California Terroir is not a myth, but AVAs are

When I first started selling wine in 2000, I loved studying AVAs, and I used to get excited when new ones were created. I would conduct AVA side-by-side tastings all the time, trying to find that sense of place. Oh, I was a silly little boy in 2000.

Experience breeds cynicism, unfortunately, and I’m as guilty as anyone. For instance, the Sonoma Coast?!? Don’t even get me started. And how serious can we take the various Napa sub-AVAs that are based on valley towns, rather than eastern or western sun exposure?

When I think of the AVA system in the US, I’m struck by two main problems.

1. Unlike France, AVAs are created only when a private company petitions the government to create one. This means that essentially every AVA we have was started as a marketing ploy to sell more wine. It’s capitalism, not connoisseurship, so every AVA should be met with a certain amount of skepticism.

2. You can grow anything you wish in an AVA, so how do we disseminate terroir with so many grape varieties coming into play? (If I were king, in order to use a Calistoga sub-AVA, I would only allow Zin, Petite Sirah, and Carbon. Yeah, I said it.)

So with those two concepts in place, here’s what I do pay attention to.

When it comes to the Burgundian grapes, proximity to ocean breezes does paint the way to better terroir. Pinot Noir is yummy when grown in the Green Valley sub AVA of the Russian River Valley AVA, which benefits from cooling, ocean breezes and fog. I love Ft. Ross-Seaview Pinot, and Chardonnay from the more westerly spots in Santa Lucia. Anderson Valley, Ste. Rita Hills… You know the names. So closeness to the ocean certainly does something for Pinot and Chard. Now, when I taste a top producer from Anderson Valley vs. Ft. Ross-Seaview, will I be able to spot the difference? Doubt it, but we know to head towards the ocean for quality.

Cabernet Sauvignon? Mountain vs. Bench means much more to me than St. Helena vs. Alexander Valley. Consider “Mountain-grown fruit on the Western side of Napa.” Now that’s an AVA that I can almost taste while I type. The true Rutherford Bench, which I can also taste while I type, stretches into both Oakville and St. Helena AVAs. But Oak Knoll AVA as terroir?? Come on.

I’ve also always said, if you wanna really explore Terroir in Cali, you need Zinfandel and its related heritage varieties. From Dry Creek, to Calistoga, to Contra Costa, to Lodi, Zin reveals terroir better than most, if one is paying attention. Granted, one must stick with producers who let the fruit do the talking, rather than the winemaking, and those producers do exist. Alas, no consumers seem to be taking Zinfandel seriously anymore, save for a few of us old cranks.