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.

13 Responses

  1. dfredman - March 23, 2007

    I’ve always thought that AVA’s should be helpful for both marketing AND information. While not being in favor of totally dumbing down the labels, I think that in Paso Robles’ situation, everyone benefits from adding the regional name to the specific AVA. I know where Cholame, Templeton, Creston and Adelaida are, but that’s because I grew up in the area. Someone picking up a bottle of micro-AVA’d wine in Delaware or Alabama may not have such familiarity and will decline to buy in favor of a wine from someplace they’re sure they’ve heard of, such as Napa or Sonoma. Adding the Paso Robles location name to the AVA makes sense to me, as it gives people a general idea of where in the state the wine has come from- THEN they can look up the specifics. Paso Robles’ biggest problem over the past decade has been the rift between the East Side/West Side wineries. Appending “Paso Robles” to the mini-AVA’s allows everyone to have their cake and eat it too. The region has come this far (and this fast) by combining the marketing efforts of their members and it would be a waste to see it all disappear simply because of a desire for absolute specificity.

  2. tom - March 23, 2007

    I agree. By putting “Paso Robles” on a label alongside a lesser known sub appellation can help the consumer and thereby help the winery.
    However, this is already a legal option available to wineries making wine from grapes grown in sub appellations of larger appellations such as “Atlas Peak-Napa Valley” or “Green Valley-Russian River Valley”
    This legislation would, however, mandate the connection. I don’t see the need.

  3. Randy - March 23, 2007

    I would argue that appellations have always been for marketing purposes, dating all the way back to France and the original AOC designations. The fact that in the old world, such appellations also mandate the types of wines and/or grapes that are to be used in order to be permitted to use the name just furthers the marketing notion.
    Let’s face it, an appellation is a brand, pure and simple. When you hear the words “Napa Valley”, it conveys to the consumer something about what’s in the bottle. Same with “Chianti Classico,” “Chateauneuf du Pape,” and “Rioja,” only more so, since you basically know what grapes are in the bottle of each of those old-world names. The fact that newer AVA’s like Paso Robles are still up-and-coming, I can appreciate that they want to build their brand and don’t want to be drowned out by smaller AVA’s that lie within the larger region.
    All the same, you make a good point in that Paso Robles as an AVA encompasses so many micro-climates that the name Paso Robles doesn’t convey any clear “brand promise” as such. So, having the Paso Robles name tattooed onto a bottle of wine next to a more specific AVA name might help build the brand, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be worked out by the growers and winemakers in the region without involving Sacramento.

  4. Annette - March 23, 2007

    While I agree that it is useful to educate the consumer, I don’t see the need for anymore government intervention than we already have, especially in a matter that should really be left up to the winery — they should be able to choose if they want their consumers to know where their particular sub-appellation is or not. Why waste even more taxpayer money on (another)a ridiculous matter? Not only that, but labeling has been regulated by the federal governmenttraditionally — what sense does it make to involve the State of California on labeling regulation also???

  5. winehiker - March 23, 2007

    The Paso Robles AVA is a relatively recent public discovery compared to, say, Napa Valley, wherein we’ve had a few years to get familiar with the sub-AVAs and their terroir. I can therefore understand the desire to associate to the greater Paso Robles AVA as a “sensation transference” ploy (as Louis Cheskin might have said). Perhaps, however, a passage can be added to the bill to phase out the Paso Robles reference in, say, 7 to 10 years.

  6. tom - March 23, 2007

    “I would argue that appellations have always been for marketing purposes, dating all the way back to France and the original AOC designations. The fact that in the old world, such appellations also mandate the types of wines and/or grapes that are to be used in order to be permitted to use the name just furthers the marketing notion.”
    If this is, or should be, the case then applications for appellations should have no requirements regarding climate, soil, etc. It would me that any appellation that comes with X number of signatures, regardless of what area the proposed appellation represents, should be approved.

  7. dan - March 23, 2007

    I wonder how opposition there is to the conjunctive labeling law amongst the affected wineries. From the article, it seemed there was more contention on the specifics of how some regions will get carved up.
    I see the point of the bill: to protect the Paso Robles brand. You could argue that wineries in teh sub-appelations have so far benefitted from the marketing of Paso Robles, and this bill will ensure they still “dance with who brought them to the ball.”
    A sunset clause does makes sense, however. Over time if the Paso Robles region gets a boost in recognition, most wineries would probably *want* to have it on their label. How about reducing the minimum size of “Paso Robles” by 1mm a year, until it can completely vanish? 🙂

  8. jeff - March 23, 2007

    I always thought marketing IS information, or at least good marketing is.
    That said, this is legislating morality. Not a good idea.

  9. ozzie - March 23, 2007

    Tradition should be built, not bought.

  10. Mary Baker - March 24, 2007

    A little background: Applications for subappellation status are filed with the TTB, not the state. Unfortunately, in the way the TTB approaches the issue, a subapp is considered a separate region, sort of a secession. So, for instance, if “Willow Creek” is declared a subapp, it is no longer considered a part of “Paso Robles.”
    This bill was originally introduced by the wineries of Napa in order to form an all-encompassing viticultural entity, so that subapps like Stag’s Leap, Howell Mountain, etc. could still refer to themselves as part of “Napa Valley.” In Napa, the development of smaller AVA’s was driven by selfish interests, the overall pattern of smaller AVAs was very checkerboard, and so some wineries found themselved orphaned. This bill also provides that wineries outside of an established subapp can refer to themselves as “Napa Valley”–otherwise they would have had to settle for “Napa County.”
    In the case of Paso Robles, some wineries are concerned that they will be forced to use the smaller AVA if they are within it, and not be able to say “Paso Robles.” This bill protects the overall entity of Paso and lays it like a blanket over the smaller AVAs. It would be nice to have a little more flexibility in the labeling, but the price–adding two words–is a small, small price to pay to retain our identities as Paso Robles wineries.
    This is one reason the AVA committee has worked very hard on the proposed sub AVA map–to insure that no wineries are orphaned.

  11. John Lopresti - March 30, 2007

    I would favor an optional subsubappelation label. For Paso Robles, if a vineyard is own-rooted and the vines thirty years old, the label could attract more buyers and establish a reputation quickly if it announced these unique facts.
    Recently I enjoyed a Lodi ancient vines zinfandel, so labeled; but the sales pitch omitted the fact that the climate was too mild during that year mid season and too hot at harvest to sustain color, and the vines tauted as ancient produced a wine whose color and tannicity resembled the watery product of very young vines during their first ten years of life.
    Then we look at the cooperage factor, and it is baffling why someone with ‘ancient zinfandel’ grapevines in Lodi would design aging so briefly as a mere nine months duration and barrel origin selection as exclusively “American” oak.
    A lot went into the subtle turns of legalistic agricultural phrase in fine Medocs, and even some ‘sauternes’. Though regulation generically is only one more burden, American viticulturists have proved to be fairly successful at hiding growing and vinification methods. I guess the wineries are reluctant to share trade secrets. In-row herbicided, low toxin residue wine; surreptitiously sulfured illegally close to harvest, slow start to fermentation; nearly dry endpoint wine bounced in tanker truck 200 miles so they could blend it just the maximum permitted legal amount to still make the label honest advertising.
    It is nice to read the plusses about Paso Robles in other people’s comments. After a few unlucky choices at the local grocer who sometimes has a few reds from that AVA, I might try again soon; but, with reds, it is best to have patience until there is sufficient trunkwood to vinify boldly. Meanwhile, when today’s children grow up, the Paso Robles and similar relatively new AVAs will hold impressive surprises in store for the enterprising buyer; which is to say, so far, I have found only young vineyard wines from that AVA. SubAVA designation seems like a smart innovation.
    I was talking with the director of the local grapegrower consortium about the merits of the French designation of the various harvests, but something about having a vineyard’s fruit categorized for quality while still hanging on the vine seems unAmerican. Ours is a private way of conducting the business of viticulture, caveat emptor.

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  13. Paolo Rosi - May 31, 2007

    Interesting thoughts about viticultural are designations and the value of terroir.
    I totally agree with you that it’s all marketing value, but from a different perspective. What value there is in terroir from the point of view of the character of the land being captured in the grape and in the taste of the wine is completely wiped out when vintners kill off the naturally occuring yeasts in the skins and artificially inseminate the must with foreign cultured yeasts bred to produce results the natural grape would not. In this case the benefit and character of terrori is nil.

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