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Appellation, schmappellation, just send it to the right reviewer please!


One of my favoritie scenes from “Cheers” was of Cliff Clavin delivering mail to an apartment building. After he fills all the mailboxes, he leaves. Then the people come out of their apartments, check their mailboxes, and start trading envelopes. Cliff misdelivered everybody’s mail.

I am sometimes reminded of that when I get wines meant for Virginie Boone and she gets wines that fall into my territory. Virginie of course is my fellow California wine reviewer. So, in the interests of less hassle on our part as well as less time spent in the back of vehicles [not good for wine], here’s a new listing who gets what for review in Wine Enthusiast.

In general, with certain exceptions, Virginie reviews inland California, while I taste the coast. I suppose you could say that’s somewhat arbitrary, but I think it makes sense. Since we have to divide California up–the state is just to big for one person to cover–it was a question of how to do it.

We could have done it via a north-south scheme, but that would have bifurcated California’s most important wines: coastal Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bordeaux red blends (although Northern California obviously dominates that category). We could have done it by variety, and I think there’s a stronger argument to be made there. But in the end, we opted for the inland-coastal scheme.

That California’s most important wines come from the coast is, I think, incontrovertible. Meaning no disrespect to the inland areas, it’s just a fact that consumers prefer these coastal wines, which is why, to an overwhelming extent, they’re willing to pay more for them. After all, the Bordeaux classification of 1855 was based on price–the most expensive wines were deemed to be the best. While price isn’t 100% correlated with quality,  more often in wine (as in other things) you get what you pay for. I personally happen to believe that the coast produces better wines, especially for Bordeaux (both red and white) and Burgundian varieties, but their higher price proves that it’s not just me, it’s the majority of consumers (and other critics, I might add) who believe it.

Where, exactly, is the coast? Good question. You can define it by county– San Luis Obispo is considered a coastal county, for example, even though its inland areas are quite warm. A county doesn’t have to actually meet the Pacific Ocean to be considered coastal: San Benito doesn’t, but it’s a coastal county. Is Contra Costa a coastal county? Maybe, maybe not; there’s no official definition (although CoCo is considered a Bay Area county).

From a wine point of view, I think of the coast as the areas of California directly influenced by the ocean during the growing season. Now, every appellation west of Placerville claims to be gently washed by cool coastal breezes (in the iconic if predictable poetry of the press release), but that ain’t necessarily so. There may be a lick of maritime influence 80 and 100 miles inland, but if so, it’s on life support. The one exception is certain regions in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay-San Pablo Bay-Sacramento Delta complex, where air from the Golden Gate does seep far inland. But even then, they’re pretty toasty.

I think of the coast as extending from the beaches to about 25 miles inland. That’s a generalization, of course; it varies from county to county, because California’s geology has been so fractured by the San Andreas Fault earthquake system. But for the most part, you know you’re near the coast in July and August if (a) it’s foggy a lot, especially at night and in the early morning, (b) it gets chilly at night no matter how hot the daytime temperature gets, and (c) somebody nearby is serious about growing Pinot Noir. Even Cliff Clavin could find the coast in California. Just look for the Pinot.

Anyway, wineries, do Virginie and me a favor, and yourselves too, and print out the new AVA guide. She thanks you and I do too.

  1. Steve,
    Thanks for the heads up re: Virginie Boone. McManis will make the appropriate corrections. If you would still like to receive samples (just to have some great wine from the Interior), let me know.

  2. While it has been an absolute pleasure to get to know Virginie, your coastal/inland growing area delineation doesn’t wash when it comes to the Livermore Valley.

  3. One other thing, Steve: Livermore Valley is in Alameda County not Contra Costa County. Could this be the genesis of the error?

  4. Well, Steven, like I said it’s hard to say exactly what’s coastal and what’s inland. I suppose Alameda would be considered a coastal county. At any rate, Virginie does Livermore regardless of how you define it.

  5. Since geology/soils and climate are way more correlated, and dependent, on orography and hydrography than anything else; it does make sense to classify wine areas based on (river) basin flow direction: 1) inland running (endorheic or not); 2) and river basins that run straight to the ocean.
    BTW, was it a computer or a “rational” individual who classified the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino Ridge AVAs as non-coastal areas?

  6. Peter O’Connor, this is why I carefully wrote “In general, with certain exceptions…”.

  7. Steve:

    I’m certainly not complaining about Virginie; I think she is a thoughtful and knowledgeable taster and writer.

    If I’m complaining, it’s about bad definitions and bad information that perpetuate a “truth” that doesn’t exist.

  8. Steven: What can I say? I almost always gave you high scores and to the best of my knowledge you still make the best Cab in Livermore Valley under Steven Kent. Whatever damage Livermore Valley’s rep has endured over the years has been due to the quality of the wines, not to anything I, or any other critic, says.

  9. Although the Livermore Valley is somewhat drier than the other S. F. Bay Area AVAs, it is (or should be regarded as) a coastal area, for the valley’s waters flow straight to the sea through the Niles Canyon (Arroyo Mocho – Arroyo de La Laguna – Alameda Creek – San Francisco Bay); and this restrained oceanic influence can be corroborated by the area’s mild summer/growing-season temperatures (Livermore – 3,347; Calistoga – 3,534; Healdsburg – 3,626 Winkler’s heat units).

  10. Steve:

    I have no bone to pick with you. Most people, when they do think of the Livermore Valley, have a misapprehension about its heat and conditions for growing high-end grapes.

    Self-serving as it is, I am appointing myself the “Corrector.”

    Thanks Peter for the specific info.

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