Carving Up Carneros…..and the rest of American Wine

I had the opportunity today to sit in on a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay organized by Appellation America at Bouchaine Vineyards. The idea behind the tasting is important: Do Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnays posses any defining characteristics that make them uniquely "Carneros"?

Twenty two Pinot Noirs from the 2003 vintage were examined along with nineteen Chardonnays. After tasting through the Pinots, all of which were very good wines, I couldn’t get one question out of my mind:

Is it time to abandon the search for appellational definition and focus on serious reductionist
approach to understanding American terroir?

I really marveled at the optimism and seriousness of the people who put this tasting together along with the troop of winemakers and industry professionals that took part in it. There was a genuine and searing focus on trying to understand what make Carneros Pinot Noir unique. The setting for the tasting, the way in which it was conducted, the seriousness of the evaluations of the wines. All of this was top notch. Yet there was a real reluctance on the group’s part to offer a real definition of what Carneros Pinot Noir should or does mean. No one was able or willing to say with conviction and
clarity what the unique characteristics of Carneros Pinot Noir are.

This makes sense.

The American appellation system is one not built on either characterizations of quality or character, but rather upon vast generalization about weather patterns, soil patterns and historical nomenclature. As a result vast swaths of land have been encircled by borders and called American Viticultural Areas (or, Appellations).

Almost immediately upon the approval of each appellation by the Federal Government the marketing began. As a result, the best known appellations today are understood as places where high quality wine is produced. However, they are not known as places where you can find wines of a particular character.

The fact is, in most high quality appellations known for Pinot Noir, the wines are made fine by the appropriate cool climate and suitable soils. Any notable characteristics of an appellation’s wines, however, are most often the result of clonal differences, variations in ripeness at harvest, and production techniques, not something the terroir generated.

Carneros is the same. One consensus that came out of today’s tasting that I gleaned from the comments of the winemakers in attendance was that the style of Carneros Pinot Noir has gradually changed over the past 20 years. Today we see riper Carneros Pinot Noir that can be associated in large part to the increased use of "Dijon Clones". These are clones of Pinot Noir that tend to ripen at higher sugar levels and give off brighter and denser flavors. There are other viticultural influences that have helped make Carneros Pinot Noirs bigger and brighter and fruitier. And there are new production techniques that have evolved that have also influenced this change. But the use of new Dijon clones is of paramount importance.

For those people who believe that wines are more interesting and wine drinking more fulfilling when the influence of the terroir rather than the winemaker is at the forefront there is really only on one thing that can be done: Create smaller, more terroir-driven sub appellations; carve up the big appellations into smaller regions based on a more consistent set of terroir factors.

Doing this would give greater meaning to the appellation on the label. It would be a raising of the terroir flag. Would better wines result? Certainly not as a direct result. In fact, you can’t say that terroir-driven wines or wines with identifiable characteristics of an appellation are necessarily better in any way than wines created by the winemaker with a particular style in mind. But they are more interesting and more intellectually engaging.

So why not do this? Why not carve up Carneros into "the flats" the "windy west side", the "warmer northern hills"? Why not carve up Russian River Valley into the "Middle Reach", the "Goldridge", the "Santa Rosa Plain". Why not carve up Anderson Valley into the "Deep End" and the "Ridges"?

They only thing that really stops vintners from doing this is marketing considerations. One very well known, very intelligent vintner of long standing who has made a tremendous name for themselves making Russian River Valley Pinot Noir told me "Doing this would be disastrous". There reason? "We’ve just now got the trade and consumers understanding what Russian River Valley is."

They didn’t mean that the trade and wine drinkers now know what characteristics to expect from a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. What they meant was the trade and wine drinkers now recognize that high quality wines come from the Russian River Valley and carving it up would mean diluting the "brand" that is "Russian River Valley" as well as having to start the educational effort all over again.

This is laziness and intellectual dishonesty.  If you created a new sub appellation of Russian River Valley called "The Middle Reach" you could easily put that new sub-appellation on the label ALONGSIDE "Russian River Valley", thereby capitalizing on the promotional efforts that have been aimed at Russian River Valley over the years while also promoting the idea that terroir matters.

If winemakers and marketers are going to go on and on about the importance of terroir then they need to commit themselves to actually defining regions that might have fairly consistent terroirs that can confidently described as having particular characteristics.

Two of the smartest and deep thinking wine writers in the business oversaw the tasting today: Dan Berger and Alan Goldfarb. These are people who rarely ever pull a punch. They are writers and wine critics in the sense that they are willing to write well informed, critical evaluations of wines, winemakers and the wine industry. They know as well as anyone the factors that have led to a sameness among wines. They know what chasing scores has done to wines. They know what marketing departments have done to wines. They know what technological improvements have done to wines. And they care about these things. This is why they both signed on to work on the Appellation America project and believe it is important.

Despite the apprehensiveness I saw among the winemakers at the tasting to offer a succinct definition of what "Carneros Pinot Noir" is, I hope these writers won’t be discouraged. I hope they keep doing this. I hope they force winemakers and wine drinkers and wine geeks to ask hard questions about what terroir means. If the project can be sustained over many years and many such tastings eventually they will have to start asking about regions within appellations. And that is when real meaning and change will be brought about in the realm of American wine terroirs.

Posted In: Terroir


3 Responses

  1. Derrick Schneider - January 19, 2006

    Various thoughts.
    Lodi was(is?) evaluating new sub AVAs that correspond to the different subregions (at least somewhat based on soil type; the previously untapped Eastern portion varies from the Western). But a few wine makers I’ve talked to say the same thing: The Lodi brand is just now something that people have heard of.
    When I wrote my Paso piece, I conducted two tastings focused on terroir (the whole piece was about the terroir of western paso). The first tried to get people to pick Paso wines out of a blind set after trying two Paso bottles. No luck. But the second got people to taste three bottles blind. Two were from same producer, different vineyard (Garretson). Two were from the same vineyard, different producers (the Rozet vineyard). Every single person was able to pick out the two from the same vineyard. Likewise there is a quality that I can’t pin down to wines made from the extreme vineyard at Glenrose.

  2. Mike Duffy - January 20, 2006

    From a consumer perspective, the question is (I think) “If I like this wine from [insert AVA here], is it likely I will enjoy this other wine (perhaps from some other winery) from the same AVA?”
    Perhaps that’s too simplistic, but I think many wine consumers, to the extent they pay attention to AVAs at all, operate on this basis. And I think that there’s tacit acknowledgement of this by the industry in the fight over Bronco’s use of the “Napa Valley” designation.
    If there’s no correlation between a wine’s AVA and whether a particular customer likes it, what value (besides an interesting technical curiosity) does it add for that consumer?
    Having now demonstrated my ignorance, I will now shut up.

  3. tom - January 20, 2006

    No ignorance at all. As I mentioned above, right now well-known AVAs seem to mean, essentially, “quality” to the consumer. “Napa Valley” Cabernet means quality. Russian River and Carneros Pinot Noir means quality. I think this association you point to is exactly what AVAs mean at the moment…on the consumer level.

Leave a Reply