Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Appellation America: work in progress...

I was asked by Tish the other day if I had posted about the Appellation America (hereafter called AppAm) website and mission.

I have visited the site several times over the past year-or-so, and I think the idea is a good one: one site to showcase the multitude of North American appellations - all over the US & Canada, not just the West coast - and provide some commentary and analysis of the different areas.
When I first visited, my initial take was that the site lacked enough specific information for each area to allow consumers to really get into the differences from one to the next, and the maps of the apps - when available - weren't really useful as they were artists concepts, or too vague to be helpful - though the little man climbing Mt.Veeder & the deer leaping over what's supposed to be Stag's Leap are attractive to newbies.

But recognizing the enormity of what they were trying to accomplish and that the site itself not only states it is constantly under construction, and also elicits help from the public for appellations they are familiar with (sort of a Wikipedia for US & Canadian wine growing regions - a Wine-apedia if you will), and sports some well respected wine industry insiders like Tom of Fermentations, and Dan Berger, who is syndicated nationally, among others.

Still, there should be a topo map which would allow people to see what is properly "Napa Valley" [the green area on the topo map portion above], and that which is legally defined as "Napa Valley" [the purple area added to the green area on the topo map]. This sort of detail would allow visitors to make some judgements about where their wines are coming from, and foster more discussion as well...including the near heretical questioning of whether "Napa Valley" means Napa Valley, or might be something outside of what truly IS the Napa Valley...

Note that I have nothing against the artsy renditions of geographic areas- in fact I think they go a good distance towards eliminating wine elitism by making the subject a bit more fun for people who aren't familiar with the concepts, or who haven't traveled through the area being discussed.
But place the artsy picture at the top of the article, and a more detailed map (topo) within the article, so that people may get a better idea for the geography in question. Then add in some specifics about climate, general geology within the area, etc, and you have a way of bringing people into the subject, and giving them the information they need in the end without seeming elitist - and without them feeling awkward by having to ask (which many neophytes are loathe to do fearing they'll look "stupid" merely by asking). Beware though the equally confusing essay/manifesto by Randall Graham regarding terroir...which would be enough to send most newbies heading for the hills...(I'll resist the urge to deflate his "viticultural acupuncture" and "Ley lines" comments for a future date).

There are also a few odd wine reviews here & there on the site which are a bit confusing. Certainly the site isn't designed to be a comprehensive review of wines from all US appellations, but it seems this area has a bit more work to be done on it...[Take for example this review of a 2002 Murphy-Goode wine from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County:

"...When I first nosed this wine, from four-year old vines, I didn’t know what to think: it smelled like mushrooms, scrambled eggs, and blackberry pancakes all at once. But after six hours, 24 hours, and 72 hours, it smelled exactly the same – the sign of a wine that’s true to something intrinsic, not tarted up. In your mouth, it’s full of sweet black fruit laced with baking spice delivered in a multi-layered texture that’s warm without alcoholic heat and that expands all the way through to the finish. Worth seeking out for both pleasure and originality.
Reviewed June 22, 2006 by
Thom Elkjer."

Hmmm...smelled like scrambled eggs - but that's okay, becuse 3 days later it STILL smelled like scrambled eggs. And I'm not sure what he means by 'tarted up' (for a wine, anyways...I know what it means for women) he talking acidity, or what?
Again, is it that wine's supposed to be 'true' to some impossibly underdefined 'intrinsic' quality, or is it suppsed to be 'good'?
Gimme the good wine any day. Those eggy notes are from various sulphur compounds, and are seen as a fault. That they don't decrease over 3 days leads me to think less of that wine.

Good Lord, there's so much to work yet to be done...
[read the review from
appellation america website...]

But of all the thoughts I had regarding the site, my biggest concern is that they don't bite off more than they can accomplish, and I think trying to provide descriptions of all the different varietals grown in North America, and the entirety of approved appellations (which is a moving target since the list is still expanding) is quite demanding as it stands.
A lot of work is going to be required to bring it to fruition.



Blogger TasteDC said...


Appellation America seems like it will "always" be a work in progress... with 50 states producing wine and all the potential for new appellations, and assuming either unpaid or poorly paid people responsible for info on the website - seems like a bottomless pit of info never to be read by anyone other than Wine Geeks... Maybe if they just took the "major" appellations and really explored them - as a wine educator I would find that more useful - I could compare say Carneros to Burgundy - hey, maybe they should do that!!

September 27, 2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Exactly my point later's a Herculean task they've put before themselves, and the target will always be a moving one. I'm sure quite a few novices would be tuning into the site to get some info on what the plethora of designations mean, although mid-level Geeks would be the prime users, no doubt. But I think it'd be even harder for them if they were to start expanding that to the *world* as a whole - even just specific places.

Specific app's in comparison would be beneficial for most people - as well as pare down the task a bit & make it more manageable...

Any thoughts about starting/getting involved with that task of comparing Carneros & Burgundy?


September 28, 2006 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Louis said...

When you say the "proper" Napa Valley vs the defined Napa Valley app. you confuse the consumers regarding appelations yourself. The AVA Napa Valley was defined and agreed to by all - and vyds and wines in Pope Valley, Chiles Valley, and Wooden Valley can and do produce wines that are equivilant to the Napa Valley "proper" app. I think by projecting your bias you may be doing a diservice to the consumer. I respect your opinions and am not disagreeing with you in the larger sense - but I wanted to make this point.

September 29, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Louis: Was it "agreed to by all"? What makes you think it was unanimous?

Reading your clarification, it doesn't seem any clearer to me. To the consumer it is confusing as to why "Pope Valley" fruit is labelled as "Napa Valley". Wouldn't it be clearer to call it "Napa County"?

AVAs are rarely set up with years and years of research into soils and climate. With an application to the TTB and $25k, you can pretty easily create your own!


September 29, 2006 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Sounds like it might be transparent to most consumers until they read something like this post. And it does come off as a bit of a heresy as you suggest - after all Napa is about as sacrosanct and revered an appellation as North America can muster.

Question is, is my Napa Napa, or is it Chiles valley? would I know the difference one way or the other?
If not, then it makes sense to lump them together, if I could tell them apart them maybe not so much sense.

It's an interesting topic.

September 29, 2006 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Louis said...

It is not as easy as 25,000 and an application - especially an area like Napa Valley. And don't get me wrong it is very political. My point is if you have an issue with the Napa Valley App - then petition TTB and change it. But as it stands today the Napa Valley app is what it is and that includes Pope and Chiles Valleys. As many of you may know Pope Valley Wineries and growers have been looking at forming a unique app.
My other issue here is that I see many winemakers that will not "go over the hill" and buy CS in this area - because it is not the real Napa Valley - but many times has nothing to do with the real quality of the wine but the winemakers perception.
Great wine can be made in many places within Napa and outside - let the auctual wine quality be the judge.

September 29, 2006 9:14 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Leaving aside the issue of what "napa valley" realy is, let me offer a bit of perspective as to what Appellation America is.

First, what it containts

-Wine Reivews without numbers. 300 or so at this moment with more added each day.

-Feature articles writen exclusively for Appellaltion America. About 80 of them at this point.

-24 Regional Correspondents covering specific appellatiions across the country including: Dan Berger, Tony Aspler, Lenn Thompson, Rebecca Murphy, Alan Goldfarb, Paul Gregutt, Eleanor and Ray Heald, Cole Danehower, Laurie Daniel, Thom Elkjer.

-Detailed descriptions of over 100 types of grape varieties and where they are grown in North America.

-84 North American Appellation pages each including lists of varieties grown there, wineries that live there, wineries that buy grapes there, overlapping appellation, listings of articles written about the appellation, and links to maps or organizations associated with that appellation

-Links to about 3,900 wineries each with contact information and a satelite map locating the winery. Many also have lists of current release wines, lists of retailers that carry them as well as lists of thier distributors.

The driving idea behind ApAm is to look at and portray wine in North America with an appellation consciousness defining the effort. The idea is that diversity, defined by regionality, is the most effective way to communicate the special qualities of American winemaking and viticulture.

September 30, 2006 11:45 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Well said.
Are "reviews without numbers" the new rave - the new paradigm?
Are we all to be anti-numerical now, or is it just a point of difference - not that I rate wines other than "good", "ok", or "no thanks"... :)

The Napa Valley AVA definition has been somewhat mystifying to me since its inception back in 1981, though really it's just more interesting to use it as an example.

Please don't misread my intent: I think its a great idea, and good effort to date, just a rather large subject to tackle when related to the whole of North America.


October 02, 2006 9:22 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...


"My point is if you have an issue with the Napa Valley App - then petition TTB and change it."

Oh, please....

As for winemakers not buying from Pope Valley, that gave me a chuckle. Let me tell you a dirty little secret about Napa Valley - many, many winemakers buy Cabernet from Lake County (or Sonoma, or even Lodi) and blend it in to the maximum extent possible to lower their costs. That's what it takes to make a profit for some people when your local Cab costs $4k per ton!


October 02, 2006 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Louis said...

I know the secret I deal with it each day. But those same winemakers refuse to lower themselves by buying in Eastern Napa.

October 02, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger Tom said...


One of the reasons Appellation America does not use numbers is due to the fact that as they have been used, they have become the enemy of regionalism and terroir.

But also, the editors and publishers simply believe that a wine and the story behind it can be best served with prose. I tend to agree with this.

As for the "Napa Valley" appellation, it's important to remember that most of the appellations in America are marketing driven. Nonetheless, they are what we have and in time I think what will happen is we will see many more "Green Valley's" carved out. In Russian River Valley alone the nature of the soils and climate argue for at least three different sub appellation. And clearly something needs to be done about "Sonoma Coast".

October 02, 2006 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Jeff N said...

Louis, I don't think I'm following this - if there are winemakers who buy Lodi cab or Lake Co cab, why then wouldn't they buy from eastern Napa? is it the price alone which drives them outside?

and why would that be lowering yourself when buying from outside th county isn't?
Am I reading the comment totally wrong or is that a call for the Napa app to be just the valley alone?

October 05, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

I think it is more that "some do & some don't" which Louis is pointing out - again it's the philosophy of the individual winemaker which determines that.


October 10, 2006 8:25 AM  

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