A few days ago, I was in our tasting room when I was struck by the reproduction of a 1935 public notice to the proprietors of Châteauneuf-du-Pape displayed on the wall. It occurred to me that this affiche I’d been looking at for ten years had an important story to tell.
In a recent post on our blog entitled Terroir, Then and Now I reviewed the importance that place of origin has historically played in identifying the character of a wine. This tradition stretches from Egyptian, Greek and Roman times to French appellation controllée and American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In that blog I wrote that “our American Viticultural Areas are a pale and [often] meaningless imitation of the French system.” Our system may be about to get worse.
As the best growing areas, identified by their labeled origin, developed reputations for quality and commensurately higher prices, enterprising but unscrupulous merchants have been encouraged in a variety of frauds, most commonly blending or simple substitution of wines from cheaper growing areas for the best ones. Naturally, growers in the most reputed areas brought pressure on their regimes to pass laws to prevent the counterfeiting of the produce of their valued vineyards. As far back as Egyptian times wines were stamped upon sealing with the regnal year, name of the vineyard, name of the wine maker and often the quality of the wine, and wines were inspected by special “inspectors of the wine”1. In Roman times, Pompeian wines were so valued that fraudulent stamps were used to mark amphorae of non-Pompeian wine.2
The pressures and counter-pressures continued through medieval, renaissance and enlightenment times to modern France, which had become the world model for fine wine production. In the heart of the Great Depression, on July 30th, 1935 the French government followed up earlier attempts at control with a decree establishing the current controls of appellation of origin for the traditional fine wine growing areas of France. Controlled were not only the boundaries of the larger recognized growing areas, such as Bourgogne and Bordeaux but also, in diminishing concentric circles, the villages and the crûs, creating a nesting of geographic appellations within appellations. The traditional boundaries of these appellations were verified and certified by independent respected grower personalities of their regions. So concerned were the commissions to preserve a strict impartiality that in Burgundy, Henri Gouges and the Marquis Sem d’Angerville (founding members of the Institut Nationale des Appellations d'Origine) not only did not name any of their own vineyards as grand crû, but excluded their entire villages (Nuits St. Georges and Volnay) from grand crû designation. Gouges’ Les St. Georges in Nuits and d’Angerville’s Caillerets and Clos des Ducs in Volnay could, and probably should, have been so named.
The new laws have not eliminated fraud, as shown by the recent convictions of producers and négociants such as Henri Cruse in 1973, Bernard Grivelet in 2001, and George Dubeouf in 2005, but they have provided a disincentive and punishment for those convicted. More recently, wine fraud has moved into the auction market, often for very old wines, as with the hundred thousand dollar “Jeffersonian” bottles referred to in Benjamin Wallace’s excellent Billionaire’s Vinegar.
The 1935 regulations codified and regularized traditions that had developed gradually over 2000 years. Not only was the geography of the appellations controlled, but the production in hectoliters per hectare, the variety or varieties of grapes permitted (thirteen in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, two in Bourgogne), and the pruning methods. Irrigation was prohibited in AOC vineyards to prevent overproduction. Regulations sought to control two principal areas: yields (and therefore quality) and geographic origin (and therefore typicity).
Other European wine growing countries followed the French lead in promulgating their wine laws. And Italy, Spain, France and Germany, like France, all have well-established traditions to follow. But what to do in a country where there is no long established tradition of grape growing? How does the producer use the label to inform the consumer about the likely style and content of the wine in the bottle? What regulations does the government promulgate to protect consumers from misleading labeling and to protect producers from fraud? These are knotty questions.
In the United States, very little government effort was made to control wine labeling until after the Second World War. At that time, most wines were named after European regions (such as Burgundy and Chablis) whose wines they usually resembled only in color. Beginning in the 1950s, finer wine producers began pushing for greater authenticity in two ways. First, they began identifying their wines by grape variety. Second, led by Napa Valley producers, they began to emphasize their place over a more general California appellation. Together with their political representatives, they encouraged government regulators to pass regulations for varietal labeling (50% or more in the blend to call a wine by a varietal name, increased to 75% in 1978) and geographic denominations (American Viticultural Areas or AVAs).
Although, unlike in Europe, AVA regulations did not specify particular grape varieties for particular growing locations, the combined use of a varietal name plus the geographic AVA and the name of the producer on the label allowed for a greater degree of specificity than ever before. More recently, established regions such as Napa, Sonoma and Lodi have allowed for an even greater degree of geographic delimitations by creating appellations within appellations, as in Europe. And, for the ultimate expression of place (read crû) wineries have begun designating single vineyard wines. The Tax and Trade Bureau (the agency responsible for regulating the wine industry, commonly know as the TTB) protected this designation with its most rigorous requirement: that vineyard designate wines contain at least 95% of their grapes from the named vineyard.
Last year, the TTB interrupted this steady progress toward better protecting the producer and better informing the consumer with proposed new regulations that favored (even misleading) brand designation over geographic reality, and included a startlingly phrased proposal that questioned the “nesting” of appellations, one within another, even though there are already strong precedents for it in Europe and the United States. This surprising proposal was an attempt to balance the interests of a proposed Calistoga appellation and two wineries who had registered Calistoga as a brand name but whose grape sources were largely outside the proposed Calistoga AVA. The TTB’s proposals drew stinging critiques from regional associations such as the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. You can read our initial critique of this proposal in the December blog post A Well-Meaning Step in the Wrong Direction.
One could argue that we do not need further regulation: that experience will dictate the future identification of growing areas. But we surely do not need regulation that will encourage and reward fraudulent growing area designation on wine labels. Such brand labels already exist and those already in use in 1984 are given grandfather protection. No new exceptions, such as those proposed by the TTB notices 77 and 78, should be allowed. What's more, all producers that have geographic identities on their labels, whether or not they are designated AVAs, should, within ten years, be required either to source 85% of their grapes from that geographical area or to change their brand names to eliminate it.
Robert Haas, October 2008