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10.04.2004

Three New Appellations in California

Well it may not exactly be breaking news, but in the last few weeks, three new appellations were created in California: Red Hills Lake County, in Lake County; San Bernabe, in southern Monterey County; and Salado Creek, in western Stanislaus County.

So the next obvious question is, why should you care? Here's some thoughts.

The Red Hills Lake County appellation is just north of Napa and seems well suited for the famous red varietals of Napa (Cabernet in particular) so much so that grapes from this region are already going into wines from Cakebread, Carmenet, Dynamite, Rosenblum, and Stag's Leap's sub brand called Hawk's Crest. The AVA that has been created is quite large -- 31,250 acres. Right now there are no wineries based in this region, but an official appellation makes the creation of one a bit more attractive to potential winery owners. If anything, we may see more energy put into the growing of quality grapes from this area and the name appearing on some labels in the near future, probably not from bigger name wineries who have all their eggs in the Napa basket, but from smaller vintners like Rosenblum and others.

The Salado Creek appellation is located in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in the foothills of the Sierras and the general region of Lodi. It is much smaller in comparison to the Red Hills Lake County AVA, taking up only 2,900 acres, only 44 of which are currently planted with grapes.

Slightly larger, but still small is the new San Bernabe appellation, and even more interesting, it's entire acreage is actually one large vineyard (20 square miles) owned by Delicato vineyards.

Which brings us to another question: why create new appellations? What are their purpose?

The answer, like most anything that involves lots of parties and at least one large governmental bureaucracy seems initially complicated. Currently there are approximately 40 new appellation requests pending at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), one of the new incarnations of the recently divided Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

Despite the arcane structure and regulations of this government body, it turns out that pretty much anyone can petition to create a new appellation or AVA (a subsection of an existing appellation). If you've got the time and feel like writing a letter, your own backyard can become an appellation. Of course, there is no information anywhere about how long exactly the process takes (years) nor what the acceptance criteria are (top secret, need to know basis only and trust me, YOU don't) but if you can reasonably claim that the area has different "growing conditions" and you can circle it on a map then you can start lobbying. In all seriousness, it is unclear exactly what criteria the TTB uses to decide what becomes a new appellation, but it is certainly not highly scientific. More likely they just listen to the people who lobby the hardest. This answers the question of why Delicato basically gets their own appellation....

Why would you (or Delicato) want your own appellation? Marketing, of course! You want to have a unique product that specifically references your location. Or maybe you want to sell your grapes and you can get a higher price for them if they come from a designated AVA. It's as simple as that. Appellations have no real value to a consumer other than to vaguely reference where the wine was made.

Appellation is originally a French invention (and word) and the history of appellations in France (and indeed much of the rest of Europe) has involved maintaining standards for quality and for classification of wines in addition to specific geographical locations. Of course, there's also a good measure of old school economic protectionism and opportunism involved in the history of the appellations, but they continue to include (albeit to a lesser degree) a certain amount of quality standards in them.

These quality standards are entirely absent in the AVA rules of the U.S. which only state that wine must be made from grapes and that in order to be appellation designated (i.e. printed on the label), 75% of them must be from the appellation and the wine must be made there.

That's all. Nothing about quality of the wine, nothing about the way it is grown or harvested or cared for or what types of grapes can or should be grown there. In a nutshell, appellations in the US are just two things:

1. Marketing tools
2. Labeling requirements to avoid getting your product caught up in government red tape.

So three new appellations may not be that big a deal. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is if someone makes good wine from them. The jury is still out on that one.

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