Mistaking Appellations for Statements of Wine Quality

It’s very difficult to argue with the view of The Center for Wine Origins (CWO)  that it is important consumers "aren’t misled by producers who want to use a region’s name as their own." So, I don’t think I will. The new CWO, however, believes that this is an important issue. And their concern is understandable.

CWO is funded by the European Union with Champagne and Port producers seemingly running the show. They care about wine producers outside these regions, particularly in America, using names like "Port" and "Champagne" for the simple reason that THEY are the ones that developed a reputation for wines that carry this place-name on their labels. They are right. Bottom line, unless the wine comes from Champagne or the Douro Valley or Chateauneuf du Pape or Napa Valley or the Santa Rita Hills, then these place names should not be on the label.

However, one thing of great importance does need to be pointed out:

A place-name or appellation on a wine label has no relationship to quality, and barely any relationship to style.

While I would argue this is the case with European appellations, it is particularly the case with American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that are bestowed upon regions by the federal government. When you see the words "Anderson Valley" or "Santa Rita Hills" or "Sonoma Coast" on a label the only thing you can really conclude today is that’s the region where the grapes were grown that went into making that wine. You can not assume very much about the quality or style of the wine behind the label.

I know what you are thinking and you are right: AVA’s are of very little use to anyone except me (wine marketer) and people like me.

The notion that a large swath of land called indentified as "Napa Valley" or "Russian River Valley" will guarantee wine drinkers a particular style of Pinot Noir or Cabernet is ludicrous. Today’s winemakers use so many different grapegrowing and winemaking techniques that have such a significant impact o the final style of a wine that it is virtually impossible to expect a wine from a particular region to have the "stamp" of that region’s character in the wine. That’s right. Appellation or AVA level terroir simply does not exist in today’s wine industry.

However, that is not to say that certain expectations of quality are out of the question. For example, Napa Valley’s climate and soils are very well suited for getting Cabernet Sauvignon ripe. Most of Russian River Valley has a climate that is beneficial to Pinot Noir, a grape that ripens best and develops desirable flavors best in a climate that is somewhat cooler. But this does not mean that the Cabernet from Napa Valley or the Pinot Noir from Russian River will naturally be of high quality or of a particular style.  It only means that the name Russian River Valley on a Pinot Noir means you are more LIKELY to have a Pinot Noir that will meet higher standards.

It’s these greater expectations among consumers that make place names important to marketers and producers. When a winery buys Cabernet grapes from a Napa Valley grower and puts it in the bottle with "Napa Valley" on the label, they can charge more that wine because consumers with higher expectations are willing to pay more.  Note that expectations for style do not make their way into this equation. And how could they when the various styles of Cabernet that emerge from Napa Valley hugely varied.

Today, if you seek out wines of a particular style, if you want big, juicy and alcoholic Pinot Noir, or if you  want crisp, elegant, citrusy Chardonnay, you must look to a producer, not a region or appellation. The Center for Wine Origins understands this too. They have not, nor will they ever I suspect, make any claims about a region’s or appellation’s ability to deliver wines of a particular style. Instead, they will argue that only "quality" can be expected from a wine that has a particular place name on the bottle. Their mission is simple: protect the market for raised expectations that have been built up around particular wine regions by working to prevent names like "Port" and "Champagne" from being used by producers outside those areas.

At this point you should be thinking about the utility of the idea of "terroir"; the idea that the soils and climate of a region bestow particular characteristics on a wine. This writer places no faith in the ability of an AVA or Appellation to consistently deliver particular characteristics to a wine produced from grapes that carry any particular appellation. Without strict rules on production and growing techniques in a region it is simply impossible to assume anything about a wine with any particular place-name on the label. My feelings about vineyard designations are different. Here is where "terroir" truly takes on meaning. When you have a small, well defined piece of land with fairly consistent soils influenced by a specific climate, you have the potential to witness the influence of terroir.

The Center for Wine Origins is marketing/political organization that is essentially working on the side to influence trade negotiations between the EU and the United States. The EU wants the U.S. to outlaw use of European place-names on American bottlings. And we should.


4 Responses

  1. NoBullGrape - October 11, 2005

    Names, location talked about everywhere!

    Tom over at Fermentations makes some very good points about the previously mentioned Center for Wine Origins. By the way, they seem to have launched a very nice web site since we last spoke about them. I highly recommend reading

  2. Fredric Koeppel - October 13, 2005

    hi, tom, you’re certainly right that the appellation or AVA is no guarantee of quality, just as an organic wine or a wine made under the bio-dynamique philosophy is not a “better” wine than one produced under regular vineyard practices. i sympathize with the european producers who don’t want port (or porto) and champagne on wines made outside those areas, but there are, of course, good ports and mediocre ports, good champagnes and mediocre champagnes. i think that the higher one goes up the scale of quality and the narrower the designations are (region to county to valley to specific vineyard), the more consumers should be able to anticipate a wine of high quality, but even that isn’t certain because of the vagaries of vintage, winemaking techniques (especially use of oak) and the perceived consistent personality of the wine. Too many bad bottles of Clos Vougeot have been unleased on the world for anyone to have complete confidence in geographical factors. on the other hand, i am a believer in the importance of terroir when one is dealing with the greatest and most authentic wines; when you’re plucking a bottle of eight-dollar merlot from the shelf, even that idea can be dispensed with.

  3. Tom Wark - October 13, 2005

    Amen. Perhaps more than any other region, Burgundy has produced the most consistently inconsistent quality wine…and at some pretty high prices.
    With regard to “terroir” I’ve concluded that the utility of idea is best applied to single vineyard wines that have a history behind the wine and the vineyard that can be investigated.

  4. Jason - October 14, 2005

    There is another angle to this. The rush for appellations in California is really driven by the vineyard owners desire to make their property more valuable (it seems everyone aspires to have their own Romanee Conti). A few years ago, much of California’s non coastal geography was relegated to a “California” appellation, which many people in the business view (incorrectly) as down market. So, there has been a push on the part of the owners in coastal and interior areas to get their “own’ appellation to enhance the value of the property.
    It is a fools errand. What these guys do not realize is that by slicing these growing areas thinner than prosciutto, they are just creating confusion for the consumer. Of course, the consumer is not on the radar of most growers or wineries for that matter. They think that the goal is about managing the distributor network.
    TTB lists about 3,000 approved US county appellations. This does not include any appellation smaller. I do not know how many more specific appellations have been approved or have been applied for, but I suspect that that it will eventually wind up being a mulitple of that number. But the point is that all the slicing and dicing will lead to an incomprehensible muddle of confusion for most consumers.
    Of course, the exercise is modeled after the outdated European system, which if anyone has look recently, is not working.
    The dream of the vineyard owners is to make their little piece of real estate equvalent to 57th and 5th. It aint gonna happen. 57th and 5th is the equivalent to Napa and it is already taken- forever ingrained in the minds of the consumer. Someone else already owns it. Perhaps there is an argument to slicing and dicing Napa, but I am not convinced.
    As you alluded to, the opportunity to make a difference to the marketplace is through branding. Great product, delivered with meaning. Only a few wineries actually get it.
    So, instead on focusing on brand value and doing the things that will make a difference to the consumer, land owners prefer to take the regulatory route of having the TTB give their place meaning. Ultimately all of these appellation (with a few notable exceptions) will be marginalized and mean nothing to anybody.
    Hey Tom, let’s lift a glass of COTES DU FRONTONNAIS and toast to all of the new American appellations!

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