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Thursday Thorns
The Idea Behind the Legal Naming of Various Wine

By Stephen Eliot

The idea behind the legal naming of various wine-growing regions or appellations (AVAs) is that, when it comes to making fine wines, place matters. Of course, no serious student of wine would argue the point, but the way in which the system actually works is, with some justification, regular fodder for debate. There are those that whine that the system has no legitimacy whatsoever, and that is simply going too far. We disagree, but we also admit to being occasionally baffled at how this or that AVA came to be, and find such appellations as San Francisco Bay, Sonoma Coast, Napa Valley and the like to be so general as to muddle their meanings in terms of wine character at the least and to be without any value at all in the worst cases.

Sometimes, however, the identification of appellation makes perfect sense, and the point was driven home dramatically last week during our wanderings through the wine districts of Santa Barbara County.

Among the many lessons learned on our visit, and we will have more to say later, was just how unique and distinctively different are the several AVAs of Santa Barbara. It is one thing for us to work our ways through various samples here at out tasting table, but it is another thing altogether to stand in the vineyards themselves and feel all the parts fall into place as an appellation makes its indelible mark.

It would be wise to remember three, and soon to be four, important names from the county, and to say that they produce wines that can stand with the best in the State is not hyperbole.

The best known and that with the longest history is the AVA of Santa Maria Valley, a west-to-east transverse valley (open to the coast) of some 7500 planted acres running near Santa Barbara County’s northern edge. First and very vigorously championed by the Miller family who own and farm the much-acclaimed Bien Niacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley has carved out a deserved niche as one of California’s premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sites and is the home to both significant, well-established vintners and more than a few fresh new faces of exciting potential.

Further south and much nearer to the coastlines, the Santa Rita Hills (Sta. Rita Hills) AVA is a comparative newcomer having been approved in 2001, some twenty years after the Santa Maria Valley earned its AVA status. It is also part of an unusual, for California, transverse valley and generally speaking, a very cool wine-growing district. We were struck by the vibrant, yet wonderfully integral, acidity that marked so many of its wines. We expect that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will again pay most of the bills here, but there are more than few winemakers here willing to step outside of the conventional lines with small lots of Syrah, Grenache and especially good Viognier.

Newer yet, and “officially” established in 2009, the eastward lying Happy Canyon AVA is as different from Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills as different can get. Quite a bit warmer and occasionally blisteringly hot as it was during our recent visit, it succeeds by dint of its dramatic diurnal temperate swings and is showing remarkable success with Sauvignon Blanc and the red Bordelaise grapes with Syrah getting a long and serious look in the vineyard.

The next name of significance hereabouts is sure to be Ballard Canyon, and its supporters have petitioned for AVA recognition with expectations for approval in the near future. It, too, is on the warm side, warm enough to rule out Chardonnay and Pinot, but some of the finest Syrahs we have tasted of late call Ballad Canyon home. White Rhône bottlings, while far from plentiful are promising, and we see very good Grenache on the horizon.

Before we leave this topic, however, we do need to note that Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley AVA is far broader in its inclusion of varied conditions and is thus a less reliable predictor of wine character.

What these other places prove, however, is that the system of defining AVAS need not be so hopelessly political that vaunted names like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley can cover exceptionally cool lands like Carneros and Green Valley yet can also include quite warm places like Pope Valley and Chalk Hill within their boundaries. In Santa Barbara County, most of the AVAs make sense as a way of informing consumers what to expect for a majority of bottlings.

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by TomHill
Posted on:8/16/2012 9:07:37 AM


You are indeed correct that the SantaYnezVlly AVA is rather broad and (I believe) includes the StaRitaHills and HappyCanyon area. Thus it is a less-pretigious, less-precise AVA than those two.

However, my observation has been that the SYV designation has primarily been used, in practice, to identify wines that are coming from areas to the east of SRH and to the west of HC AVA's.

   If that practice continues, I don't see that a BallardCanyon AVA would be substantially different from a SYV AVA  on the label.

But I could be wrong and folks from that area would offer up better insight than I.



jumping to conclusions
by Clark Smith
Posted on:8/16/2012 11:31:42 AM


What a thoughful and well written article.  We appreciate your contribution to appellation consciousness, which is critical to moving consumers beyond varietal consciousness in an era where sound wines of great diversity abound and varietals no longer determine wine characteristics.

In contributing to this conversation, I feel you are placing too much emphasis on temperature.  Consider the Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands, which parallel each other for some 20 miles and have identical weather, yet consistently produce very different wines despite a broad range of climate from the chilly north to the much warmer south which seem to be associated purely with very slight differences in altitutde and with a marked difference in soil type.

My point is that we really don't know what causes these differences.  Somebody plkease tell me why we get black cherry in Russian River Pinot and Meyer lemon in its Chardonnays throughout the region despite its laughable variability in every parameter.

Further, there is always local cultural influence related to winemaking customs and other factors suh as the degree of tourism in the area, which encourages more drinkable, naive wines to be made.  For this reason, one can speak of the wines of Chile,  a country which stretches from Mexico to Alaska, and have a consistent expectation of Old World balance and New World use of oak.

The European model has taught us that large appellations can still provide the consumer with guidance concerning regional style, so such appellations as North Coast and even California are not patent nonsense.

Conversely, we can find great variability within a region that appears that it should be homogeneous (think Santa Cruz Mountains or Madera).

Bottom line is that we really need to taste the wines before pronouncing judgment. 

I encourage you to continue your focus on appellation, and perhaps to consider ordering your blind evaluations in accord with regional source as well as variety, as we have found paramount at Appellation America.

Santa Ynez Valley
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:8/16/2012 4:38:42 PM


Your point that Ballard Canyon might not signal significant difference from Santa Ynez is probably close to the mark in most cases, but it still is a bit more specific and thus more useful when you consider that wines made in the Santa Rita Hills sometimes opt for the Santa Ynez Valley designation. In fact, Charlie and I tasted an Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard while visiting last week, and it did not mention the Santa Rita Hills from which it hails, only Santa Ynez Valley. It was far removed in character from anything I would expect from the warmer, Ballard Canyon end of the larger appellation. I simply wonder if the Santa Ynez Valley AVA may in the long run prove to be a little too general.

Jumping to conclusions?
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:8/16/2012 4:56:48 PM


Thanks for the kind words, and, of course, there is more to the impact of place then temperature and simple heat acclumutaion. It is, however, hard to ignore the very real influence of climate on a wine's style, just as is varietal composition.

I agree that there are plenty of variables, many that we do not and may never fully understand, but is it not a bit of that mystery that keeps wine so infinitely interesting?

My observations about Santa Barbara County are not meant as some predictive template by which to explain Monterey, the Russian River Valley or Chile, just that the quantifiable differences in temperature and what many astute Santa Barbara vintners have to say strike me, in this case, as having very real validity.

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