Woe Is Sonoma Valley—For It Is Within the County
Decanter Magazine reports that a survey by the folks over at Wine Opinions has discovered that few wine buyers “differentiate between Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley and that using both on a label may even be a disadvantage.”
A disadvantage to the folks making “Sonoma Valley” wine, that is.
Of course it’s a disadvantage. And yet, after a “conjunctive labeling” law was pushed through the state legislature at the behest of the Sonoma County Vintners Association in 2010, it is now law that every wine made in Sonoma County must carry the “Sonoma County” wording on the label, whether all the grapes came from within Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Russian River Valley or any other Sonoma County-based appellation
In other words, Sonoma County Vintners Association’s conjunctive labeling scheme is working: The prestige earned by far more quality oriented designations like “Sonoma Coast”, “Carneros”, “Sonoma Valley”, Russian River Valley and “Dry Creek Valley”—all located inside Sonoma County—gets siphoned off, spread across the “Sonoma County” designation, where it disappears into the ether, never to be capitalized on again.
To the really focused, interested wine lover, none of this matters. They understand the meaning of sub-appellations. They understand that “Howell Mountain” on a label means something, whether the label also has “Napa Valley” on it or not. The high-end drinker understands that “Dry Creek Valley” means something different from “Sonoma County” and they ignore the latter being included on the label.
But for the average wine drinker who may only have a modest familiarity with the intricacies of appellations placed on labels and may have a slightly heightened but not obsessive interest, the inclusion of both “Sonoma County” and another sub-appellation like “Sonoma Coast” or “Russian River Valley” is indeed confusing. The problem is that it is these modestly interested wine drinkers that matter. These are the folks more likely to trade up and more likely to move into a more active wine drinking lifestyle. So, let’s confuse the hell out of them. Let’s make them feel stupid, shall we.
Here’s what the folks who champion “Sonoma County” don’t understand: They are not the equivalent of “Napa Valley”. When the modest wine drinker sees “Howell Mountain—Napa Valley” on a label, the “Napa Valley” part of the label—which also by law must be on the label because a conjunctive labeling law was also passed for the Napa Valley-made wines—grants the wine greater prestige in the mind of the drinker. It’s a benefit to the winery that made wine from Howell Mountain grapes.
However, when the modest wine lover sees “Sonoma County” on the label, the winery who made wine from Russian River Valley grapes yet is required to put “Sonoma County” on the label, benefits nothing at all. In fact, their brand and the wine may even be damaged by the requirement to include “Sonoma County”.
The irony is that it ought to be the job of the Sonoma County Wineries Association to help build the reputation of the various sub-appellations within the County, not the County itself. The Sonoma County Wineries Association ought to be spending its money sponsoring public tastings of “Bennett Valley Wine” or of “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Instead, they are scooping up the prestige gained by the various sub appellations within the county and trying to ladle it on to the entire Sonoma County designation. But it doesn’t stay. That prestige they are appropriating spills out and disappears. It’s theft. The thing is, you at least expect a thief to benefit from his crime. In this case, the thief hasn’t found a way to fence the goods.
Maureen Cottingham, the executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance is quoted in Decanter piece:
“We know that Sonoma Valley has very distinct appellations, but there is confusion with the title. Is it a coast? Is it a valley? Is it a town? A county? Or all?’”
She goes on then to say:
“The SVVGA’s ‘Roots Run Deep’ campaign is separate but complementary to the ‘We are Sonoma’ campaign launched by the Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Tourism earlier this month”
She’s right. The Sonoma Valley promotional campaign does indeed complement the Sonoma County promotional campaign. The problem is that the Sonoma County promotional campaign does not complement the Sonoma Valley promotional campaign. It deters from it.
Sonoma Valley has a problem and one that I care about since I have a very intimate affinity for Sonoma Valley, where I lived for many years and love dearly. Sonoma Valley is grammatically and geographically wedged between Napa Valley and Sonoma County. It will never be Napa and it can’t want to be Sonoma County. In fact, Sonoma Valley brings far more prestige to Sonoma County than the other way around. And, Sonoma Valley derives more prestige by being geographically and grammatically associated with Napa Valley.
Poor Sonoma Valley has continually struggled to find its place n the wine world. It does not possess a reputation for world-class red wine the way Napa Valley does. In fact, Sonoma Valley has not developed a reputation for producing any particular varietal. It’s easy to promote yourself when you are associate with a particular kind of wine. Diversity is a hard to thing to hang a hat on. And its inclusion in the larger “Sonoma County” just creates confusion.
The challenge for the Sonoma Valley vintners and the Sonoma Valley brand is to find a way to continue to benefit from its grammatical and geographic association with Napa Valley and to push away from its County association.