A New Appellation
By: George Balling
We learned just recently that there is a new appellation under consideration in Western Sonoma County, and that our friend and former employer John Balletto is one of those working to establish and formalize the growing area. John has farmed wine grapes in this and other areas of the Russian River Valley for decades. The creation of a new appellation or American Viticulture Area (AVA), in any of the wine growing regions of the US is not remarkable. It happens fairly frequently. It is a long process with many agencies needed to approve of the change that are also involved in the setting of the boundaries and defining what makes each appellation unique.
What goes into defining an appellation is all that makes up terroir. The unique set of geological factors like soil, the weather of a particular region and all the other factors that influence the grapes that are grown there. By designating an appellation there are benefits to consumer as they are better able to get to know what makes wine from any given growing area unique. There are flavors and textures and other characters to wine from certain areas. As wine professionals we can many times tell you in a blind tasting which appellation a wine comes from based on the tastes, textures and aromas.
There are also benefits to the grape growers and wineries that reside in these designated areas. As appellations become established and consumers get to know and demand wine from them the wine, the land and the wineries gain value. These benefits are good for all involved from consumers, to wineries, to growers.
What many wine consumers may not know though is how all of these appellations evolve. At the very beginning of wine grape cultivation in the US the first appellations were mapped out and documented, as were the regulations for establishing them. The very first appellations in any area are typically very large. My two favorite examples of this are the Sonoma Coast Appellation and the Columbia Valley Appellation. The Sonoma Coast growing region spans from the Mendocino County line in the north to the Marin County line in the south. It spreads east from the Pacific Ocean across the Russian River Valley and encompassing parts of the Sonoma Valley. On the southern end of the appellation, it includes parts of Carneros all the way to the east and including part of Napa County.
The Columbia Valley Appellation is similarly large. It runs from Lake Chelan in the north all the way south to the Oregon border, even crossing over into Oregon in spots. On the east it encircles on three sides the Walla Walla Valley appellation and on the west reaches all the way to the town of Hood River.
In the case of the Sonoma Coast appellation the vineyards that today deploy the Sonoma Coast on their labels are concentrated in Western Sonoma County. Many times, they use Sonoma Coast since some of their vineyards are outside of the boundaries of the many sub-appellations that have since been designated, but still lie within the Sonoma Coast. In order for a bottling to be designated with a particular appellation all of the grapes used in the wine must be grown within the boundaries of the AVA or sub-AVA.
The designation of sub-appellations is a way of further defining a smaller growing area with more specific elements of terroir, the process that John Balletto and other are going through right now to set up the Sebastopol Hills as its own unique area. The names of these many “sub-apps” are now more familiar to many wine consumers than the original large areas. The Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Carneros, and Sonoma Valley are all recognizable from the many wineries that use them. In Washington many will recognize Horse Heaven Hills, The Rocks, Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain and others as much as they do the Columbia Valley.
As the production of wine in the United Sates continues to grow, we will no doubt continue to see more and more appellations designated. It is a great way to help consumers not only understand why we like what we like but also to help consumers identify just the wine we want to purchase on any given occasion or to fit any given consumption mood we may be in.