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The Appellation Myth


I’m from New York City. You gotta problem with that?

Readers of this space may recall that I have mixed feelings about appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). As a concept, AVAs are indispensable in helping us understand wine. The origin of grapes has fascinated wine lovers at least since Thomas Jefferson inspected Haut-Brion and noted the specialness of its soil. Here in California, we use appellations telegraphically; the phrase “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” connotes something special and inchoate deep within our souls.

And yet, I have often said that what’s important is not where a wine comes from, or who made it, but the actual stuff in the bottle. When you taste as much as I do, for as long, you learn one thing: You can find delightful and dreadful wines anywhere. I have had the most awful (and expensive) Napa Valley Cabernets, and so have learned to minimize my expectations based merely on origin.

The end result is that there’s a part of me — the part from New York City — that thinks, “appellation, schmappellation.” I believe in appellations, and I’ll refer to them as long as I write about wine. But I don’t want to give them any more power than they deserve, or be their slave. A little bit of appellation-mania goes a long way.

Well, the above is a rather long-winded preparation for a critique I want to make on this article by Clark Smith, the respected former head of Vinovation, and now connected with Appellation America, where he’s running something called the Best-of-Appellation [BOA] Evaluation Program.

You can, and should, read the article yourself. Briefly, Clark and his team at the BOA are setting out, in his words, “to distill the specific wine characteristics associated with the natural and cultural traditions of each region.” And by “each region,” he means “each of the 307 AVAs” currently recognized be the Federal government. To accomplish this, Clark will map the vineyards within each AVA “so we understand the soil and climate of every wine we taste,” and then have each winery fill out “Product Information Forms…to document grape growing and winemaking practices.” Finally, the team will “research the role of history and market influences on these trends so that a comprehensive and unique profile emerges.”

This is extraordinarily heavy lifting, a lifetime of work — interesting work that will provide wine geeks like us with good reading, in the form of the BOA’s “Blue Book of Appellation Taste Profiles.” The book will “identify wines which exemplify their place of origin” based on BOA’s analyses, thus making the book “the criteria against which wines are judged for typicity.”

Why does this make me uneasy? In part it’s because of my ambivalence toward appellations. They’re important, but not overly so. Just as I’m from New York, and so you can infer certain qualities about me, you can’t really know me simply on that basis. You can’t really know me by any data. Same goes for wine. Even Clark concedes (as he must) that “multiple styles…are found within an appellation,” styles ranging from “fruit forward [and] ethereal [to] tannin bomb.” Which is as I’ve said: styles within appellations vary so widely that the concept of appellation loses its force and to some extent its raison d’etre. Appellation becomes more like eye color than some kind of over-arching determinant of a wine’s character.

The other source of my uneasiness is that there’s an appellation-literary complex in this country that seeks to make money off the propagation of the appellation myth. Think about all the books that have been, and will be, written explaining appellations. My own bookshelves are stuffed with them. A beautifully-written book on terroir (as, for example, anything by the immortal Hugh Johnson) is an intellectual and artistic delight. I respect and support Clark’s effort and wish him luck. But to codify all of America’s AVAs into a kind of municipal code, which is what the Blue Book will be, seems to me a bit too much.

  1. This is what I was taught, and still believe to be true: MICROCLIMATE is the set of conditions within the canopy, what the grapes see. MESOCLIMATE is the vineyard climate, conditions the vine as a whole sees. MACROCLIMATE is the regional climate. I don’t know who first misused “microclimate” but they sure started something.
    AA (?! amusing coincidence, that)- damn the torpedoes! At least what you are doing is interesting. Wine culture, and everything connected to it, is a bit of an indulgence. Now that overpopulation, economic realities and climate change are starting to manifest themselves (Russian River and Central Valley water deliveries slashed, Oz harvesting in February), we will eventually have more pressing issues to argue about.
    No one settles for being a second-rate producer; nature or God made the decision for them a long time ago.
    If you don’t believe in appellations, just go to a bulk wine brokerage, and start tasting. By about the second or third hundred wine, you’ll believe.

  2. Thom Calabrese says:

    Wow! Clark, are you being paid by the word?
    I understand where you are coming from, if I had a hot dog stand, I’d want everyone to see the need to eat hot dogs. I’d come up with all kinds of reasons that the public eating my hot dogs was beneficial and important and worthwhile!
    Being from Jersey City myself, I have a skeptical bent on this whole thing.
    I see where AOC regs have hampered free spirits in the Loire and other areas.
    Just because someone in Iowa is making wine doesn’t mean I want to buy it, EKG not with standing.
    I live in North Carolina now and there are several wineries and wines and for the money and quality…….. Thanks but no thanks.
    Just because somebody makes something doesn’t automatically give them a market. That’s just the way it is, and that’s a good thing.
    Good luck with your endeavor but I don’t see it as that important for helping people enjoy wine.
    My 2 cents worth.

  3. Wow! Takes guts to write off two entire States in one short note, Thom. Did you include an assessment of the Raylen 05 Carolinius ($14), the Childress 05 Cab Franc ($17), or the Shelton 05 Cab Sauv ($16) in your dismissal of NC’s bang for buck? Our panel found nothing in Napa or Sonoma to match them.
    As for Iowa, if you are willing to toss them out the window without tasting a single recommended wine, then you are certainly right that there’s no way my work will ever help you enjoy wine. My hope is to find some group out there with more curiosity.
    Seriously though, I must say, your note doesn’t seem a bit like the Dr. Vino I know. So I reckon the real problem is that our concept is interpreted as “anything goes” and you’re right — that won’t fly. I assure you, the wines we recommend for BOA status are held to a high standard of integrity, balance, and innate charm along with the requirement of typicity.
    It’s my job to walk this tightrope. Much of the key in reviewing wines for a broad audience is to communicate style in the notes, so the recommendation appeals to the right consumer.
    We need to establish some credibility in your eyes. I hope you’ll give us a chance.

  4. Napa Wine Guy says:

    I think that there needs to be made an important distinction between the grapes and the finished wine. The concept of appellation to me has more in common with the french term terrior. The grapes from a given appellation should have more in common due to similarity of soils, climate, etc. That does not necessarily, nor could it, translate into similarities in finished wine. While the grapes should have similarity, the vinification is subject to individual styles and techniques of the winemaker. So absent regulations on winemaking techniques in a given appellation, there will not necessarily be similarity. So the theory, concept, whatever that the wines from a given AVA will have the same attributes is not realistic. The grapes from a given AVA should.

    What one should get from the AVA concept is the general knowledge of the grape variations and the general characteristics that could be passed through to the finished wines. It gives the consumer a general jumping off common point for wines from the AVA, but does not necessarily mean that each wine from the AVA will have those characteristics. It can, therefore, become a yardstick by which the consumer can hang their hat. If a consumer likes the general style of, say, Stag’s Leap AVA, then there is a point by which they can judge the wines.

    I don’t believe that the AVA concept was ever intended to be a hard and fast rule regarding all wines from the AVA. But yet, a general understanding of the grapes from the AVA.

  5. Here is the link to a Feb. 17th piece on Appellation America’s site written by Dan Berger. It admirably resolves many of the ambiguities here.

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