The King of Wine Chooses

If you were the Wine King of California and were tasked with dictating
rules about which grape variety could be grown in different regions
how would you  lay down the law?

In most area’s of Europe it’s hard to get away from the notion of one or two grapes defining a particular growing region. They have laws that say you must use particular grapes to put the place name on the label. In America it’s different.

We put varietals on our labels here. People don’t buy a "Napa Valley" and necessarily know what they are getting. They buy a Cabernet and that’s what they get.

But this doesn’t mean that various wine regions and appellation associations around California don’t try, and try hard, to associate themselves with a particular varietal. Some areas become associated with certain varietals by default too.

How would you lay down the grape laws if you were Wine King? You may choose no more than three grapes allowed per region. Here’s one fake king’s response:

Anderson Valley:
Pinot is grape for which this cool region is best known, and for good reason. They locals have worked hard to promote their Pinot, but the competition for top Pinot region is tough. What they should and are doing is push equally hard for Anderson Valley to be known for Alsatian and German varietals such as Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling. Without question the Anderson Valley is making the best examples of these varietals in California. Problem is, you usually don’t get as much for a bottle of Gewurztraminer as you do Pinot.
RULING: Pinot Noir, Gewuztraminer, Riesling

Dry Creek Valley.
They make a lot of great wines in this northern Sonoma appellation but clearly Zinfandel is king of the hill and the varietal most associated with the region. It seemed at one time that Sauvignon Blanc would become associated with Dry Creek Valley. There are still great versions made, but SB can’t top Zin. And by the way, who wouldn’t want to see an annual Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Conference?
RULING: Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc

Napa Valley
Everything in Napa is about Cabernet. Yes, yes. I know…lovely wines of all sorts. But Cabernet and Napa Valley are about as closely associated as Mercedes is with Benz. Interestingly, the Napa Valley Vintners have not pushed Cab as the grape of Napa Valley.
RULING: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc (some wineries secretly plant Malbec and Petit Verdot)

Russian River Valley
Clearly this large Sonoma County appellation is best known for Pinot Noir. In fact, you can make a pretty compelling argument that it is the best known Pinot Noir appellation in the world after Burgundy. Yet, the size and diversity of what is known as the Russian River Valley appellation means you’ve got a number of other varietals that create wines that are at the same high caliber as their Pinots. I’m thinking of Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Petite Sirah in particular. The key to understanding Russian River Valley is understanding it’s subsections. Green Valley, for example is really extraordinary Pinot country. The part of the appellation east of highway 101 is all about Zinfandel in my opinion.
RULING: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay

Alexander Valley
Here it’s mainly about Cabernet. This warm region of Sonoma County is home to the likes of Silver Oak and Jordan, two Cabernets that really helped put Sonoma County on the Cabernet map. You’ll see other varietals such as Merlot, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. But if you have to pin one varietal on the region, it has to be Cabernet
RULING: Cabernet Sauvignon,  Syrah, Chardonnay

Sierra Foothills
This stunningly beautiful region doesn’t get as much traffic as Sonoma and Napa. But if it did, you’d have more people appreciating its Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. But because there is not nearly as much wine being grown here as in other areas, you don’t see it associated as often with these varietals.
RULING: Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc

Santa Barbara County
Pinot Noir (Thank you, "Sideways") Even before "Sideways" made its impact this region was becoming  stiff competition for Russian River Valley. The movie and the collection of artistic winemakers is making that competition. even stiffer.
RULING: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay

Monterey County
Monterey has had its ups and downs. It’s a large region that originally planted huge swaths of land to Cabernet. Of course it was too cool and the region got a reputation for producing herbish tasting cab. Today the region does not have a reputation for any particular varietal. However, give it a few year and Monterey and Pinot Noir will be closely associated. There are some marvelous and serious small vintners chasing lots of Pinot in this area as well as some top notch Pinot vineyards.
RULING: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay

Again, Pinot Noir…But also Chardonnay.  Carnerso is one of the original "pinot regions" and with good reason. Acacia, Carneros Creek, Saintsbury, Schug all began here with a real belief in the areas potential to grow outstanding Pinot. And they’ve proven this. Site selection is really key here.
RULING: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay

Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder
All the mountains surrounding Napa Valley are or should be associated with Cabernet. It’s very special fruit.
RULING: Cabernet Sauvignon

Santa Cruz Mountains
Probably the best kept secret in California. Most would say that this region is all about Cabernet. And how could it not be. When you consider that a number of outstanding Caber nets come out of these hills you have no choice. Hell, the Monto Bello vineyard’s existence in this area is enough to peg is a a Cabernet region.
RULING: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay

Sonoma Coast
Yes, I know, Pinot Noir. But the problem is that his "appellation" is so gigantic and diverse that you really can’t say that the region as a whole is suited to any one appellation.
RULING: Free for all

Sonoma Valley
Perhaps the best know wine region after Napa Valley, yet no one varietal has become associate with this long valley to the west of Napa
RULING: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Any White

Atlas Peak
Here you have an appellation that was once known for being a source of average Sangiovese. That reputation is slowly going away as more and more wineries produce Cabernet from the hilltop region. Give it five years and it will be all about Cabernet
RULING: Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay

Chalk Hill
You could argue that the region is associated with Chardonnay if only due to the fine Chardonnays that have been produced by Chalk Hill Winery. However, so little has been produced, by so few wineries, there just isn’t enough to justify any particular association.
RULING: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

The sorry thing is that this Southern California region is mainly associated with a flying insect that devastated its vineyards. It really hasn’t distinguished itself with an association with any primary grape.
RULING: I have no idea!

If I were king…..

Posted In: Terroir


9 Responses

  1. Mike - September 27, 2005

    You missed the DULZURA appellation here in SoCal – surely the next Rhone Valley!! See

  2. jens rosenkrantz - September 27, 2005

    Any thoughts on Mendocino? Just had a wonderful “Coro” that is a collaborative effort at establishing a new proprietary blend of zinfandel plus other varietals like syrah, dolcetto, grenache, sangiovese, charbono, barbera, carignane and primitivo. Very interesting!
    jens at cincinanti wine garage

  3. Jack - September 28, 2005

    Howell Mtn without zin? Whaaaat?!?

  4. Greg - September 28, 2005

    Gees.. All you have is Cab, Chard, and Pinot.
    How boring. Is California wine that undiversified?

  5. D Fredman - September 28, 2005

    Regarding Temecula, it’s a pretty wonderful place for old-style (ie: non-fruitbomb) Zinfandel. The Zins from the area tend to show a lot of varietal character and alcohol levels <14%. They tend not to score a lot of points with the critics, but taste really good with food.
    I think that some regions would benefit from an AOC sort of control over which grape varieties are planted. I agree with Greg in that the list is a little narrow, but it's your game so you can make the rules, but allowing only three varietals per region is pretty draconian, wouldn't you say? I'm also questioning why you've got the North Coast region broken down into ten sub-appellations while Santa Barbara County is limited to one. As you wrote, Pinot Noir is the poster child for the area, Syrah is coming on strong, and Chardonnay is the perenial cash cow for the growers. However, non-mainstream (at least in CA) grapes such as Aglianico, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Roussanne, Mourvedre, Marsanne, and even Nebbiolo are, while not exactly in ascendency for the area, are at least proving themselves as potentially viable down in the future. As with the Sonoma Coast, just about everything grows well in some part of Santa Barbara County but it's a matter of figuring out what grows best and where that'll take some time.
    And then there's San Luis Obispo County....significant differences between the north county (Paso Robles) and the southern end (Arroyo Grande/Edna Valley). In Paso I'd focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals in general (rouge et blanc), while in the south-of-SLO districts it would have to be Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.

  6. rama - September 28, 2005

    you’ll hear yelps from the peanut gallery every time you try to brush things with broad strokes, but I think this is an accurate overview. keep it up!

  7. D Fredman - September 29, 2005

    So rama, the King is the only one allowed an opinion around here? 🙂
    Greetings from the peanut gallery. Although I agree with most of what Tom put forward, wasn’t the idea to cause us to think (and debate a little) about the topic? Start with broad strokes, refine them with detail and pretty soon you’ve got an idea that gets a wider group of people thinking about what they’re doing. “From the tiny acorn grows the mighty oak” and all that…

  8. rama - September 30, 2005

    Dan- my comment was in response to others, not yours, which I found helpful and well written. As a fellow blogger who no longer devotes time to writing anything of length, I’m quick to support those who continue to do so. Some people may forget the amount of time and energy it takes to put together the stuff Tom does day in and day out. When they make comments like “How boring.” I’m here to make sure Tom knows they’re in the minority, and to keep pounding the keyboard because his writings are appreciated.

  9. Wiens Family Cellars - August 4, 2009

    It’s true, Temecula is still making a name for itself. Although Temecula may be known for having plenty of white varietals we’ve found good success with ‘Big Red’ varietals like our Cabernet Sauvignon grown in our La Cresta Vineyards and our Zinfandel from our Sage Vineyard. The warm weather and dry conditions allow big flavors to develop during the grape’s maturity.

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