Pope Valley? I'm Ready

Jun 1, 2006

Ready for a Pope Valley appellation?

I am. It’s long overdue.

This remote valley in the northeast area of Napa County deserves its own identity, yet legally it’s part of Napa Valley, which has some huge benefits for Napa vintners.

What’s odd about this situation is that Pope Valley is separated from Napa Valley proper by an entire mountain range – Howell Mountain. Yet due to some clever politicking when the Napa Valley viticultural area was being formed in the early 1980s, Napa vintners convinced federal officials – and themselves – that Pope Valley deserved to be part of Napa Valley, and so it is.

Appellation purists have long decried Pope Valley’s inclusion in the Napa Valley appellation, much to the chagrin of those who own vineyards in Pope Valley.

Purists, of course, see the obvious. Pope Valley isn’t in any way connected to Napa Valley. Yet vintners who bought land there paid far less per acre than they would have for real Napa Valley turf. Those who grow grapes there or buy them can use them in wines labeled Napa Valley. The palpable benefit there is those wines can command higher prices than if the label read Pope Valley Cabernet, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.

This isn’t a knock on Pope Valley grapes. Fact is this area does produce excellent Cabernet and Sauvignon. The Cabernets are lighter and less loamy than those grown in Napa Valley. Sauvignon Blanc performs very well there, too, yielding intense, vibrant flavorful wines.

The climate in Pope Valley is both colder in the winter and warmer in the summer than Napa Valley. Yet because it’s still such a relatively new area, the potential is still unrealized. And I think vintners might be surprised at how good and distinctive Pope Valley wines can be.

Pat Garvey, an owner of Flora Springs Winery, is heading the drive for a Pope Valley appellation. His winery, based in Rutherford, has been buying Pope Valley grapes since 1981. He knows the Pope Valley grapes can be excellent, and he’s also aware that it’s time for Pope Valley to stand on its own.

According to Garvey, there are more than 2,700 acres in Pope Valley planted to red varieties – mostly Cabernet and Merlot – and 700 acres of whites, mostly Sauvignon Blanc and some Chardonnay.

It’s been challenging to evaluate Pope Valley-grown wines on their own, says Garvey, because most of the grapes go into Napa Valley bottlings. But there are wineries, including Flora Springs. Heitz Cellar, Hess Collection and St. Supery, who have significant holdings there.

Even as a Pope Valley appellation takes shape, it is unlikely it will be separated from Napa Valley. Federal officials, who determine appellation boundaries, tend to favor the broadest definitions of an appellation (known as AVAs for American Viticultural Area), rather than smaller, more meaningful ones.

That means that there will likely be some wines labeled Pope Valley, which has an attractive name that’s easy to pronounce, while wineries can still use Napa County on the label. Some wines will carry both the Pope Valley and Napa Valley names, the same way some wineries use both Carneros and Napa Valley.

Still others, though, will continue to use Napa Valley because they can. It’s the name with the biggest pull in the market, which at the end of the day means more to some vintners than authentic appellations.

Wines that are blends from Napa and Pope valleys also could be legally labeled Napa County, but that offers less sex appeal than Napa Valley.

Marketing Pope Valley wines will take a lot more effort than coasting on the Napa Valley name.

Still, it’s time to separate the two, let consumers know where the wines they buy are grown and end this deceit.

This is one step in the right direction.

United States California

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