appellations, then why bother with appellations in the first place?

I doubt if we (the panelists and the audience) will arrive at any firm conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent the exercise from being fun and informative. Myself, I have a generalized sense of Carneros Pinot Noir with respect to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. In my mind, the former wines are more acidic, lighter in body, earthier and more minerally than the latter wines, which tend to be bigger, richer and heavier. This is mainly due to Carneros being cooler than most of the valley, and also to its soils, which have large quantities of water-retaining clay.

But the devil is in the details. The Carneros appellation spreads from the flatlands alongside San Pablo Bay (which I think of as bas Carneros) to the foothills of the lower Mayacamas (haut Carneros), meaning that soils and temperatures can vary significantly. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley itself shows huge terroir differences, the most important of which being that the climate varies significantly from the cooler, foggier southern portions to the warmer, drier area along Westside Road.

Thus the effort to discern regional distinctions will be hampered. This difficulty is made all the more problematic by winemaking techniques (especially picking decisions), which vary from winery to winery and can mask the wine’s underlying terroir.

Do you remember the broomstick scene from the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia? It’s one of the most remarkable feats of animation ever. Mickey Mouse “borrows” the Sorcerer’s hat and makes a broomstick come to life to perform his chores. Alas, the broomstick does the work a little too well: the next thing Mickey knows, he’s drowning. Attempting to stop the broomstick, Mickey takes a hatchet to it, and chops. And chops. Each splinter turns into a new broomstick that ruthlessly, robotically, mechanically repeats the original broomstick’s function–until Mickey finds himself in a nightmare, saved only by the sudden reappearance of the Sorcerer, who reclaims his hat, and all is well, except that a chastened Mickey has to resume his work.

I sometimes feel AVAs are like that broomstick. They metastasize endlessly; currently, no fewer than 14 new ones are pending in California alone, on top of the hundred-plus we already have. And just as Mickey was overwhelmed with all those marching broomsticks, the poor wine writer sometimes flounders to understand all of California’s AVAs.

No doubt a technical case can be made for each, but from a terroir point of view, it can be very hard to detect a rationale. One likes to think there is a rationale. If we can’t discern the rationale (we tell ourselves), it’s not because there isn’t a defining terroir, it’s because we are insufficiently qualified to find it. We thus take the burden of proof onto ourselves. Which is why I’m doing this Carneros vs. Russian River panel. It obviously won’t be definitive, but it might get us a little closer to the truth.


That proposed Freestone-Occidental AVA: an interim status report

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I had a little time to catch up on the proposed Freestone-Occidental appellation. Here’s what I found out.

It was first proposed to the TTB in 2009, according to First Leaf, a Sonoma company that helps investors acquire agricultural land, and whose website contains valuable information on Sonoma’s various wine regions. Freestone and Occidental are, of course, small towns in the southwestern part of Sonoma County. Here’s a link to one version of a map, Free-Occ,  prepared by my friend, the AVA specialist Patrick Shabram. The website, everywine, has done a nice job summarizing the facts of the proposed appellation.

So what’s happened since 2009? In a word, nothing. “TTB returned [the application] last year,” explains Mike McEvoy, vice president of sales and marketing for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which has vineyards in the area. The problem, according to McEvoy: “The reason TTB gave was, they had clarified their view on new AVAs that overlap with existing AVAs. And because part of the Freestone-Occidental appellation overlaps Russian River Valley, they sent back the petition back.” The problem seems to particularly apply to Freestone, not Occidental.

Shabram told Marimar Torres, (who shared the email with me) back in 2012, that he was aware of the overlap problem, and that “resubmitting a revised petition with the overlapped area removed, is much more plausible.” McEvoy, however, says little has occurred lately to push things forward. He says a group of members of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, including Andy Peay, Ehren Jordan, Regina Martinelli and Ted Lemon, has plans to meet new month “to tackle this Freestone dilemma.” Unfortunately, the group wants any Freestone AVA “to include the area that’s overlapping with Russian River Valley,” which TTB is opposed to. Of course, no matter what the new eventual appellation is, starting this year it will have to append the words “Sonoma County” to it, according to the county’s new conjunctive labeling law, which will make for quite a mouthful.

My own feeling is that there should be at least one new AVA carved out from that area. I’ve always said the existing Sonoma Coast appellation is too big to mean anything. I was excited when Fort Ross-Seaview was approved by the TTB in 2011, but, as Marimar Torres, whose Doña Margarita Vineyard lies in the proposed new AVA, correctly notes, Fort Ross-Seaview is quite a distance away from Freestone-Occidental. “It’s so far north [whereas] Freestone-Occidental has a distinct personality.” The elevations there aren’t as high as in Fort Ross-Seaview, meaning the region is more subject to fog, making the wines deeper, heavier, more brooding than those of their northern cousins. Marimar’s 2005 Doña Margarita Pinot Noir is a classic example: dark, tannic and lush, not to mention ageworthy.

 


Thanks to all my tour guides over the years

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Thanks to Massimo di Constanzo for being my tour guide yesterday in Coombsville. This is Napa Valley’s hinterlands, a sleepy region of little homes and twisting country lanes that would be easy to get lost in. I’ll have much more to say about Coombsville in my upcoming story in Wine Enthusiast, but for now I just want to comment on the feeling I get when I visit a place that just reeks of terroir.

Terroir: there it is, that awful word again. I’m both a believer in it, and a scoffer of many of our official appellations that claim to have terroir but in reality don’t. But there are indeed places that look like they have terroir. Coombsville is one. So is Ballard Canyon, down in Santa Barbara County. So is Mount Harlan, where Calera does their thing. Edna Valley oozes a sense of terroir. So what do I mean by “places that look like they have terroir”?

For one thing, they’re fairly small in area. You can eyeball the entire appellation (pretty much so, anyway) from one point of elevation. Even if you can’t see the whole thing in one swoop, you can see the appellation’s unity on a topo map. For instance, this image of Coombsville

CupsSaucer5 w line.ai

 

shows clearly how the region is so delineated: tucked into a crescent-shaped bowl beneath the Vacas that descends from rolling foothills down to the Napa River, where the flatlands of Napa City take over. Doesn’t that look like “a place”? It’s not sprawling, like Paso Robles. Nor does it even have much of the east-west spectrum of, say, Oakville. It looks like It has a unity of climate, soils and exposures, which is why you’d expect to find a similarity between wines of the same variety or blend. And you do. And that’s what I call regional terroir.

I’ve been lucky in having tour guides like Massimo help me all my career. When I first visited the Santa Rita Hills, it was Greg Brewer who took me all around. Andy Beckstoffer once gave me the royal tour of Rutherford, an experience I’ve never forgotten. Greg Melanson was kind enough to helicopter me (twice) over Pritchard Hill, an experience beyond praise; being 900 feet up in altitude is absolutely the best way to get the lay of the land. Michael Terrien once shepherded me around the Napa side of Carneros; walking that land showed me that the area is more complicated than I’d thought.

There’s a symbiosis between the wine writer, on the one hand, and the people he writes about, on the other. We need them, as much as they need us. Ultimately, our interests don’t necessarily coincide, but, there’s a mutual respectfulness–in the best of cases, anyhow. I’ve met a few vintners and growers in my time who were models of incorrigibility. But not too many, fortunately; this is a pretty well-behaved field to work in.


How the French once hated California wine; and a Petaluma Gap AVA

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My publisher at Wine Enthusiast, Adam Strum, sent me this video of a speech he gave to the French-American Foundation, in New York, at an event  honoring Jean-Charles Boisset. Adam began his remarks with a memory of an exchange he had years ago with the legendary French chef, Andre Soltner, whose Lutece restaurant once was the de rigeur place for the elite to eat, back when French food defined haut cuisine.

At that time there were no California wines on Lutece’s wine list, and Adam asked Chef Soltner about it. Chef replied, “We do have California wine, but we cook with it. We do not have it on our wine list!” Ouch.

Adam’s point was that, not that long ago, the French attitude toward California wine was one of ennui. I immediately recalled an event I went to, more than twenty years ago. It was the first big wine article I ever wrote, for Wine Spectator. Many of the major French winemakers from the Rhône Valley had traveled to Napa Valley to meet up with their West Coast counterparts, the so-called Rhône Rangers, at Meadowood Resort, for a global summit on the grapes and wines of the Rhône. But what I recall most clearly is the disdain, bordering on hatred, that some of the French held toward California wines. This antipathy was in the air and was summed up by a leading French wine industry leader who angrily told the Californians in the audience, “You can steal our grape varieties. You can steal our techniques. But you cannot steal our terroir!”

How far we’ve come! Today, California wine is the envy of the world. Even the French have grudgingly accepted it.

* * *

On the heels of my post yesterday about the pending Lamorinda AVA, I had a conversation today about a proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. Apparently, there’s controversy over where the lines should be drawn. Quel surprise! There always is with these appellation wars. I have a definite position on Petaluma Gap: Yes, it deserves an AVA. This is cool-climate viticulture and there are important sources of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing there. I’ll leave it to others to determine the precise boundaries, which at any rate will be decided on a political basis, as much as on issues of climate and soils.

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association developed this map, which is unofficial, since the TTB hasn’t yet ruled on it. Looking at it, it does seem a little too broadly drawn, extending all the way from just west of Cline Cellars, in Sonoma Carneros, out to the Pacific beaches, and from Novato in the south all the way up to north of Rohnert Park and Bodega Bay. I’d hate to see a redux of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which most everyone admits was ridiculously large; the fallout from that will take years more to sort out, even with the worthy addition of Fort Ross-Seaview. But such is the nature of these appellations, far as I can tell, that they tend to be drawn too liberally at first, for an obvious reason: nobody wants to be left out. So they include everybody, and the thing ends up being too big. Then the sub-AVA debates begin. Well, it keeps wine writers busy, anyhow.


Here comes Lamorinda

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When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was astonished at how radically the weather can change within the smallest areas. I was living in the North Bay–Solano County–and I remember driving for the first time through the Caldecott Tunnel, which runs from Orinda, in Contra Costa County, beneath the East Bay Hills for a mile or so, emerging through its west portal in Oakland.

It was summertime. The temperature in Orinda must have been in the high 80s or low 90s. I had the car window open. As soon as I came into the Oakland daylight I felt the cold air. Maybe the temperature was in the low 60s. We’d lost up to 30 degrees from one end of the tunnel to the other.

The East Bay Hills are, of course, part of the California Coast Ranges that cut off maritime air from the cold Pacific, so that areas east of them grow progressively warmer. Orinda is dependably warm to hot in the summer, but nowhere near as hot as the Sacramentio Delta and the Central Valley, which are much further inland.

For example, the Delta city of Brentwood accumulated 3,470 degree days in 2011. That’s pretty toasty, even for that cool year; Brentwood is in eastern Contra Costa County, an area known for old-vine Zinfandel, where the wines are high in alcohol. Compare that to Oakville, in Napa Valley, where the average annual degree days are 2,798.

In Oakland proper, the warmest part of the city tends to be the easternmost, where the flatlands begin to rise into the East Bay Hills. There, in 2011, the degree day accumulation was 2,173, according to data by the Lamorinda Winegrowers. So you can begin to appreciate the temperature spectrum: too chilly in most of Oakland for proper winegrowing, hottish in the Delta, just right (for Bordeaux varieties, anyway) in Oakville.

“Lamorinda” is a neologism created from the names of three contiguous towns in Contra Costa County: Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda; the word has been in common usage for decades to describe these posh suburbs, just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Each town is different, of course, but what they share, among other traits, is that they are plopped into the inland side of the East Bay Hills, which rise to about 2,000 feet at their highest. Depending on the exact location, some of the ridges and slopes would seem ideal for growing vitis vinifera: sunny and warm enough to ripen the grapes, not too cold nor too hot, just Goldilocks right.

I remember about 20 years ago being invited to the home of a automobile tire magnate who was experimenting with growing grapes up in those hills, in the expansive backyard of his home, which was technically in Oakland–but these boundaries between towns are, of course, artificial. He was growing several varietals on his sunny slope, and tasted me to them. I was impressed by all of them, across the board, from a rich, opulent Cabernet to a brut-style sparking wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These days, many well-to-do homeowners in the Lamorinda area have followed suit and are planting grapes. (My friend Rajeev, who owns the UPS Store where I receive my wine, recently installed a vineyard on his property.) In fact, there are now 121 planted acres of winegrapes, across 42 vineyards, according to a petition filed with the TTB to establish a Lamorinda American Viticultural Area. The petition was written by my old acquaintance, Patrick Shabram, a professional AVA petition-writer whose previous successful efforts include the Alexander Valley expansion, the Mpon Mountain AVA, and Fort Ross-Seaview. Here’s the link to the formal petition.

It’s not clear what varieties are the most successful for Lamorinda and it may never be, for two reasons: One, the terrain is so jumbled and crazy (courtesy of the San Andrea Fault system) that micro-climates vary radically, making one spot cool enough for Pinot Noir and another warm enough for Cabernet, “within a single vineyard,” as Patrick writes. The second reason is because Lamorinda, if and when it’s approved as an AVA, is never going to be a commercial winegrowing area. Such wines as are made will be consumed by the grower, his family and friends, or will be sold at local restaurants and markets.

I’m in favor of this AVA. Like any appellation, it’s not perfect, and won’t provide the consumer specific information about its wines. But Lamorinda does have a “thereness” and, if approved, will stimulate growers and winemakers to step up their efforts. Which is a good thing.


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