Celebrating Nothing Specific in Sonoma County

The Sunday Santa Rosa Press Democrat had an interesting ad in it placed by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. In it they identify Sonoma County restaurants where 75% of the wines on their lists. are from Sonoma County and restaurants where 50% of the wines on their lists are from Sonoma County. These restaurants are congratulated for supporting Sonoma County, its growers, etc.

This is a nice way to both encourage more Sonoma County-centric wine lists and to let diners know what restaurants they can go to in order to find a nice selection of Sonoma County wines.

But it’s the third category in the ad that interests me: "Sonoma County Star Wineries". These are wineries that produce bottlings with "Sonoma County listed on the label".

Are these wineries being congratulated for following labeling laws? Or are they being congratulated for listing an appellation that tells the consumer very little about the source of the grapes that made the wine?

"Sonoma County" is a huge region that includes "Sonoma Coast", "Carneros", "Russian River Valley", "Sonoma Valley", "Alexander Valley", "Knights Valley", "Dry Creek Valley" and other appellations and sub-appellations. Wines that carry the "Sonoma County" appellation need only have used grapes that came from any combination of these appellations. Suffice to say, Zinfandel grapes grown in Glen Ellen in "Sonoma Valley" struggle under quite different climatic circumstances than Zinfandel grown in the Russian River Valley. And we aren’t even talking about soil factors.

By encouraging growers, wineries and consumers to celebrate the "Sonoma County" appellation we are encouraging them to celebrate nothing specific.  It’s the celebration of a brand, not a place that can be said to have any specific regional character.

However, I don’t want to suggest that the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission is trying to put anything over on anyone. They are very upfront about their mission and goals:

"Sonoma County Winegrape Commission will allow Sonoma County to promote
its grapes and wines at a level consistent with other winegrowing
regions.  NOW is the opportunity for all county growers to support this
marketing and production research efforts."

"Sonoma County" has a lot of competitors in "wine region branding" department. It in fact must compete with other more meaningful regions and appellations INSIDE Sonoma County, not to mention efforts on behalf of "Lake County", "Monterey County" and numerous other terroirless areas.

For my money, the better educational and promotional effort is put into promoting much more specific appellations that produce wines consumers can have real expectations about.

6 Responses

  1. Randy - May 14, 2007

    I’d think that the Lake County moniker has more claim to terroir than Monterey or Sonoma.
    I agree that SCWC is out to promote the county’s wines, but that should really manifest itself in trying to help consumers make sense of the AVA disaster that is Sonoma County. Patting certain wineries on the back for using the words “Sonoma County” on the label provides little or no information to a consumer about what’s in the bottle.

  2. el jefe - May 14, 2007

    So “Sonoma County” is the only one that can lay claim to having any terroir? Nice…?

  3. Jerry Murray - May 15, 2007

    I must admit my knowledge of the appellations of Sonoma County and the respective wines is, well minimal. However, say someone wants to produce a Pinot Noir blended from different AVA within sonoma county ( Russian River, Sonoma Coast etc ). Wouldn’t the Sonoma County designation be the most appropriate ( perhaps the only legal)? Am I to believe, based on comments above, that such a wine wouldn’t be worthy of “expectations”?

  4. tom merle - May 17, 2007

    Napa Valley, of course, is the yardstick that all American appellations measure themselves against. And while it is true that the Napa County AVA is more compact and in some ways less diverse than Sonoma, the Napa Valley moniker is huge. Let the devotees of Howell Mountain vs Los Carneros etc.jockey for position in some unimportant pecking order. Each winery is delighted to have Napa Valley on their label.
    I suppose down county/interior Sonoma County must suffer in comparison to the colder climate AVAs. This wouldn’t matter so much if Sonoma County as such had any cachet. I suppose it’s a bit like Anderson Valley being indifferent to the standing of Mendocino County in the wine world….

  5. Jack - June 5, 2007

    Tom, As a PR-person, do you feel their ad had some benefit or was it a COMPLETE waste of money?
    (Telling those living in Santa Rosa where they can find Sonoma County wines is, er, Marketing – At – Its – Finest(TM).)

  6. robert - June 13, 2007

    Nick Frey’s is asking for more labels to show both the smaller AVA and the County designation. Why should Sonoma County not ask for this? Is napa that much better that they should have a Law. Paso Robles is next AB 87.

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