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Place matters, but you'd hardly know it

29 Mar 2004 by JR
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 specifically.

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 anywhere else.)

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 sample them.

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.
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