Woe Is Sonoma Valley—For It Is Within the County

sonomavalleyDecanter Magazine reports that a survey by the folks over at Wine Opinions has discovered that few wine buyers differentiate between Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley and that using both on a label may even be a disadvantage.”

A disadvantage to the folks making “Sonoma Valley” wine, that is.

Of course it’s a disadvantage. And yet, after a “conjunctive labeling” law was pushed through the state legislature at the behest of the Sonoma County Vintners Association in 2010, it is now law that every wine made in Sonoma County must carry the “Sonoma County” wording on the label, whether all the grapes came from within Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Russian River Valley or any other Sonoma County-based appellation

In other words, Sonoma County Vintners Association’s conjunctive labeling scheme is working:  The prestige earned by far more quality oriented designations like “Sonoma Coast”, “Carneros”, “Sonoma Valley”, Russian River Valley and “Dry Creek Valley”—all located inside Sonoma County—gets siphoned off, spread across the “Sonoma County” designation, where it disappears into the ether, never to be capitalized on again.

To the really focused, interested wine lover, none of this matters. They understand the meaning of sub-appellations. They understand that “Howell Mountain” on a label means something, whether the label also has “Napa Valley” on it or not. The high-end drinker understands that “Dry Creek Valley” means something different from “Sonoma County” and they ignore the latter being included on the label.

But for the average wine drinker who may only have a modest familiarity with the intricacies of appellations placed on labels and may have a slightly heightened but not obsessive interest, the inclusion of both “Sonoma County” and another sub-appellation like “Sonoma Coast” or “Russian River Valley” is indeed confusing. The problem is that it is these modestly interested wine drinkers that matter. These are the folks more likely to trade up and more likely to move into a more active wine drinking lifestyle. So, let’s confuse the hell out of them. Let’s make them feel stupid, shall we.

Here’s what the folks who champion “Sonoma County” don’t understand: They are not the equivalent of “Napa Valley”. When the modest wine drinker sees “Howell Mountain—Napa Valley” on a label, the “Napa Valley” part of the label—which also by law must be on the label because a conjunctive labeling law was also passed for the Napa Valley-made wines—grants the wine greater prestige in the mind of the drinker. It’s a benefit to the winery that made wine from Howell Mountain grapes.

However, when the modest wine lover sees “Sonoma County” on the label, the winery who made wine from Russian River Valley grapes yet is required to put “Sonoma County” on the label, benefits nothing at all. In fact, their brand and the wine may even be damaged by the requirement to include “Sonoma County”.

The irony is that it ought to be the job of the Sonoma County Wineries Association to help build the reputation of the various sub-appellations within the County, not the County itself. The Sonoma County Wineries Association ought to be spending its money sponsoring public tastings of  “Bennett Valley Wine” or of “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Instead, they are scooping up the prestige gained by the various sub appellations within the county and trying to ladle it on to the entire Sonoma County designation. But it doesn’t stay. That prestige they are appropriating spills out and disappears. It’s theft. The thing is, you at least expect a thief to benefit from his crime. In this case, the thief hasn’t found a way to fence the goods.

Maureen Cottingham, the executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance is quoted in Decanter piece:

“We know that Sonoma Valley has very distinct appellations, but there is confusion with the title. Is it a coast? Is it a valley? Is it a town? A county? Or all?’”

She goes on then to say:

“The SVVGA’s ‘Roots Run Deep’ campaign is separate but complementary to the ‘We are Sonoma’ campaign launched by the Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Tourism earlier this month”

She’s right. The Sonoma Valley promotional campaign does indeed complement the Sonoma County promotional campaign. The problem is that the Sonoma County promotional campaign does not complement the Sonoma Valley promotional campaign. It deters from it.

Sonoma Valley has a problem and one that I care about since I have a very intimate affinity for Sonoma Valley, where I lived for many years and love dearly. Sonoma Valley is grammatically and geographically wedged between Napa Valley and Sonoma County. It will never be Napa and it can’t want to be Sonoma County. In fact, Sonoma Valley brings far more prestige to Sonoma County than the other way around. And, Sonoma Valley derives more prestige by being geographically and grammatically associated with Napa Valley.

Poor Sonoma Valley has continually struggled to find its place n the wine world. It does not possess a reputation for world-class red wine the way Napa Valley does. In fact, Sonoma Valley has not developed a reputation for producing any particular varietal. It’s easy to promote yourself when you are associate with a particular kind of wine. Diversity is a hard to thing to hang a hat on. And its inclusion in the larger “Sonoma County” just creates confusion.

The challenge for the Sonoma Valley vintners and the Sonoma Valley brand is to find a way to continue to benefit from its grammatical and geographic association with Napa Valley and to push away from its County association.

12 Responses

  1. John Kelly - January 25, 2013

    Sonoma Mountain, too. Sonoma Coast – however “hot” the appellation may seem in the market today – not so much.

    I’m putting this little piece of garbage text where it belongs – on the back label between the mandatory producer statement and government warning, where it can do the least amount of damage to our brand. Staying with Sonoma Valley loud and proud on the front label.

    And we will never, ever again support Sonoma County Vintners or Sonoma County Winegrape Commission either with dues or by participating in any promotion or event they are involved in, in any way. These organizations have proven that they are unreliable partners, putting their self-interest ahead of the interests of the individual growers and producers they purport to represent. Moving on.

  2. Lee - January 26, 2013

    I agree with Mr. Kelly , this conjunctive label thing was BS at it’s highest, and helps no one , except perhaps the organizations themselves.
    We also do not support said organizations, because of this issue, their kowtowing to the larger wineries, and the fiasco of the so called regional tastings for the Wine Advocate.
    We have better ways to spend our money.

  3. Jim - January 27, 2013

    What the author and responders don”t recognize is that a large part of the wine drinkers that are not very educated in California wines have always thought of all the appelations in Sonoma County as part of Napa Valley. I’ve grown grapes in the Alexander Valley for fourty years and I can’t count the times wine drinkers outside of Northern California indicated they thought we are part of the “ONE wine growing area of California known as Napa Valley”. Personally, I think it is time to let the wine drinking public know that there are wine growing areas other than Napa Valley. As for Sonoma Valley, I can”t believe that the growers and wineries would rather be thought of as Napa Valley. I would think they would be proud of their appelation and prefer to not have it cosidered as part of Napa Valley!

  4. RB - January 28, 2013

    The typical Sonoma wine tourist has not clue where Russian River or Dry Creek are. Or why they should care at all. When they see only those words on the bottle, they ask is this a ‘local wine’ from Napa. No, it ain’t Napa. It took those folks 30 years to brand that name. It will take Sonoma 20 years to brand this name. Start now and someday it will be. Napa folks understand that they are part of a single marketing engine. Over here, it’s “my sub region vs. yours” as if most of the customers cared that much. Sometimes I wonder if a lot of Sonoma County winery folks won’t be satisfied until they each have their very own tiny appellation.

  5. jeff - January 28, 2013

    Sonoma county/valley confusion abounds even among ‘focused, interested wine lovers’. I’ve been making, promoting, and selling Sonoma Valley wines for basically my whole adult life. While I’ve seen evolution in most aspects of the industry, that confusion has never waned. I for one believe the redundancy of ‘Sonoma’ on the label from conjunctive labeling will actually help Sonoma Valley differentiate itself. The bigger issue I have is the ‘Poor Sonoma Valley’ characterization’, and that buy-in to the county’s progressive unification efforts will do anything but help clarify and promote Sonoma Valley’s or any other appellation’s place within the county, and the greater wine world. I’ll be ageist here because I’m old enough, and say the whole perspective reeks of old school ‘we need to remain separate from the county marketing efforts because we can do it better, and we are different (read better) than the rest of the county anyway.‘ Ten plus years ago, the first half of that take was probably right. While the wineries of Napa, Paso Robles, Lodi etc. plied their wares under their respective region’s unified and successful messaging, Sonoma County remained a discombobulated collection of isolated and (at least in SV’s case) xenophobic appellations. What was lost (besides a number of SV wineries that abandoned or chose not to use the ‘Sonoma Valley’ designation), was the advantage that all Sonoma County appellations could have if they were starting from a consistent and unified messaging and promotional platform that skillfully honed the ‘diversity problem’ into the real asset that we who live and work here know it is- to both quality of wine and of life. Fast forward to today and all that has changed. Thankfully, Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission have evolved to recognize that in unity comes strength. Conjunctive labeling is only the most obvious of many initiatives that are successfully creating a platform from which every Sonoma County appellation can promote its unique attributes to a bigger and more attuned audience.

  6. John Kelly - January 28, 2013

    So let’s see if I have this straight. The argument for conjunctive labeling boils down to “geographic appellations that make more or less sense in the real world are all well and good, but to be able to compete we need to manufacture a geographically irrelevant and meaningless entity for PR and marketing purposes, and force everyone in the boundaries of this meaningless entity to use it on their label.”

    This is ridiculous on its face. The premise from the outset is a straw man: that we are “competing” with Napa Valley. Last time I checked I’m pretty sure I’m competing with everyone. Then there’s the flawed assumption that if we do what Napa did with their conjunctive labeling law, we will magically achieve parity of recognition in the consumer demographic who don’t really care where their wine comes from, and use “Napa Valley” as a mental placeholder for “wine country.”

    Well, this conjunctive labeling law DID NOT do what the Napa law did. There they took the “Napa Valley” brand – one with already high name recognition, developed over 100 years (not 30) – and applied it to every grape grown in Napa County. Why didn’t we just allow every vineyard in Sonoma County to use “Sonoma Valley”? No, instead, our law elevates a name with zero brand capital.

    But what I find most offensive is that SCV and SCWC – two organizations that do not represent the majority of vintners and growers in the County – barely got a majority of their non-representative membership to support this measure, and rammed it through the Legislature. The conjunctive labeling law accomplished by fiat what neither organization could hope to achieve by consensus, even within their own membership. The arrogance of that presumption is just staggering.

  7. Scott - January 28, 2013

    There are a multitude of problems with Sonoma County’s conjunctive labeling law. Starting with the most basic is SCV’s and SCWC’s claims that every Sonoma County winery will benefit from the requirements. If this were the case, all of us would have been labeling our wines with the “Sonoma County” moniker long ago. What about linguistic redundancy? Now I need to list Sonoma County on my Sonoma Mountain wines made at my Sonoma winery? That’s a lot of “Sonoma” on one label. Comparisons to Napa’s conjunctive labeling law are poorly chosen. I have made wine at wineries in both Napa Valley and (currently) in Sonoma County, so I’ve had plenty of interaction with visitors to both places. When folks think of Napa, they invariably think of Cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends. When all of Sonoma County is lumped in together, what will be the varietal identification – zinfandel from Dry Creek, cabernet from Alexander Valley, or pinot noir from any number of distinct places within the county. No offense to big wineries, as they have their rightful niche in the huge world of wines, but I don’t want my handcafted, relatively expensive wines to be confused with a $14 wine at Safeway because they both say “Sonoma County” on the label – what SCV and SCWC are trying to achieve is equivalency of these two wines in the mind of the customer. Lastly, our labels are small and simple, without a lot of wasted space. Although the changes are small, we’ve had to redesign and increase the size of the labels so we’ve got space to add the newly-required verbiage. Neither SCV nor SCWC have offered to reimburse us for the nearly $10,000 it has cost to do this. The cost to small producers far outweighs the benefits.

  8. Tom Wark - January 28, 2013


    You said:

    “Conjunctive labeling is only the most obvious of many initiatives that are successfully creating a platform from which every Sonoma County appellation can promote its unique attributes to a bigger and more attuned audience.”

    I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone else who has been more generous in promoting Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Valley wines as you have.

    With that said, what of those wineries that believe putting “sonoma county” on their labels not only doesn’t help sell their wines, but actually hinders them?

    The SCV could do a great deal to help the sales, increasing he average price per bottle and increasing recognition for Sonoma County wines by helping promote the various appellations within SC.

    The only thing that any other type of SCV promo campaign can do to impact a winery make Sonoma Valley wines or Russian River Valley wines or Sonoma Coast wines is remind people that these regions are in Sonoma County. That doesn’t necessarily help these wineries. What’s the point of making that distinction unless having Sonoma County on the label brings significant value to a brand or wine.

    If we look at wines that carry only “Sonoma County” on the label vs wines that had only carried sub appellations on the label, I think we’ll find that the latter have far higher average price per bottles. That tells me something.

  9. Bill Smart - January 30, 2013

    Tom – first, you know I have a ton of respect for what you do. But, in this regard I have to respectfully disagree with what you are saying. I can understand both sides to this argument, however, it really comes down to a singular belief and that is – do you believe that a rising tide raises all boats, or not?

    As a person who respects history and tries to learn from it, we have no better example to learn from than that of Robert Mondavi. Mr. Mondavi spent his entire life speaking not of his own winery or the AVA (Rutherford) that it was in. Rather, he spent all of his time talking about Napa Valley and it’s grapes. As a result, Napa is viewed as the premier wine region in CA. That, my friend, I’m sure you would not argue with.

    I love Sonoma as much as you do. And I love the diversity it represents. The conjuctive labeling and efforts to create a “Brand Sonoma” are not meant to water down that diversity. It’s meant to acutally highlight that diversity but with a signular unifying message. Being the smart marketer that you are, I’m sure you can understand that having clear, concise messaging points for consumers is very important.

  10. Jake - February 1, 2013

    Great point Bill.

    I appreciate your positive inclusive approach.

  11. Mick Unti - February 5, 2013

    John Kelly is the Man!! His well-written response perfectly articulates the opinion of any quality driven winery in Sonoma County.

    I can only add this: Any small winery who thinks that including the geographically ambiguous term “Sonoma County” on their label is constructive for consumers, probably won’t be around ten years from now to see the outcome.

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