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Talkin’ AVA boundary blues


Once again the subject of new AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, arose in conversation this week, relative to a story I’m working on. It concerns an area that some people, including me, as well many if not most who actually grow grapes and have wineries in the region, believe should have its own unique appellation. I won’t mention it, because you’ll read about it in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.

The problem, as one person expressed it, comes down to this: “You either have to cut cut some people out, or include everybody, to the point where it’s almost meaningless.”

He’s talking about boundaries, of course. They have to run somewhere, have to be based on something (climatic, dirt-wise, watershed, history). They can’t just be arbitrary because that would pollute the very concept of an appellation. Trouble is, depending on where you draw the boundaries, somebody who wants in always gets left out. (Never mind that some people who shouldn’t be in automatically get included. That’s a different story.) Whoever gets left out becomes grouchy and, potentially, litigious. And who wants a grouchy, litigious neighbor? (As a condo dweller, I can say with certainty that I don’t!)

I thought this topic was worth some observations on some current California AVAs. I won’t mention all 9,476,746 of them because then this post would be War and Peace. But here’s a start.

All the valleys need to be redefined to bring down their elevation lines. For example, in Sonoma Valley,  the AVA line goes up to 2,530 feet! That’s a half-mile. If 2,530 feet is a valley, then I’m a [fill in ridiculous metaphor].

(All my statistical conclusions about AVAs in this post come from the Wine Institute’s link to American Viticultural Areas.)

Alexander Valley’s highest permitted elevation is 857 feet. Again, that is not a valley–conditions that high are in stark contract to the valley floor. These higher stretches of Alexander Valley (even well above 857 feet, where I guess they’d qualify only for Sonoma County) desperately need their own AVA. The late Jess Jackson tried, and failed, to get Alexander Mountain an AVA. I don’t care what the name is, but somebody should continue that struggle.

Anderson Valley goes up to 2015 feet feet, a situation relieved, in some part, by the Mendocino Ridge appellation. Still, it’s weird.

Many of California’s AVAs really don’t matter because few wines are produced from them and much of that is common. The bigger AVAs, like Napa Valley, are pretty meaningless, especially in this age of the negociant, where tons of wine with Napa Valley on the label are standard stuff. Napa’s mountain AVAs make sense to me. As for the communes, well, they’re weathervanes, in the sense that an Oakville Cab will have some particular characteristics, a Rutherford Cab will have its own traits, and so on. But these generalizations often break down under close inspection. I think they need to split Oakville in half: east and west. That would be a beginning. Rutherford’s awfully sprawling. It takes in everything from Flora Springs on the west to Staglin in the middle to Quintessa with its little hill there to Hall up above the Silverado Trail in the Vacas. Crazy. And don’t even get me started about Russian River Valley. I’ve been calling for years for it to be subdivided into at least three AVAs, maybe as many as six. Nothing ever seems to happen.

Edna Valley–now there’s an AVA that makes sense. You can tell an Edna Valley wine a mile away, whether it’s red or white. Green Valley’s pretty dependable, too. Santa Rita Hills, Dry Creek Valley–you usually know what to expect from them, and you get it. Those are AVAs at their best.

I do understand the argument about grouchy neighbors being left out. That’s too bad–it’s why so many of our AVAs are so porous. They let in vineyards that shouldn’t have been there, out of consideration (or fear) of somebody. Still, we need more appellations in California, not fewer, but they should be rational and small, not gigantic and meaningless. San Francisco Bay? A lovely place, my home, but not an appellation, in any sense except that somebody had enough money to buy it.

What are your nominations for the smartest and dumbest AVAs in California?

Another Napa appreciation, from the air


I had the privilege of taking a helicopter tour of the central Napa Valley the other day. We departed from the Melanson winery, which is above the Silverado Trail high in the Vacas, swept all around that area, then headed over the Stagecoach Vineyard down into Chiles Valley because Chuck, my intern, was with us, and he wanted to photograph the winery where he’s sales manager, RustRidge. From there, it was back over east Oakville, just above Screaming Eagle where the Oakville Cross Road hits the Silverado Trail. Our superb pilot, Greg Melanson, wanted to know if we wanted to see Spring Mountain. Of course! So we saw the beautifully tiered, terraced vineyards that dot that mountain, all the way up to Cain, then swept over St. Helena, soared over Howell Mountain, and came back to our point of origin.

I mention this only because seeing Napa Valley from 1,000 feet up (or whatever we were–it might have been a little higher), and from so many different points of view (as opposed to a fixed one, say a turnout on a mountain road) affords the rare opportunity of understanding the valley’s geographic situation in a way nothing else does. A map will show the proximity to the Carneros and San Pablo Bay; seeing downtown San Francisco directly for yourself, from a point exactly above the Napa River, gives you a much truer appreciation. You can see the lowness of the land that funnels down from the Napa Valley floor all the way to the Golden Gate. We know how cold San Francisco is on any given summer day; we know the winds carry that chill straight up to the valley, creating the cool nights and foggy mornings without which Napa Valley would be too hot for world-class viticulture.

However, the wind on that perfect day (blue skies, clement temperatures, near-perfect visibility) came not from San Pablo Bay but from the northwest. It was cool and refreshing, the kind of breeze a human seeks on a hot summer day, and it came from the Russian River Valley. How could that be? From the helicopter we could clearly see a gap in the mountains, up toward Calistoga, that had to be the breeze’s source. So I understood that Napa can be cooled, not just from the south, but from the west.

Our trip also afforded us the opportunity to witness once again Napa’s walls of mountains, the Mayacamas on the west, the Vacas on the east. We were fortunate that one of our fellow passengers was Tim Mondavi, who knows the lay of the land in Napa perhaps better than anyone alive. He was so helpful in pointing out geographic curiosities, but even he–born and reared in these parts–shook his head in amazement at the complexities of terroir. If it were only the valley floor, I suppose Napa would be comprehensible, the way the Médoc, say, is comprehensible. But Napa has this insanely crazy patchwork of slopes, hills, ridges, mountains and high valleys of every orientation, making the work of the geo-mapper challenging to the utmost.

That Napa Valley, with all its physical complexities, is an appellation at all is due to political, historical and cultural factors, many of them arbitrary and the result of compromises. This is true of Burgundy and Bordeaux, also, but at least those two old duchies had the benefit of a millennia or more of political and religious organization that more or less established their boundaries. Napa Valley–the current construction–did not. In itself it’s largely meaningless, as a plethora of mediocre wines bearing the valley’s name attests. It’s not until you zero in on the smaller appellations–Spring Mountain, Oakville, Mount Veeder–that much can be truly said about common characteristics across multiple wineries. But even then, “commonality” can hide particularity. The ultimate appellation, as Tim Mondavi said and as I have long maintained, is the brand and vineyard.

Above Pritchard Hill, with Lake Hennessey below.

Santa Cruz Mountains: high quality, low acreage


Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.

The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”

I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.

The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.

The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.

In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.

Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.

I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.


Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot define California greatness


I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.

Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.

If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.

It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.

Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.

Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.

That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!

What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.

(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)

No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.

I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.

Ever confuse wine varieties? “Not since lunch”


I’m sure it used to be true, in France, that there were major differences between the tastes of Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Hermitage (Syrah). The old wine books, our only and most trusted sources of knowledge of the wines of 100 years ago, tell us so. That heritage–that each region specialized in a different variety or varietal family, and thus the wines they produced were loyaux et constants to their type (in the old jargon, as Allen Meadows reminds us in The Pearl of the Côte)–was handed down to the New World, and particularly to California, where most winemakers from the mid-20th century were devoted to the ideal of being as Europeanized as they could be.

Perhaps it might have been true, once, that California Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah could have been as different from each other as were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage. If that had been the case, it would have occurred in an alternate universe. For historical reasons, only Cabernet Sauvignon has had enough time on the ground (roughly 150 years) to develop a true style, and that almost exclusively in Napa Valley (as it did in Bordeaux). Pinot Noir is getting there fast, in our accelerated society where everything happens at warp speed (except peace in the Middle East), while poor Syrah still scratches its head, wondering where it belongs, both stylistically and geographically (which may amount to the same thing). But then, in France, too, Syrah has an identity crisis.

I am thinking along these rather incoherent lines because I tasted a lot of wine, blind, on Friday at the Napa Valley Vintners. Although the whites and reds were in separate flights, they were all mixed up together, so that I did not know what variety I was tasting with any given wine. It was pretty easy to tell the Sauvignon Blancs from the Chardonnays, but the Viogniers were more difficult to identify; in some cases, they could have been either. Far more difficult, however, were the reds.

To begin with, they were all good. But the Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots and Syrahs were intermingled, and although I tried to ID what variety each was, I wouldn’t say I scored any better than a “B+” (all right, on the 100-point scale, I’d give myself an 87). Yes, it can be a little embarrassing, especially for a critic (even though I was alone and my blunders were unwitnessed), to unbag the bottle and see that the Merlot I’d liked so much was actually a Pinot Noir; or the Cabernet I found so rich and delicious was actually a Pinot Noir.

But then, this is 2012, not 1922. “We live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating…I mean all the wines of the ‘Southern’ regions, the New Zealand Pinot Noirs and California Zinfandels and Australian Shirazes,” writes The New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, in his 2011 book, The Table Comes First. He might have added Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir to his “California Zinfandels” that “all taste like blackberry jam” (although I think California Zinfandel is a lot more identifiable as Zinfandel than Cabernet or Merlot are as themselves). If you read into Gopnik’s remark a bit of a back-handed compliment, I don’t think he meant it that way. He was just making a point about the International Style. Still, there is a school of thought that criticizes New World wines for this very sameness that Gopnik describes.

I have never been part of that school, but having an experience like mine at the Napa Vintners does make you think. The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.

My mentor, Harry Waugh, has perhaps the most famous quote in all of winedown. When asked, in his old age, over a long and illustrious career (among other things, he was on the board of Chateau Latour), if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy, he replied, “Not since lunch.” (Harry’s generation were heavy drinkers, starting early in the day and going all night. Don’t forget Winston’s Churchill’s penchant for brandy upon awakening.) This perhaps suggests that Burgundy and Bordeaux were not all that different even 80 years ago, as the writers said they were; but then, wine writers are trained, with the determination of Pavlov’s dogs, to point out differences between wine regions. At any rate, I always figured if old Harry could own up to confusing Burgundy with Bordeaux, so could I between Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

Nor does it bother me particularly that these red wines are conspiring toward a central point, as long as that point is so complex and delicious. We will, however, see if things are changing. If there is a trend toward lower alcohol wines (a product both of Mother Nature and conscious winemaking choices), then I might go to a Napa Vintners tasting in, say, the year 2018 and actually have my score for properly identifying varieties rise to 95 points. On the other hand, if global warming hits France as hard as it seems likely to, the differences between Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Hermitage–whatever they used to be–will be further narrowed.

Another conversation about AVAs and terroir


There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.

I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.

Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”

First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.

Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.

The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.

Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.

All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.

Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”

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