OK, wine geeks: Pop quiz time. Tell me the difference between a wine made in Adelaida and one made in Estrella. What do you mean you have no idea where those places are? They're two of California's newest wine appellations.
Here's another question: Are appellations a way of defining terroir, or are they a marketing tool?
Surprise tests aside, Adelaida and Estrella are two subzones of Paso Robles, a rising star of California wine. Paso recently made headlines because the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has approved 11 new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the existing Paso Robles appellation, subdividing Paso's 614,000 acres.
Paso winemakers are excited about the decision. As Jason Haas, the able steward at Tablas Creek, told my colleague MaryAnn Worobiec, "Just the thought that the recognition of the region has grown to a point where these meaningful distinctions can be made is great." Haas long championed the idea, pointing out that the greater Paso Robles AVA contains 32,000 vineyard acres, spread over a 42-mile-by-32-mile area. Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2,400 feet, rainfall ranges from more than 30 inches a year to less than 10 inches, and there's an array of differing soil types.
Critics believe, however, that Paso has mapped itself into a marketing nightmare. What does El Pomar or San Juan Creek mean to the average consumer standing in a store, looking for a good red for dinner tonight? Paso Robles had just started to build some recognition, so why dilute it?
Appellations are not just lines on a map; they are marketing tools. Even the French, who invented formal appellations, know deep down that such delineations are not just about terroir. Chambertin on a bottle means a special piece of land. It also means $300 and up for a bottle. (And that means politics are also involved. Those lines weren't drawn by soil experts alone.)
But efforts to recognize distinctive sites can go too far. The same dizzying, intoxicating variety of grapes and regions that gives wine geeks hours of fun seems like an impenetrable thicket of complications to newcomers hoping to take their first sip into a brave new world. Why make life more complicated for them?
Paso winemakers aren't blind to the potential pitfall. They lobbied for a state law mandating Paso Robles appear under the new appellation names. Napa and Sonoma have similar laws. So while you might not know what Templeton Gap means, you'll know it's part of Paso.
Paso's success owes much to the hard work of once unknown wineries that have promoted both their own brands and their region. None of us would know Paso without wines like Saxum, Justin, Tablas Creek and many others. They will have to continue these efforts, building their subappellations' identities along with the rest.
While appellations are inherently imperfect—terroir is made by nature, appellations drawn by man—would it really be better to draw no lines at all? What if every California wine simply said California? Or what if there was no place name on the label? You buy a bottle of Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir or a bottle of Kosta Browne Pinot Noir. What does it matter if one came from Oregon's Dundee Hills and one from California's Sonoma Coast?
But it does matter. And while wineries, and journalists, need to work hard to make wine inviting for newcomers, that doesn't mean erasing what makes wine like few other beverages—it comes from someplace specific.