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Roots run deep in Tri-Valley; one of California's oldest wine regions

Livermore Valley Wine Country is home to more than 50 wineries.

livermore-wine-country.jpgWineries range from small family-owned operations to historic leaders of the California wine industry. You can enjoy handcrafted wines in an intimate, authentic setting in Livermore Valley.

The difference.
Unlike other wine regions, with long lines, large crowds, and expensive tasting room fees, most of our wineries still offer a complimentary tasting and a homespun atmosphere. We warmly welcome wine enthusiasts and novices alike. The neighborly ambiance of our tasting rooms will never make you feel like a tourist. We treat our guests like old friends, creating a one-of-a-kind experience. Meet the winemaker, get a private tour, barrel taste, and get a firsthand account of the wine-making process.

The experience.
There are several types of wine-tasting experiences in Livermore Valley wine country, from tasting rooms in downtown to no-frills country wineries and historic tasting rooms. Downtown Livermore's Blacksmith Square has several tasting rooms offering local wines, with restaurants and shopping nearby. Taste in an old barn while the winery owner's dog naps at your feet. Picnic in the countryside at a winery where the owners greet every visitor personally. Sip wine on the lawn, and play a relaxing game of bocce ball. For an upscale experience, with a touch of history, celebrate over 125 years with Concannon Vineyard and Wente Vineyards. Hungry for more? Livermore offers everything from picnic fixings to award-winning fine dining at several wineries throughout the region.

Verasion Begins at KJ Winery

kj_Blog_PhotoOfTheDay_Verasion.gif"It may seem like a small thing, just one purple grape in a cluster of green, but it means the most exciting time of the year, Harvest, is starting to creep into view." ~ Kendall Jackson Blog

Summer days seem to be passing by in flash! Some wineries are already starting to see a tinge of purple on their grapes in the vineyards. The winemaker at Kendall Jackson, located in Sonoma County, snapped this beautiful picture of a cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon that is already starting to change color from green to purple.

See other pictures in Kendall Jackson's "Photo of the Day" thread.

Why Are Tannins So Crucial to Red Winemaking

Winemaker Matt Smith from Kendall Jackson, located in Sonoma Wine Country, answers a question that many wine lovers may have asked themselves at one point or another "Why are tannins so crucial to red winemaking?"

The answer might be bit technical in nature, but the result are red wines we love to drink!

kj_Blog_Tannins.jpgExcerpt from recent KJ Blog Post:
In 2010, Kendall-Jackson participated in a seminar on high-altitude winemaking. The winemaking team here was particularly eager to participate because we wanted to confirm what we've known all along: great red wines are particularly rich with tannins. And, for us, that means high altitude vineyards.

Winemaster Randy Ullom reported some of the findings from this research we conducted on tannins. Our philosophy has always been that the best wine comes from the best land; a core tenant of this philosophy is that mountain grapes produce better wines. A large part of that has to do with how much tannin is found in those particular grapes.

So, just what is a tannin?

Sustainable Growing & Wineries: Sonoma

by Courtney Cochran

Sustainable businesses famously have an eye to the future as well as current projects. As awareness about the need to conserve for tomorrow's generations grows, so does the number of wineries in our backyard converting to eco-oriented wine-growing - and a sustainable future for us all.  Below are some of the Sonoma wineries featuring green practices ranging from responsible vineyard management to economically friendly processes in the winery.

benziger_Vineyard_FromClientWebsite.jpgBenziger Family Winery

Sustainability is built into the mission at this green winemaking leader, which famously focuses on "family, great wine and healthy vineyards." Now three generations in, the Benziger clan - more than a dozen are actively involved in the winery - ensures their entire roster of vineyards is certified sustainable, organic or Biodynamic© via green metrics and a rigorous annual audit. Visitors will see the 'whole farm' ethos at work by way of the farm animals at the welcoming Glen Ellen property (hello, sheep cam!), and can look forward to quality that shows through in the glass:  a diverse lineup spanning Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah is well-received by critics.      

*Visit: 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442; Call (707) 935-3000; Tasting Offer
**Event: Celebrate Earth Day

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards

Nestled into the hills of cool, bucolic Carneros, Gloria Ferrer is in a prime spot for making world-class sparkling wines.  What's perhaps less apparent is this picturesque winery's commitment to sustainable agriculture, something its owners pursue through innovative approaches to everything from soil biodiversity programs to integrated pest management, water management and energy conservation.  Because sustainability also has an eye to the health of people - not just plants - Gloria Ferrer's sustainability efforts support an arts program for local bereaved children, facilitating a focus on renewal of life through creativity.  Ferrer's high marks for hospitality and stellar pours are just icing on the sustainable cake, as it were.

*Visit: 23555 Arnold Drive Sonoma, CA 95476; Call: (707) 996-7256; Tasting Offer

Korbel Practices Sustainable Wine Growing

There are a lot of wine terms to keep up with if you visit wine country. Many times we have no idea what they mean, we just nod our heads in silent agreement. One such term that many wineries declare that they have implemented is sustainable wine growing. But, what does this mean?

According to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, "Sustainable winegrowing practices help reduce water and energy use, minimize pesticide use, build healthy soil, protect air and water quality, recycle natural resources, maintain surrounding wildlife habitat, provide employee education, and communicate with neighbors about vineyard and winery operations."

There are many wineries in Sonoma County that have made significant changes with how they grow grapes and make wine. Watch how Korbel Champagne Cellars increased energy efficiency, saved money, reduced CO2 emissions and improved water quality through installing a new aerator system.

Korbel Champagne Cellars Process Water Ponds Efficiency Measures

Mendocino County: A 'Grape' Cinderella Story

mwd_MendoArticle.jpgOne of the original counties of California, Mendocino County is located on California's north coast above San Francisco Bay Area and west of the Central Valley. Most notable in Mendocino are the distinctive Pacific Ocean coastline, Redwood forests and quality wine production.

Mendocino's history in winegrapes began following the California Gold Rush in the 1850's. Immigrant farmers, in lieu of riches in gold, turned to farming; choosing the slanted, roughed up, sun-drenched hillsides for winegrape growing. Production started small and then grew with successes.

The more southern markets of Napa and Sonoma proved to be tough competition. Their proximity to distribution channels in larger cities like San Francisco gave them an advantage over the locally sold Mendocino wines. Then, during Prohibition, wine production all but stopped in Mendocino. Only one small family vineyard kept production alive, until the 1960's. Mendocino winemakers had their work cut out for them!

Watch the Harvest in Napa Valley

Want a first hand glimpse of crush season in Napa Valley already underway? Of course you do, which is why you're here!

See what Hall Wines and Goosecross have been up to . .  .

Hall Wines

Goosecross Cellars

Pre-harvest Grape Sampling from David Topper on Vimeo.

Grape Crush Begins

It's early, but for some vineyards crush has already begun. On August 10th, in the dead of the night (3 am to be exact), Hunter Farms of Sonoma Valley began harvesting this season's first pinot noir.

Although the unusually cool weather has many Californians crying "what happened to summer?", it is actually perfect weather for growing grapes. More surprising for Hunter Vineyards is the seemingly increased quantity of grapes being harvested. According to the Press Democrat "Instead of the 15.3 tons delivered last year (to Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma), the same 5.5 acre vineyard produced 21.5 tons, a stunning 40% percent increase"Click here for full article.

Watch the Video!

Steve Leveque: Inside the Mind of a Winemaker

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HallWinesSteve.jpgAnytime you have an opportunity to talk with a winemaker it's a special experience.  Here is "The" person directly responsible for making the wines you love to drink. And . . .you can now ask them any question imaginable...

I had such a moment at the HALL Rutherford Release Party for their wine Excellenz.  Their new winemaker Steve Leveque answered every standard and zany question I asked.  Steve has been making wine for about 16 years. He began his career at Robert Mondavi Winery under the tutelage of Tim Mondavi for close to 11 years.  Eventually, he spread his wings and flew to Chalk Hill Estate Winery in Sonoma Wine Country where he served as Executive Vice President and Winemaker.

New to the HALL Wines family starting summer of 2008, Steve says he's found a place he's proud to call home. It sounds cliché, but Steve relates that Hall Wines is dedicated to making great wine. "The owners are committed to the winemaking process, passionate about the wine experience, and they have one of the best vineyards - Sacrashe - to produce from."  With all the right components in place, you might say the only thing missing was Steve Leveque as winemaker....

Benziger Swaying With The Palm

thepalm.jpgBy Robert Farmer

I'm typically not a "chain" guy, when it comes to restaurants. Indeed in most instances I avoid them by personal writ. But of course some chains are better than others. And some are cut from different cloth entirely. So it was when I entered for the first a couple summers ago The Palm Restaurant in Miami.

I knew the Palm was one of the most feverishly followed steak houses in the U.S., and I was eager to discover what all the fuss was about. Besides, with only 25 Palms in existence, this particular chain was decidedly "short" which made it easier to bend my own rule.

My So-Called Grape Life

By Courtney Cochran


Forward-thinking Napa vintners Susan and Duane Hoff have searched for ways to bring the experience of making wine at their bucolic Spring Mountain property closer to consumers since they founded Fantesca Winery ( in 2004. An industrious pair, the Hoffs ran through the typical canon of winery marketing shtick: they built a web site, hosted lavish harvest events for club members, and even created a MySpace page.

California Wine an Earthy Choice

By Robert Farmer

3Es_circles.jpgIt seems that the state of California sometimes is fighting its own personal battle against global warming. The Golden State enacts initiatives that are separate and apart from the national programs - or even the national objectives. As the 8th largest economy on the planet, I suppose it's important that the state makes an environmental policy that sets the bar for the planet. The same can be said of California's wine industry, which has provided the standard for environmentally friendly wine-producing practices for years.

The Upside of Global Warming?

By Courtney Cochran

I've long suspected that there might be an upside - at least a temporary one - to global warming when it comes to wine production in some parts of the world.  Marginal climates, after all, yield some of the world's most sought-after wines (think Champagne, Bordeaux and much of Germany), but these areas are also known for their penchant for producing lackluster wines in years when the weather doesn't get warm enough to make decent juice.

As reported in Decanter, Château Margaux general director Paul Pontallier recently spoke to this phenomenon when he announced, "We are so fortunate with global warming. Look at the number of great vintages we have had [in Bordeaux] in the last 12 or 13 years. It is absolutely amazing."  Counterintuitive though it may sound, Pontallier's statement speaks to the benefits of warming temperatures in spots like Bordeaux, where vintners often struggle to obtain fully ripe fruit each year.  However, a far more chilling effect of global warming was proposed by renowned viticulturalist Richard Smart at a recent climate change workshop in Spain, where he asked attendees, "Have you thought about the fact that in Bordeaux, we may have already seen the best vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon?"

Weighing In

Chilling, indeed.  Not to mention the implications of this news for wine regions on our own shores, many of which have warmer average temperatures than their European counterparts.  We'd love to hear from vintners stateside about the onslaught of global warming and how it's changing their wines and making practices.  Could there be - as the Bordelais suggest - an upside to our own battle with the phenomenon?  Or is the future of wine in our own backyard at serious - and imminent - risk?  We hope you'll take a moment to comment. 

Parducci Puts it in "Neutral"

By Robert Farmer

You've read in this space about my efforts to espouse the benefits of living "green" whenever possible. And when that can include drinking green, all the better. The wine industry has noisily been getting into the act, cleaning up their vineyards to reduce environmental impact, and putting wine in bottles that are being called "organic" or otherwise good for the environment.

In Ukiah, Parducci Winery is not just talking the talk; they are walking the walk - in a big way, apparently. The winery, which has long been a leader in biodiversity and organic grape farming, announced recently that they have become "carbon neutral" in their wine production process--the first U.S. winery to achieve the status. That's very impressive, in my view, and not easy to do, from what I know of it. To get "neutral," Parducci worked closely with the California Climate Action Registry, which enabled the winery to calculate greenhouse gas emission helped them take step to offset or mitigate that harmful output. It took three years to accomplish and included such arduous steps as increased use of solar power, use of bio-diesel in farm equipment, and simple steps like switching to compact fluorescent lights in the winery.

But the results have been impressive and I commend Parducci on the effort to set higher standards for the wine industry. Perhaps I'll toast to the effort with a biodegradable paper cup full of their always-zippy Signature zinfandel--one of my personal favorites.

AVA Angst

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by Courtney Cochran

Thumbnail image for homepage-feature1.jpgI feel sorry for those of you who – like me – have been attempting to follow the US Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau’s controversial proposed amendments to American Viticultural Area (AVA) regulations.  I feel sorry for anyone, for that matter, who is sorting through the piles of legalese and angry banter being circulated about the matter in newspapers and online, not only because it's all terrifically confusing, but also because the proposals at the center of the controversy shouldn't even be up for debate at all. 

Proposed amendments hinge on a fundamental shift in regulations that would prohibit wines hailing from smaller appellations located or “nested” within larger appellations (e.g. Oakville within Napa Valley) from listing both the sub- and macro-appellations on their labels. Besides this, there are other issues at play in the current mess, most importantly a proposed "grandfather” clause that would allow wineries founded between 1986 and 2005 to continue to use place names that are also appellations in their brand names (e.g. the soon-to-be-approved Calistoga AVA, as in the case of Calistoga Cellars) even though their wines may not satisfy the standard requirement that a minimum of 85% of the grapes used to make a wine be grown in the wine’s stated AVA. 

If all this sounds confusing – and WRONG – that’s because it is.

When a Spade Isn’t a Spade
When it comes down to it, listing both a sub appellation and a macro appellation – especially when the sub AVA is a new and/or little known region – is a key marketing tool wineries use to communicate what’s inside the bottle.  For example, a consumer might hesitate to order a Cabernet Sauvignon from “Wild Horse Valley” (popularly held to be Napa’s least-known AVA) but he or she might decide to give the wine a try if the bottle listed both “Wild Horse Valley” and “Napa Valley” on its label.  

As recognition of the Wild Horse Valley AVA and its wines grows, that indication on a bottle may very well become a source of differentiation that helps vintners from the area to sell their wines.   And while we're on the subject, differentiation is also the key economic driver that allows producers to charge more for their products than others charge for similar, undifferentiated products.  So, the most effectively differentiated products are not only more likely to sell, they’re more likely to sell at a higher price.

And don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with a wine’s inferring it comes from a certain place when, in fact, the legal threshold for grapes coming from that region hasn’t been met.

At What Cost Costs?
Rumor has it that the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) proposed these amendments as a result of the growing number of sub AVA petitions the bureau is receiving and the its members’ desire to manage costs associated with processing the petitions and regulating wine labels that list an increasingly large number of regions.  The problem is, we need to look beyond these superficial costs.  Restricting geographic labeling can only hurt wineries and therefore – on a much larger scale – hobble the wine industry itself, one of California’s most vibrant and economically viable agricultural entities.  Moreover, I seriously doubt that the costs “saved” by TTB could equal the long-term fiscal impact of these changes on the industry.

As a sommelier I will always be in support of providing consumers with the most information possible about a wine – and in this case that means both sub and macro AVA identification.  And I will always press for veracity in wine labeling. 

For these reasons, I find the changes proposed by the TTB unacceptable and in need of review. At the end of the day, refuting TTB’s proposals and maintaining or more fairly altering the current AVA regulation policies will only help winemakers - folks who for the most part make wine with integrity and would also like to market their wines with integrity – not to mention sell a good amount of the stuff while they’re at it.  

To voice your own opinion on the subject, visit Docket No. TTB-2007-0068 at .

How Green Was My Winery

By Courtney Cochran

It used to be enough to be “green.”  

But with Parducci Winery’s recent recognition as a carbon-neutral winery – the first of its kind in the United States – there’s a new standard for environmental achievement on the domestic wine scene.

Mendocino County’s oldest family-run winery was awarded the prestigious 2007 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA) last month in Sacramento for its pioneering work in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change.  Parducci’s use of solar power, wind energy and bio-diesel fuel was applauded, as was the winery’s commitment to taking additional steps to offset its remaining carbon footprint.  

Besides achieving carbon neutrality, Parducci and its parent company, Mendocino Wine Company, farm according to organic and biodynamic principals and are committed to sustainable viticulture practices that will protect the environment for future generations.

I’ll drink to that.

Harvest Hopeful Redux

By Robert Farmer

It got a little screwy there for a bit in October. Winemakers went from feeling outwardly optimistic about the state of affairs for California's 2007 wine grape harvest, to suddenly having their spirits dampened by a wetter-than-usual October. But the clouds have parted and the news is still good. It was announced earlier this week, that California's wine grape growers are bullish on the 2007 harvest. The state's grape harvest this year began early, stalled mid-way due to cool weather, and finished in late October to "vintner accolades." The mild winter with below normal rainfall, coupled with a dry spring, led to early bud break. Overall, fruit was small, which leads to a high skin to juice ratio and, ultimately, higher quality in the bottle. "The 2007 year is one of the better vintages in recent history," commented Vince Bonotto, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines Vice President Vineyard Operations overseeing vineyards in Napa and Monterey. "There was a lighter crop and yields were down from the past few years, but quality is extremely good." The only bit of bad news? The yield was not as large as hoped for. Which really means the 2007 vintage is shaping up to have that "rare" and "hard to find" quality. As I've mentioned here before, get in on those futures while you can.

The How-To Harvest


Harvest Tales - Part 2

by Robert P. Farmer

It's easy enough to feel like you're part of the wine country harvest simply visiting in the fall. But there are ways to truly be part of the action. Short of pulling up stakes and moving here, you can act like a local by getting involved with one of the many programs designed by wineries to make guests feel right at home. These events and programs don't only take place during harvest, but there's no better time to take advantage.

There are a number of excellent behind-the-scenes programs at wineries throughout wine country and in all of California's various wine regions. They range from full-fledged, yearlong grow-your-own courses to afternoon-length grape stomps. The programs are fun, educational ways to get to know wines first hand.

Diary of a Crush: Part 3

courtneyCochran_profile.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

Day 3 - Saturday, Sept 22

We rose at five the next morning to pick Kenny's Zin. As I emerged from the guest room I was greeted with a large mug of coffee and pressing questions about how much beer I thought we would need when we finished picking. Unable to think with perfect clarity at that hour, we all agreed to err on the side of "more is better." Amply plied with caffeine and with our beer in tow, we departed a few minutes before 6, giddy with excitement about what was to come.

Diary of a Crush: Part 2

courtneyCochran_profile.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

Day 2 - Friday, Sept 21

Friday dawned crisp and cold in the Russian River, where I was staying with Kenny and his family. Although Kenny had left for the winery before 6 to supervise early morning harvest-related activities, I'd been given the go-ahead to sleep in and catch up on a few emails before heading out to meet him. I wondered briefly if the folks back home would call me a fair-weather-crusher for sleeping in, then got over it: I wasn't on payroll here, after all.

Besides, the dreary weather wasn't exactly welcoming at the crack of dawn. It registered to me at that moment that you have to seriously love what you're doing to work until 10, then rise again at five to head out and do more of the same - in icky weather, at that.

Diary of a Crush: Part 1


By Courtney Cochran

f I'd kept a diary as a teen, it surely would have chronicled many a crush. After all, the anthem of adolescence is, without a doubt, unrequited love.

But, given my current profession (and age, I must grudgingly add), crushing has everything to do with wine, and little to do with romance. Unless, of course, you believe the general splendor of wine country nets it a spot in the romance category, in which case you might make an argument that this diary chronicles an adult crush of a very serious nature.

However you see it, read on for the story of an exciting adventure in crushing.

Another Appellation for Monterey

otr_another_appellation.jpgThe federal government late last year approved the establishment of the San Bernabe American Viticultural Area (AVA), located in southern Monterey County. Delicato Family Vineyards applied for the 24,796-acre area that includes its famed San Bernabe Vineyard property.

This is the "the world's most diverse" vineyard, according to Delicato. Almost two dozen grape varieties are grown there, including: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah/shiraz, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, barbera, gewürztraminer, white riesling, lagrein and valdiguié. More than 5,580 acres are planted to wine grapes, which is divided into 135 unique vineyard blocks, each farmed individually to maximize grape quality.

A Win for the Wine


Recently got to be a fly on the wall – make that the trellis post – while a grower I know interviewed candidates to purchase his wine grapes.

With maturing Pinot Noir vines in a unique site in a name-drop appellation, he was in a good position physically. His grapes had also gone into vineyard-designated wines in a couple of recent years, so there was evidence of their quality. But he was still a local secret, because that wine was made in the appellation by a small producer. Now he would find out if his vineyard was ready for prime time.

The first prospective purchaser arrived on the stroke of 8:00 a.m. as appointed. A winemaker with his own label, he already makes wine from two other vineyards in the appellation as well as four vineyard-designated bottlings from a neighboring appellation. All are svelte, supple and delicious. He listened mostly, but occasionally asked practical, pertinent questions – the kind you would ask if you were going to be making the wine yourself in six months’ time. He was particularly respectful in asking about the local vineyardists who had planted the vineyard and were taking care of it now.

When I sensed it was time for money to come up in the conversation, I moved off a ways and studied a swale in the vineyard that ensured it stayed well-drained even through the recent weeks of daily rain. The interview ended, the winemaker departed, and soon it was time for interview number two.

This time the purchaser was more than half an hour late. A wine marketer who had recently moved out of the corporate suite, he was seeking his first grapes from this appellation. His young label had produced one Pinot Noir from another appellation, apparently to good notices. He had a lot to say about the wine industry, wine marketing, and wine sales. Much of it was interesting and amusing.

It became clear that while he was the face of his brand, others would actually make the wine (and the vineyard management decisions) behind the scenes. One clue to this was his questions about the vineyard: more about its perceived position in the local pantheon than about its practical aspects relative to wine production.

As he got the answers to his questions, it dawned on me that the very qualities of the vineyard that had intrigued the winemaker – its unusual clone and unusual location – seemed to be liabilities in the marketer’s eyes.

Yesterday the word came that it will be the winemaker, not the marketer, who gets the grapes. I’m sure both would produce good wine from the vineyard, and that the grower would be getting fair compensation either way. But I had to admit, I felt happy that the punctual, practical, down-to-earth winemaker would be the one to control the grapes’ ultimate destiny.

Certainly we need smart marketing to help make wine more affordable and accessible to more people. But when it comes to exceptional small vineyards in exceptional places, it’s good to know there are still exceptional winemakers attentive enough to find them and express their essence as wine, not product positioning.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

Do the Math


When I first began reading about wine, it was always fun to come across statistics about “acres under vine” and things like that. Made me feel like I was present at the making of history, particularly as vineyards unrolled across the western coastal states like a carpet.

So when I started writing about wine, I made sure to find the sources of the stats and use ‘em too. One of my favorite topics was how fast Syrah was going into the ground (high double-digit percentage growth throughout the 1990s). Another was when California hit the half-million acre mark – and wine grapes glutted the American wine market.

After a while, though, the acreage thing started to get squishy. The best state statistics, for California anyway, had a sizable margin of error between how many bearing (i.e., productive) acres the grape growers reported and how many the state thought were really in production. In 2004, for example, the growers reported 93,431 acres of Chardonnay, but the state estimated the number was really touching 100,000. The gaps were similar for other grapes, too.

So I started looking at the statistics for how many tons of grapes were crushed for particular varieties. This was better, because either the ton’s crushed or it's not. Someone might decide that an acre with two-year-old or three-year-old vines is not really “bearing” compared to how it will produce in a couple of years, but if she crushes the fruit and sells it, it’s counted.

From this new perspective, I started to notice new things. For example, Wine Spectator reported this month that Syrah acreage is up from 4200 acres in 1997 to roughly 18,000 acres now. (Oops! The state of California’s agricultural statistics service says the 1997 total was 1,256 acres, but never mind – the point about fast growth is still accurate.)

If you look at the tons crushed in recent years, however, you see a more interesting pattern.

The number of tons has started to level off even as the number of acres has continued to climb. In 2002, 11,909 acres of Syrah produced 101,541 tons of crushed grapes. A year later, in 2003, the bearing acreage was up 23%, to 14,680, but the tonnage was up only 8.5%, to 110,250. In 2004, acreage went up to 16,335 but the crush actually went down 9,000 tons.

In other words, in this three-year period Syrah in California dropped from 8.5 tons per acre to 7.5 tons per acre to 6.2 tons per acre.

What was going on? A few immediate explanations come to mind, most of them good. For one thing, it’s likely that the easy flat-land acres are already planted, and now the frontier for Syrah is in places like Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Santa Rita Hills and other rugged places where it’s hard to get anything to bear more than four or five tons.

For another, people are now interested in Syrah as a stand-alone varietal wine. There are hundreds of Syrahs on the market now, with more to come. That means it has more value as a feature grape, so farmers don’t just pump it full of fertilizer and water to get all the weight they can. They farm it for what’s going into the bottle, and in this day and age that means getting the plant to produce fewer grapes of higher flavor intensity.

Now, a couple of caveats. In 2005, the state reported that the Syrah crush was 146,818.5 tons. That’s a huge leap upward. The acreage went up too, but not anywhere near as fast, so the tons-per-acre number jumped up to 8.2. Probably this means that a lot of baby vineyards (which the farmers reported as bearing in prior years) hit their stride and produced at their mature capacity. For any individual vineyard this is a one-time event, so we should not see another big aggregate leap like that one.

Also 2005 was a freakishly productive year for almost all grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay also saw their statewide tons per acre climb sharply compared to 2004: Cab climbed from 5.0 to 7.1, and Chardonnay went up almost as much, from 5.6 to 7.5 tons per acre.

Finally, some perspective. I (and other writers) have spilled a lot of ink talking about the New World style of Pinot Noir coming out of California’s coast areas. It’s super-intense, leaving our old notions of the grape in the dust (or should I say, in the rocks), and it’s super-expensive almost across the board.

Wanna guess why? Well, it starts with statistics.

In 2002, 2003, and 2004, Pinot Noir in California averaged three tons per acre. Even in wacko 2005, Pinot Noir was under four tons per acre statewide – less than half what Syrah put out. It’s why the price of Pinot Grapes is double or triple the rate for Syrah, and at least part of why most good Pinot Noir costs that much more in the bottle, too.

Doing the math on the grapes doesn’t make the wine better or cheaper, but at least it helps us understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

Appellation vs. Terroir


I’ve recently been drawn into a blogosphere discussion about terroir, which I think is largely empty of meaning. Some points I made in an email string got sent around, and you know how that goes: pretty soon people were chewing on me without having the whole enchilada.

So here’s a simple summary for anyone out there following the discussion. Appellation and terroir are related in one way: vintners can use both concepts to describe (and therefore sell) their wine. Otherwise, they are fundamentally different.

Terroir is abstract, undefinable (even the French love to say that), and personal. Anyone can tell you anything about their terroir, and you would have to do some direct empirical digging before you could even know what they mean, much less believe in it. Terroir is a human concept, which means it’s inherently malleable and spinnable. In the U.S., the term “terroir” is, in my humble opinion, an empty cliché. People throw the term around without understanding it, mostly because they hear other people throwing it around. We are a herd of terroirists. Mooooooooo.

Appellation is geographically concrete, legally defined, collectively determined, and very tough to alter once it’s set. Along with varietal and producer, appellation is the only hard fact people always ask about when they encounter a new wine: "where's it from?" If the new wine is Pinot Noir, and its origin is an appellation like Russian River or Willamette Valley, we can feel fairly confident about the wine. If the appellation is “California,” however, we might wonder. You can’t fake a Russian River Pinot Noir. Either it is or it isn’t.

So that’s one way to tell terroir and appellation apart: one’s spin, and one’s fact. Here's another test: What do you learn when people use the terms?

Let’s say we meet someone a party and he tells us that his new Cabernet is from a "terroir" with well-drained soils, south-facing slopes and little rain outside of winter. What did we learn from this? Almost nothing about the wine, or about him. The wine could come from the high plains of southern Arizona. He could be a wacky dreamer on two acres in Tennessee or a corporate chieftain with 500 acres in Paso Robles. He will say that his wine "reflects its terroir" or that “the terroir is ideal for Cabernet” because every web site says that about every wine. Translated, this means that all terroir is ideal for whatever is growing there – because the people growing there say so. But if all terroir is ideal, all the time, everywhere, then what is it besides pure hype?

Now let’s imagine that we meet someone who says their that their new Cabernet is from Napa Valley. Unless he is a crafty negociant, we instantly know many things about both the wine and the vintner: his level of wealth, his vinous aspirations, the likely weight and style of his wine, what it probably costs, and why it’s priced that way. There is a limited set of places he could be growing fruit or buying it. There is a tight, narrowing band of quality that his wine must fit within for a whole set of reasons. We would be able to guess who this person knows, where he eats, and how he socializes.

Terroir is what vintners want others to think about them and their wine. Appellation is what's true about them and their wine, no matter what they say.

Which do you want in your glass?

- Thom Elkjer
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