Blending Bends the Rules Too Far
By James Laube, senior editor
American vintners should adopt a 100 percent appellation rule, and they should do it now. A wine that claims it is from a specific appellation should be entirely from that area, not a blend that includes up to 15 percent of wine from somewhere else.
The vintners would be doing themselves and consumers a huge favor. The main thing is to ensure the credibility of the American Viticultural Area system. While AVAs are no guarantee of quality, they should be authentic and reflective of a particular style of wine.
The current laws, which require only 85 percent of a wine to come from a specified appellation, are no longer adequate. Too many wineries are taking advantage of those laws, and given today's high wine prices, consumers have a right to know whether a wine is from a single AVA or if it's a blend.
One reason we have the 85 percent rule is to allow vintners the flexibility of blending in the event of a severe grape shortage or a harvest disaster. In the past, the rule has made sense. In fact, the phylloxera crisis that began in the mid-'80s was a perfect example of the need for flexibility, because many wineries faced economic hardship when their vineyards and grape sources were uprooted; they had to wait years for the new vines to produce.
There are other strong cases to be made in favor of blending. Many wines that are lacking in one element or another can benefit by using grapes or wine from another area. A Chardonnay that's low in acidity can get a boost if blended. A Cabernet that's too tannic can be softened by blending.
Perhaps the worst-case scenarios involve wineries in prestigious appellations, such as Napa Valley, using grapes and/or bulk wine from lesser areas. Too many Napa vintners have told me that they routinely blend 15 percent Chardonnay from Russian River or Santa Barbara into their Napa Valley wines. This is perfectly legal. Moreover, it's highly profitable, because a winery can boost its production by 15 percent and still sell the Chardonnay as Napa ValleyÑat Napa Valley prices.
There's no real cost savings for vintners who buy only top-rate Chardonnay, because it grows successfully throughout the state's coastal areas. Great Santa Barbara Chardonnay is in just as much demand as great Russian River Chardonnay. The same isn't true for other grapes. Paso Robles Cabernet, for instance, doesn't carry the same price or cachet as Napa Valley Cabernet, so a winery in Napa can use the 15 percent rule to its advantage.
I think that vintners who engage in this practice are being shortsighted, because if everyone decided to use the 15 percent cushion, too many wines would end up tasting alike.
Chardonnays from many wineries are already lacking in distinctive regional characteristics. Here are a few suggestions. Vintners should adopt a 100 percent AVA rule, which would guarantee that a wine is entirely from the indicated AVA. In terms of wine hierarchy, single-vineyard or estate wines within an AVA are usually the most distinctive and of the highest quality, and they typically sell for the highest prices.
Wines from specific AVAs are next in that pecking order. Wineries that still prefer to use the 85 percent rule should use broader political boundaries instead of AVAs. This would allow a winery in Russian River Valley to use Santa Barbara fruit in a blend, but the label would have to read Sonoma County, not Russian River Valley.
Vintners may still argue the hardship clause, saying that adopting a 100 percent rule is too restrictive in the event of a grape calamity. I'm not convinced; should such a disaster strike again, I'm sure consumers would be perfectly able to understand that a winery needed to go outside its normal AVA for grapes, and the labels would merely reflect these specific circumstances.
I'm not naive enough to think that everyone would comply with a 100 percent rule; obviously many vintners are more interested in making money than in making great wine, which is fine. I'm not idealistic enough to think that a 100 percent rule would necessarily lead to better wines, either -- just more authentic ones.
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. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)