Draw the Line On Truth
By James Laube, senior editor
For the first time in its 35-year history, the North Coast Grape Growers Association--which takes in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties--is recommending higher grape prices based on appellations. This isn't earthshaking news, but rather the tacit recognition that appellations are playing a greater role in American winemaking, and as they gain notoriety, they lead to higher grape and wine prices.
These suggested prices reflect winery and consumer awareness that some areas produce better grapes than others. This isn't anything new either; you already pay for (and usually get) a higher-quality Cabernet from Napa Valley than from any other appellation. Increasingly we're paying for superior Pinot Noirs from Russian River Valley and Carneros. If you follow the money, the most sought-after grapes and appellations command higher prices; some of that is based on quality, some on grape supply and some merely on reputation.
Many wine drinkers already feel that they're paying too much for wine and may rightly wonder if there's any consumer benefit in the price-appellation recommendations. In a nutshell: truth in labeling. The foundation of our viticultural system, which denotes special geographic and climatic areas--appellations--lies in telling consumers where their wines were grown. This has nothing to do with quality per se but with authenticity. When a wine says Chalk Hill on the label, it has to come from that area, not Lodi.
Our appellation system is but two decades old and has its hits and misses. Napa Valley, the most famous American Viticultural Area, or AVA, was one of the first. Setting its boundaries proved to be a complex political fight. In the end, boundaries were drawn based on historical use of the name Napa Valley. That included most of Napa County, well beyond the narrower Napa River watershed, which would have been a far better definition of Napa Valley. Since then, several subregions of Napa Valley, including the Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Carneros (which overlaps Sonoma County), St. Helena, Oakville and Rutherford have all become appellations, too.
Some of these new areas have long traditions of great wine--particularly Cabernet--such as Rutherford, with Beaulieu Vineyard, Caymus and the old Inglenook; and Oakville, with Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Groth and Mondavi's To-Kalon. Still, even these two appellations, which share boundaries, struggle to define what specifically distinguishes one area from the next.
At first, Sonoma County seemed intent on outdoing Napa by creating as many viticultural areas as possible. And for a few years boundaries and wine identities seemed fuzzy. But of late they're taking on finer, more readily identifiable definitions. In Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley is associated with a style of Zinfandel; Alexander Valley, with Chardonnay and Cabernet; Russian River, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Even other grape varieties grown in those areas showcase some of the regional character in terms of flavor, weight and intensity. The Sonoma County growers have gone to great lengths to detail Sonoma's specific AVAs and vineyards. Their new set of wine maps ($55, 707-527-0200) is a tremendous resource for studying the lay of the land and should be an inspiration for any serious appellation.
I keep hoping Napa Valley will do the same and create elaborate maps of its appellations. I'm sure this is in the works as more areas push their reputations, their unique characteristics and their vineyards and wines. In Napa Valley's case, though, there are a few real truth-in-labeling issues that need to be addressed. An outlying area such as Pope Valley--separated from Napa Valley proper by a mountain range--needs to have its own appellation, making Napa Valley a tighter, more credible area. Once a few minor repairs are accomplished, drawing Napa's maps will be a lot easier and more honest.
As appellations gain in stature, it's important that they be as forthright as possible, not gerrymandered to include everyone who wants to be included--especially as we pay higher wine prices for authenticity.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.