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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
In My Dreams

By Charles Olken

Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even Charlie and his Logitech mouse.
The blog sat there waiting, all snug in its lair
While the author, old Charlie, was asleep in his chair.
With dreams of what could be running wild in his head,
The author awoke and now posts them here to be read.


And that, dear readers, is how today’s blog was born. Instead of trundling off to bed as my dear wife so politely suggested, I have decided to share one of my fondest dreams about what could change for the better in the wine world. In a perfect world, the existing system of small-area appellations in this country, called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) would be scrapped and boundaries for such legally recognized entries would be redrawn according to commonality of probable wine outcome.

Put simply, any system that goes beyond the use of States and Counties as geographic names on labels should have meaning that can be understood as something more than squiggles on a map. Commonality of climate, exposure and soil type lead to limits on the likely range of outcomes. People plant Chardonnay in the coldest areas of western Sonoma County because the influences there make Chardonnay one of the good choices. People plant Zinfandel in hotter patches nearby because it can succeed there. Yet, western Sonoma County, not far from the Pacific Ocean and those Zinfandel-loving places in protected areas near Healdsburg are totally different even though they can both go under the name Russian River Valley. And there is the now illogical overlap that was allowed when the uplands Chalk Hill area, good for Cabernet Sauvignon, was also allowed to use the Russian River Valley name.

The American Viticultural Area system of geographic designations for wine growing areas is now some thirty years old and came about at a time when notions of terroir were simply less important than they are today. As the result, this very useful system, which we here at CGCW applaud for being a big step forward, is now out of date. Growers and wineries were allowed to use old designations even though some of those designations were then and are today substantially inaccurate as a system of linking like areas under a common name. The Napa Valley name is one of the most hallowed in all of the wine world and yet there are vines in Napa County that are so far removed from the area we think of when we think Napa Valley that the untrained eye might think they were in another county. The vines themselves act like they are. The wine labeling rules do not.

The Paso Robles AVA and so many others join Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley in being misleading and do not help us understand the nature of the wines they cover even though that was the goal of the AVA system in the first place. The likelihood that these exaggerations, because that is what they are, are going to change is virtually zero, and we are not going to beat ourselves up trying to get them to change, but, dear readers, it has been the CGCW position from the first time we testified before the Government brains who were considering the establishment of a more accurate appellation system, that the geographic designations should have meaning as to wine style. Even an appellation like Rutherford is too broad because it is a town-wide designation from one side of the valley floor to the other. Every year, the wineries in Rutherford sponsor a tasting of their mostly fabulous wines and they themselves group the wines by east, west and mid-valley because the wines differ by location. Why, then, should the AVA system not recognize the West Rutherford Bench, for example, as being unique? The folks who planted the Valley both before and after Prohibition understood that proposition. Should our wine labeling regulations not also be as smart?

Perhaps this rant should have been saved for one of our Monday Manifestos. It certainly does not qualify as a Report Card on “those other guys”, but it does lead to this.

Grade for Poetry: C-, and apologies to Steve Heimoff whose good poetry on his blog yesterday has led me astray.

Grade for the AVA system: A-, morphing now to C+ because it is rapidly becoming out of date as the industry’s growing understanding of the limits of geography increasingly influences planting decisions.

Grade for this rant: B-/C+, with positives for being an accurate portrayal of a somewhat flawed system, but subtractions for spending time on an issue that is not close to amenable to change in today’s world.

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