Honesty, Virtue & Marketing in Wine Labeling
Honesty. It’s perhaps the most important virtue any person can possess.
I’ve argued for some time that while American Viticultural Areas can have meaning related to the character of the wine inside them, their primary value is as a marketing tool. The Paso Robles wine folk have seen fit to be quite honest about this assessment in looking to pass a new labeling law.
American Viticultural Areas are lines on a map that are approved in Washington,D.C. The area inside these lines purport to have some similarity in climate and soil, which in theory should tell us something about the liquid in the bottle that has one of these AVAs (or "Appellations") on the bottle. This is rarely true. While certain AVAs such as Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, Green Valley in Sonoma County and Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, as well as a few others, do offer the consumer a hint of what the wine will taste and feel like, most AVAs don’t describe an area well defined enough by soil and climate to really give the consumer this kind of Information about the wine they are contemplating.
The Paso Robles AVA in the Central Coast area of California is like this. This AVA encompasses a huge variety of climates, soil types, elevations and rainfall tendencies. In order to create a set of more meaningful area designations, a committee of Paso winemakers and growers have submitted to the Federal Government applications to carve up the Paso Robles AVA into twelve smaller, more well defined appellations that could be printed on labels to better pinpoint the location where the grapes were grown and theoretically better define the specific influences that affected the character of grapes grown in these areas. All this should help the consumer have a better idea of what the wine will taste like.
I think this is a great idea. The smaller the area designated by an AVA, the more likely the area will have specific characteristics, the more likely wines made from grapes grown in these smaller areas will have a consistent character based on the terroir. In other words, the smaller the area of an AVA the more meaningful it is.
Enter California Assembly Bill 87.
Cyril Penn, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, describes AB 87 this way: "(It) would create a conjunctive labeling law
to ensure the Paso Robles name is used on wine labels when subappellations
within the region are approved."
In other words if one of these new 12 sub-appellations, such as the proposed "Adelaida District", is used on a bottle of wine—telling us that this is where the grapes for the wine were grown—the winery must also put the term "Paso Robles" on the label next to the words "Adelaida District".
"We’re still driving and getting awareness for Paso Robles as a wine
region," Paso Robles AVA Committee spokeswoman Stacie Jacob said. "That’s where
the conjunctive labeling comes in. It will help ensure Paso Robles remains the
dominant AVA while the subappellations can truly tell the story."
So here’s my question? Of what value to the consumer or wine drinker is there in keeping Paso Robles the "dominant AVA"?
I suppose it might give consumers unfamiliar with the Adelaida District some reference as to where that small sub appellation is located in California, assuming they know where Paso Robles is. It occurs to me though that it should be the winery that decides whether or not it WANTS to make that association. What happens if, heaven forbid, the reputation of "Paso Robles" takes a nose dive while the Adelaida District comes to be perceived as a source of great wines? Why should the vintner be forced to hold on to the use of the "Paso Robles" designation on their label when the Adelaida District appellation not does more to market the wine but also better describes the actual location where the grapes were grown?
What’s going on here is honesty.
The folks behind this legislation, The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, are protecting the investment they’ve made in promoting the idea of "Paso Robles". Although the appellation known as "Paso Robles" is so diverse one can make only limited assumptions about a wine bearing that appellation, a great deal of time and money has been invested in raising it’s visibility among wine drinkers. This legislation helps assure that 1) the Paso Robles AVA won’t get forgotten when all the other, better-defined and more useful, sub appellations are approved and 2) the money that has been invested in the promotion of the Paso Robles AVA won’t go down the drain.
The legislation says that the term "Paso Robles" must appear "in direct conjunction" to any smaller appellation that is on the label. That means "right next to". The legislation also says that the term "Paso Robles" may not be more than 1mm smaller in size than the sub appellation listed on the bottle that it appears next to. In essence, all the newly proposed sub appellations are having additional words added to their name. It won’t be the "Adelaida District". It will be "Adelaida District-Paso Robles".
I’m a big advocate of slicing up California’s AVA into very tiny pieces mainly because I have this idea that consumers are better served when the geographic appellation on the bottle corresponds to well defined climatic and soil characteristics. Slicing things up smaller is the only way to achieve this. However, I don’t favor forcing a winemaker to put another appellation on their label that only serves the purpose of letting the larger appellation suck up the prestige that the smaller appellation may have for the purpose of marketing.
It is already legal for a winery to put both the small sub appellation on the label as well as the name of the larger appellation inside of which the smaller one fits. For example, some wineries in the Atlas Peak region are labeled like this: "Atlas Peak – Napa Valley". This means the vast majority of the grapes that made this wine were grown in the Atlas Peak sub appellation of Napa Valley.
This new law would further degrade the meaning of American Viticultural Areas. However, it would virtue insofar as the folks behind it are being honest about their view of what they believe AVAs are for: marketing, not information.