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.