In its bid to match the status of Old World regions, California is increasingly obsessed with establishing its own appellation system. But, asks Adam Lechmere, is it worth the effort?
Janet Trefethen has her fingers crossed. This isn’t unusual – she’s had them crossed for about 10 years now, ever since she and her husband John decided to register their particular corner of Napa as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Trefethen Vineyards is on the outskirts of Napa city, just north of Oak Knoll Avenue. The Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley has been a long time in the making.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), to which petitions for AVAs must be made, demands a raft of ‘evidentiary criteria’ to recognise a region’s soil, climate and geography as unique. These include proof that the name of the area is locally or nationally known, historical evidence as to its boundaries, and a geographical sketch of the proposed area, distinguishing it from surrounding areas. The proposal is then set out for public scrutiny.
It’s an exhaustive process. And while it was fairly straightforward to ask world soil expert Deborah Eliot-Fisk of the University of California, Davis to contribute to the soil and climate part of the Oak Knoll petition, drawing the boundaries was more difficult.
‘We did it with a king-sized map and a ruler,’ Trefethen says. ‘We hauled it round the farmers, with plastic over the top so you can redraw the lines.’ Where Napa grapes are concerned, however, politics is never far away – especially when it comes to growers who resented having their vineyards fall outside the boundary.
The vineyard division of investment advisor the Universal Capital Corporation (UCC) concentrates on vineyard and winery investments. The group objected to the eastern boundary of the Oak Knoll submission, claiming: ‘Obviously, it is convenient to use [the] Silverado Trail as the eastern boundary [but] it excludes vineyards that produce grapes of the same varieties and the same quality levels [as Oak Knoll] from the same soils and the same climate… it seems that consistency of soils, climate, varieties and quality should overrule the simplicity of drawing boundaries that are easy to define, but illogical.’
David Freed, a former corporate lawyer, chairs UCC. He lost his case. ‘It was strongly suggested that the sanctity of the Silverado Trail outweighed any individual consideration,’ he says.
Supporters of the AVA system accept that political expedience affects decisions, but insist the only real way to set boundaries is by science. The ATF agrees: modern AVA petitions contain reams of evidence from soil experts, engineers, meteorologists and local historians. But in the end the line must be drawn, and people don’t like being outside it.
Freed, for example, has a property which is nearly, but not quite, in Carneros. ‘We can tell Mondavi or Beaulieu Vineyards that we have the most wonderful grapes. They say “Is it Carneros?” and we say “No”. So we can’t sell it to them. They’re making a Carneros Chardonnay, so that means at least 75% of the grapes have to be Carneros.’ It’s a frustrating situation for some growers. ‘Where the line is drawn across the paper, that’s the way things are. But it should be the science that decides it,’ says Brad Alderson, one of the fathers of the AVA system. Alderson pushed through one of the first appellations in 1986, the Lodi AVA, in the San Joaquin Valley between Sacramento and Stockton.
In reality, though, it is only the winemakers who worry about where the line is drawn. If asked, many people will name ‘Mondavi’ as a California AVA. As Decanter’s New York correspondent Howard G Goldberg trenchantly observes, ‘There is scant evidence that the general public cares one whit.’
There are, equally, many in the trade who don’t believe in the system. They feel it’s too blunt compared with the rigorous French system, which with its water bans and proscribed grape varieties guarantees a degree of quality.
Goldberg sees it as a classic case of American envy of the Old World: ‘The impetus, verging on a craze, for AVAs almost surely arises from envy of the French appellation system and a simplistic notion that its values and implications can be automatically transplanted here.’ Even the new generation of Napa winemakers is doubtful. Jayson Woodbridge is on his third harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon at Hundred Acre Vineyards. He’s been given 94+ points by Robert Parker and has no difficulty selling his wine. He’s within the Howell Mountain AVA but he’s only interested in putting Napa on his label.
‘Fewer people are using appellations now. Two people can farm the same appellation and get dramatically different results.’ So what’s all the fuss about? Good question, says Alderson. ‘It’s a communication tool. It’s an opportunity to say to the consumer, “This has a certain style if you care to lean about it.”’
In the early days there was an idea of appellation but it was a basic delineation. Now, however much the Bordelais (and even Californians) may scoff, terroir is recognised here, and has to be, for an AVA to be granted. Janet Trefethen: ‘We’re such a tiny valley and we have so many different soil types. Napa is one-fifth the size of Bordeaux and yet has more identified soil types.’
Geologist Jonathan Swinchatt completed a major study in Napa and considers Oak Knoll unique: ‘The different rock types in the source may affect the texture and structure of the alluvial fan sediments, mineral composition, and the clay/mineral composition. All have potential influence on grapes and wine character.’
Whatever the extent of the influence, Napa winegrowers are delighted to have a tool that calibrates – and celebrates – these differences. The system’s champions say AVAs, properly administered, are the coming of age of US wine.
Phil Wente, who runs the family-owned Wente Vineyards, says buyers will come to understand appellation as the most sophisticated classification a wine can have.
‘Appellation marketing is the ultimate. Anybody can make Chardonnay, or Cabernet or Merlot, but what they’re really doing is selling a mass-branded product of little distinction. If your whole brand is based on ‘Chardonnay’ and not appellation, it won’t be long before somebody will copy your style and steal your market.’
John Trefethen agrees: ‘The most important thing is to give the consumer a sense of place. At the moment you can talk about it all you like, you can love the wine, but what wine? The AVA will define it: “The Oak Knoll district wine”.’
There are, of course, commercial advantages. Trefethen sees how the AVA will strengthen the brand. Equally, Wente’s theory is about creating brands rooted in place: that way no one can copy them. Yet both know they are only at the beginning of their journey. ‘We are only starting to learn that it’s very difficult to grow great Chardonnay north of Yountville, or great Cabernet south of the northern boundary of Napa town,’ says Janet Trefethen. ‘But if you farm right you can make great wines. These things take generations.’
Written by Adam Lechmere