As someone who’s been a Paso Robles enthusiast for years, I was quite excited when I saw the petition for 11 new AVA subregions come up for review and comment last September.
At the time that I write this, comments will be closing in a few days, and the TTB will presumably be making their decision shortly afterward. I’ve spent some time reading the varying opinions of winemakers, wine growers, bloggers, columnists, ad nauseum, and finally decided to jump into the fray myself.
There are a few things that the average person may not know about the current Paso Robles AVA. One is that it is about half the size of the state of Rhode Island. What that means is that at 660,000 acres, it not only takes up 2/3 the size of the Central Coast AVA, it is fifteen times larger than the Napa Valley AVA which sits on 43,000 acres. It is the largest single, undivided AVA in California – not in the United States because there are some states that are an entire AVA because they don’t grow enough grapes to support multiple AVAs – and has been tested and found to have about 20 different soil types.
When the proposal to divide the region into separate AVAs was first submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, (Federal Register /Vol. 74, No. 82 /Thursday, April 30, 2009 / Proposed Rules), in April of 2009, the request was pretty simplistic. Just divide Paso into an East AVA and a West AVA. That has more or less remained “stuck in committee” ever since and wasn’t decisively acted upon. On hindsight, at only four pages long, it was way too simplistic.
On the other hand, the petition that was submitted in September of 2013 (Federal Register / Vol. 78, No. 183 / Friday, September 20, 2013 / Proposed Rules) was a completely different animal. At 39 three-column, small type, single-spaced, eye-bleeding pages, it lists the climate, topography, soil, maps, boundaries, diurnal differences, rainfall averages, and shows tabular comparisons of each proposed AVA to another in showcasing their differences. It is an impressive document, and far removed from the simple, austere format of the previous submission.
What is somewhat frustrating is that there are some people who are absolutely dead set against this. Why? As a long-time aficionado of Paso Robles, I know the differences between, say, the Zinfandels from the East side and the Zinfandels from the West. Why shouldn’t these differences be pinpointed and celebrated? Napa Valley AVA has sixteen (count ‘em) separate sub-AVAs. Why shouldn’t Paso celebrate its own diverse terroirs?
Sonoma, which has recently undergone its own changes in AVAs, also has distinctive regional differences. As a for instance, I like the Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley. I LOVE the Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast. See? I went to “Pinot Noir School” recently and had an opportunity to compare and contrast. More on that later.
Believe it or not, terroir does exist here. There was already an implicit recognition that Paso Robles wine “tasted different” depending upon the location within the Paso Robles AVA. Essentially, this petition recognizes and acknowledges what is already understood to be true by anyone with a palate.
So how will that help me as a consumer? Let me count the ways.
1. Just like the other AVAs in California, it will help me to decide which styles I like; see above notation about Sonoma.
2. If I like a particular style of Zinfandel, I may want to compare and contrast AVA to AVA. The changes will allow me to do so and gain more knowledge about the particular regions I may prefer.
3. Undoubtedly there will be more competition between wineries as they have to sit back and assess whether the grapes they are growing are suitable for the area in which they’ve been planted. They will have to pay closer attention to their winemaking and ensure that they represent their AVA to the best of their ability. That can only mean good things for their customers.
4. What I see on the label is important to me and having more information can only make this better. For instance, John Doe’s Winery, Merlot, Paso Robles, Templeton Gap District will tell me that I will most likely get a very typical Merlot with soft plummy fruit, notes of coffee and chocolate, soft tannins, medium acidity, and soft finish. Whereas the same wine from, say, the proposed San Miguel District will probably be more fruit forward, with higher viscosity, higher alcohol, lower acidity, and a finish that is not as soft. I will know this just from the label. (Okay, I’m a wine wonk. I got that.)
5. The fact is that people who want to drink a Paso Robles wine may not care about subregions. For instance, people who want a “Napa” wine may not give a rat’s patootie that the wine comes from Howell Mountain. While I, on the other hand, would briefly ponder selling dearly beloved grandchildren for a few cases of Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch, Howell Mountain Red.
I mean, not really. But…
I am a little more than halfway through my California Wine Appellation Specialist studies. As a candidate for the certification, these proposed changes won’t make any concerted study of the AVAs of California any easier, but it will prove to be valuable in the long run. By making California – and specifically, the entire Central Coast – my specialty when I pass my somm, CSW, and CWE exams, I will have more to offer to someone who’s interested in discovering the “not Napa” regions of California. Isn’t that what makes wine so interesting and so much fun? By ensuring that the wines have a sense of *somewhereness* (thanks Matt Kramer), then the wine can be little more than another beverage.
There’s still a few days to enter comments, and the information can be found at the TTB.gov site. Check it out, read the petition, and leave any comments. Your conclusions may be different from mine, but that’s what this is about; it’s to get all sides and as many studied, considered opinions as possible. The comments close on January 21, 2014. Let’s see what happens.
I’m certain that this petition will be granted. What do you think?