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Is California appellation-ed out? Yes



We have another tasting coming up this Friday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I will be writing more about that later, but I just realized that Anderson Valley was probably the last appellation of significant importance I can remember emerging in California—even though it was officially declared way back in 1983.

I mean that, for the wine press in general, Anderson Valley didn’t really hit our radar until the 1990s, and even then, it was primarily known for Alsatian varieties. Even in the early 2000s, I think if you’d polled most knowledgeable wine writers about the best Pinot Noir growing districts, Anderson Valley would barely have made the list—if at all. (Some oldtimers may disagree.) And yet, today, Anderson Valley—that pretty little cleft of land along the Navarro River tucked in between the Mendocino Highlands—is universally recognized as great Pinot Noir terroir.

So when I ask, Is California appellation-ed out, what I mean is that I think there may well be no more super-appellations in our future. The ultimate frontier may have been reached: We’re plumb out of space. Yes, we’ve had some pretty good AVAs declared in recent years: Ballard Canyon and Coombsville are superb. And yes, we’ll have more tiny little carveouts from larger AVAs: Pritchard Hill is long overdue, although legal and personal issues may prevent it from happening anytime soon. And yes, we’ve had Lodi split up and Paso Robles go positively schizo on us: if there are any master sommelier candidates who can rattle off all of its new sub-AVAs, I’ll personally promote you.

But these are all relatively small, narrowly defined appellations within greater appellations whose value has long been recognized. What I’m talking about is a brand new winegrowing region, not contained within an existing one, that comes out of nowhere and grabs the critical imagination. The Santa Lucia Highlands once did that. So did the Santa Rita Hills.* But the days of new stars emerging onto the pantheon are, I fear, over—and necessarily so. We’ve simply run out of land along the coast.

Oh, I suppose somebody could discover and develop some area way to the north—Humboldt County—or way to the south—Ventura. But it’s not terribly likely. Even if those places had the terroir to produce remarkable wines, the money isn’t there to invest to exploit them because it [the money] is too busy elsewhere, in existing appellations that are far more profitable to sell. Who would spend much money on a Humboldt County Pinot Noir? Even Marin County, which can make very good Pinot (and Riesling), will always remain a curiosity; I can’t see Marin having dozens of wineries, like Anderson Valley does, and becoming a contender.

If the coast is shut down, then the only place you can go in California is east, inland: and inland wine just has not proven to have the appeal of coastal wine. Lodi, however much you want to love it for being the underdog, and however good its old vine wines can be, simply doesn’t have selling power. The Sierra Foothills and its various sub-regions seem to have reached whatever peak they’re likely to have in the foreseeable future. Temecula? I don’t think so. Lake County seemed for a while to have a future, but that vision has evaporated, and is not likely to resurrect in the consumer’s mind, not even for good Cabernet Sauvignon, which doesn’t have a chance of competing against Napa Valley or Sonoma County and its sub-regions.

How does it affect the psyche of California wine to have finally run out of room for new AVAs? We’re told by historians that when the westward expansion of America, which is to say the westward expansion of European civilization, hit the Pacific shore, a certain turn inward ensued. An alternative explanation is that outer space became the new frontier. But we’ve seen how that exploration has slowed down since the Moon landing, despite the fabulosity of the Hubble telescope and the Pluto flyby. And we’re not likely to develop extra-Earth vineyards in my lifetime, yours, or your grandkids’.  (Where would they go? Titan?)  In truth, America’s obsession with what it means to be “an American” may be the sublimation of the fantastic energy that went into 500 years of Europe’s drive to the west, only to be stymied. Once it ended, where was that energy to go?

Well, a good place, I’m sure. There’s always room for improvement, isn’t there. We were a bit hurried in California in developing our appellations, which now must number close to 130. Many if not most of them were done for political, personal and financial reasons that had little to do with authentic terroir. So perhaps, now that the appellation frontier has ended and we have some time on our hands, we can revisit our important appellations to more fully understand them. I’m talking about places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, the Russian River Valley, even Alexander Valley. Admired as they are, these are stupid AVAs that have little meaning, beyond P.R. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and get down to the business of sub-appellating them in ways that make sense.

*Yes, geeks, I know SRH was carved out of Santa Ynez Valley. But it really was the equivalent of an exciting, brand new and hitherto undiscovered Pinot Noir area.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Enquiring minds want to know” . . . the Anderson Valley tasting line-up this Friday.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Maybe the future in California appellations lies in carving out and declaring “monopoles”?

  3. Interesting thought. Calera is in effect a monopole. I don’t see how that translates into effective marketing, though.

  4. Mary Lou Marek says:

    Just to note–as of March 2015, a new AVA in Sonoma County. Fountaingrove District was not carved out of an existing AVA, but was the last “empty space” in the county. Hillside, volcanic fruit, notably Cabernets and Rhone varietals.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Footnoting Steve’s reply about Calera.


    Mount Harlan AVA

    “The Mt. Harlan AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in San Benito County, California. It is located in the Gabilan Mountains and is part of the larger Central Coast AVA. At elevations of 1,800 feet (550 m) to 2,200 feet (670 m) above sea level, the soil is predominately limestone. The AVA was established as the result of a petition to the United States Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau by Josh Jensen and the Calera Wine Company, the only commercial winery in the appellation.”

    On the (putative) importance of limestone-based vineyards:

    “The Limestone Chronicles: How Josh Jensen Mines His Coveted Pinot Noir”


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