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Wine Can Be So Complicated—And That's OK

Paso Robles now has 11 new appellations. Most consumers won't care, but that doesn't make them meaningless
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 13, 2014 4:00pm ET

By Mitch Frank

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.

Tablas Creek Vineyard
Paso Robles, CA —  November 13, 2014 8:21pm ET
Thanks, Mitch, for the thoughtful exploration of the appellation question. My thoughts are pretty well on record, here and elsewhere, but I had one additional point. The idea that an appellation should have marketing meaning before it's created seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. If you have to wait until a region is already recognized as distinctive by the general public before you can name and delineate it, that's a pretty high bar.

What I think is important about the Paso Robles AVAs is that they were drawn with the best science we could pull together, and that there are meaningful distinctions between them. At that point, it's up to the producers and the wines that come from these AVAs to make their name for it. Will they all have meaning at first? Of course not. Will several, within a few years? I am pretty confident they will. And I don't think that this has to replace Paso Robles in the consciousness of the market to do so. Instead, I think it just provides richness to what people have come to know as Paso.

The key, to me, is distinctiveness. If the AVAs are distinctive from their neighbors, they will even from the beginning help guide interested people toward that "someplace specific" that you mention. Market recognition will follow in its own time, if it's earned.

Jason Haas
Partner and General Manager
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, California —  November 14, 2014 8:42am ET
I'm glad you've written about this, because similar thoughts were swirling around my head while I was writing the news piece.

Most of the vintners I spoke to pointed out that even thought it might seem extreme to go from thinking about one large appellation to eleven smaller ones, it was intentional to deal with the entire area at once. Instead of just championing one or two sub-districts now (and a couple more in a few years, and then again after that), they sat down together and looked at the whole picture.

That's quite a difference from how other regions like Napa and Sonoma have evolved, with appellations overlapping and disagreements among vintners about where boundaries should be drawn.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  November 16, 2014 12:42am ET
If the new appellations are making superior wines, then the distinction is justified, in my mind. Because unfortunately, my experience with PR wines has been PRimarily negative: PRune, raisin, PRune, volatile acidity, PRune, PRune, VA, PRune...

I hope the new AVAs distinguish themselves in a more positive way.
Michael J Moses
Allamuchy, NJ —  November 17, 2014 10:04am ET
I believe this is only a positive for the region and any other region which chooses to further diversify itself through specific AVAs to give wines a greater sense of place. It gives an oenophile as my self more to explore and can add distinction to some of the up and coming producers from the area.

From the business point of view do not lose sight of the fact that any given producer from Paso Robles does not have to label their wines in accordance to the new AVA guidelines. They could simply leave the general Paso Robles designation on the label and the average wine consumer will largely go unaffected. Choosing to be more AVA specific only adds additional requirements to the production of a specific bottling. The winery can make the choice as to what's conducive to their bottom line. The average bottle shop is not going to have as large a section dedicated to wines from Paso Robles as they would Bordeaux so confusion would be minimal if any at all.

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