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Thinking about appellations, as a new fight flares in Sta. Rita Hills

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To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.

There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.

Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).

And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.

People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly.  I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?


Be careful when changing appellation boundaries

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I’m not taking sides in the brouhaha down in Santa Barbara County, where winery owner Blair Pence wants to expand the borders of the Santa, err., Sta. Rita Hills appellation to include some of his vineyards that are located further inland, to the east.

I haven’t seen any statistical data that would indicate, one way or the other, that the proposed added acreage is, or isn’t, similar to the terroir of the existing AVA. As usual in such matters, we have dueling opinions expressed in the media, with Pence insisting it is, and Wes Hagen, of Clos Pepe (who was the guiding light behind the original appellation) saying, Nope, it isn’t.

I do know that the further east you go from the central Sta. Rita Hills, the warmer it gets. By the time you reach, say, Los Olivos, it’s much warmer than out by Lompoc. Maybe the climate on Pence’s property really does show the same maritime influence as it does to the west. Their Pinots certainly indicate a cool climate, and I’ve given the wines respectable scores, even recommending a few of them as Cellar Selections.

But I will say the controversy underscores once again something I’ve said for a long time: the matter of AVAs, at least in California, is more about marketing and money than about terroir and tasting.

Even Pence concedes as much, when he suggests he can’t get as high a price for his grapes as he could if the wines could bear a Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Currently, Pence Ranch’s Pinot Noirs have to settle for a comparatively “lowly” Santa Barbara County AVA.

We saw the same kinds of issues arise when Gallo successfully fought to have the Russian River Valley boundary moved southward so that their Petaluma Gap vineyards could be included. Some RRV winegrowers were violently against that. They lost.

The fact of the matter is that appellation boundaries are fungible. They may be more fixed in Old Europe than they are in California, because Europe has had centuries of tradition. But California is so new that the wise consumer should take an appellation name with a grain of salt. An appellation is a generalization. It means that a wine bearing that origin should conform to certain expectations of, say, dryness, acidity, fruit profile and weight. But it does not guarantee that any particular wine will meet those specifics. All that an American Viticultural Area guarantees is that 85% of the grapes come from there.

There are some very ordinary wines in the Sta. Rita Hills. If you look up my scores in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide, you’ll find some that are consistently unable to get beyond a certain quality level. Even if Pence manages to get the boundaries of Sta. Rita Hills redefined, that probably won’t make any difference in how good his wines are or are not–unless there’s something he could do with the extra $1,000 a ton to improve quality (and maybe there’s a lot he could, like better barrels or dropping more potential crop).

In general, I think that appellation boundaries should be altered only with the greatest reluctance. There should be compelling physical reasons to do it–not because somebody wants to get a better deal on grape or wine prices, and has the money to afford the lawyers and/or appellation experts who draw up the paperwork. (And Pence has hired one of the best in the business.) The public–which includes wine writers–should have faith in the meaning of AVAs, but if boundary lines are shifting all the time, that confidence is undermined.


“Going regional” as key to increased quality perception

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Mike Paul’s article, in the Jan. 21 “just-drinks” online pub, offers a compelling insight into the marketing and sales value of “going regional,” and also has important implications for some of California’s appellations.

Paul, who publishes his own business-oriented blog, argues that New World wine-producing countries, including Australia, Chile and South Africa, are “almost certain to vent their frustration that the quality of their premium offer is not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

These countries tend to promote awareness of their wine industries through national marketing and trade associations, such as Wines of Chile, Wine Australia, and Wines of South Africa, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the problem is that “In any category where a single brand proposition covers mainstream and premium territory, the lower end risks overpowering and dragging down what is happening above.”

Paul’s suggested solution: “producing countries should develop regional propositions that are stronger than their umbrella country brand.”

Here in California we’ve seen a schizophrenic approach to the idea of regionalization. Some large appellations, like Lodi and Paso Robles, have shown an interest in regionalizing. Lodi, which first received AVA status in 1986, twenty years later regionalized into seven sub-appelations. The Lodians’ official explanation for this was that “local winegrowers began to recognize the wide variety of ecological differences across the vastness of the Lodi AVA,” and while that may be true, it’s also true that the Lodi “brand” was not perceived (or the Lodians themselves believed their brand was not perceived) as quality-oriented or, to put it in Mike Paul’s words, they experienced “frustration that the quality of their premium offer [was] not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

Paso Robles was in a similar bind. The sprawling appellation can produce superior wines, but many locals were concerned that Paso was widely perceived as a hot place capable only of rustic, high alcohol wines. They proposed developing as many as 14 sub- or regional appellations, but nothing has happened so far.

On the other hand, California has long seen strange cases in which sub-regions within larger ones go through all the trouble to get an AVA approved—and then local wineries refuse to use it! This has occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley (where some wineries use only Santa Barbara County) and in the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, where some wineries are using only Sonoma Coast.

Mike Paul is probably right that entire countries like Australia, South Africa and Chile ought to invest more resources into promoting higher-quality regions, especially in markets as important as America and the U.K. Once a wine-producing area is perceived in ordinary terms by the mass of consumers, it’s very hard to turn that perception around. I think the Lodians were onto something when they took their big step, and I also believe and hope the Paso Robles people can get their act together and create all those sub-AVAs. Both areas deserve to be elevated in the public’s mind. And, if nothing else, having a bunch of new appellations will give us wine writers years of opportunity to study them, determined their differences, and then write about them for our audiences.


Appellating an area tends to restrict the range of varieties grown there

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Was chatting yesterday with Matt Dees, the talented young winemaker who’s doing such a great job with Bordeaux varieties (as well as Syrah) down at Jonata Wines, in the Ballard Canyon part of the Santa Ynez Valley. A handful of local wineries and growers have petitioned the TTB for a Ballard Canyon appellation (which they tell me they expect to be approved pretty soon). They’ve formed a Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance whose website says “…the Alliance feels that the focus of the AVA will be Syrah and its Rhone counterparts, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc…”

 Well, Jonata also makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, not to mention Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, which are hardly Rhone varieties, so I wondered how Matt (who’s an integral part of the Alliance) felt about promoting it as a Rhone zone. Pretty good, as it turns out. “We’re making our own history, writing our own rules, learning what that little AVA does best,” he told me, adding, “and it’s obvious to me it can do a lot of things well.”

No doubt most appellations can do a lot of things well. Napa Valley used to make everything from old field blends to Johannisberg Riesling, Gamay and Pinot Noir, and from what I remember, most of them were pretty good. It’s fashionable today to say that Napa is “inappropriate” for many varieties, but that’s not really true. What’s true is that the conventional wisdom has shifted from “We can grow everything in Napa” to “Napa’s only good for a narrow range of varieties.” So the majority of the varieties Napa used to grow are long gone.

Who wins and who loses under such a scenario? I suppose you could say the consumer wines, because she has access to some of the greatest Cabernets in the world, now that Napa’s become a virtual monopole. But this has come at two costs: (1) the world will never know what a properly made Napa Valley Pinot Noir tastes like (with certain exceptions, like El Molino), and (2) the monopolization of Napa by the Bordeaux family of varieties has sent prices sky high, well out of reach of the ordinary consumer.

I’m certainly not saying that the Ballard Canyon people shouldn’t specialize in Rhone-style wines. That horse is out of the barn, the wines are very good, and prices will probably be going up. I do wonder at all the wines we’re not able to taste anymore in California. How about Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? There’s never been much, but Longboard did a fine job. How about Sonoma Coast Sangiovese or Grenache? I bet there are fabulous sites up on those ridgetops, but the Sonoma Coast is becoming a Burgundian monopole (with Burgundian prices), so it’s not likely a vintner or grower will have the audacity to plant much beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


Annals of labeling: Winemakers should put the correct appellation on the label

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With the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area’s first anniversary coming up in January, I was chatting with a winemaker who sources his fruit from a couple vineyards up there. I asked if he’ll use the new AVA on his labels starting with the 2012 vintage, and his reply was, quote, “Unfortunately, no.”

Why not?

“Because we have a hard enough time explaining to people what the Sonoma Coast is,” he explained, adding a line I’ve heard often: “Lots of people even think Sonoma is in Napa Valley!”

We had a long chat about whose responsibility it is to educate the public about these newer, smaller appellations. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation you often hear, not just in Sonoma County but in places like Santa Maria Valley (where some producers prefer Santa Barbara County) or even some of the smaller appellations in Napa Valley. A winemaker will say he doesn’t want to put the smaller appellation on the label because no one’s ever heard of it. I reply that the reason no one’s ever heard of it is because locals refuse to put it on the label! Doh!

Look, I understand that it’s the marketing, sales and distribution people who hate confusing consumers with appellations they never heard of. It’s a bloodbath out there trying to sell wine, and sales people need every break they can get, and have to avoid every pitfall, if they want to succeed. If I was in sales, I’d probably feel the same way.

But I’m not a salesman, I’m an educator. Part of my job (and my pleasure) is teaching consumers some of the finer points of wine, including where it’s from—and in my opinion, a label should bear the smallest appellation to which it’s legally entitled.

A winemaker, on the other hand, has to straddle both worlds: sales and education. Their heart and soul is in teaching people about the intricacies of barrels, yeasts, clones and the like, since these things constitute the DNA of the world they inhabit and love. Yet winemakers also have to sell their wine, and oftentimes they feel that they have to listen to their sales, marketing and distribution people, who know more about the business side than they do.

It is a conundrum, and I’m not giving advice to anyone, except to say that there are fabulous stories that can be told about smaller appellations—stories marketers can use. After all, P.R. people are always saying it’s all about the story, right? Fort Ross-Seaview isn’t just about Sonoma Coast, it’s about Far Sonoma Coast, about mountains and dirt roads and fog and sunshine and wild remoteness. Santa Maria Valley isn’t just about Santa Barbara County, it’s about a cool, foggy, windswept mesa of great uniqueness. I think these are important things to convey to the public.  It can be done on a back label, in a newsletter, on the restaurant floor by staff, by merchants in the store, at winemaker dinners, through winery websites and tweets and YouTubes. Of course, mass selling wines, which usually don’t come from small appellations, don’t have to worry about this, but the smaller family wineries, who frequently make the most interesting wines in California, really should be proud of their fruit sourcing, and let the world know about it.

Okay, I know I said I wasn’t giving advice, but I guess I am. Wineries: Promote these interesting, small regions that went through such hassle to get the TTB to approve them. If you love those vineyards enough to purchase [often expensive] fruit from them, you owe it to the growers, to your purchasers and, ultimately, to yourself to let people know were those grapes come from!


Wednesday wraparound: European palates and “a hole in the middle”

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I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”

I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.

But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.

The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?

* * *

In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”

This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.


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