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.”
I’m personally very glad the Tax and Trade Bureau finally approved the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area. [See my reporting here in Wine Enthusiast.]
I’ve been following this story for what seems like forever. Even by California standards for getting new AVAs approved, this one took a really long time, and seemed particularly divisive. I wasn’t privy to all the infighting, but enough of it to know that there was plenty.
Back last March, I wrote:
For me, the Fort Ross-Seaview area is the best understood sub-region of the true Sonoma Coast, although it will be at least another 50 years before it can be understood as well as, say, Oakville. It needs its own appellation, badly.
Even as long ago as 2005, when my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River was published (and keep in mind, I did the writing and research for it even earlier, in 2003-2004), I wrote that “I…was amazed at how contentious [the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation process] was, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised…Winery owners and grape growers, with all they have invested in their projects, both finances and egos, can be as fractious as lawyers, which many of them are. Different people had different opinions about where the new lines should be drawn and what the new AVA’s name should be.” This conclusion was based on numerous interviews with folks who had an interest in the subject, who told me of the bickering.
The reason the new AVA was always needed was, obviously, that the existing Sonoma Coast never made much sense. Its godfather, Brice Cutrer Jones, conceded to me he’d “gerrymandered” the boundaries, but at the same time, he insisted it was “an honest appellation” because the maritime influence was omnipresent. That was weird to me at the time, because I’d heard people in Temecula, Lodi and all places inbetween tell me about “the maritime influence” that cooled off their regions, and it seemed to me you need more than some sea breezes to merit appellation status.
Lots of the locals up in those remote hills around Fort Ross dismissed Jones’ successful effort. “It’s the screwiest damned thing,” complained Wild Hog’s owner, Daniel Schoenfeld. Others, including Ehren Jordan, who at that time was establishing his Failla project, began referring to the “true Sonoma Coast” to distinguish it from places like Carneros and Windsor, which were included in the official Sonoma Coast AVA. The essence of the Fort Ross area, I was given to believe, was in both its distance from the Pacific–just about 4 or 5 miles wide, taking in the first two coastal ridges and the west-facing slope of the third ridge–and also its elevation. With boundary lines above 920 feet, that meant daytime temperatures during the summer could be quite high (if you’ve ever driven up Bohan Dillon Road from Route 1, you know how you emerge from a dense, dank fogbank around 600 feet into bright, blazing sunshine). But nighttime temperatures, the diurnal effect, fall off rapidly. The result is that the grapes get very ripe, yet maintain crucial balancing acidity.
I’ve often found the Pinot Noirs from the Fort Ross-Seaview area to have what I call a “feral” note. This is hard to describe in English; the French word “sauvage” (from which the word Sauvignon derives) suggests some, but not all, of its qualities. Here’s the way I used the term in my review of Failla’s 2006 Vivien Pinot Noir: “…showcases the wild, feral and lonely personality of this winery’s extreme coastal mountain location.” I frequently find aromas of foresty things, like balsam or pine cones; the old Burgundian term “forest floor” might be analogous. It’s interesting that, when I was trying [back in 2003-2004] to determine on my own where the eastern boundary might lie for Fort Ross-Seaview [wherever it was, it would be where the cool climate yielded to a hotter one, as evidenced by the transition from Douglas fir and coast redwood to gray pine], I found that the absence of reliable weather measuring devices in those hills was the reason why it was so difficult. I called those ridges, hollows and arroyos of north-central Sonoma County “isolated [and] lonely,” which perhaps are terms that might describe the Pinot Noirs of true Fort Ross-Seaview producers: Failla, Fort Ross, Scherrer, Hirsch among others. There is something haunting and elusive about them, like the creatures that prowl the mountains at night.
The next thing the producers in this exciting new region should turn to is creating their own little Fort Ross-Seaview Winery Association. Then they should assemble all the wines from the various producers and have a media tasting. I hereby donate my services, including the use of this space, to assist in that effort. Feel free to contact me.
I’ll be bringing Gus with me today on the 5 hour drive down to Bien Nacido Vineyard, the first leg of my Santa Barbara trip. This will be Gus’s longest voyage yet, and I can only hope his car sickness issues have been resolved.
If I recall correctly, my first visit to Santa Barbara, for the purposes of writing about its wine industry, was to the Fess Parker Winery. It was a thrill to meet Fess himself. As a little kid, he’d been one of my heroes as Davy Crockett. I made my mom buy me a coonskin cap (as did millions of other little American boys). That fad, which mercifully didn’t last too long, probably sent the native raccoon population dangerously close to extinction. How Fess Parker went from being a T.V. and movie star to a winery proprietor, I never did find out. I think on that first trip I also visited with Richard Sanford–at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard? Memory fails.
I like Santa Barbara, as a place and as an appellation. Perhaps because they developed their wine industry more slowly than the North Coast, their AVAs make a lot more sense than, say, Sonoma’s. There are only four of them: the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and the Santa Rita Hills. The latter used to be part of the Santa Ynez Valley, but wiser heads prevailed in determining that it should be its own appellation on the basis of weather patterns. The Valley is one of only two wine valleys in California (Santa Maria is the other) that lies east-west rather than southeast-northwest (as, for example, are Napa Valley and Alexander Valley). This so-called “transverse” orientation allows chilly maritime air to funnel in from the coast, at Lompoc, spilling over the Santa Rita Hills and cooling them down. By the time you get to the 101 Freeway, the coastal influence has dropped considerably; and at Happy Canyon, it’s virtually non-existent, although there must be a little of it, because otherwise Happy Canyon would be as hot as the Mojave Desert.
For years there’s been talk of adding a fifth AVA, Los Alamos, which sits kind of inbetween Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. If they ever do that, I’m going to have to figure out what makes Los Alamos special, if anything. The American system of appellations always provides wine writers with endless fodder for intellectual speculation. Appellations are elusive things. At first, you think they make sense, and then, the more you look into them, the less sense they make. I wrote about the expanded Russian River Valley the other day, and that elicited several comments, among which was one from Charlie Olken, whose blog is always a good read. He said that the Russian River Valley is a really cumbersome appellation–too big, too varied–a view with which I largely agree. But there are plenty of other equally cumbersome appellations and nobody ever complains about them. The Santa Cruz Mountains doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because they grow their Pinot Noir on cooler west-facing slopes and the Cabernet Sauvignon on warmer east-facing slopes, and where’s the unity in that? Napa Valley is a crazy mixed up appellation, making terroir sense only in the most general way. (The real terroir of Napa Valley is money. Money, more than weather or soil, is what primarily influences all the wines of Napa Valley.) Then we have other nonsensical AVAs: San Francisco Bay, Sonoma Coast, Northern Sonoma.
But Santa Barbara County has got it about right. I imagine there will be opportunities for further subdivisions one of these days. Maybe the Santa Rita Hills can be broken up into northern and southern sections. They may decide to carve something out of the northern Santa Ynez Valley, in the Foxen Canyon area. But in these matters of appellations, my advice always is to go slow. No use rushing into legal things you’ll regret later.
Some of the things I’ll be doing in Santa Barbara, in addition to my big blind tasting on Thursday, will be seeing friends, both new and old. Among them are Nicholas Miller, Andrew Murray, Paul Lato, Chad Melville, John Falcone, Ryan Devolet, Dieter Cronje, Dan Gainey, Greg Brewer and Pierre LaBarge. If I run into Jim Clendenen, that will be the cherry on top of the whipped cream on the chocolate cake.
Had a call yesterday from Oded Shakked, the proprietor of Longboard Vineyards, inviting me up to his place for a tasting of nine vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon he’s made since 1999 from grapes grown in the Rochioli Vineyard.
I met Oded around 2001 when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominantly–and he even has his own photo (taken by moi). I not only was interested in Oded’s fascinating story (how he went from being an Israeli fighting soldier to a Russian River Valley winemaker), but because he had some interesting insights into a strange area of central Sonoma County that falls inbetween some far more famous appellations.
This would be the region around Healdsburg that isn’t really Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Chalk Hill, but falls near the nexus of them all. When I was writing “Journey,” I was in the process of articulating my understanding of what grape varieties or families of varieties grow best in Sonoma’s various AVAs. With Russian River Valley a cool area, it was obvious the answer was Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with a nod to Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and a few others). With Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley–warmer regions–it was clear the stars were Bordeaux varieties (and, of course, Alexander’s exquisite Chardonnays and Zins). But what of that funny area around Healdsburg?
I already had written the part of Journey where I called the Russian River’s crazy loops around Healdsburg–loops that result eventually in its drastic turn westward to the sea, the only major California river to do so–“crucial.” Thus, when I asked Oded his views on that area, and he replied by calling it “The Crucible,” I was stunned. “Crucial” and “crucible” both trace their etymological roots to some very old terms: the Latin word for “cross”, and with connotations of a melting furnace.
I concluded then (and Oded already had arrived at the same conclusion independently) that this no-man’s land was (and is) probably good for Syrah, being neither too cool nor too warm. But now I need to pick up the story of Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet Sauvignon.
Why exactly the Rochiolis planted Cabernet in their famous vineyard on Westside Road always has eluded me. I’m sure I asked Tom Rochioli at some point, and have forgotten what he said. Probably they just wanted to see what it would do, so they put in a small patch. The Rochiolis themselves weren’t interested in vinifying it; they didn’t seem to think very much about it. Anyhow, they had a relationship with Oded, and so he got the grapes and made the wine. But it always was a curiosity to have a Cabernet Sauvignon with a Rochioli Vineyard designation.
At any rate, Oded told me yesterday (I don’t think I’d known, or, if I had, I’d forgotten) that the Rocholis finally budded over the Cabernet portion of their vineyard to, predictably, Pinot Noir, in 2007. So the ‘07 was the last vintage Oded, or anyone else, will ever make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. It seems likely to Oded, and I agree, that there may be virtually no more Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Russian River Valley. (I’m sure someone will set me straight on this.)
Then Oded added that he’s thinking of finding a new source of Cabernet, and he’s looking–you guessed it–somewhere in The Crucible. He added that he’d thought of planting it in his own little vineyard, which also is on Westside Road but further north, and thus warmer, than Rochioli (and where he also grows his Syrah and Merlot). But he still worries the area might not be suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon.
It always was hard to figure out why Longboard’s Rochioli Vineyard Cabernet was so good. I never rated it less than 90 points. In theory, Rochioli Vineyard is too chilly to ripen Cabernet. Yet somehow it worked. Maybe it was because the Cabernet vines were planted (in 1974) on the north side of Westside Road, in a warmer region of the large vineyard than down by the Russian River, where Rochioli’s classic Pinot Noir blocks (West, East, Riverblock, Three Corner) were situated. Maybe it was Joe, Jr.’s impeccable viticulture. Probably a combination of both, with Oded’s skill and a little mystery thrown in.
All this reverts back to an issue that appears with some regularity here at steveheimoff.com; namely, the relationship between wine type, AVA, consumer and critical perception, scores, pricing and marketability. In other words, everything. Oded may find a fine Cabernet Sauvignon source somewhere in The Crucible; he may make a fine wine from it, and offer it at a decent price; but will it sell? We all have become a little too dependent on associating varieties with appellations, instead of letting the wine speak for itself. That’s not a healthy development, as it inhibits innovation. I’ll miss Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet, but I’m looking forward to whenever he starts making one again, no matter where it comes from.
Yesterday’s Taste of Oakville, the annual trade event showcasing dozens of the Cabernets and blends from this prime Napa Valley appellation, was held as usual in Robert Mondavi’s beautiful Tokalon cellar. I didn’t take any formal tasting notes, as it’s very crowded and noisy and the environment doesn’t lend itself to formal tasting.
Prior to the event, in the morning there was a Master Class on the terroir of Oakville. This is a topic of endless fascination to geeks. Heidi Barrett (who was not there) spoke of it in the chapter I devoted to her in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.
You can visualize Oakville of consisting of three areas: the Eastside benches and hills of the Vaca Mountains, where the elevation line goes up (as one of the panelists said) to about 1,500 feet; the Westside benches and hills of the Mayacamas Mountains, where the line extends only to about 500 feet, and the broad swathe of flatland inbetween. These flats are located more or less between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Through them runs the Napa River as well as its smaller tributary, Conn Creek.
We tasted three wines, each represented by a panelist. The wines and speakers were Oakville Ranch 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($60, Phil Coturri, viticulturalist, representing the Eastside), Venge 2006 Saddleback Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125, Kirk Venge, winemaker, representing the valley floor) and BOND 2006 Vecina ($300, Mary Maher, viticulturalist for BOND and Harlan, representing the Westside).
Here’s what each said, paraphrased. Fascinating stuff.
Phil Coturri: Wants to make the soil come alive. Plants extensive cover crops (clover, mustard, even peas) to increase organic matter in the volcanic, minerally soils; as it decomposes it adds complex nutrients. This is the hot side of the valley (because the vines receive the afternoon sun), but what rescues the grapes are the canyons in this high elevation vineyard, which suck in cooling breezes in the afternoon, making them cooler than either Rutherford or St. Helena. The wine itself was starting to lose its baby fat of fruit, showing loads of firm minerals that are a reflection of its terroir.
Kirk Venge: The flatland vineyard has silty, clay loam and gravel soils. It is more vigorous than in the benches and hills, with a fairly high water table. Kirk therefore controls vigor by dry farming, the use of devigorating rootstock, and not planting cover crops; the absence of their added nutrients also helps to control vigor. The vines receive sun all day long, but are helped by the fact that Oakville receives a maritime breeze coming up through Carneros by 3 p.m. most afternoons. The wine was very fruity and soft, with a fat, fleshy texture. Delicious, but lacked the structure of the Oakville Ranch and BOND bottlings.
Mary Maher: The mountain vineyard is comprised mostly of a thin (6”-12”) layer of “valley sequence” soil on top of Sonoma Volcanics. It is well-drained. “Drainage drives our farming.” Mary uses cover crops as well as compost to enrich the soils and control erosion. The area is cooler than in the east or on the flats, as it does not receive the full afternoon sun. This coolness gives West Oakville Cabernets the most intense tannins in the appellation. The Vecina Ranch, which is just south of Harlan Estate, requires irrigation because the vineyard is so well drained. The wine, 100% Cabernet unlike Harlan Estate, was enormous, showing black cherry, mineral and spice flavors. It is an authoritative, masculine wine, with firm tannins, and is very ageable.
All three of the wines, I thought, were marked by cherries, rather than the blackberries and cassis I normally associate with Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. I don’t know why. The weather that year was very moderate, as it has been since 2005, except for a July heat wave. Bob Levy (Harlan’s winemaker) told me (10/3/06), “I think it’s going to be a very promising year,” although he was just at that moment starting to harvest his Cabernet. The season’s first serious rain did not fall until Nov. 2.
However, at lunch we had a 2007 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and it was back to classic blackberries and cassis. An extraordinarily delicious wine I gave quite a high score just a month ago. And it costs all of $45.
One could study Oakville for many years and always learn something new.
Jacob Fetzer sent me a question via email yesterday:
Why do some wine regions never make it to the big time? Is it really the growing “area” that hold it back? Or the money/expertise/big names that are missing? Take Anderson Valley, before Duckhorn, and others who “migrated” there, it hadn’t showed its potential, and maybe hasn’t yet. Redwood Valley seems to grow decent grapes, but it seems to me that is on a downward trend.
Jake is a member of the pioneering Fetzer family, who sold their winery to Brown-Forman nearly 20 years ago. Nowadays, Jake owns (with his bro, Ben) Masut Vineyard and Winery, which produces only Pinot Noir. I had my problems with their bottlings, which bore a Redwood Valley appellation, in the early 2000s. But I did give 90 points to a 2003 Block 7 Pinot, which seemed to show the potential of the terroir. Then I didn’t get anything from them for a long time, but I see that Virginie Boone just gave their 2009 Pinot quite a high score. Interestingly, that wine bears a Mendocino County appellation, not Redwood Valley. At first I thought, given Jake’s email, he and Ben had decided to drop Redwood Valley on the label, in the belief it was more harmful than helpful, and replace it with Mendocino, which is perfectly legal. However, I called Jake to double-check, and he explained that, no, they discovered they’re not really in the Redwood Valley appellation, but just on its border. So bye-bye Redwood Valley.
Anyway, here’s what I replied to Jacob:
It’s a mystery I’ve written and wondered about for a long time: How does a region get famous?
If you look at recent history, there are some clues:
1. It must be coastal, i.e. cool climate. Anderson Valley was (and Carneros, and Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Rita Hills). I’m not sure that Redwood Valley would be considered coastal.
2. It must become famous for a family of varieties, e.g. all the above appellations became famous for Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Chardonnay. I’m not sure that Redwood Valley is famous for anything in particular.
3. Then there’s the hard to define “buzz” factor. Sommeliers get interested – writers and critics jump onboard – rich men want in – the magazines start giving the big scores. Again, that hasn’t happened with Redwood Valley. The same can be said for Lake County.
It may not be fair, but it’s reality.
I might have added that it doesn’t hurt to have an outsized personality to promote an unknown region. Look at Gary Pisoni and the Santa Lucia Highlands.
But back to Redwood Valley. It’s a pity, it really is, when vintners find themselves in the box of being located in a lesser known appellation. I don’t think the average consumer, or even the fairly sophisticated Pinot Noir drinker, has a bad impression of Redwood Valley. I just don’t think they have any impression of it at all. The question is, how do the vintners make consumers aware of Redwood Valley (or any other lesser known area). In the case of Redwood Valley, it may not be possible, at least, not in the short run. Their website lists only eight wineries, of which one, Germain-Robin, isn’t a winery at all, but a distiller of brandy. Of the remainder, only a handful produce Pinot Noir. The others make everything from Zinfandel to Italian varieties to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. So there’s an identity problem.
It seems to me that, if a winery is located in a place like Redwood Valley, it should promote itself, rather than the region. Of course, these two things are not diametrically opposed. You can do both. But the accent should be on promoting the winery. The example of Mas de Daumas Gassac, which is a winery in France’s Languedoc region that is officially classified as a mere Vin de Pays, is instructive. Daumas Gassac despite its isolation in a rustic region and lowly classification is in high demand and has been for many decades, because they got off to a great start, in 1978, by hiring Emile Peynaud as their enologist, and also because they were fortunate enough to be discovered by Kermit Lynch, of Berkeley’s famous Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Kermit is one of the few merchants in the country who can launch an unknown winery to fame the way a famous writer/critic can.
There are closer to home instances of wineries in the middle of nowhere hitting the bigtime. Chalone did it in the remote Gavilan Mountains, and Calera did it in a mountainous region of San Benito County called Mount Harlan. Of course, both those wineries established themselves decades ago. It may have been easier back then, when competition was much less.
Jake also told me they’ve applied for a brand new appellation, Eagle Peak. If approved, Masut will be the only winery in it, just like Chalone and Calera were at the time of their formations. I told Jake, “That’s great. Get yourself a brand new appellation, get some good critical reviews, and it could be a whole new ballgame.”