The old expression about laws and sausages seems to apply to wine appellations as well: It's best not to see them made, and those who do often harbor qualms about the experience. That's certainly been the case in the Paso Robles winegrowing region of California, where ongoing efforts to redefine the region with subappellations have provoked dissension among local producers.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is currently soliciting public comment on a proposal, as a step toward approval, that would essentially split Paso Robles into east and west subappellations. The current Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA), established in 1983, comprises 667,000 acres (more than 1,000 square miles), making it the largest undivided viticultural area in California. Napa Valley, by comparison, is 225,000 acres and contains 14 subappellations (such as Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap District, etc.), with another pending. The whole idea behind subappellations is to distinguish those smaller areas--and the unique characteristics of their wines--from the region as a whole.
But the agreed-upon system in Napa doesn't seem to translate to Paso Robles to any degree. While the aforementioned proposal establishes a 180,000-acre Paso Robles Westside viticultural area, there's a competing proposal, expected to be completed and ready to file within a few months, that would create as many as 11 new appellations within the region. The two different proposals are polarizing the region's winemakers.
The best wines from Paso Robles have improved in recent years, and many vintners have come to believe that the region needs subappellations to convey further information to consumers and help differentiate its 170-plus wineries. "We need to accept the fact that everyone can't be the same in an appellation of 600,000 acres [sic]," said Doug Beckett, founder of Peachy Canyon winery and the leader of the effort to create the Paso Robles Westside viticultural area. Beckett, along with 20 other Paso Robles producers, filed the proposal with the TTB in 2005. (The TTB is accepting written comments by e-mail, email@example.com, or at its website, http://www.ttb.gov/wine/wine_rulemaking.shtml, through March 26.)
But Gary Eberle, who started Eberle winery on the east side of Paso Robles in 1979, has been a vocal opponent of a Westside appellation, insisting that area producers should promote the entire region. He's since somewhat softened that stance, but still feels that a Westside appellation makes no sense. "I really don't care [about it] … But within the [proposed] Westside appellation you've got the coldest vineyards and the hottest, the wettest and the driest, the highest and the lowest. So I don't know how you can take that viticultural area and say we're homogenous. It was done for marketing reasons," he said.
Eberle isn't alone in his reservations about the utility of a Westside AVA. Last year, 31 area estates formed the Paso Robles AVA Committee, which has delineated 10 or possibly 11 new subappellations for the region. "We feel that this is a more complete and inclusive way of approaching this," said Justin Baldwin, owner of Justin winery and vice-chairman of the committee.
According to Baldwin, the committee has already spent more than $100,000 on soil and climate studies, as well as legal and administrative expenses.
Those expenses haven't dissuaded critics of their efforts, though. "It's a political fiasco. The boundaries they've set for the 10 AVAs don't make sense," said grower Richard Sauret, who produces the grapes used in the Rosenblum Zinfandel Paso Robles Sauret Vineyard.
Whatever the TTB decides about Paso Robles Westside or any other upcoming applications, no one anticipates universal satisfaction within the local wine community. "It doesn't matter where it is, but anytime you do an AVA, there's going to be someone just outside the AVA who isn't happy," acknowledged Beckett.
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