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Holy Terroir

More and more California wine labels are trumpeting the names of the vineyards that grew the grapes. Should we care?

If Dogtown, Rockpile and Rattlesnake Acres sound like the names of trailer parks to you, it may mean you're not on the cutting edge when it comes to collectible California wines. The fact is, these are vineyards from which winemakers Kent Rosenblum and Helen Turley are making first-rate bottlings of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and they are among a seemingly endless number of vineyards whose names are showing up on more and more American (largely Californian) wine labels.

Vineyards, once fairly anonymous, have become the new celebrities of the American wine world. Indeed, at this country's current rate of "vineyardization," even fashionable grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet may soon be overshadowed on labels by the fame of the vineyards in which they are grown. But a bigger issue looms: with so many wineries bandying vineyard names about, it's become harder to tell which ones truly deserve star treatment and which ones have been singled out as part of a marketing plan.

A vineyard, quite simply, is any piece of land where grapes are grown. A single vineyard may constitute an entire winery or a winery may have many vineyards. For example, Colgin Cellars' sole product is a Cabernet Sauvignon made exclusively with grapes from the Herb Lamb Vineyard. A large winery such as Beringer, however, holds title to many vineyards and thus offers multiple vineyard bottlings.

A vineyard's size doesn't necessarily correlate with the quality of the wines it produces. Several of the best wines in California come from vineyards scarcely larger than some suburban lawns. Indeed, the Grace Family Vineyards, which makes a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for up to $595 at restaurants, is just under two acres. And vineyards that sprawl over hundreds of acres can produce grapes that are equally sought after, their names every bit as prestigious. One of the most famous is also one of the largest: the Bien Nacido. This spread of 900-plus acres in Santa Barbara County supplies a wide range of grape varieties, from Syrah to Chardonnay, to a number of California's most highly regarded wineries. Benziger, Ojai, Qupé and Au Bon Climat are among those producing Bien Nacido-labeled bottlings.

The rise in importance of the vineyard is due in part to a dramatic shift in American winemaking philosophy. A couple of decades ago, popular belief held that a winemaker's technological ability was primarily responsible for the character of a wine. Today's outlook is much closer to that of the French, which champions the importance of terroir, or the viticultural circumstances of a specific vineyard: soil composition, climate, elevation and the like.

But vineyardization is also a matter of real estate. When the average acre of unplanted Napa Valley vineyard land costs about $34,000 and requires about $18,000 more to capitalize (according to Lewis Perdue in his incisive new book, The Wrath of Grapes), it's easy to understand why winery owners would want to make sure their particular piece of ground, however small, gets a credit line. And the government gives them complete freedom to do so; the only regulation applied to vineyard designation is that 95 percent of the grapes must actually come from the source cited.

This vineyardization of American wine is a phenomenon that scarcely existed 20 years ago. Not because vineyards did not exist--some in California are 50, 60, even 100 years old--but because those in the public vocabulary could be counted on one hand. The most famous of these first few was Heitz Martha's Vineyard, a 34-acre parcel of land planted largely with Cabernet Sauvignon in the early Sixties. Martha May, for whom the vineyard was named, and her husband, Tom May, sold their grapes exclusively to winemaker Joe Heitz, who turned out one of the finest, most distinctive Cabs in California. In fact, the minty character of Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is so pronounced that serious wine drinkers have little trouble identifying it in a blind tasting.

A few other wineries that helped pioneer the concept of vineyard designation include Freemark Abbey and its Bosché Vineyard Cabernet bottling; Ridge Vineyards and its legendary Lytton Springs Zinfandel; and Chateau St. Jean and its two Chardonnay vineyards, Belle Terre and Robert Young. But unlike many of the bottlings that followed, these early vineyards were singled out for their capacity to produce truly distinctive, consistent, often world-class wines.

Because California lacks the kind of classification system that Burgundy has put to such good use (and significant profit) for nearly a hundred years, there's no clear way to separate great vineyards from the not so great. In Burgundy, the better vineyards are ranked premier cru and the best earn the classification grand cru. But America has no such ratings. The result is that wine drinkers may end up choosing a vineyard-designated wine not because it has any unique characteristics, any terroir, but because, well, it's got a good name.

This manner of decision making is very much in keeping with America's label-conscious buying style. After all, how many would-be wearers of Giorgio Armani's vaunted black label could articulate the difference between it and Armani's cheaper white label, save for the difference in price? How many BMW drivers can describe what a 328i has to offer over a 323i? Part of the appeal is pride in the label.

Recently, I took a count of the wine bottles that forest the floor of my office (strictly short-term storage conditions) and realized more than half of my American bottles were vineyard designated. Some were from readily recognizable vineyards, but plenty boasted names I'd never heard of. I took two of the latter home to taste, both of which cost more than $20 a bottle. In each case, if there was terroir, it wasn't in evidence. In fact, these were two of the most characterless wines I can remember. I repeated this experiment several more times with similar results.

My conclusion? If American winemakers want wine drinkers to believe that there is prestige in vineyard names, then perhaps they should be prepared to prove that these names really mean something. If not, maybe that line on the label should be left off. After all, plenty of great wines don't carry vineyard designations; some of the best wines in California--not to mention the rest of the world--are created from a collection of anonymous sources. Who, for instance, knows the names of the vineyards that contribute to Caymus's legendary Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon or that make up Mouton Rothschild or, for that matter, any Bordeaux?

I think American winemakers should consider adopting not just the French model of terroir but also some version of the French vineyard classification system, perhaps something along the lines of the Burgundian model. We might have to consider a new nomenclature, though; I can't quite imagine a grand cru called Dogtown.

Published June 1999
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