Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why the TTB freeze is good

Many industry bloggers have noted the TTB freeze on granting new AVA's within AVA's (they've actually suspended the whole process for the moment), and some have cast it as a reaction to moves by "money" from existing producers in the proposed Calistoga AVA who would be adversely affected by the granting of that petition...and that not withstanding as a possibility, I think of the freeze differently.
[link to Appellation America article]
[link to Wines & Vines article]

As a marketing tool, the idea of an AVA is excellent: it allows producers who can demonstrate climatic, geographical and historical significances in their wine region to differentiate it from the hoards of other producers...
...but the spot where AVA's fall short is in their over-application: if everywhere one turns you find a new micro-AVA, what happens to the publics' ability to distinguish one product from another? And what happens when we create an AVA which doesn't really show any discernible characteristics of place - even when tasted by a panel of respected judges and producers from that area?
[AppAm looks into Carneros "regionality" - finds nothing conclusive]

Logically extending the current swift
creation of 180 AVA's into the future, we come to a point where there are thousands of micro-AVA designations, and the consumer is not served by the vast majority of it...

Those questions and that imagined dark future (hopefully avoided) bring the idea of smaller and smaller AVA's into question, and the TTB is right to try to establish some rules which will make sense not only in the here and now, but into the future as well. [The current list of requirements can be found @ the TTB site as well as the restrictions on how labels can be used]

U.S.Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Napa) sent a letter asking about the delay in the rulemaking process, and you can read the TTB response letter here, but allow me to highlight what I think the best passage is:

It is exactly that "AVA within AVA within AVA" dilution (logically extended
, ad nauseum, into the "AVA within AVA within AVA within AVA within AVA, etc") which begs the TTB to take action now rather than later.

What I mean is that the future as it stands today has the US heading directly into the situation that France is in now due to its reliance on marketing from the nineteenth century appellation and classifications of its industry - which frankly, has done it service when it was the primary player in the world, but have sharply hindered it in the current era of global competition. Do we want to have people buying appellation maps & rote memorizing the viticultural areas of California & the US in general as they currently NEED to do to understand French wine areas?
Is the future world you desire one where you'll need a somellier certificate to be able to understand all the micro - Nay, nano is a better description- appellations which California will be carved into?

This is the time for us to drop back 10 yards and rethink what we are trying to acheive, and while marketing tools are never wasted energy in my mind, I believe the TTB needs a coherent directive for the future. Maybe proposing a minimum acreage for any AVA (say for argument purposes that could be 64,000 total acres in area, e.g. a 10 mile x 10 mile square), and that there then is some industry and consumer consensus that the area in question provides some distinctive qualities from the areas adjacent to it, etc...

And what about noted industry personalities who have challenged the idea of some of the most revered sub- & micro-appellations anyways? [Chuck Wagner of Caymus comes to mind]
...certainly, that might be cited as evidence that we may have already over applied this tool?
And currently the TTB reg's have a process for creation of an AVA, but what happens when everything is carved up and people start to realize that what was created was in fact incorrect - how do we "undo" what is already "done"?
What's the petition system for removal of an AVA once it's been granted?
Do we then "grandfather" those producers who have built brands based on those "previous" and then retracted AVA's?
What a mess that would be...obviously, this system needs a bit of tweaking, and the time to do it is now, before it spreads even further...

Say "NO" to pretension, and "YES" to simplicity...the AVA system needs to augment the consumer's ability to select products, not hinder it with minute designations which in the end will only add confusion...
...the TTB is right and prudent to try to further define what it is doing...

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Anonymous Micha Ben-Aderet said...

As someone who spends a decent proportion of a meager income on wine, I find it interesting that you find fault with the french appelation system. Frankly, as a consumer, I find that the frech system allows me to have a much better picture of the wine that I am buying before I buy it. The California appelations mean almost nothing, a single "appelation" will produce wines of multiple styles, qualities, and prices. It makes for a dynamic and interesting wine scene, but it is hell for a consumer who is not familiar with each individual winery. When I want to spend some money on wine, I want to minimize the risk of getting a lousy/boring bottle, thus, though it has its flaws, I prefer the french system and consequently buy more french wine. Now, I don't know much about soil, but from a consumer standpoint, I know which system I like the best.

September 10, 2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Excellent, Micha!

Drink what you want...whatever that may be! But beware, there are problems with the French system akin to those you mentioned in your comment re California: quality is all over the board, and most of what you might attribute to style consistency is really "tradition" (read as "lacking imagination")...
Appellation systems are not a guarantee of quality nor of style...all they can offer is some assurances as to where the fruit was grown and what varietal it was...

All the same, God bless & good luck. God knows the French need more consumers who think like you do...


September 13, 2007 5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a grower/producer in the proposed Calistoga AVA, I have no problem with revisiting the fundamental AVA requirements. God and Mother Nature both know the so-called "Napa" Valley AVA bears no likeness to the natural, geographic valley which they created for us.
However, I have a SIGNIFICANT problem with the use of the term CALISTOGA on a wine which, if Louer and his so-called "Calistoga" Cellars, and Stirman and his so-called "Calistoga" Estate will continue to allow them to source fruit from Bakersfield, Fresno, Kerman, Los Banos and Timbuktu if their proposal is approved. And when you consider these operations are partnerships with absentee huge money and legions of attorneys their asking the TTB to be "grandfathered" because they were caught off guard is laughable. But, only the Feds would nibble at this bait so, unfortunately, newbie Louer and Stirman may prevail over families with many generations of winegrowing in Calistoga.

Finally, I personally feel the ultimate appellation is the specific vineyard fruit source.

September 20, 2007 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it's really important to understand French wine region!

November 14, 2007 6:44 AM  

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