Napa's Name Down the Drain?
By James Laube, senior editor
Vintners in Napa Valley have long prided themselves on having the No. 1 image among U.S. winegrowing districts. They have worked hard and spent lavishly to enhance their valley's reputation, successfully lobbying the federal government for the labeling rules they preferred and gathering local support to preserve Napa Valley as an agricultural--not residential--mecca.
The laws they helped write, however, contain loopholes, and Fred Franzia is about to show them how large they are. Franzia owns Bronco Wine Co., which sells large quantities of inexpensive wine, mostly from the Central Valley. Franzia became notorious in the early 1990s for his role in California's largest wine scandal. The Justice Department prosecuted him for passing off cheap grapes as expensive ones. He pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges in 1993 and was fined $3 million.
Now Franzia is coming to Napa Valley, where he is about to construct Napa's biggest winery ever. Franzia has received a permit to build a gigantic winery near the Napa County Airport, with a bottling capacity of 44.5 million gallons a year--more than 18 million cases. For perspective, if he bought, crushed and bottled every grape grown in Napa Valley, it would total about 10 million cases.
Franzia, however, won't be focusing on Napa Valley wines. According to plans Franzia submitted to get the county permit, this facility will essentially be a bottling factory, with limited winemaking capacity. His modus operandi is to bottle bulk wine made from Central Valley grapes and sell it under the broad California appellation. Since Franzia has bought several high-profile brands in recent years, chief among them Napa Creek, Domaine Napa and Rutherford Vintners, he legally can use those names and the words "Cellared and Bottled in Napa, Calif." on his label.
Napa Valley vintners aren't too keen on this, but since it's entirely legal, there's not much they can do to prevent it. Moreover, a few local vintners have stretched the truth themselves. The Napa Ridge winery, owned by Beringer Wine Estates, originally used Napa Valley grapes but rarely does today. Napa Ridge wines are actually made in Sonoma County.
The Napa name was stretched in another direction when local vintners won federal approval to say that grapes from parts of Napa County that really aren't part of the Napa Valley watershed--the truest definition of Napa Valley--can be made into a wine bearing the Napa Valley appellation on the label. The most glaring example is Pope Valley, which is separated from Napa Valley proper by a mountain range and has a different microclimate. Relatively cheap land in Pope Valley is being heavily planted so wineries can cash in on the Napa Valley name.
Napa vintners are rightfully fearful that Franzia's Napa-named brands could weaken both the Napa name and the reputation of the Napa Valley appellation. But this time Franzia is holding all the right cards and playing by the rules. This issue should force Napa vintners to take a hard look at how Napa's name is used and what Napa Valley's true boundaries are. If Napa is to remain a national treasure on the scale of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, then it needs to be protected from potential abuses.
Napa Valley vintners may not be able to stifle Franzia, but they can take other steps to protect the Napa name. They should insist that wines carrying the Napa Valley appellation be made 100 percent from grapes grown in the Napa Valley watershed. Wines from Pope Valley should be identified as such on their labels. By not doing this, vintners are effectively misleading consumers, even though it's legal.
Besides eliminating the Pope Valley option, vintners should tighten the current rule requiring that only 85 percent of the grapes in a wine must come from the appellation listed on the label. This gives vintners far too much leeway to blend grapes from other, lower-quality areas into wines labeled Napa Valley.
The worst-case scenario is that millions of cases of soulless wine carrying the word Napa could flood the market and dilute the meaning and value of Napa's name. By not protecting the Napa Valley name, Napa vintners are about to live a real-life nightmare.
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 May 15 issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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