Freedom and Egalitarianism in American Wine
The San Francisco Chronicle’s excellent young wine editor, Esther Mobley, engages in some really interesting speculation this week. In response to Katherine Cole’s excellent survey of how some wine labelling regulations have and are changing in the U.S. published in SevenFifty Daily, Mobley asks the following question:
“Will this emulation of Europe at some point endanger our distinctively American spirit of experimentation when it comes to planting vineyards?”
What Esther is asking is will wine labelling regulations in the U.S. evolve to the point where in order for the name of an AVA such as “Willamette Valley” or “Napa Valley” to show up on a bottle of wine will it be required by law that the wine in the bottle be made from a specific grape variety and will it be required to be produced with specific winemaking techniques? Or will the Willamette Valley or Napa Valley designate certain vineyards as better than others via a “cru” system used in Burgundy and other regions in France?
I think Esther’s question is more rhetorical than anything else. I think this because in her question she recognizes the power of the “distinctively American spirit of experimentation”. However, let me take the question she poses at face value.
No. There is absolutely no chance that American labelling laws will move toward a European model and require wines that have a specific appellation on the bottle also be produced with specific grape varieties or be made with specific winemaking techniques. It’s not even a possibility. Nor is it possible that an official vineyard hierarchy will emerge in any winemaking region in America.
The coming requirement in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that Kathrine Cole writes about where in order to make a “Willamette Valley” wine one will be required to use 100% Willamette Valley grapes is really just minor tweak to Oregon labelling laws. On the other hand, the idea of requiring a Willamette Valley-labeled wine to be made only with either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay a la laws in France’s Burgundy region or the idea of designating certain Willamette Valley vineyards being of higher quality are such monumentally stupid ideas I find it difficult to believe that, as Cole report in her SevenFifty article, that they were even broached by industry members in Oregon.
The thing that really separates Burgundy or Bordeaux from Napa Valley and the Willamette Valley is the clear desire among the Bordelais and Burgundians that wines produced in their regions and carrying the names of those regions’ appellations have similar characters while there is no such interest in mono-character wines among Napans and Oregonians.
This is true despite the fact that some Oregonians have made rhetorical feints toward such an idea recently.
The well-publicized controversy surrounding California winery Copper Cane’s use of Oregon grapes to make a variety of wines that, apparently, unlawfully reference various Oregon AVAs, is also a dispute over quality. The Copper Cane wines made under the Elouan label are made with 100% Oregon grapes. However, these grapes are trucked to California, where the wines are fermented and finished.
One of the things that apparently irks the Willamette Valley and Oregonian winemakers is that these Elouan wines are not only the best-selling Oregon wines in America, but they are also much bigger and more pronounced and richer in character than typical Pinot Noirs that come out of Oregon, let alone the Willamette Valley. Some folks in Oregon think this is a problem.
In fact, some have used this fact to attempt to disparage the Elouan wines. None other than Oregon congressional representative David Gomberg noted the following: “Elouan and The Willametter Journal (wines) look and taste like they have an additive in them that is legal to use in California but not in Oregon wines.” Elouan representatives have vehemently pushed back against this accusation, calling it “slanderous”.
It might not be slanderous, but it certainly is an attempt to disparage the brand and the wines made under the brand. Moreover, it’s a nod toward the idea that Willamette Valley and Oregon Pinot Noirs are of a particular character. But the fact is, even if the wines were produced by Copper Can at a Oregon facility in the Willamette Valley, they could be produced in this more opulent style and they would indeed be Oregon Pinot Noir just as much as any other wine produced from Willamette Valley grapes are Pinot Noir.
In the end, I can’t imagine a single Oregon vintner wanting to prohibit Oregon Pinots or even Willamette Pinot Noirs from being made in this opulent style. To do so would go entirely counter to what Mobley properly identifies as “a distinctively American spirit of experimentation.”
So, while there may be some move among some to alter American wine label laws to make use of certain appellations dependent upon use of a higher percentage of grapes from the named appellation, there is absolutely no chance that American vintners will ask that only certain grapes or certain techniques be required in producing wines with a particular appellation. Nor will there ever be any effort to officially and legally rank the quality of a region’s vineyards.
Not only would this go against “a distinctively American spirit of experimentation” it would undermine the kind of freedom and egalitarianism that have allowed American winemaking and wine quality to advance so quickly to a place equality with the rest of the world.