California’s Meaningless Appellations

Tony Coturri

2 min read

Californiaʼs well-known wine regions will never reach the pinnacle of international quality until real appellation control rules are made. In Europe, in theory, appellation rules protect quality and tradition. They generally revolve around varietals that have been proven to thrive in the soil and climate of a given region, and they often regulate growing and winemaking practices that serve quality: pruning technique, irrigation allowance, grape tonnage per hectare.

In California, appellations do not exist to protect quality or tradition (there is little of either) so much as they simply exist: our appellations are defined by rain runoff. To be included in the Russian River Valley AVA the winter rain runoff from your property has to run towards the Russian River. Here in Sonoma the runoff flows towards Sonoma Valley so weʼre included in the Sonoma Valley appellation. Sub-appellations are created by position papers from growers and wineries that are submitted to the TTB (the federal agency that monitors and controls the wine, alcohol and tobacco industries). For every positive appellation change instigated by a band of winemakers championing a unique and worthy microclimate, there seems to be a dubious, commercially-driven one. In 2011, for example, the Russian River Valley AVA, already a behemoth, was, at the request of Gallo, expanded to include the winery’s Two Rock Vineyard.

In California wine country it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to implement true appellation control. Why? For starters, in Europe most grapes are grown by the winery whereas here in California there are many more grape growers than wineries. It would be much more difficult to enforce, say, a fruit tonnage restriction. There is also the varietal question. Who gets to determine which grapes are physiologically or traditionally or whichever-which-way “correct” for a given region? Napa is best known as a quality producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, but also for Chardonnay, for Rhone varietals, for many other grapes. “Napa” evokes Cabernet but a bottle of Zinfandel isn’t out out of the ordinary.

Then there is the legacy of Prohibition. What varietal tradition California had was lost in those twelve years. My appellation, Sonoma Valley, was once known as a region that produced excellent Zinfandel and Semillion. Today, these grape types are still here as well as many others. Many varietals that grew well were taken out to make room for varietals that could be shipped to East Coast home winemakers (Prohibition outlawed commercial wine, beer and spirit production but wine and beer could be made at home under strict conditions). Thin-skinned Zinfandel, for instance, couldn’t make the week-long rail trip and fell out of favor. Grapes were chosen for their hardiness and vineyards were tended to yield high tonnage per acre. These decisions linger today.

California wine countries will never be able to match the appellation control of their European counterparts. But we can take steps forward. We can implement new standards within existing and future appellations that aim at quality. And we should do so looking through the lens of the climate crisis. An organization of growers and wineries might be created to address an appellation. Irrigation restrictions should be paramount, especially with California in the grips of a major drought that shows no sign of release. Organics, with its ever-growing toolbox, should be made mandatory. Sustainable farming methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote biodiversity should be championed. The climate crises may be the rallying point for a new look at Appellation.

The French and Italian systems are not without their problems. I know, for instance, that “natural” wines have been excluded many times from appellation designation because the wines donʼt meet the appellation standards. 80 years ago, when natural wines were more normal, these producers wines would have been accepted. I have no doubt that there are many gripes and frustrations amongst the European artisans at RAW WINE. Still, give me a flawed system over a meaningless one.

Tony Coturri

Glen Ellen, California

7 May 2015

Guest posts