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Be careful when changing appellation boundaries


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.

  1. David Hance says:

    I’ve heard Ethan Etnyre describe his small estate vineyard as “across the street from the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA.” Whether or not a road is an appropriate AVA boundary (apparently it was when the AVA was established in 1990 … or the road followed some geological, geographic, or micro-climate contour), I think there ought to be some process for “fixing” AVAs. Many of them seem to have been poorly-conceived from their beginnings (Cole Ranch? Really?). In Etnyre’s case it doesn’t really matter. He makes so little wine, and sells it all himself. So the “across the street from an AVA” story works for him because it is amusing. His labels say “San Luis Obispo County” … which caused another discussion with a sometime wine-writer who, tasting the wine, suggested to me that any AVA would be superior (in quality and prestige) to any County appellation, because the appellation content requirements were stricter. I suggested, gently, that I would feel more comfortable with a San Luis Obispo County appellation than a Central Coast AVA appellation (Etnyre’s other option), particularly if my wine was all from a single vineyard. No “Estate Bottled,” but Etnyre isn’t making his wine on his vineyard property anyway.

    A long story to suggest that I think it will be a few generations before we get the AVA thing figured out. That’s why I think some process for fixing them (and it can be a careful process, undertaken only with great reluctance) is necessary.

  2. Agreed. For the general consumer, Appellations are already confusing enough. That said, there’s always exceptions to the “rule”, but for the most part… if “it’s” always changing, what’s the point? Thanks Steve!

  3. David, that wine writer you referred to was an idiot!

  4. “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.” Thank you for saying this, it is absolutely true. The wine industry doesn’t have to play games to get the attention of the consumer. How about promote your own AVA to elevate it’s status. Better yet, how about make great wine and not have to worry about where your property lines are. Stepping a toe out of bounds for “added value” is sneaky. This same thing happened in Alexander Valley last year I believe.

  5. TomHill says:

    Couldn’t Pence use a more prestigious SantaYnezVlly appellation, rather than a generic SantaBarbaraCnty?

  6. in the Willamette Valley, I’ve seen AVA lines drawn to include or exclude certain wineries. I think a bit of healthy skepticism is well founded

  7. Thank you for the post. Unfortunately, the most vocal opponent to this expansion has not taken the time to understand it and has, as of late, crossed the line in his attacks. The proposed annexation is about science, history and viticulture. Naysayers should take the time to read the petition before formulating an opinion. It involves three vineyards – not one – two of which are literally bisected by the current boundary. These vineyards must go through the rigorous and unnecessary process of separately contracting, harvesting and delivering fruit that is exactly the same other than the effect of an arbitrary line.

    By comparison, Pence Ranch’s situation is simple. Though we also produce similar quality fruit, we are a few hundred yards too far to the east and thus somehow different by definition. For us, this petition is not about the price we receive for fruit as much as it is about the pride we take in our carefully selected site and our meticulous viticulture; and that our growing conditions of extreme wind, ocean fog, and soils of clay, limestone, and shale mirror the predominant Sta. Rita Hills appellation characteristics almost identically. We are receiving “Cellar Selection” and similar reviews because our grapes are of the highest quality and produce excellent wines.

    To be clear, our proposal is not an attack against the original petitioners. They did quite well with the extremely limited data available at the time. There were no weather stations, only superficial soils information, and very few vineyards. They made a good faith, best guess of an area displaying common terroir characteristics. Furthermore, if any of the three affected vineyards existed at that time, they too would have been included in the Sta. Rita Hills for exactly the same reasons stated above – our cold growing conditions and soil types are consistent with those of the appellation at large.

    With the benefit of superior data availability and many years of viticultural experience, we have examined every single relative metric and subjected it to full scrutiny before we decided to move forward. I will gladly provide a copy of the petition to anyone who wishes to educate himself/herself.

    The lines within Burgundy were slowly defined over more than a thousand years. Perhaps that perspective will prove useful to those needing impetus to simply allow an objective process to occur.

  8. Buellton Flats are not the Santa Rita Hills.

    That’s not an attack, that’s the very basis of the entire AVA’s eastern boundary philosophy.

    Every single original petitioner, and a unanimous vote by the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance show that the winemaking intelligentsia of the SRH, hundreds of years of in-the-trenches winegrowing and winemaking, oppose the boundary change.

    Two of the Board members who voted to oppose use Pence fruit.

    I went into this process a little emotional, but I have become very calm about it as of late, and I really do wish Mr. Pence all the luck in the world as a fellow farmer and promoter of Santa Barbara County and Santa Ynez Valley Wines.

    But the lines you propose would permanently change the character and reputation of the SRH AVA, and my 19 years of living here inform me that it would not help our integrity or reputation.

    It’s also an odd way to introduce yourself to many of your neighbors in the SRH, who are dealing with the Pence brand for the first time in the context of legal consultation and filings with the federal Government.

    When I first moved here and decided to become a farmer, I focused on creating a brand, promoting it, and carrying a lot of water for the industry. I joined trade groups, volunteered, got into committees, and dedicated months to the research and writing of the SRH AVA. This is the volunteer spirit that established our reputation, tasting by tasting, customer by customer. This is what we are protecting.

    When I arrived in what would become the SRH AVA, I helped create something. We defined this region and made legal and historic borders that, for the last 12 years, have a reputation that we gained inch by inch, trip by trip, hundreds of miles carrying bags, driving to trade tastings, giving interviews, spending millions of dollars and dedicating our lives to the promotion of the SRH boundary described in 1997.

  9. I can personally testify that Wes Hagen was an early champion for SRH. He’s been out there promoting it and developing Clos Pepe for decades. I’m not taking sides on this one, but Wes’s voice definitely deserves to be heard and respected.

  10. You bring up Burgundy, let’s talk Burgundy…

    Pence wrote: “we are a few hundred yards too far to the east and thus somehow different by definition.”

    Sort of like the distance between Romanee-Conti Grand Cru and Vosne-Romanee Villages?

  11. Poppy Davis Fruchtman says:

    I have spent dozens of summer nights sitting high atop my father’s Sea Smoke Vineyards sitting out on the deck enjoying a glass of wine while watching the fog roll in. High up on the hill we have a great view of the fog line and it clearly stops at a certain point not too far past Lafond Vineyard to the east. This is not an “arbitrary line” as Mr. Pence claims. This maritime influence is key to the AVA and is what inspired the name of my father’s vineyard.

    Grapes that do not enjoy this maritime influence will ripen more quickly and do not have the same flavor characteristics of those grown in the fog belt.

    Anyone who has spent a great deal of time in the valley can attest to the huge temperature difference between the fog belt area and the Buellton flats.

    The Sta. Rita Hills AVA was carefully researched and drafted by people who have been in the area and know the geology and climate extremely well. There is no reason the boundary should be changed.

  12. Jake Lindley says:

    As a farmer/winemaker who purchased land in the SRH after the AVA was approved, I have an issue with someone who consciously purchases property outside and then tries to move the line. I fell in love with the wines of the Sta. Rita Hills over 10 years ago and when my wife and I purchased our small 10-acre ranch, it was because we believed in the area’s potential. And we PAID for that potential in acreage prices that far exceeded those outside the AVA (and still do). We were willing to pay this premium because we recognized the value and validity of the SRH designation. To knowingly develop a vineyard outside the AVA and then hire outside consultants and experts to claim it should be inside, only serves to undermine the significant efforts and experience of locals who have strived to make the Sta. Rita Hills AVA what it is today.

  13. I hadn’t considered that position, Jake, and I applaud you for describing your position so eloquently.

    Regardless of your position on the matter, I implore all of you to send your specific comments and how they relate to your involvement in wine, to the TTB for public comment. We are all Americans, we all have an opinion, and we all have a right to petition our government:

  14. Richard Longoria says:

    As one of the original petitioners of the SRH AVA, and a producer of wines from this appellation for 12 years prior to the establishment of the AVA, I take objection to Mr. Pence’s presumptive characterization that our group’s research methods and final development of the boundaries were based on antiquated and inadequate data. This work was done in 1996-7, not 1886-87. There were weather stations, and detailed soil and more importantly topographical maps. This information along with the combined empirical experiences of the grape growers and winemakers, resulted in the boundaries we have now.
    It doesn’t take much science to see where the fog banks stop and where temperatures begin to rise. Is was fairly clear that the hill that separates the Lompoc valley from the Buell Flats was a natural eastern boundary. If this had been ignored then how far east would we have to have gone to find a point of differentiation? I ask Mr. Pence if the ample research that he’s paid for includes any neighboring property to the east. If we’re going to change the eastern boundary, then why not be as scientifically inclusive as possible, so we don’t have your adjacent property owners asking to be included a few years down the road. On the issue of quality and price, I suggest that Mr. Pence wait beyond the two or three vintages that he’s harvested to see if his site continues to produce wine comparable in quality, and character as those from SRH. If it does, I believe that the winemakers using the fruit would be willing to price their wine as high as a SRH wine, and thus give you a basis to raise your grapes prices to correspond, regardless of what the appellation is on the label. Mr. Pence would be wise to pay heed to the example of Doug Braun’s Presidio Vineyard, located just outside the western boundary of the AVA. Planted just a year or two after the establishment of the AVA, Doug solicited support from his fellow growers and winemakers to extend the boundary to include his vineyard. When he failed to gather enough support for this, he graciously accepted the outcome and went on with the hard work of establishing the reputation of his vineyard. His grapes have attracted many top winemakers including my friend, Adam Tolmach, who produces a stunning Presidio Vineyard Syrah priced higher than any Syrah from SRH, that I’m aware of.
    This would be a much nobler way to be rewarded for one’s efforts as a grape grower, than the divisive path Mr. Pence has embarked on.

  15. The geographical studies I conduct are based on climate, soil, topography, associated geographic names, common varietal and reputation. These are the elements for which viticultural areas are supposed to be recognized. I do not take into consideration property values, price per ton, or cost per bottle. These are characteristics that may be dictated as much by marketing and supply and demand as by geographic characteristics.

    I did not just “say” Pence Ranch and the dissected areas of John Sebastiano Vineyards and Rio Vista Vineyard should be added to the Sta. Rita Hills. I studied the area first. There have been times that I have recommended against the creation of a new AVA/expanding an existing AVA or turned down preparing a petition because I did not agree that the area in question was likely to earn or deserved recognition as a unique viticultural area. In the Sta. Rita Hills and its surrounding eastern locales, I analyzed climatic and soil data, conducted field work, and talked with local professionals. Only then did I make my recommendation.

    I would encourage any interested party to read the petition and supporting material first (or any subsequent proposed rulemaking) before formulating an opinion on its merits.

    Thank you.

  16. I have carefully read and studied the petition provided us (not sure if its verbatim to the one submitted), and i would not question Mr. Shabram’s scholarship or earnestness.

    We are colleagues in the process of guiding Americans to typical wine styles that are related to their locality. We both petition our Federal Government with hopes our work will be accepted and appreciated. I give Mr. Shabram kudos for his scholarship in producing an excellent document that has continued feeding my hunger for data and discussion of the area I have devoted my professional life.

    The map in the Expansion Petition is troubling, though, for someone who has lived and driven daily through this area for three decades.

    I have to say that to understand the difference between the SRH and the area where the petition extends requires local expertise, and that’s where the local winegrowers and makers, with hundreds of years of experience locally, have to be taken as the final and most objective sources for how these mesoclimates influence the production of pinot noir.

    Pinot Noir is the Monarch here. Not me. Not Pence. She speaks loudly and clearly. And even though Blair might not agree that ‘ a few hundred yards’ means a LOT to Pinot noir, a thousand yars of chopping up PC’s and GC’s in Burgundy gives us the persnickity truth of our Queen. $2000 pinot noir is grown within a stone’s throw of $50 pinot noir in Vosne-Romanee. And we’re talking kilometer(s) here.

    Can you produce good wine at Pence? I’m sure you can. Does the soil geology change dramatically on one side of the invisible AVA line? Of course not, nature doesn’t respect human borders.

    But the line is very meaningful because it terminates where the Purisima Hills open up and the strong maritime influence is hindered by the changing land mass.

    If this was just about Sebastiano Vineyard we would be having a dramatically different conversation. The inclusion of the Pence Ranch and Rio Vista West is what made this so unpalatable to all of us stakeholders and pioneers in the business, with boots on the ground.

    To include those vineyards, the eastern boundary was moved into the Buellton Flats, into a separate land mass that is excluded by the introductory section of the original, perfected, accepted, approved AVA petition.

    I hope you can read into my words, Patrick, that I respect the work you did on this petition. We are as respectful to your work as you have been with ours, and we appreciate the way that the narrative and commentary is positive towards our efforts.

    Please realize as we go through the petition and assemble our own data and arguments, that we are doing so in an attempt to preserve something we have worked decades to develop, and we honestly believe this border change would negatively impact our integrity and our reputation.

    Your reputation is not in question here. We look forward to working with you in the future and hope we can all continue the hard and contentious work of carving out the great wine regions of this world so they are meaningful to consumers.

  17. Jeremy Ball says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Shabram, I find it overtly disingenuous to state that he “talked with local professionals” before developing his recommendation. Did these “local professionals” include the winemakers and vineyard owners within the Sta. Rita hills? If so, how did that impact his findings?

    I would also like to know what Mr. Shabram’s threshold was for producing a positive vs. negative recommendation.

    Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Pence has sadly damaged his own brand.

    Goodwill goes much, much farther than money.

  18. Mr. Ball, I talked with Mr. Pence, but also a vineyard manager who works both inside and outside the Sta. Rita Hills as well as with two consultants who do a lot of work throughout the area. My threshold was based on consistency with the characteristics used to define the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in the original rulemaking by the TTB (then the ATF). These characteristics where extended to include current conditions found within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. This threshold also included contrasts between the proposed expansion area and the areas further inland. Finally I should note, the boundaries currently proposed are my own, helped in large part by input the professionals I interviewed. They actually extend slightly inland from what Mr. Pence had speculated based on my insistence on maintaining consistency with the existing AVA.

  19. Thanks for coming on the site and sharing with us, Mr. Shabram.

    We understand your position and appreciate your sincerity, and we hope you will understand that when we fight the expansion, we are in no way fighting you.

    Wine is about bringing people together, and I hope we can share a glass and AVA stories some day.

  20. I have no dog in the fight, grapes, land, family lineage or otherwise, but could not pass up commenting. I have never seen a more gentlemanly attempt at resolution – of what is obviously a deeply personal, and an emotionally charged subject – than what has been submitted here by both sides.

    The passion and deeply held beliefs are apparent, but so is the respect, as is what I am sure must also be: restraint.

    Regardless of how it ends (for the sake of those involved, the lands they love, the vineyards they cherish, and more) I hope that both sides continue with the well-reasoned dialogue and in the end, mutual acceptance of the final verdict – whatever it may be.

    Ultimately, I hope it leads to general progress in pursuit of excellent vineyard practice and results in the entire area, with better wines in the end, and all the remuneration that deservedly comes with that . . . for all parties. (though admittedly, not at the expense of principles)

    Cheers to all of you, a very noble effort in blog commenting!

  21. re: James G: I”m glad that my blog has been a place for these discussions to occur.

  22. Having seen the AVA question as a subject of discussion and having CUSTOM CRUSHED Pence’s grapes; please allow me:

    during my last twenty years of experience, the only issue I see is that Pence violates the principles of the AVA criteria!. I agree with the comment that Buellton plains are not the Santa Rita Hills, it gets way hotter by that Property that includes a Valley form on a two way slope of North South orientation; which translates directly to your palette!.

    We have worked and custom crushed those grapes; the vines get hotter than the Santa Rita Hills, they miss the ocean breeze and Specially the Pinot Noir lacks of elegance and flavors!.

    the international AOC/ AVA criteria simply described as

    a) Protection of the consumer’s health and security
    b) Information to the consumer
    c) Transaction’s loyalty
    d) Protection of environment
    e) harmonization of controls

    Carefully taking the above under consideration the above parameters will transport you directly to the palette which was the idea of the French who (even being third historical AOC) are the ones who regulated the AVA’s based on Climate and soil conditions!

    Saying so I am sure that you can make GOOD wine with Pence’s grapes, but I believe the issue here is respecting the boundaries that appeals directly to your palette and NOT buying a VISA to sell your wines for a higher value!


    Carlos Coelho

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