Making the Best of Appellations

The assumption of the American Viticultural Area (appellation) program is that there is something unique about those areas that are granted AVA status—that there is something about Oakville, Anderson Valley, Finger Lakes and Green Valley that make them distinct.

However, the subtext of this quasi-appellation program administered by the federal government and completely embraced by the American wine industry is that the wines the emerge from specifically designated American Viticultural Areas are themselves unique because they somehow contain identifiable characteristics that can be traced to the uniqueness of the AVAs in which the grapes were grown.

This is the assumption that Appellation America has always embraced and promoted in its fantastic journalistic efforts and its the proposition that it hopes to bring real clarity to with its recently announced "Best of Appellation Evaluation Program".

As described, the Best of Appellation Evaluation Program "obliges the [program’s] assessors to systematically evaluate the wines, individually and collectively, for place characteristics."

Appellation America’s publisher, Roger Dial, goes on to explain, "In the days, months, and years going forward we will be doing what our
readers continually ask us to do. We’re going to look at every
appellation in North America, building an on-going, ever-developing
picture of the mosaic of regional character and diversity that we hope
will enrich our wine culture."

This is a monumental task that strikes me as being the kind of effort that will bring as much criticism as it does praise. However, the praise will be deserved and the criticism will simply be sour grapes.

What happens when the regional characteristics of Oakville Merlot are defined in a way that identifies one famous Oakville producer’s Merlot as uncharacteristic of the  appellation? This won’t make the Oakville Merlot producer very happy. But I think this unhappiness is a natural result of winemaking philosophies that treasure style over regional characteristics. Now, I don’t want to suggest that focusing on producing a specific style of wine rather than achieving regional reflection is a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s just not a very interesting thing.

Others have previously used the evaluation processes to focus on regional characteristics. For example, Dan Berger, who runs the respected Riverside International Wine Competition, recently announced that Anderson Valley’s Navarro Vineyards won that competition’s Terroir Award trophy, given to the winery that displays the best regional character in its wine. It should be no surprise that Appellation America sponsors this trophy.

Down the road, if Appellation America is successful, I expect we’ll be able to go to their website and read something along these lines: "Carneros Syrah is a wine that typically displays X,Y and Z aromas with flavors of A, B, and C. These characteristics are best found in the Syrahs of X Vineyard, Y Cellars and Z Estate."

I, for one, hope they succeed in their quest. I’m not positive it will lead to more interest in wine or greater sales of wine or more exploration of different wines from America’s many AVA’s. But I am positive that it will make the wine world much more interesting.


27 Responses

  1. St. Vini - May 8, 2008

    Interesting. Will AA be publishing the required criteria for a wine to be considered appropriate or typical of its AVA? I’m very curious to see how they will outline the evaluation standards.

  2. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    I have yet to see the details of this, but I believe that this is a good direction to go. I am with you in hoping that this succeeds.
    And if AVA designation on the label is to have any REAL equity (meaning that the wines with that designation truly ARE unique and distinct) there HAS to be SOME effort made to define a region’s style. From the piece, I see that the definition of the style will be a collaborative effort between the evluators and producers.
    One thing that caught my eye is that the medals feature *points*. On a 100 point scale, no less. I realize that state fairs and other wine competitions use scores to award medals but scores and numbers are not ApAm’s bag.

  3. Thomas Pellechia - May 8, 2008

    “From the piece, I see that the definition of the style will be a collaborative effort between the evluators and producers.”
    Which, Arthur, is where the problems will begin.
    I applaud the concept and hope it can be done, but after dealing with the wine biz for so long, I can’t imagine how regional style will ever be agreed to in many parts of the California wine industry.
    To me, establishing regional style inevitably means paring the vast number of different grape varieties grown in many regions. I’m trying to wrap my feeble brain around a regional style that accommodates both Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon?

  4. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    “establishing regional style inevitably means paring the vast number of different grape varieties grown in many regions”
    I know this sounds un-capitalistic (hell, even un-American). But from the point of view of a wine lover, what’s wrong with that?
    Isn’t that why nobody grows Pinot noir in the Rhone and there is no Tempranillo in Alsace? Extreme examples, I’m sure. but you get the point.

  5. Tom Wark - May 8, 2008

    ” I’m trying to wrap my feeble brain around a regional style that accommodates both Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon?”
    If we assume a region’s natural characteristics can apply a particular characteristic to on variety, why should not not do the same to another variety. Not that the characteristics would be similar across all varieties, but just that the terroir would have some sort of impact on all varieties.

  6. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    That would also lead to “paring down” of varieties grown in a particular region, wouldn’t it?

  7. Thomas Pellechia - May 8, 2008

    “If we assume a region’s natural characteristics can apply a particular characteristic to on variety, why should not not do the same to another variety. Not that the characteristics would be similar across all varieties, but just that the terroir would have some sort of impact on all varieties.”
    Obviously, you haven’t operated a vineyard…;)

  8. Thomas Pellechia - May 8, 2008

    To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in paring down the massive volume of grape varieties grown in CA regions. In fact, I believe it should be done. I just don’t think it will ever happen.
    The thing about Europe’s appellation systems is that generally they were agreed to between the industry and government. I don’t see that happening in the US of A!

  9. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    I agree with you. But as you point out – the industry (consumers probably as well) does not.

  10. Lloyd Benedict - May 8, 2008

    I have always been interested in AA’s complete focus on appellations as the key determinant of a domestic wine’s “essence” or taste profile. I find that many wines in the same appellation exhibit such stark differences that usually come back to the winemakers and wineries style of growing and production, or specific vineyard lots within the appellation. That is why my company,, places much more significance (and credit) back to the specific producer and winemaker. Don’t get me wrong, I understand regional differences are prolific but many times, oak programs, vineyard designates, varietal strains, and a winemakers “magical touch” play much more significant roles in the final product.

  11. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    We had an interesting discussion about the distinction between traits inherent to terroir vs regional styl (which includes things like growng and harvesting choices and elevage) on

  12. Jerry Murray - May 8, 2008

    There seems to be an assumption that all vineyards within an AVA should give more or less the same ‘regional style’. This has been my biggest problem with those who advocate ‘terrior’; that the lines drawn are much larger than is actually real. While I certainly agree that within an AVA there should be some tendencies, to try and judge a specific vineyard against others in the region is to deny that ‘sense of place’ can be as little as a few square feet or a couple of rows. It is quite possible for a vineyard within an AVA to produce a wine quite different than others within the same AVA and still be an honest reflection of it’s particular ‘place’. Everyone wants these AVAs to represent some sort of truth, the reality is they are arbitrary lines drawn on maps and most are no more than a decade or so old. I am sorry but 10 years isn’t enough to get your head around a region and make definative statements about regional characters. At this point the focus should be on further defining AVA boundrys that reflect reality.
    I also think there needs to be a certain climactic threshold for a region to really be able to influence, in a specific way, a particular varietal. The example of riesling, for instance, would not likely show much difference from one AVA in Napa versus another; the climates are not marginal enough for the grape to express the features of the site. In germany, a few meters will have dramatic impact on a wine, because the climate is marginal. Like wise, if we planted alot of CAB in the willamette valley, I doubt much there would be much difference from site to site, AVA to AVA simply because none of them would be warm enough to get the fruit ripe to the point of being influenced by the particulars of a site.
    If you look across the world, the wines that best reflect ‘place’ are from regions where there specific varietals barely have time to ripen within the given growing season. Napa cab’s will be different from one AVA to the next and will reflect thier region. Napa Pinot wouldn’t likely demonstrate the difference to anywhere near the same degree. This is also why cooler vintages tend to be more transparent, the features of a sight have a more pronounced impact on a wine when those grapes are barely able to ripen.

  13. Arthur Przebinda - May 8, 2008

    “At this point the focus should be on further defining AVA boundrys that reflect reality”
    I totally agree.
    Do you think that once the boundaries are re-drawn, a regional style will come to light.

  14. Jerry Murray - May 8, 2008

    If you look at Burgundy, the lines are drawn around such small parcels of land that the style cannot be accurately described as ‘regional’. Certainly IF winemaking is done to respect ‘place’ such styles should emerge… the more the committment to expressing place the more defined the style.
    The problem with this type of Utopian ideal is that wines, within a region, would likely become somewhat homogenous. This makes sales, the real reason there is a wine industry, difficult.
    In short, it is hard to say if a regional style would develop. Certainly if one did, it would eventually be challenged and likely evolve. These things are rarely static.

  15. Thomas Pellechia - May 9, 2008

    I agree with Jerry, which is why I used Riesling and Cabernet S as an example. No matter how you cut it, establishing regional AVA must also mean establishing grape variety site specifics, and some will have to go because they simply can’t get you where you want to be for lack of specific climatic conditions suitable to the varieties.
    One of the reasons West Coast winemaking is more about the winemaker than about the place is that the winemaker works with everything the producer throws at him or her, from Rhone to Bordeaux to Germanic varieties, et al, which are grown for their specific places.
    California offers generally great climate and topography, but it doesn’t offer all climates and topography.

  16. Fredric Koeppel - May 9, 2008

    and there’s the problem of AVAs that are so huge that any inherent “regional” qualities would be impossible to detect or define. AA’s methods and goals would work only with the smallest, most restricted AVAs, Oakville, for example, as opposed to Napa Valley. the whole system needs to be overhauled.

  17. Tish - May 9, 2008

    Having a Psychology degree rarely serves me well in wine, but in the case of terroir and Appellation America’s efforts to impose this concept so broadly, I am repeatedly reminded of the ides of nature vs. nurture. That debate can never be concluded because belief in nature can never vanquish the impact of nurture, and vice versa. As long as U.S. vintners operate independently and are allowed to grow whatever they like (which is indeed the American way), we will never have anything like the French AOC system, and we will never come close to nailing down the “nature” side of winemaking to any broad extent.
    Personally I do believe in terroir being apparent in certain California regions that have a track record with specific grapes (e.g., Stag’s Leap District Cab, Russian River Pinot Noir). Yet even in these cases, the nurture side (expressed in picking time, oak aging, blending, etc.) is a wild card that trumps our ability reach consensus.
    I am completely with you, Tom, on your point questioning whethere AA is able to express definitive, agreed-upon character of aroma and flavor from specific areas. If they can’t nail that down, then we’re all just emitting a bunch of hot air.
    And as for the medals sporting 90+ for gold and 80+ for silver, I think it undercuts AA’s own goals. Declare all you want that the medals represent expression of terroir; bringing medals with numbers(!) into the dicussion can only be construed as a masure of wine quality. In other words, if definitive terroir exists, it either is or isn’t present in a given wine. The choosing of gold and silver reflects subjective preference, which is a very separate thing from “somewhere-ness.”

  18. Thomas Pellechia - May 9, 2008

    “The choosing of gold and silver reflects subjective preference, which is a very separate thing from “somewhere-ness.””
    Gee, Tish. Do you mean that wine is not like horse racing or football? Another illusion shattered.
    Incidentally, I agree completely. In fact, I’ve been wondering about all the hot air and how much longer it’s safe for us to keep spewing it, what with global climate change and all that…

  19. Tish - May 9, 2008

    Yeah, we’re all blowhards in a way. The trick is not to hyperventilate. Meanwhile, I don’t mean to poo-poo the terroir debate completely; it genuinely helps move our collective wine appreciation forward. But it is also very easy to slide down slippery slopes, fall into ruts, dig deep trenches and all sorts of other earthly metaphors. Ownard and upward!

  20. Thomas Pellechia - May 9, 2008

    I once had a talk with Dan Berger about this subject. My impression is that he is more in our camp than the AA press release would have us believe.
    Still, without a government-industry effort to truly establish an American appellation system, AA’s attempt is likely to spiral into one of your earthly metaphors.

  21. Agent Red - May 9, 2008

    I really believe that establishing a ‘regional style’ is nearly impossible. Just today I tasted a Monterey County Pinot Noir (Galante Vineyards superb 2005 Almond Flat Estate Pinot Noir) that tastes *nothing* like other Pinot of the region. Who is to say which one expresses the typical or even ‘best’ character of the region??

  22. Brad Kitson - May 9, 2008

    Wines can certainly be evaluated in a scientific way by descriptive analysis. This would allow comparison of wines within and between appellations. With enough samples, the terrior of a given appellation would be strongly indicated in the description of the wines. No other method I’m aware of has much credibility.

  23. Jerry Murray - May 9, 2008

    I think it might be helpful if we think of these AVA’s as a startin point, not the final word. Here in Oregon we have an AVA The Dundee Hills that I am certain will be, in the future, split into two. Though the north and south portions have great similiarity, there is a distinct difference.
    Europe has not decades but centries of drawing and redrawing these lines. We have just begun. I am not thrilled however with the idea of ‘judging’ ‘terrior’. It just seems like the antithesis of what it is all about. Lets approach ‘terrior’ from the stand point of unique-ness not superiority.

  24. Thomas Pellechia - May 10, 2008

    “Lets approach ‘terrior’ from the stand point of unique-ness not superiority.”
    Hear, hear.
    Of course, that won’t make any money for wine critics.

  25. fredric koeppel - May 10, 2008

    are any wine critics making money? let me know.

  26. Morton Leslie - May 11, 2008

    Appellations really have nothing to do with a wines flavor, rather they have everything to do with marketing and image. In any business it’s what you do when your brand develops a following. It doesn’t matter if it is because you built it through image or you have a superior product. You protect your brand and your franchise with trademarks and whatever else you can muster. In wine we add appellations to the mix, just because we can. We even make them up before they have a following.

  27. Roger Dial - May 14, 2008

    Just a couple quick observations pursuant to issues raised by Tish, Arthur, Thomas, et al. While it is the case that Appellation America has consistently been wedded to the notion that a geographic skeleton (aka appellations) is essential for the protection and elaboration of diversity in the North American wine culture & industry, we have been equally consistent in saying that appellation does not equal terroir. Go into the Appellation America archives and you will find any number of features by myself, Dan Berger, Thom Elkjer, Alan Goldfarb, et al in which we work at definitions of terroir that encorporate all the human choices (many of them technology responses to the natural environment) along with the ecological variables. Is there a difference between the natural ecology of Fair Play AVA and Oakville AVA…you bet. Do they make wine differently in in Fair Play and Oakville…you bet. Analyze and track those differences and you begin to get “footprints” of diversity. That’s what the Best-of-Appellation Program is all about.
    Second observation. Predictably we are taking some flack for “going to numbers”. For those of you who know the Appellation America team as a die hard bunch of anti-scorers, this must seem like a betrayal. I trust that in due course you will see that we really haven’t gone over to the dark side. The numbers have nothing to do with the actual tastings, which are analytical probings of the component parts of the wine…this is no walk-by-an-open-bottle-and-deem-it-“89” process. Check the “About the BOA Program” link on the website on Friday, and you will perhaps have a better sense of the protocols we are using to keep it as objective and analytical as possible.
    As always, thanks for caring enough to respond to Tom’s posting.

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