Place matters, but you'd hardly know it
Is geography becoming redundant in the world of wine? I
sometimes fear so and it sends a shiver down my spine. For it
is wine's ability to express the spot on the globe responsible
for it that is for me one of the most thrilling ways it
differs from any other drink (and most foods).
Take this two-page press release about a new wine from the
Australian giant Hardys, chosen at random from the hundreds
that flood through my letter box every month. Not one of the
500 words about their new/retro Oomoo label gives me any clue
whatsoever about where the Shiraz and Cabernet grapes that go
into the two bottlings were grown. Instead I am told that the
wine will "provide excellent on-shelf standout", whatever that
is. I did subsequently discover that the label on the wine
itself carries the name of the dominant Australian wine state
but there are no further clues.
But at least Australians are consistent in their blithe
disregard for geography. They have always been enthusiastic
inter-regional blenders. Even Australia's most famous wine
Penfolds Grange is defiantly vague about its origins. With the
exception of a few small producers, the wine industry's sales
pitch is not founded on the notion that location matters.
Compare and contrast this with vintners in California's cradle
of wine, the Napa Valley. The most famous wine valley on
earth's message to the outside world has long been based on
its almost magical geographical diversity. The tasting booklet
of the Napa Valley Vintners now contains a 1,500-word "Napa
Valley Primer" entitled Terrain and Terroir. (I don't know
about you, but I can't imagine the Aussies ever choosing a
title like that.)
"In fact," the spiel claims boldly, "there is more
viticultural diversity with the Napa Valley appellation than
there is within Bordeaux or Burgundy." It goes on, "each soil
type contributes its own mineralogy, chemistry, texture, and
structure to the complexity of individual vineyard
environments, and hence to the diversity of the valley's
wines." The primer finishes with an admirable overview of the
characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignons grown variously in
Carneros, Stags Leap District, Yountville, Oakville,
Rutherford, St Helena, Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain.
(There's a note about Spring Mountain being wetter than Howell
Mountain earlier on.)
But how useful is all this to the most important person in the
world of wine, the consumer? Only a very small proportion of
wine produced in the Napa Valley carries one of these more
specific subappellations on the label.
It seems to me there is a conundrum here. Those whose job it
is promote the Napa Valley bang on about its fabulous
diversity. But those who sell Napa Valley wines are
generally oddly reluctant to educate the consumer about how
that diversity translates itself in the bottle. If the effects
of this diversity are so marked and fascinating, how is the
consumer ever going to get to grips with them?
I can well understand that the name Napa Valley has unrivalled
status in terms of both recognition and value as far as the
average consumer is concerned. So if putting, say, Howell
Mountain on the label meant having to discard the magic words
Napa Valley, I could understand producers' reluctance to use
the more specific appellation. But it doesn't. It is cleverly
enshrined in the AVA regulations that the words Napa Valley
should always appear on the labels of wines labelled more
I know that this whine must sound ridiculously Eurocentric to
some ears. Why should place matter? Surely all the consumer
needs to know is the name of the producer? Isn't it in the
producer's interest simply to promote their own names and
their own brands?
I also realise that, far more than in the fine wine regions of
Europe, throughout California there is a propensity for
producers to buy in fruit from outside growers and that by
using the largest appellation possible producers retain the
flexibility of changing growers and the mix of various
ingredients in their bottlings from year to year.
Even a wine labelled Napa Valley may contain up to 15 per cent
of fruit grown anywhere else in California, even the Central
Valley. (If it's labelled simply with the California
appellation, as many as 25 per cent of grapes may have been
grown outside the state. If a vineyard name is used on the
label then only five per cent of grapes may have been grown
All that would be fine if Napa Valley vintners didn't try to
play the terroir card. But it seems to me you can't have your
cake and eat it. If you're trying to woo customers by
preaching about your wonderful and wonderfully varied
terroirs, then you have to give the consumer a chance to
I was intrigued during a visit to the exceptionally well-run
Harlan Estate a year or two back when the team were talking
about their plans to introduce a range of single vineyard
bottlings from various sites around the Napa Valley. I got
quite excited about this, thinking it would provide an ideal
opportunity for (well heeled) consumers to contrast and
compare the effects of different subregions with the valley,
since presumably more or less the same grape varieties and
winemaking techniques would be used, making geography the only
variable. But no, I'd got it wrong. The plan was not to use
the subappellations, or even the vineyard names, if I
understood correctly. These were simply to be sub-brands of
the Harlan name.
I have queried all manner of Napa Valley producers as to why
they choose not to use a more specific appellation than Napa
Valley. I would have thought, for example, that Viader would
be a prime instance of a wine to demonstrate the Howell
Mountain-ness of Howell Mountain. But Delia Viader told me
firmly this was not part of her vision. She is selling Viader.
Although the prime message in the sales literature is "when
you taste a wine from a great vineyard, it has a distinct
personality". Howell Mountain rather than Napa Valley surely?
Surely Spring Mountain Vineyards could and should label their
wines with the Spring Mountain District subappellation?
Apparently they may in the future but for years got in a twist
about how it might seem a bit odd to repeat the words Spring
Mountain as both winery and appellation name.
I asked one of the valley's most charming ambassadresses
Margaret Duckhorn about why they don't label their Duckhorn
Estate wines more specifically and she thought it was because
the grapes are not vinified in the same subappellation in
which they are grown. But in fact, according to the
regulations published on the California Wine Institute
website, the only requirement is that the "wine should be
finished" within the state specified on the label.
At the intriguing Ehlers Estate, which claims not to buy in a
single grape and is run as an entirely philanthropic entity
specialising in funding cardiovascular research, I was told
that they could technically use the subappellation St Helena
but choose not to because that particular name doesn't have
much of an image in the world of wine though "if it were
Rutherford, then we'd have it on the label."
This demonstrates the nub of this argument. Appellations are
only commercially important once they have established a
reputation with the consumer. And if Napa Valley vintners
continue to be shy of even exposing the consumer to most of
them (Rutherford has a more glorious history than most), then
they may just wither and die.