New World Identity:  The Terroir Reformation

“Your honor, how can they pass judgment if they don’t know what it’s all about?”

                -Henry Drummond, Inherit The Wind

 

We’ve all seen it coming.  European wines are sold on place, the fledgling New World wines on varietal.  As a result, Europe’s designations are more consumer-friendly, while America remains a confusing science project.  The time is approaching to convert our industry into a real business by identifying and promoting just what our regions offer.

The prime directive of postmodern winemaking is to present distinctive terroir expression.  This means the winemaker is encouraged to remain as invisible as possible, assisting the character of place in its best expression.  Today, varietal New World wines from a growing multiplicity of origins are having more and more trouble fitting the simplistic expectation of varietal norms.

Commercializing regional character at Safeway is tricky.  If the natural influences won’t cooperate with efforts to make wines blend in with the least-common-denominator style profiles for the Expected Merlot or Chardonnay, shelf positions are hard to come by.  On the other hand, those influences can, with time and effort, become the very reason your wines are sought out, just as Beaujolais and Chianti are.

We have entered a golden age in which regional character is getting attention and styles are taking shape.  Today’s most important winemakers are regional leaders cementing the styles their regions are uniquely capable of, from the Dunns of Howell Mountain to Johnny McPherson of Temecula to Murli Dharmadikari1 in Iowa.  But we have yet to revamp the consumer’s experience to enable a transition from varietal to appellation thinking and buying.  Competitions are supposed to provide a bridge, but they don’t.

A target-poor environment

Let’s face facts.  Wine assessment in California competitions is a joke.  Recent published papers by statistician and Humboldt winemaker Robert Hodgson on judge unreliability2 and on the inconsistency of awards in 13 U.S. wine competitions3  have created a well-deserved scandal. 

Having judged hundreds of competitions over the last 30 years, I was elated when Dr. Hodgson blew the whistle.   Why so?   Because in truth, we saintly judges just make our assessments up.  For the consumer, there’s no way to tell if a Gold Medal Chardonnay is something one would wish to actually drink.  It’s embarrassing.

In Europe, there are clear and well-known definitions of what the wine of a region is supposed to taste like.   The French have known for centuries that varietals vary from region to region and must be marketed as such.  We would never consider jumbling together a Graves, a Chinon, and a St. Emilion into a grab bag Cabernet Franc category for judging, because consumers regard them differently.  Why then should we judge Merlots from Spring Mountain, Long Island, and the Snake River blindly side by side?

 Why do we judge today the way we do?  When I first began judging in the early ‘80’s, there were fewer than 100 wineries in California and nearly half the wines on the shelf had technical flaws such as VA, aldehyde, sulfides or excessive SO2.  Thus it was easy to take 50 California Cabernets, discard the flawed wines, and organize your favorites for Bronze, Silver and Gold.  In other words, in this tiny world of long ago, varietals seemed to work as a judging category. 

But in truth, this was never a good idea.  Today there are thousands of Cabernets being grown in hundreds of AVA’s scattered over dozens of states and provinces, and the percentage of seriously flawed wines has dropped considerably – almost everything is pretty good.  Absent defining criteria, judges are left to choose among a wide variety of well-made wines with vastly different personalities, and of course they waffle, as any open-minded expert should.

Going to the Dogs

It seems obvious to me that the primary problem is that judging cannot be effective without targeted profiles.  Any of you who’ve seen “Best in Show” can attest that if we tried to judge dogs the way we judge wines, the breeders would murder us in our beds.

In dog competitions, thousands of entrants are judged according to exacting breed standards, and ribbons awarded based on exacting criteria put forth by the breed clubs and documented by the American Kennel Club.  There’s a book4 .  An Irish Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, although they are both considered Sporting Dogs, are judged by completely different rules.  It would be silly to hold them to the same criteria, and sillier still to have no standards at all. 

The Experiment

As an outgrowth of my work in defining regional varietal identities for AppellationAmerica.com, I received this Spring the cooperation of the Riverside International Wine Competition to experiment for the first time in any U.S. competition with the revolutionary concept of judging wines according to regional standards.

For the Petite Sirah category only, judges were provided with the AVA stated on the label and, if available, regionally based style profile(s) for the AVA.  AppellationAmerica.com5 authorized use of the 21 regional profiles our panel developed for the Best of Appellation evaluations in conjunction with AVA winegrower associations.

Petite Sirah was chosen for a number of reasons.  Wide regional planting, proven response to regional influences, and most of all, a strong advocacy group (PS I Love You6) which had supported the development of regional style profiles.  We already had most of the definitions in the can.  You can view these at www.AppellationAmerica.com.  (A month’s subscription access will set you back five bucks, but you’ll get over it.)  While you’re there, also check out the two pieces I did on Petite Sirah (Let Me Count the Ways) and its Sources of Regional Character7.

A couple examples:

BLUE BOOK TASTE PROFILE

Appellation: Howell Mountain ~ Napa Valley
Varietal: Petite Sirah

TASTE BENCHMARKS

 

Profile #1
Hard, angular, ageable style

   

Appearance

Dark color with bricky edges.

   

Aroma

High desert vegetation such as sage, juniper and wildflowers, very closed red licorice fruit aromatics.

   

Flavor

Brutal, uncompromising tannins. Guava signature in the finish.

   

Balance

Good mineral enegy.

   

PRODUCTION CORRELATIONS

Terroir

1400 to 2600 feet, mostly west-facing, thus subject to baking late day heat. Well drained soils and droughty conditions.

   
       

 

Appellation: Russian River Valley
Varietal: Petite Sirah

TASTE BENCHMARKS

 

Profile #1
Refined style

   

Appearance

Medium red. Quite light for this varietal.

   

Aroma

The very aromas that define Russian River Pinot Noir: cherry, orange blossom, and lilac.

   

Flavor

Round, feminine tannins, bursting with lemon and blackberry on the palate.

   

Balance

The pinnacle of refinement is to be found in the Russian River wines, whose age worthiness sets them apart.

   

PRODUCTION CORRELATIONS

Viticultural

Prone to rot.

   

Terroir

Cool climate and fog influence.

   

 

What happened

Riverside received 54 Petite Sirahs for judging from 26 AVA’s, fourteen of which we had profiles for, comprising 36 wines; thus 67% of the wines were judged against standards, and the rest thrown into a grab bag category as per usual, except that they were identified as to region. 

Dan Berger seated me on a panel with winemakers Kerry Damsky and Linda Trotta as well as journalist Mike Dunne.  After some initial confusion, the process flowed smoothly and naturally.  As I have seen on so many panels at AppAm, these first-time participants in judging by AVA groupings were taken by surprise by the regional character consistency and how little difference the winemaking choices made compared to the regional variations. 

“This is a valuable route to take in evaluating wines,” reported Trotta.  “The key to success is the work that’s been initiated with vintners in the appellations to describe the representative regional characteristics.  Adjusting the way that I judged the wines to take these criteria into account was a surprisingly quick process.”

“The petite sirahs from Livermore Valley did have fairly consistent streaks of blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and sweet tannins,” offered Dunne. “ The petite sirahs from Paso Robles tended to be characterized by candied fruit flavors offset against the smell of smoldering briars. Flowers, Bing cherries, lemon verbena and soft tannins ran through the petite sirahs of Russian River Valley. Black-fruit flavors, green herbs and white pepper seemed to distinguish the petite sirahs of Dry Creek Valley.”

I find it fascinating the degree to which this holds true despite the absence of regulations in the New World.  A combination of natural and human influences is at play.  If your tasting room is on Highway 49 in Gold Country, you’re going to try for softer, oakier wines for the local tourists., while in Napa, you’re more influenced to make classic, austere styles to blow away the tourists from Japan.  But clearly, natural influences tend to dominate, though we don’t yet understand just how they put the marischino cherries in Mendocino reds of all varietals and the darker fruit tones in the Napa Valley wines.

 At Appellation America we collect copious technical data on climate, weather, altitude, vineyard practices and winemaking choices in an attempt to connect these dots.  While this is endlessly fascinating work for us eno-nerds, all a consumer needs to know is simply that they exist.  The judges need not explain how the character comes to be, but like pornography8, simply to know it when they see it.

In general,  judging against a standard was perhaps worth a one rank boost to a wine conforming to its standard.  More importantly, it is easier to make allowances for outlier styles such as Southern Oregon’s austerity and the hard tannins of the high altitude AVA’s.

“It makes logical sense to taste a variety defined by appellation, because terroir is going to define that wine, so tasting related wines against each other will better define their virtues,” opined Damskey. “Tasting Petite Sirahs by appellation generally allows wines to show better amongst their peers.  Understanding how an appellation expresses itself makes it easier for judges to discern quality. Tasting by appellation is also less fatiguing than tasting blind with mixed appellations.  There is a sense of expectation when you understand what a terroir should taste like.” 

I knew the experiment was a success when the panel remarked what a drag it was to have to go back to the old system as we slugged our way through boatloads of randomized chardonnays.

 Whence cometh these standards?

“An important element for judges to work out is the case in which a wine is very well-made but may not adhere to the regional descriptors,” Trotta observed.  “I think that as a panel we worked through that well.”  In fact, the Christopher Creek ’08 Russian River, which was named Best of Class and went on to win the Sweepstakes for Best Red in Show, was just such a wine.  Although it was very rich black cherry, orange and lilac, the aromatic traits in the standard, and had the expected round, fine tannins, it was (being grown in the fog-free end of this long and varied appellation) extremely dark in color.  Its compelling quality made it instantly plain that a second profile for the upper Russian River needs to be added to the standards.

To get the ball rolling, any source will do.  There is no reason why standards cannot be developed by any journalistic team or the competitions themselves.  Publications can and do churn out regional articles full of descriptive prose available for this purpose, and competitions could collect the best of it over time.  But following Europe’s lead, the regional winegrower associations should be the final arbiter, and it behooves them to get active in this area.  In the AKC, the breed clubs themselves are the source of standards, and among these vested interests is where the political head bashing should properly take place.

Personal Sommelier

Competitions exist to serve consumers by connecting them to wines they will enjoy, in the process rewarding wineries who give the people what they want.  A Gold Medal Chardonnay means nothing absent descriptive categorization.  It is not helpful to hear the recommendation of a “really good” movie, book, or song absent genre info. 

An important manifestation of regional profiling is the development of an open universal language for wine traits.  This language may never reach consumers – with existing technology, it doesn’t have to.

Five years hence, I predict that your phone will run an app which will sort your preferences into a personal wine list the way Pandora.com tailors radio stations, by pairing like with like.  Shops and restaurants will upload their offerings, and your app will sort into Ed’s Bold Reds, Ed’s Crisp Whites <$15, and so forth, providing links to winery blurbs, critics’reviews and user feedback, and let you refine your personal algorithm with a thumbs up/thumbs down on your purchase.

This technology will enable consumers to get in touch with their preferences among a huge and  growing world of offerings.  It can also obviate the need for a European-style system of regulated production.   

Sounds like a lot of work

Without question, it’s going to take a long time to complete our transition beyond grab bag varietal categories.  But every time we take a baby step towards respecting and advertising diversity, a few good wines on the fringes improve their marketability.  Giving consumers and the trade a road map to styles can counter the perception of sameness that typecasts our whole State.  When our wines become once again a navigable adventure, everybody wins. 

“To become expert at this, you need to have judges who understand the different terroirs well,” cautions Kerry Damsky.   That’s going to take time.  Mike Dunne’s assessment is that “whether this eventually leads to a heightened understanding and appreciation of wine, let alone improved wine competitions, will only become clear after many, many more vintages.” 

Still, the sea change in consumer purchasing patterns from simple varietal loyalty to appellation consciousness is already under way, and there is really no stopping it.  These things happen fast. Consider that in 1950, it was unimaginable that table wine production would replace port and sherry.  In 1970, no one could predict that Cabernet and Chardonnay would dominate over Rheinwine and Grey Reisling. 

We have made a solid beginning.  The AppAm Blue Book for significant varietal/AVA combinations currently has 209 entries.  That means a good 25% of the work needed to characterize the major regions is already done.  One area (Petite Sirah) is ready to lock and load into any competition willing to play.  Other varietals like Riesling, Chardonnay and Zinfandel have enough key entries to make a start.  When competitions begin providing this aid, uncharacterized AVA’s will be incented to add their own standards in order to partake of the competitive advantage they confer.

At the very least, judges ought to be told where the wines come from.   This would at least provide some hint to style, though judges without a good regional background would be at a disadvantage, unbalancing the panels.  But this would at least allow everyone to start learning by tasting.

Destiny beckons.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I reckon we’d better get started.  In the meantime, it should be plain to even the most short-sighted among us that the Petites at Riverside got a fairer shake this year.


  1. Probably the most important enologist in North America, Murli D has been the force behind the establishment of over 700 wineries in the Midwest, over 100 in the State of Iowa alone since 2001.
  2. An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition.  Hodgson, R. T.. Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 3, Issue 2, Fall 2008, Pages 105–113
  3. An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 Wine Competitions. Hodgson, R. T.. Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2009, Pages 10 1-9.
  4. The Complete Dog Book.  Official publication of the American Kennel Club. Ballantine Books, div. Random House 2006.
  5. www.AppellationAmercia.com/ bluebook.aspx
  6. http://www.PSIloveYou.org
  7. http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-reviews.aspx?EditorID=368: Petite Sirah, How I Love Thee: Let Me Count The Ways and Sources of Regional Character in Petite Sirah.
  8. Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart, 1964.