Napa Valley’s Appellations Are Near Meaningless

Richard Mendelson’s newish book, “Appellations Napa Valley” is a fantastic tome. Written in a personal, first person voice that reflects Mendelson’s vast experience with the development of the Valley’s various sub appellations as well as his obvious and genuine affinity for this part of the world, the coffee table-style book is a unique and necessary addition to the Napa Valley Wine bibliography.

However, the subject of the book brings up an important question that has been asked before: Do Napa Valley’s various sub-appellations have any real meaning for consumers beyond being lines on a map?

Let me put that question another way. Should an experienced consumer of Napa Valley wine be able to easily tell the difference between an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon? What about between a Saint Helena Cabernet Sauvignon and an Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon?

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the most experienced Napa Valley palates couldn’t not successfully and consistently identify the AVAs from which a selection of different Napa Valley Cabernets originate. And if they can’t do this, what are the odds that Jimmy Bigcellar from Dallas can identify the AVA of different Napa Valley Cabernets?

Mendelson himself is well aware of this critical deficiency of the Napa sub-AVAs and AVAs in general when he exposes the most common criticism of AVAs: “They are marketing devices that impart no useful information to the consumer.”

He correctly identifies the problem with AVAs. He further appreciates this deficiency when he goes on to speculate about potential futures of the AVA system. Mendelson spends his most important chapter looking at the potential for the ruling federal agency, the TTB, to regulate the real sources of verifiable and identifiable terroir, the designated vineyard, as well as speculating on how vintners and growers in different AVAs might one day voluntarily layout growing and production rules. Mendelson writes:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someday a vintner-grower group in the Napa Valley were to adopt a voluntary, private program covering grapegrowing and winemaking practices and a tasting of the finished wines as part of a collective effort to enhance the expression of the AVA’s most distinctive wines.”

Mendelson identifies the only practical way an AVA in Napa Valley will ever provide consumers with real meaning where the character and style of its wines are concerned. I would, however, be somewhat more surprised to see this happen on any significant scale than he is.

The only reason that the wines of the AOC system in France have any consistency is that there are very specific rules governing how an AOC labeled wine is made and how its grapes are grown and which grapes are used. No such rules exist in America, let alone Napa Valley. Mendelson correctly identifies the reasons this has not occurred in the U.S. when he notes that, “For a New World country that is still actively exploring its terroir and developing traditions and culture, rigid appellation controls run the risk of stifling innovation and impeding product development…While it is not in the Amerian DNA to dictate to farmers what grape varieties are to be planted where or to control the art of winemaking, it is part of our culture to experiment.”

In my view, Napa Valley has accumulated so much renowned in spite of its sub-AVAs. I suspect there is not a single wine made in Napa Valley that would be less successful and less famous if it removed the sub-AVA designation on its label and simply put the “Napa Valley” AVA on the label. That isn’t to say that some AVA’s grapes demand more money. They do. But consumers don’t know this. Screaming Eagle would still be “Screaming Eagle” whether it put “Oakville on the label or not. Colgin is Colgin despite the fact that it does not put sub-AVAs on its label.

Today, Napa Valley AVA’s amount to two things: lines on a map and marketing objects around which various marketing stories can be told. They tell consumers very little about what the wines made from grapes grown in those AVAs are likely to taste or smell like.  

For the experienced and obsessed wine drinker, the key to understanding Napa Valley wine is to focus on the producer and the style they choose to pursue and, secondarily, to focus on designated vineyards and their specific terroirs and the characteristics they consistently lend to wines produced from their grapes. This is not to say that all Napa Valley sub appellations are simple lines on the map. Some have more meaning than others, for sure. But this does not take away from the reality the meaning is invested in producers and vineyards.

On the other hand, I highly recommend Richard Mendelson’s new book on Napa Valley appellations. It is such a real pleasure to read and is stuffed with good writing, good history, and good analysis.

20 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - September 8, 2017

    Mendelson is both a significant contributopr to the necessary expansion of the sub-AVA system in the Napa Valley and one of the people who therefore must also stand accused of helping to screw things up.

    That he still defends the very much faulted arrangement that allowed mid-valley AVAs to be identified by commune (town lines) as opposed to wine commonalities is a big strike against him. He and the folks who agreed to this bastard of a compromise knew better and yet let it ride for marketing reasons, not wine commonality reasons.

    But, folks in the Napa Valley do know better. Witness the most recent tasting put on by the Rutherford folks in which wines were chosen to represent subsets of the Rutherford AVA. They know, as even Jimmy Bigcellar knows, that the West Rutherford Bench produces identifiable wines that are significantly different from the wines grown across the valley near the Silverado Trail. While it may not be easy to separate West Rutherford from West Oakville, it is pretty easy when presented with representative examples of each to tell them apart.

    So, full credit to Mr. Mendelson for the good that he has done, but demerits for the damage that he has helped to foist on the intent of the AVA system,

  2. Cyril Penn - September 8, 2017

    Hi Tom, If you haven’t tried it and have a chance, I would recommend the blending experience at Conn Creek, a great way to taste wines from (nearly) every ‘sub’ appellation in Napa, get a sense of how different they taste (not that different?), make your own blend … etc

  3. Kurt Niznik - September 8, 2017

    Yes, it is a marketing ploy, just as the appellation systems of european countries are marketing ploys. Marketing, you know, that thing you do so you can sell your product so that you can earn income so that you can still actually be in business next year to make the wine again, so that all the wine drinkers have something to drink while they argue about how screwed up wine classifications are.
    How is any of this a bad thing? Especially when wine drinkers love to have it, to connect what they are experiencing with a place that it came from, even if they can’t tell by taste that it’s any different from some other place nearby.

    • Tom Wark - September 8, 2017


      I’m actually a fan of marketing and marketers. In fact, I play one in real life. So, I’m not suggesting that using AVAs to market wine is a bad thing at all. It’s a good thing. It’s just that there are severe limitation in my view to the AVA system, particularly if an AVA is expected to communicate something about the wines that are made from its grapes.

  4. DAVID VERGARI - September 8, 2017

    The poster child for meaningless Napa Valley AVAs is Stags Leap.

  5. Liz Holtzclaw - September 8, 2017

    He mentions: “I wouldn’t be surprised if someday a vintner-grower group in the Napa Valley were to adopt a voluntary, private program covering grapegrowing and winemaking practices and a tasting of the finished wines as part of a collective effort to enhance the expression of the AVA’s most distinctive wines.”

    This has already occurred in a different AVA outside of Napa Valley. I very large personality in our industry has already tried to move in a direction that would limit using a new “special” name for an already approved grape variety, and proposed a rule be made that would limit the use of that special name to the variety only when grown in a specific AVA.

    TTB has long help a very firm position that the US grape growing industry , not government, is best suited to determine what varieties and growing methods are most appropriate for what places. There is no chance whatever that the TTB will revise regulations to limit the use of AVAs along the lines of the European AOC system.

    In fact they moved the opposite direction when they caved to worldwide industry pressure and started to allow vintage dates for wines with a country appellation. Previously the regulation stated that you could not put a vintage date on a wine unless the appellation was smaller than a country. Currently, you cannot name a variety or indicate a vintage without some appellation, but that can be: American, or Italy, or Argentina, etc.

  6. Peter Rubissow - September 8, 2017

    Terroir is real. It’s what you do with it that matters.

    Napa Valley is chock full of distinctive terroir (soil/terrain/weather) locales. Here on Mt. Veeder for example, we have several terroir sub regions within the overall AVA of Mt. Veeder. Each is distinctive, but unified through the soil that runs through each section.

    Question is, do people want wines that honestly express terroir? Or do people prefer wines that are relatively uniform and mostly rich and sweet? There is a market for both. Terroir-driven winemaking is all about making the most authentic viticultural expression of your soil and place as possible. But within that goal, there are infinite variations availlable to the grape grower and the winemaker. Vine clone choice, root selection, crop load, trellis type, vine training, fertilzer types, irrigation rates, dry farming, cover cropping, leaf canopy management.

    All these aspects can have subtle effects on the flavor of the grapes grown and thus the wines made. And of course, once the grapes are crushed, today’s winemakers have myriad tools and effects that can be applied in varying amounts.

    Terroir-driven winemaking is all about minimalist intervention all along the path from vine to bottle. But even minimialists must make choices. How long to leave the skins with the wine? Punch down or pump over? Which barrels to use, if any? From which forests and at what rate of toast/charring? What yeasts to use? What temperature to keep your fermentation at and on and on. In sum, AVAs have marketing utlilty. Of course. AVAs help everyone distinguish place from place. Bottle from bottle. But underlying the AVA surface borders we impose lie the rich or sparse soils that make or break our wines.

    In the end, at least in fine wine, it is the soil and weather that we taste. If more winemakers and winery owners would make wines that take this heart the wines made in each AVA might have more regionality to them. Or not. There is no one way to make wine. There are infinite variables in the craft. And variation is part of the fun and “maker” spirit of wine.

    I for one encourage estate wineries to make intriguing wines that express the full depth, character and beauty of their sites, while being mindful of the ever-present potential to blur those wines into uniformity.

  7. Clark Smith - September 8, 2017

    At AppellationAmerica, we have been busy mapping the sensory characteristics of American AVAs. The sensory differences in Napa Valley are quite striking. For example, Howell Mountain can be depended upon to be remorselessly tannic, while Oak Knoll and Yountville have fat, soft tannins.
    To your point, we have found the AVA associations in Napa Valley to be the least cooperative in the country. I think the ignorance of the wine-loving public is partly intentional. They seem to want not to be characterized, lest an AVA fail to be all things to all people. It does seem that the name is enough to promote sales, and beyond that they prefer that local character remain mysterious.

  8. John Skupny - September 8, 2017

    It is legend that when asked of Harry Waugh if he ever had mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux, he replied “not since lunch’! Dust, velvet glove, precision, opulence, mineral impersession.. Amazing how language, semantics and geography get in the way of a good glass of wine!

    • Timothy McDonald - September 11, 2017

      …not since lunch! sub avas mostly marketing inspired bs.

  9. Ren Harris - September 9, 2017

    Appellations and sub appellations are interesting, often fun and sometimes confusing. Richard Mendelson’s book accurately describes the process to date and clears up some of the confusion. That being said, it’s who you’re with and where you’re at, that are the primary factors in making a bottle of wine noteworthy – the label mainly tells you what to order next time.

    • Charlie Olken - September 11, 2017

      Mr. Harris, whose wines are among those that people should order a second time, makes a good point that is more universal than it might seem at first blush.

      It matters not whether you apply it to Oakville or to Bonnes Mares or Pauillac, there are differences among producers such that the name on the label comes with even more power than the appellation name.

      But that admission on my part does not diminish the shortcomings of the AVA system as currently constructed. And, even with those shortcomings, there are still well-defined places like the Stags Leap District or Howell Mountain that do have strongly suggestive traits attached to their appearance on a label.

      We simply need more of them and fewer market driven definitions.

  10. Michael Nguyen - September 11, 2017

    Why do we have draw lines for cities and states…oh that must be marketing too?

  11. Kristina - September 11, 2017

    Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard is within the town of Yountville, but resides in the Oakville AVA.

  12. Dwight Albers - September 13, 2017

    I’m just a novice wine enthusiast and probably way over my head in a discussion of this depth. I’m enough of a wine geek that I read daily wine business emails and trade articles to learn more. But for all of the defining characteristics of an AVA, a sub-appellation, a vineyard or vineyard block, the winemaking still stands out to me to be the tie-breaker. A couple of years ago, a became fond of a certain Howell Mountain vintner. Then last year I stumbled upon a wine of the same vintage, made by a different winemaker, from grapes from the same Howell Mountan vineyard. The one blew the other away in my humble opinion. That was a eureka learning moment for me! The pedigree of an AVA, vineyard or talented grower may be a great start, but the magic wand still has to be waved by the winemaker.

  13. Marshall Newman - September 14, 2017

    “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,” according to the old proverb. Tom Wark’s wishes go beyond the parameters of US AVA regulations and beyond reasonable expectations.

    According to the regulations (ATF-53, which revised regulations in 27 CFR part 4) an AVA petition must provide: 1. Evidence of local or national name recognition. 2. Evidence that the boundaries of the viticultural area are as specified in the petition. 3. Evidence relating to the geographical characteristics that distinguish the viticultural features of the area from surrounding areas. 4. A description of the specific boundaries of the viticultural area, based on USGS maps. 5. Copies of the appropriate USGS maps with the proposed boundaries prominently marked.

    Do an AVA’s distinctive geographical characteristics influence wine character? Yes. Do they do so to the extent that tasters can distinguish one AVA from another? Sometimes yes and sometimes no – lots of other variables (grape varieties, winemaking, etc.) come into play. Are some AVA boundaries problematic? Perhaps (but those who don’t like them can petition to change them). Does that make the current AVA system useless? No, because it provides consumers information with which to make informed buying decisions, the stated goal for creating the US AVA system from the beginning.

    California is a relatively young wine region, with growers and vintners still finding their ways. We are a long way from AOC-style regulations, not that anyone here will want them. Consumers (and yes, wineries) benefit from the current AVA system. The AVA system in the US may not yet work as Tom Wark wishes it would, but it does work.

    I should probably acknowledge that I researched and wrote several Napa Valley American Viticultural Area petitions. However, Rutherford was not one of them.

  14. Todd Hansen - September 17, 2017

    A prestigious AVA affects the value of the wine, the fruit used to make the wine and ultimately the value of the land on which the grapes are grown. An AVA’s reputation isn’t simply a result of marketing, it is based on the quality of wines that come from that AVA.

    Land is an input in grape growing; the cost of the capital invested in the land is an expense. The more expensive the land, the more discipline there is on the grower to produce quality fruit, otherwise the grower is not realizing an adequate return on the value of the investment. Accordingly, the grapes that are planted and the cost of the farming will be matched to the value of the land.

    It is a virtuous circle, where expensive land is expensive because it grows good grapes, and by virtue of being expensive land, only good grapes will tend to be grown there.

    Overly large AVAs that lack some degree of homogeneity in exposure, macroclimate, and soil profile will provide limited information to consumers and lack meaning. More carefully delineated AVAs known for producing quality wines will impose a self-reinforcing discipline on their growers and provide useful information to consumers.

    This holds true in France, where the value of a hectare of land in an AOC is a reliable indicator of wine quality. I submit that the discipline imposed by the value of the land is generally more important than the rules, although restrictions on vine age and yield likely do improve reliability of wine quality from a given AOC.

  15. David Vergari - September 18, 2017

    The comments thus far are thought-provoking and well-intentioned…well, at least most of them, but I must say that this discussion, while passionate, is much ado about nothing. I’ll go out on a limb to opine that the vast majority of wine drinkers out there have no idea what an AVA signifies.

    • Charlie Olken - September 19, 2017

      David–You are, of course, 100% correct. The majority of wine drinkers would not an AVA from hot rock. But that is not true for some of the place names like Russian River Valley or even, for those who are aware of it, the Temecula Valley.

      Moreover, those same folks have no idea what the requirements are for the use of varietal names on a label or the difference between Tempranillo and Primitivo let alone the difference between Zinfandel and Primitivo.

      But those facts, because I do accept them as fact, does not deny the importance of an AVA system for that part of the wine world that does care. And that is why the bastardization of the AVA system by the Govt and the industry has shortchanged the very consumers who do care, who spend the big bucks on wine, etc.

      And for what it is worth, most consumers do not even know about what a county name means on a label in terms of wine character or quality. They buy what they buy, rarely by AVA and only occasionally by county. Most of the wine made in California comes with a CA appellation. That fact does not change the need for an small-area appellation system that benefits both consumers and the industry.

  16. Tom Hall - October 8, 2017

    I think that that the whole of the Napa AVA is bogus. It covers a valley floor, the hills and peaks on both to the east and west and drops over the hills (“mountains”) to the east. Given how that must of happened, no surprise that the subdivisions are flawed.

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