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Napa Valley Appellations Are Meaningless

By Charles Olken

A blog article with a similar title recently appeared in Fermentation, the blog written by the inestimable Tom Wark. I am not here to agree with or disagree with Mr. Wark who got most of it right even though he went overboard, in my humble opinion, in his praise of the man behind so much of the way that the central parts of the Napa Valley have come to be delineated in small area appellations (AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas as they are called legally).

There is a good deal of debate about the topic over on Fermentation ( and I commend it to you if you are at all interested in the subject. But even if you are not, I suggest that you read on here because what follows is as much of a discussion of what to do about it in Napa and elsewhere—since Napa County is not unique in having a messed up sub-appellation system—and not entirely a full-on critique of the failures of some Napa Valley AVA delineations.

Let’s start with this. Until a few decades ago, the limits on geographic appellations in the United States followed a fairly prosaic hierarchy: country, state, county. And that was it. Sure, people used names like Napa Valley when they perhaps should not have been allowed that privilege, but that modest bit of excess did little harm just as the current failures in the appellation/AVA system do little substantial damage.

But harm is not the issue for me. Accuracy is the issue—just as it always has been. And just as it was when Earl Singer (my founding partner in CGCW) and I testified some three decades and change ago at hearings into wine labeling. We did not get our ways in all things, and surely the industry came out way ahead of the knowledgeable consumers and writers who wanted intellectually, organaleptically defensible geographic boundaries for the new AVA system.

Still, if one looks at our seminal article on Napa Valley AVAs back in 1976, one sees more hits than misses. We did not make up the suggested boundaries so much as listen to the winemakers and vineyardists who give us their insights into where there were identifiable land masses worthy of separate identification as places that produced wines with reasonable commonality of character.

Of the sixteen places names in that article, well over half have come into being as separate AVAs: Stags Leap District, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak and St. Helena to list the most obvious. But it is the ones that got squandered away in a rush of political and marketing pressure from the big wineries that stick in my craw to this day. Instead of separating the valley center into east, valley floor and west, the Government, under the pressure from the locals, and ignoring its own standards for commonality, allowed the industry to dictate that we identify only Rutherford and Oakville as AVAs and use the boundaries of those towns as the limits of those AVAs.

And the rub is this. The West Rutherford Bench, as it had been called for decades by the local growers and winemakers (which does include parts of Oakville and St. Helena lying more or less west of Highway 29) was at the time the single most important winegrowing area in California. The growers knew it; the wineries knew it; the knowledgeable consuming public knew it. But there is no AVA called West Rutherford Bench or any other name or area like it. Admittedly, Oakville interests were upset because its name would not be attached to that proposed AVA. Still, a solution should have been found rather than simply throwing up hands and adopting a totally illogical set of boundaries that satisfied only the marketing desires of the big wineries.

The Rutherford growers know better as witnessed by their annual tastings in which wines are very often, as they were this year, separated by area for the purpose of increasing the understanding of how the western bench with its morning sun is different in its wine character from the eastern bench along the Silverado Trail with its much hotter afternoon sun.

And thus my rant. They know better. The Government knew better. But they compromised away the potential to identify meaning geographic designations because of marketing concerns and hurt feelings.

But lest you think that Napa is unique, one need look only at the boundaries of the Russian River AVA, which sprawl all over the place. Here is an AVA whose Pinot Noirs are among the best in the world; said by Jancis Robinson to be second only to Burgundy for quality. Yet, rather than defining the Russian River Valley in some logical and limited way, its boundaries cover hot hillsides totally unsuited to growing quality Pinot Noir. Yet because growers can use the name, Russian River Valley, there are many Pinot Noir vineyards in areas that should be devoted to varieties that like more warmth.

So, what is a fella to do?

Well, for one thing, I have accepted that we are not going to scrap the existing boundaries and start over. The industry would never allow that to happen.

For another, I now believe that it is up to the top growers and wineries to move to a vineyard-designate system for their best wines. We know that names like To Kalon are so in demand that the grapes grown there are among the most expensive in the state.

There are places in Europe in which wines bearing small-area appellations have to pass a taste test by the area overseers before the wine can be sold. While I sort of like that system, the way in which our vineyards have evolved allows growers a lot more freedom and that freedom to plant what one wants where one wants has been good for California. Maybe, in another fifty years, there will be more uniformity in plantings just as the Napa Valley proper is increasingly seeing Cabernet Sauvignon push out other varieties—admittedly for economic reasons that are created by demand from consumers and thus judgments about wine character and quality.

And maybe, just maybe, at some point down the road, we will get either enough vineyard-designates or even smaller-area appellations which will really allow the consumer to know not only where the wine comes from in a pinpointed way but also what to expect of that wine when made right.

Will that ever happen? Who knows? But a fella can dream, can’t he?

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Napa Valley -- 50 years from now
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/15/2017 3:04:35 AM

"Maybe, in another fifty years, there will be more uniformity in plantings just as the Napa Valley proper is increasingly seeing Cabernet Sauvignon push out other varieties—admittedly for economic reasons that are created by demand from consumers and thus judgments about wine character and quality."

Maybe in another fifty years of climate change, Napa Valley may be too warm for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Excerpt from Stanford University News

(June 30, 2011):

"Global warming could significantly alter the U.S. premium wine industry within 30 years, say Stanford scientists"

By Sascha Zubryd

"Higher temperatures could hurt California and other premium winegrowing regions of the United States in the next 30 years, according to a new study led by Stanford University climate scientists.

"Writing in the June 30 edition of Environmental Research Letters, the scientists report that by 2040, the amount of land suitable for cultivating premium wine grapes in high-value areas of Northern California could shrink by 50 percent because of global warming.  . . ."

TED talk on climate change and wine grape growing
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/15/2017 3:05:41 AM

See this recently uploaded TED talk:

"The Connection Between Climate Change and Wine"

By Gregory Jones, Ph.D.

Director of the Center for Wine Education and is Professor of Environmental Studies at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon

Napa Valley vintners adapt to climate change
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/15/2017 3:13:08 AM

Excerpt from Napa Valley Register

(May 4, 2013):

"Napa wine industry warned of future climate threat;

Local growers confident of ability to adapt"

By Howard Yune

"A study published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences forecasts temperature increases triggering the loss of two-thirds or more of the Napa Valley’s current grape output by 2050, with similar losses projected in France and other prime winemaking regions.

"California’s territory suitable for wine grapes is predicted to shrink by about 70 percent by midcentury, with an even steeper 85 percent loss forecast for France, Italy and the rest of Mediterranean Europe.

“What the report says is that using current grape varieties and current techniques, those areas would become not very good for producing wine,” said Lee Hannah, the report’s lead author and a senior research fellow for Conservation International."


Climate change, overly ripe wine grapes and typicity/terroir
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/15/2017 3:29:30 AM

It has been suggested that as red wine grapes get riper and riper (taking on a stewed fruit character), they lose their sense of "place" (terroir).

If that is true, then decades into the future Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons should converge toward a similar style.

And that would obscure the nuances of one Napa Valley AVA over another.

Ice Cubes--Big Ones
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/15/2017 9:11:09 AM

Let's face it. In fifty years, when most of the folks reading wine columns today are no longer with us, someone is going to invent a giant ice cube, a series of which can be strategically placed from south to north in the Napa Valley. The effect will be to cool the vineyards by several degrees each day in the growing season, and, voila, no global warming disaster in Napa.

And btw, since the northern end, particularly, the northeastern end of the Valley is now and always has been demonstrably hotter than the southern end below St. Helena, in Coombsville and in Carneros, the undocumented claims of "scientists" about the massive loss of vineyard land suitable for high quality wine are questionable at best and intentionally overstated at worst. Unless of course, we ignore the high quality wines coming out of those places today.

And then there are the choices that wineries and growers can make in canopy management, water management, etc. Yes, there could well be vineyard land that gets converted to Syrah and Nebbiolo, but the notion that a few hundred degree days will spell the end of half of the valley land in quality grapes is pure guesswork at best and nihilist fiction at worst.

Global warming will have many bad effects. It already has. But, it will also have good effects and it will have man-managed counterstategies as well. 

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