The appellation designation on a wine bottle is every bit as important as the vintage. In order for a wine made in the US to bear the designation of a particular growing region or appellation in general, 95 percent of the grapes must be grown in that appellation. Not only is it what makes Napa, Napa or Walla Walla, Walla Walla. In conjunction with the vintage, it helps you to discern the quality that likely will be in the bottle.
Appellations are typically designated with the largest area first and then subdivided and narrowed into smaller appellation and sub-appellations. As an example, the Sonoma Coast appellation in Northern California runs from the Mendocino County line in the north, south to encompass part of Marin County, then east encompassing all of Sonoma County and the base of Napa County, taking in part of the Napa side of Carneros. Similarly, the Columbia Valley Appellation includes most of the grape growing areas of the entire state of Washington. Since these huge growing areas were designated, they have been divided and divided again into smaller, more specific growing areas that truly represent the terroir of those places. Specific soil types, climatic conditions and topography all contribute to where the lines of the appellation are laid down.
Over recent months we have encountered several wines that we liked a lot that are simply considered to be a “California appellation, ”meaning the grapes only have to come from somewhere in the state. That’s a lot of territory; some of it is good for growing wine grapes and most of it not so much! The challenge is how to know when a California designation is good and when it is bad? The short answer is to go to your favorite wine professional to understand the origin of the wine grapes in the bottle. Sometimes you can check the back label too, which will show site-specific vineyards as the source for the fruit.
Here is why it is important to know the origin of the grapes in a bottle that carries the broadest of designations. We have all seen wines, typically in the grocery store, that sell at prices that seem too good to be true stamped with California on the label. These are the ones to be careful of. In most cases, the bottle of $2 whatever is made from fruit grown in the Central Valley of California, far away from the cooling breezes of the ocean and the topography that contributes to the broad temperature swings between daytime highs and nighttime lows which is perfect for growing quality wine grapes. The vineyards themselves are typically harvested by machine rather than by hand and employ less than the best growing practices. No wine consumer in the world is going to think wines like these are going to be of the same quality as those from Napa or Walla Walla.
The wines we have tasted recently that are designated as California are different. Two specific wines come to mind, the 75 Wine Company Cabernet and the Cline Farmhouse Red Wine. Both are considered to be from California appellations, but after tasting them with winery representatives you learn a bit more about the vineyards they come from. In both cases, they include fruit from vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino Counties. All of the vineyards are estate owned, meaning in the case of 75 Wine Company they are owned and farmed by the Beckstoffer family and in the case of Cline, the family owns and farms them. This allows the winemakers to exert great influence over the farming practices, including harvest and crop levels. Also, these four counties represent some of the finest terroirs in all of Northern California Wine Country.
The winemakers deployed the California designation on the bottle, not as a way to include fruit from lesser growing areas, but rather to avoid using no designation at all since the family’s vineyard holdings span broad areas. As wine professionals, we make it our business to know these details to help guide our customers to the best wine out there at any given price point. As winemakers, both Tuck Beckstoffer and the Cline family print on the back label that all the grapes are estate grown, so wine consumers feel comfortable knowing the superior origin of what is in the bottle.
As the offerings from all domestic appellations continue to grow and the labeling blurs for really great producers and those looking to exploit labeling standards to include low-quality grapes, it is important to know what is going into your chosen bottle of wine. We are here to help, as is every wine professional.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.