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08.16.2008

When is The Right Time to Establish Wine Appellations?

The birth of a wine region is a fascinating thing to watch, and I'm sure an even more fascinating process to be a part of. Much of the wine that we drink comes from regions that have been established anywhere from decades to centuries ago, but the quest for great wine and great places to grow it (not to mention the changing whims of the global climate) means that there are always new frontiers when it comes to wine growing.

All new wine regions begin the same -- with a pioneering spirit and a hell of a lot of determination. Someone decides that a certain place is the right spot to grow wine grapes, and they stake a lot of sweat and money on whatever knowledge they've got backing up that decision, whether it be a hunch, or a GIS enabled geologic survey.

Eventually, the initial prospector may be joined by others, especially if he or she manages to survive and produce a product that doesn't suck.

For a time, these early farmers and winemakers operate out of sheer passion and determination. They need no more organization than their own collegiality or happenstance might offer. It is enough that they are growing and making wine in the place they dream of doing so.

But with enough success, and enough producers, questions of legitimacy and marketability inevitably arise. That is to say, eventually, it seems to make sense to make the wine region "official" and to use its name as a way of distinguishing the wine grown in that region, from wine grown elsewhere. At the very least, it makes sense to agree on a name for this place that everyone can use. At the most, it may make sense to establish rules and regulations that determine the quality and nature of the wine made in the region.

But when exactly does it make sense to do this? In the case of new regions emerging within or alongside existing ones, there are legislative answers to this question already.

But when the region is entirely new, this question gets very interesting. The winemakers of Guadalupe Valley and the Mexican government are currently wrestling with the issues surrounding this question at this very moment.

The Government of the State of Baja has suggested that the fledgling wine region adopt regional appellations and a set of regulations along the lines of the Denomination of Origin laws in Spain, Italy, or France.

It's easy to see how the region could benefit from such laws. They add credibility to any wines that carry the designation on the label, and the wines can be marketed to the world under specific regional names, with guarantees of quality. In short, such regulations could help increase prices and demand for Guadalupe Valley wines.

On the other hand, say many of the vintners, no one has any idea what the boundaries of the region should be, what the wine regulations ought to require or forbid, or how to measure the quality of this new region's wines.

And frankly, they have a point. We wine lovers are so used to the codified traditions of our global wine regions. We know that Brunello is required to be 100% Sangiovese, and that Burgundy must be 100% Pinot Noir, but at some point people had to decide that this was so. Of course, those decision makers had many decades (or more) of winemaking traditions to back up their regulations.

Who is going to decide what the permitted grape varieties are in the Guadalupe Valley? And more importantly how on earth could someone decide that so early in the region's evolution as a wine locality? And what is the definition of quality in a region where only in the last couple of years have global critics even suggested that there might be high quality grapes being grown there? These are tough questions, and scary ones to contemplate a bureaucrat or some other ministry official forcing on a burgeoning wine region.

For now it may be best to simply make the geographic region more official, and wait for the perspective of some history to guide more definite judgments about what will make for great Mexican wine.

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