For the past three years, the author of the Liquid Assets column has been the Silicon Valley Bank Director of Wine Programs, Raymond Nasr, CS. In today's issue we are delighted to welcome our first Liquid Assets Guest Columnist, Master Sommelier David Glancy. In keeping with past columns, this entertaining and informative essay examines a specific area of the wine industry: California's Appellation system. We hope our readers will enjoy this illuminating perspective on the business of wine.
This is really two separate questions. The first question is whether California appellation names on labels can be used to predict style and quality. The second question is whether the use of these names is financially beneficial to wineries.
The French have long touted terroir, or sense of place, as being vital to understanding their wines. Without knowing the grower or producer, it is still predictable that a bottle of Chablis will be a crisp, mineral-driven white wine. The Appellation d' Origin Contrôlée (AOC) regulations state the geographical boundaries, that the wine must be 100% Chardonnay and a handful of technical requirements. The mineral content of the soil, the climate of the region and the prevailing winemaking techniques provide the rest of the terroir. Since France created their national appellation system in 1935 other countries in Europe, and now the EEC, have followed their model of place-name labeling. In many cases the appellations promote typicity or predictability of the wines first and hopefully quality, as well.
Does terroir exist in California or other parts of the New World? Sommeliers occasionally over-simplify that California is sunny, warm, dry and easy for growing grapes and that the grapes are on the label so there's nothing to learn. At the opposite extreme, wine experts speak of the Winkler-Amerine Heat Summation Scale pointing out California's zone 1-5 regions. A more precise understanding of our appellations is developing over time that includes sunshine hours, fog patterns, rainfall totals and timing, altitude and exposure. Old World countries like France have at least 1,800 years head start on us in figuring this out. The winemakers in California are making great progress, but are the law makers and consumers keeping up?
The Treasury Department's Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) is in charge of reviewing applications to create new appellation names for wine labels. Students of wine are constantly trying to memorize lists of the approved American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These grape growing areas in the United States define the geographical boundaries, but nothing else. Producers can grow any variety of grapes and make any style of wine. As of January 2012 there were 199 AVAs in the United States with 114 of them being in California. This does not include wines labeled by country, state or county. This type of labeling is allowed but is not AVA labeling.
California and The AVA Dream
California has four large, regional AVAs: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast and Sierra Foothills. The three coastal AVAs are meaningless in terms of predicting style. That Paso Robles and Morro Bay both fall within the Central Coast AVA and yet often differ by 50 degrees F on a summer day is laughable. Sonoma Coast AVA within the North Coast AVA is more meaningful but still covers too wide an expanse stretching inland just beyond Santa Rosa. San Francisco Bay AVA includes six counties and stretches just beyond Livermore. Does this entire region really share a common soil type and climate? This AVA seems to have been created solely to make it easier to sell wines internationally and is misleading. Much more benign is that there are at least seven AVAs in California with only a single winery within each; including: Cole Ranch (Esterlina), Guenoc Valley (Guenoc/Langtry), Dos Rios (Vin de Tevis), Pacheco Pass (Casa de Fruta), Malibu-Newton Canyon (Rosenthal), Saddle Rock Canyon-Malibu (Semler) and San Pasqual Valley (Orfilia). Some of these wineries are producing lovely wines and others are not, but it is easier to define the wineries than the AVAs. There is also the AVA that got left behind with zero wineries or commercial vineyards. Though still on the books, Benmore Valley might be better named as No More Valley.
Many AVAs are extremely meaningful, however. Within warm, sunny California there are cooler pockets. Though it is legal to grow any grape anywhere, there are certain varietals that prefer cooler or warmer climates. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir both thrive in fairly cool places and are much sought after when the AVAs Anderson Valley, Carneros, Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands or Sta. Rita Hills appear on the label. Other grapes, like Zinfandel, prefer heat and are known to do well in the AVAs Dry Creek, Rockpile, Howell Mountain, Sierra Foothills and Paso Robles. Napa Valley and its sub-appellations are world-famous for Cabernet Sauvignon. All of these AVAs have built a reputation for specific varietals and styles and are taking their reputation to the bank. Producers are commanding higher prices as are grapes in the bulk market. There are also a handful of AVAs that correctly acknowledge altitude as impacting their meso-climate and have minimum elevation requirements such as: Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino Ridge, Fair Play and several others. There have been varied results in the prices and consumer perception for these wines.
"Start Making Sense…"
With examples of meaningless and meaningful AVAs above, the question arises whether large AVAs with a large number of wineries should be broken down into smaller areas. Before you answer that, tell me where to find Sloughhouse, Cosumnes River, Borden Ranch, Jahant, Clement Hills and Mokelumne River AVAs. They cannot be found easily on restaurant wine lists or shelves of wine shops. These are the nested AVAs within Lodi. I excluded Alta Mesa as I do find a few of these, though they are often listed merely as Lodi. Paso Robles growers and producers are struggling with whether to break their region into two or eight parts since they are the largest undivided AVA in the state. The nested AVAs of Lodi and whatever happens to Paso Robles both make as much sense as dividing Napa and Sonoma as long as conjunctive labeling is practiced. This is listing both the nested AVA and the AVA it lies within on the label, such as Alta Mesa and Lodi.
Napa Valley and all of its nested AVAs are fetching the highest prices for most varietals. With the Napa Agriculture Preserve and hillside planting moratorium, those seeking to open wineries may need to look elsewhere. Consumers and those buying bulk grapes may seek other areas for financial reasons. A few of the AVAs with potential are neighboring Solano County Green Valley AVA, Suisun Valley AVA and Wildhorse Valley AVA which overlaps Napa County. Rapid growth and increase in quality are hitting Lake County as well, particularly in the AVAs Red Hills of Lake County and High Valley. Look for Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara County, where Vogelzang and Margerum are leading the charge. In Monterey County, San Antonio Valley is adding wineries and putting out some strong Zinfandel and Syrah. Fort Ross-Seaview is a brand new AVA that takes a logically small piece of the Sonoma Coast. This is where wineries like Flowers, Hirsch, Peay and Wild Hog have been making great wines for years. Hopefully, we will see a rebirth of the promising Ben Lomond AVA in Santa Cruz County and York Mountain AVA in San Luis Obispo County. Finally, my prediction for the next AVA approved in California is Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County. The region is small, the wines big and some of the prices are even bigger from the handful of wineries here; such as: Jonata, Stolpman and Beckman.
All Told: It's the Quality that Counts
So, can California appellation names on labels be used to predict style and quality? Yes. As an example, not all Russian River Pinot Noirs are the same, but blind tasters can pick them out from line-ups of wine from Carneros, Sta. Rita Hills and other regions at a reasonably high level. It is also far easier to find a good Pinot than a bad one from the region. This can be applied to several of California's smaller AVAs, as well.
Where name recognition and reputation have succeeded, the use of these AVA names on labels has been profitable to wineries. However, the prestige and premium pricing has only been achieved by 20 or so AVAs out of over 100 in California. Perhaps there are a few more lessons we can learn from our friends in France!
To learn more about the AVAs and producers of California, check out San Francisco Wine School's California Wine Appellation Specialist program.
David Glancy, MS, CWE, CSS, FWS is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the San Francisco Wine School. He is one of only 12 people in the world to pass both the Court of Master Sommeliers' Master exam (MS) and the Society of Wine Educators' Certified Wine Educator exam (CWE). Glancy has also passed the Certified Specialist of Spirits exam (CSS) and French Wine Scholar exam (FWS). He launched San Francisco Wine School in May 2011. The school provides professional wine studies including French Wine Scholar (FWS), Society of Wine Educators' programs (SWE),California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) and more. Glancy also runs SFsommelier Consulting and is on the Editorial Advisory Board of Sommelier Journal.