Appellation is the Enemy of Terroir


Why do Californians seem hell-bent on establishing so-called appellations? Well, I guess I understand why: local pride, a wish to create a point of distinction from others in the marketplace, and a hope eventually to be able to sit back and charge twice or ten times what your wine is worth like they do in Napa and Bordeaux.

But it doesn't work. What does happen is land gets more expensive. Napa cult cabernet sauvignons shelfed at $100 are generally made from grapes that go for $10,000 per ton because they are raised on land that goes for $100,000 per acre. Good Mendocino cab can be had for $10 because it's made from $1,000/ton fruit which is grown on $10,000 land. See a pattern?

So fame inflates prices, but also costs. That's why Andy Beckstoffer has been arguing that Napa growers can't make any money.

Any extrinsic reason (i.e. on the label instead of in the bottle) to buy wine runs up the cost, so fame is definitely the enemy of value. For most people's purposes, a Timex keeps pretty much the same time as a Rolex. Duh. But I'm saying more than this. I'm saying the economics of a successful appellation actually deteriorate quality, particularly in the New World where we're still working out best winegrowing practices.

Many of our greatest vineyards are dry farmed. These tend to have deeper roots, and to be more resistant to seasonal variations. You can't much do that in Napa on $150,000/acre land, because you lose yield per acre. So there's an argument that the acclaim associated with fame is the enemy of terroir.

Many enlightened practices, particularly experimental ones, are difficult to implement on hyped-up real estate, because return on investment is imperiled. Napa real estate is $100,000 per acre, compared with $10,000 or less in Mendocino. I don't believe the average Napa wine is over ten times as good as the average Mendocino wine. Mendocino leads the State in organic farming research while Napa trails behind most other regions. Growers in the high-hype regions just don't take chances experimenting with minimum tillage, compost teas, and organic certification at the risk of losing tonnage.

In established appellations like Bordeaux and Burgundy, we see distinctive differences between producers which have become engrained and are systematically maintained through vineyard and cellar practices, many of which are regulated by law.

In New World, no such regulations exist anywhere. We want the hype without the restrictions. Furthermore, the fame of places like Napa and lately Walla Walla preceded the actual plantation of most of the grapes. In conditions like this, appellation thinking pushes winemakers to imitate each other. The appellation style takes precedence over developing distinctive house styles, and many winemakers are either afraid or conjoined from doing something offbeat. Whatever the reason, we see writer after writer, wine judge after wine judge, declaring that 75 Napa cabernets all tasted exactly alike. (There are many exceptions – Diamond Creek, Chateau Montelena, Mayacamas, and maybe 50 others--but these are the aristocracy, who don’t enter fairs because they can’t afford a Silver Medal, and are trying to distance themselves from the corporate appellation phenomenon.)

I believe an important cause of this sameness is what Nicholas Joly claims -- that without living soil, a place cannot assert its identity. But banks and investors don't like weeds, and highly paid consultants feel the need to "do something." So we see mostly manipulation in Napa's vineyards, and as little role for fickle Mother Nature as can be constrained.

Other problems. Who wants Napa traffic? And since fame hit the Central Coast, the real wine devotees have to fight their way into tasting rooms past frat fools who are just there to drink the spitbucket à la Sideways.

I say that it's too early to establish appellations in California. It's mostly being pushed by corporate interests-come-lately who want to piggyback on the hard work of the small entrepreneurial pioneer next door. To that dying breed, I appeal – build your brand, not your neighborhood.






Hi Clark Smith,

I read your blog pretty regularly and always find interesting wine comments. As someone in the wine world, I thought you might be interested in a recent online petition launched to protect wine place names and label misuse. It can be viewed at The petition is aimed at consumers in an effort to show that it is not just wineries and trade people that care about this issue. I would love it if you could help by spreading the word in protecting our great wine regions like Napa Valley, Porto, Portugal, Champagne, France and Oregon…just to name a few. You can help by posting the petition on your website and it might even stir up some interesting conversation.


Center for Wine Origins