Monday, September 10, 2007

AVA's: can't see the forest for the trees?

Fermentations had a lovely post last week on AVA's and what Tom thinks should be done to further hinder wine sales (and keep himself employed) in California's wine industry.
Gawd knows I luv ya, Tom Wark...but I think you need to seriously re-think what you're proposing, and stop smoking the whatever-it-is that brought this point of view on.

The biggest problem I see with his post is that he's willing to add even more confusion to the AVA system to validate his belief that soils should hold as high a regard as prevailing weather and climate, etc, in describing where grapes are produced. He goes so far as to claim that only areas which have a consistent soil should be allowed to be an AVA, and that "smaller is always better" when talking about AVA's.

The bad news is that sometimes soil types change within walking a 50' line.
And shall we dig test pits? What strata is important: do we consider all layers, or just the top?
Maps don't include gravel beds, serpentine outcroppings, etc...which throw the whole thing off...they're general in nature (usually) when available from the County or State, and it's up to the farmer to verify and elaborate on what the state geologists make available.

I'd suggest anyone interested in this topic pick up a Soil Survey map or other geologic map of both Napa & Sonoma counties and look at how much variation there is within the already approved AVA's...

And that will no doubt embolden people whom hold Tom's view to try to get even more micro-AVA's created.
However, the model where soil is so paramount in viticulture is France...almost all others approach grape growing with a philosophy that states climate and geography are the biggest determinants to the final grape quality. And one has to point out that the biggest obstacle the French currently face is the consumer's inability to understand (or even care?) about the vast majority of the multitudinous appellations they have in place. Those micro-AVA's they have serve some of the same purposes we use "branding" for...which is one reason why branding hasn't taken off with them for the most part.

What people in Tom's camp are advocating is the creation of an AVA for each & every different combination of soil & climate...
Does this make sense to you?
It doesn't to me...I mean if grapes can be grown in such different soils as occur in Israel and Syria, to Canada, Australia, China, etc., and each of those areas can produce some quite nice wines, then I think we can start to discard the vital importance which some people claim for soil.
Provided the soil doesn't contain minerals or substances harmful to the vines, it (soil) becomes a
third-order influence (the first-order being overall climate, weather and exposure choices; second-order being a combination of water availability, clone and varietal, and viticultural choices).
So, should we give a minor player a deciding vote in how we describe our AVA's?
Look at the attached geologic map of Rutherford and see what you think...each of those different colored areas would need their own AVA by the logic of those who regard soils as such an important factor:

This one's for Tom - the soil map of Glen Ellen:

So what's the problem, you might ask...
Plenty!...unless you think the lower half of the Napa Valley should be divided along the following lines:

While I can see such a simplistic argument coming from a first or second year viticulture student, it makes me pale to hear a wine marketer/PR guy jump into that camp.
What a mess!

Soils available are not as simplistic as these general maps lead one to think. I'll round up a few examples to illustrate what a site specific soil map looks like, hopefully including sub-surface strata. And by the way, has anyone bothered to even ask if all these differences are real to the consumer, or if we're about to throw consumer clarity under the bus for the sake of a minority of wine buyers (say 5% of the total purchasing population) who would love the info?
Winegrowers and vintners are already managing this info by using different vineyard blocks and branding - so why get the government involved? How will that help out everyone?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"While I can see such a simplistic argument coming from a first or second year viticulture student, it makes me pale to hear a wine marketer/PR guy jump into that camp.
What a mess!"

Now you are just being mean, Vini.

You should note that in my post I pay very special attention to climate.

Second, whether a proliferation of AVAs might confuse consumers is not the point since no winery in Green Valley, for example, is required to use "green Valley" on their label. They could just as easily use the term "Russian River Valley" or even "Sonoma County" to describe the grapes they used to make the wine.

Of course "Green Valley" would be much more accurate a description. And, it would be much more useful to the consumer like you that does understand Green Valley.

But consider, the winery could also use "Green Valley-Russian River Valley" on their label to satisfy everyone.

You know as well as I do that simply the climatic conditions of the various parts of the Russian River Valley is an argument for chopping that monstrosity of an appellation up into at least 3 other sub appellations...That is, if we are interested in the idea that the AVA system should be something more than marketing vehicles for lowly PR types like me.

We either get with the program or throw it out all together.

Surely you don't want to argue that the differences in the Anderson Valley hilltops are not different than that valley floor, in both climate and soil? Surely you don't want to argue that there is a general consistency to the character of valley floor soil and mountain top soil.

If we are going to stick with these ridiculous appellations like "Napa Valley", Russian River Valley and "Sonoma Coast" then it makes more sense to me to just chuck the entire system. The least we can be is honest.

Fermentation Wine Blog

September 10, 2007 9:27 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

The problem with the call to unite only areas with the same ("consistent") soil and climate is the crux of my objection...
And while you do include climate, what I note is that the first quality you list is consistently "soil". (Yes, it really does strike me that you hold soil in the highest regard...)

Why are we going to have the federal government dabble with a myriad of new AVA's if nobody's going to use them? What of the price of the extra regulators, review, and laws that need to be drafted and applied?
I can't see doing this when the producers are already doing that sort of delineation when they see fit by restricting their blending and picking, and frankly the notion that AVA's are only worth their salt when they describe a small area is false...unless of course you want it to really, really, really be the sense it contains only one soil type.
But that comes with one huge drawback...

...the area then described is perfectly so, but too small to then be of any viticultural use. In essence we trade usability, clarity and practicality for precision...and to what end?
Will the resulting areas -perfectly described but only containing one vineyard block - be of enough quantity to make a salable volume?
If any larger, then -gasp!- that dreaded specter of homogenization and uncertainty creeps back into the picture and we are no closer to the romantic goal of knowing what the exact conditions of those vines and areas were during the harvest in question. That is the fallacy of micro- & nano- AVA' shares similar constraints of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: you can't know/control everything about the vines and still have anything left to bring to market.
Indeed, we end up floundering on the ground like the millipede who's been asked which foot he moves first - even if we get the right answer we are paralyzed by our over analysis of the situation...
Or perhaps it is like using the Hubble telescope to look at an object only a yard away from it: too much detail of too small an area to be useful....hence my "can't see the forest for the trees" title.

I'm a practical guy, and like to poke a hole in wine folklore & romanticism when I can, but to me it seems that sort of precision in describing the AVA would knock whatever last bit of romanticism is left out of the picture. Is that what marketing is about these days?

A few other notes:
** Vintners are already accomplishing this task by using vineyard designated wines - which are already regulated & reviewed by the Feds...there seems to be enough usable leeway in how that regulation is applied to leave everyone happy...

** any viticulturist worth their salt has already divided their land into plots with consistent exposure, water, etc, (and hence ripening!) and I see no need to involve a state geologist or federal inspector in the designation of an individual block within a vineyard -let us tend to our own in this matter

** Vintners can still use back label space to further inform the consumer of fruit source & unique growing conditions without all this excess hoopla

** the dichotomy of allowing already established wineries with place names to continue on doing whatever they please, while penalizing anyone else who might want to get on board by requiring 90% of their production to be from that area is further confusing to the consumer, and therefore shouldn't be allowed. THAT would truly bring about the death of the American AVA by creating more consumer confusion, however nobly meant by you to give something to both sides...
Indeed, that is the very question the TTB is currently holding the process in limbo for: how do they apply this system without putting unneeded onus on either side, and allow consumer clarity?!

And I'm not touching the bait you offer about Mendo ridges and valleys - except to note that you mention "general consistency" when you talk of those divisions, but it seems you don't like that "general consistency" when it is applied to the RRV, Sonoma County, and Napa Valley...
Strangely those appellations you didn't seem to object to a few months ago you now deem "ludicrous". I wonder if that "ludicrous" animosity you hold towards them has ever swayed you to talk a client out of marketing their fruit or wines in that manner?
For example, do you insist RRV clients avoid using the RRV moniker since you don't agree with the appellation as it stands?
Or have you instead held you tongue
and marketed as your client dictates?
There's no shame in it - we all have to sell ourselves once in a while to keep food on the table and our BMW's new a shiny...(BTW, NOW I'm just being mean... )

Please, Tom, come out and let everyone know that your article was just an attempt to stir the pot & play Devil's Advocate...
"The least we can be is honest", eh?

We'd still love you all the same for it.
Maybe even more...

Your pal,

September 11, 2007 9:33 PM  

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