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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.

Comments (6)

10.04.04 at 5:17 PM

Of course the flip side is wineries who are in a particular appelation but choose to use the more enclosing appellation. I'm thinking of California Shenandoah Valley in Amador County. I've never seen a wine come from there that actually said Shenandoah Valley. A couple of wine makers (Deaver and Montevina) gave me their take: no one knows where the California Shenandoah Valley is, and everyone confuses it with the one in Virginia (which is also an appellation). So it's actually better to use Amador County.

Of course they may fetch higher prices for their grapes, but we don't get to see those transactions.

Incidentally, I think York Mountain is another one-person AVA, but I could be wrong.

HugeJ wrote:
10.05.04 at 8:49 AM

Well, the one-winery Guenoc Valley AVA has certainly been a tremendous marketing success.
(sarcasm).

As Derek correctly points out, its often not a winery vehicle, but rather a way for growers to stretch their prices up. Stag's Leap Cabernet sells for 30% more than Napa Cabernet even if you are just across the road from Stag's Leap.....

Alicia wrote:
10.05.04 at 10:07 AM

If the proposed north-south county split goes through here and "Mission County" breaks away it's going to be interesting. There 70+ wineries that will be producing Santa Barbara County appellation wines which are no longer actually in Santa Barbara county. And they say the appellations are supposed to reduce confusion for consumers.

Erik Talvola wrote:
10.05.04 at 8:25 PM

While I agree with many of the above points, such as abandoned AVAs (like Paicines, Shenandoah Valley (CA), and others) and other meaningless AVAs, the same situation exists in other countries as well, and I don't think the quality rules are that important.

France's Vin de Pays categorization is basically identical to the AVAs in the United States. They are simply geographic divisions with no rules on types of grapes or other rules. And, there are many unused Vin de Pays in France.

Many of the more prestigious AOCs aren't used either, and in some countries (like Italy), the supposed quality rules on wines like Chianti actually enforced poor winemaking practices.

While I'm sure most of this is a marketing gimmick, I'm generally in favor of anything that gives more information to the winebuyer.

I'm one of those people where enjoyment of wine is knowing about the wine more than just the taste. I tend towards single vineyard vines, because I like the idea of knowing exactly where the wine came from. Smaller AVAs, even if they are contrived, at least help me understand more about where the wine comes from, instead of "California" or "North Coast", and because of that, I support the idea of lots of AVAs as a concept.

Alder wrote:
10.05.04 at 9:12 PM

Sure Erik, more information for consumers is a great idea, but I'm not sure the AVA system as it is set up is necessarily the best way to get that information out to the public. Mind you, I'm not saying the thing ought to be abolished tomorrow, but consider this: why not just let people put the geographical locations where the wine was grown and where the wine was made (City, County, and State) on the label, and instead of this arcane AVA regulation, just have a law that says the label can't lie.

Accomplishes the same thing as most of the AVAs (i.e. you can still say St. Helena, Napa County, California), and actually allows vintners to be even more specfic than they are today.

Just a thought. IU'm not convinced it's the right answer, yet, but the proliferation of tiny AVAs like Delicato is getting and the horrible opaque bureacracy behind their approval seems an untenable and very unhelpful system that rewards those who have the time and money to push their preferences through.

Erik Talvola wrote:
10.06.04 at 9:30 AM

Right now, growers can pick any county in the United States and use that as a location. They can even list multiple counties - I've seen several wines that do that. That already narrows down things a bit. They can't use a city, but I'm not sure that cities really make sense, since many vineyards will be in rural areas. They can certainly put extra information the reverse label anyway.

The next step that producers can take is to label individual vineyards on their wines. Many do, but many winemakers want to blend from multiple vineyards as well. In fact, I naturally gravitate towards single vineyard wines as being the ultimate AVA.

AVAs right now ought to serve as an intermediate layer between a political boundary (like the counties and Vin de Pays in France) and the vineyard. Perhaps we need a better system to assign them, but like I said, the same problem exists in France and Italy, so nobody has solved it yet.

As a side note, I'm not sure that someone like Delicato even needs to create an AVA to get something that sounds geographic. Fetzer sells Eagle Peak Merlot. Eagle Peak isn't an appellation - they just made it up. I believe the average wine consumer won't know the different between Eagle Peak and San Bernabe, so maybe this is only an issue for the wine geeks anyway.

In any case, good discussion, and a great blog Alder!

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