Friday, April 15, 2011

Fetzer, Heimoff, Appellations and Ambiguity - An Empathetic Response

Because I fear Mr. Heimoff's tattooed and sleek gym-toned forearms reigning blows upon me I will simply link to his blog exchange with Jacob Fetzer entitled The Box of Being in an Unknown Appellation. To summarize, Jacob Fetzer lamented the situation of selling wine from an unknown appellation and the lack of recognition and buzz that seems to slow sales - ironically early bottlings were not actually in this appellation anyway, and should be fined by the TTB for false labeling (I could be if I put Red Hills on a bottle) but I digress. Ultimately, we in Lake County have the same problem as Fetzer. I personally just poured over three cases of samples at Fort Mason in San Francisco this weekend at one ounce pours (36 bottles x 25 ounces each) equals 900 samples poured, and I can safely say that fewer than three dozen Bay Area residents had ever heard of Lake County two hours away. If they had heard it was because their parents went to Konocti in the 80's to rock the night away kid free. In short Lake County, you and I are screwed, and we are still failing just like Fetzer's misplaced Redwood Valley, either because we lack the names, or we lack the quality or uniqueness. We are still in the box, and we just barely realize that we have some control over how the box is shaped and what it can hold. We are at the frontier, and we can either play to the market or forge our own way. An AVA will not save us with its brief press-release buzz and may indeed condemn us if we cannot live up to it.

Steve's response was interesting and he wisely called out Lake County by name. His recognition requirements were a little odd: a region must be coastal (North Rhone, Burgundy, Austria anyone?), it must be famous for a family of varieties (Douro, Alsace, South Rhone anyone?), and there must be buzz factor. Number three redeemed the silliness of the previous two. It is all about the buzz from the sales viewpoint.

In a previous post a couple of months back I used a very well done video produced to promote the Cahors region (right here) as a foil for our own infantile yet growing sense of place in Lake County. Lamenting the lack of any food culture or unique agricultural aspects - though Lake County pears come/came close - the question of what we are and where we are going as a wine region is a daily dilemma. We have great growing conditions, but no definable style, no clear elements like minerality, and the (insert gagging noise) most important grape, you know - Cabernet, has largely been a failure due to lack of modest temperature hangtime - with a few notable exceptions such as Obsidian Ridge at 2700 feet. So stop planting more of it! We don't really have any risky/unique winemaking styles (Ceago comes the closest), and no local crazies like Sean Thackrey or Gravner with real vision. Some of the vineyards really are unique and will evolve into terroir-driven typicity; lets just hope we can hang on that long. Clay Shannon could probably lead us in a line dance but no one is capturing hearts and minds here, ourselves included. We need vision.

Where does buzz come from? Unique qualities and value. Value in this economy implies prices under $15 bottle shelf retail, and most of us can't go there. So we better go unique, and this is indeed underway as Rhone whites are gaining traction, and Petite Sirah still seems to be rising. But in a short few years Lake County Sauvignon Blanc has gone from value-priced darling to hospice patient. The fantastic Merlot grown here has no market because, well, that damn movie. We could suffocate ourselves with overdiversity as well and end up in bulk wine hell. Uniqueness is no guarantee in and of itself. There is still much work to be done here. My hunch: Montepulciano and Zinfandel.

Now, we love AVAs. We at Rosa d'Oro are salivating at the thought of putting Kelsey Bench on our labels this year, but we all need to be honest: AVAs, though geographically defined are sometimes bullshit. This is not a European system specifying grapes, blends, or yields. An AVA can range from 62 acres in size (Cole Ranch) to the Ohio River Valley at 26,000 square miles, different marketing strategies for sure. Anything within that AVA goes as long as 85% of the grapes are grown in it, whether is French Colombard or Touriga Nacional. It is just a place where grapes are grown, not particularly indicative of anything in itself. Sometimes the name itself is a problem, like when we get Kelsey Bench we may have to explain that Andrew Kelsey was a horrible human being who more than deserved being killed by the Pomo to those who are curious.

Fetzer's response is awesome and transparently reproduces the problem beautifully - we will just make our own AVA! Problem solved. Redwood Valley buzz is dying, start again. We will dilute the system even more, poison the well with geopolitical gerrymandering in the name of sales. AVAs are great, but they also had better represent something real in climate, typicity, and the resulting wine produced beyond super fine grained distinctions.  But, even with AVA status, your wine may still be crap, there may be no "thereness" to it at all, and when it is price gouged frontline to move old units you may be hurting everyone in the area. AVAs are not an easy or self-evident answer and most casual customers really do not seem to care much at all about them. The very first comment to Steve's post was a woman who almost did not purchase a bottle because it said Lake County and Fetzer uses a Redwood Valley PO Box. Thanks lady, we almost would have given up - a deep thank you for overcoming your fear of the unknown and trying something new, and we are thrilled to deliver. If more people say "I don't know the place so I am reluctant to try it" then we are all screwed. AVAs can hurt just as much as they help branding in the market place.

And that is just the point in some of these cases: maybe the AVA didn't fail you, perhaps we have failed our AVAs through by-the-numbers winemaking and grape growing. Some of us don't even really have a useful one (Clear Lake - Lake County).

We must make better wine and grow better grapes that show how good an AVA can be.

For those who are interested, here is a good overview of AVA regulations and problems from Practical Winery and Vineyard Magazine: http://www.practicalwinery.com/MayJune07/mayJune07p5.htm

2 comments:

Marlin said...

I couldn't agree more that an appellation has to mean something. I was hoping that the Coro Mendocino may be the start of something new. An appellation with a recognizable, quality-controlled product; what a concept.
I had a wine the other night that reminds me of one possible reason why the Coro may be a little slow to take off. It was a $40 Zinfandel from 138 year old vines! The Mendocino gang had the right idea, but with the wrong product at the wrong price point. While I will happily pay $40 for some wines, I won't do it for a Zinfandel (or zin blend) unless I know it is a one of a kind.
I still hope that some region will create a recognizable product that will make an appellation a real and predictable brand. I think Lake County does nice Italian and Hispanic wines. Perhaps at the right price point .......

Pietro Buttitta said...

Thanks for the comment Marlin. There is much more to be said about appellations and AVAs. They don't simply equal a European notion of terroir (which may or may not be sound), they have a strong sales aspect, but we also may be just beginning the process of gathering historical knowledge, especially in Lake County. I liked the Coro idea as well and throw it out frequently to see who bites. It may not so much be about QPR as setting a pricey benchmark, and the spirit is interesting. I agree that I am not going to spend $40 on A Zin, but there is no inherent reason to my mind that $40 for a pedigreed Cab is clearly more reasonable. I do agree very much that we need a benchmark product, but when everyone sits around and says that it has to be Cabernet because that is what the market says, I hang my head. Is that what Cahors, Barolo or Taurasi said? You want Lake County bench mark potential then drink old vineyard Petite Sirah and Zin. Merlot is great here but the market says no. Cab will be great, but it will take another ten years. If we do it right, we have time on our side... These things take time to flesh out and articulate, and then after we can start carving up AVAs.