The Fight For The Calistoga AVA, pt. 2 Terroir and History

Ξ August 18th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

It is my pleasure to offer a faithful transcription of remarks given by Dr. J. Bernard Seps on the occasion of an afternoon visit by bloggers attending the American Wine Bloggers Conference held last month. We arrived mid-afternoon at Storybook Mountain Vineyards for an event called a Vintners Discussion Panel. The topic, Do AVAs Matter? It sounded innocuous enough. Q & A about barrels, yeasts, canned historical reflections, yields, that kind of thing. But, as I mentioned in part 1 of The Fight For The Calistoga AVA, the Legal Front, this was no exercise in crass boosterism, it was not a gathering of smarter than thou marketers. In fact, the three gentlemen, Dr. Seps of Storybook in the proposed Calistoga AVA, Dirk Hampson of Nickel & Nickel (Oakville AVA), and the irascible Pat Stotesbery of Ladera (Howell Mountain AVA), are fighting for the very life of the Calistoga AVA, and by extension, for the very integrity and durability of their work. This is a matter of considerable importance.
 
Imagine you’ve spent years of your farming life learning every hill and draw on your property. You know where the water is, where in the scattered trees the deer lay down for the day, the migratory path of geese helped along by winds specific to your arc of sky; you know what grows best where, the rhythm, timing, of planting and seasons, where seasonal shadows fall, the temperature inversions in land contours that send the heat soaring or brings an occasional frost, all the subtle shudders of the land. And now imagine that this local knowledge, earned by quiet attention and vigilance, is of no lasting consequence. An indifferent cultural logic, both institutional and commercial, understands your land as no different than any other.
 
Played out everyday across rural America, this scenario is in a very real sense what is at stake in the struggle for the Calistoga AVA: The preservation of difference.
 
First was Mr. Stotesbery’s talk. Now it is Dr. J. Bernard Seps’ turn. Enjoy.
 
Part 1 may be read here.
 
Dr. J. Bernard Seps It’s my job to introduce this topic [Do AVAs Matter], to give you a feeling for AVAs here in the Napa Valley. It shouldn’t be too hard to do because you’re all bloggers, and what you do, probably as much as anyone else, is you’re using symbols to convey information. And basically, that’s what an AVA is, what the name of the AVA is: To focus information about a particular area and convey it to a reader or a listener. And that’s what we’re trying to here. But what does it mean? That’s what we’re after.
 
I think that when we go to AVAs we’re talking about quality, we’re talking about distinctiveness. It just like those magical words, any kind of words you want to use, you could talk about… well, how about Marilyn Monroe! Does that convey an image? Or is that just a woman? No. It is something beyond that. Or Cary Grant? (I won’t be sexist!) Use a place name. St. Moritz. Monte Carlo. Those are loaded terms that convey meaning; they are shortcuts into something else where you want to take people. And that’s what AVAs are doing in many ways.
 
There is another way to look at it. I’m going to read a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson. [From The Silverado Squatters]
 
The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “prospects.” One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; third is best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; whose virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has subliminated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry…
 
That’s it; the search for something special and the ability to communicate its specialness. That’s at the heart of AVAs.
 
I take it that all of you are familiar with the European system of appellations. And they’ve been doing the same thing for a lot longer than we have. What are they trying to do? They’re trying to indicate something to you. By serving you a wine that is called ‘Bordeaux’? O.K. [shrugs] If I serve you a wine that is called Saint-Émillion you’re going to have almost different expectations. Certainly a lot more specific expectations. Now, certainly there are limitations. Let’s say Cheval Blanc and Aussonne are not the same wine. So within the same appellation they have differences. But what you’re going to know, if you have the background there, you’re going to know there is a certain tonnage levels to maintain quality, there are certain grapes that are allowed in that appellation. In other words, there are a series of regulations, geographical and [not clearly heard] with regard to understanding that quality reference for you as the wine consumer.
 
We’re trying to do roughly the same thing. As an overview, we in the Napa Valley are trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to talk about quality, about the character, we’re trying to talk about, to a certain extent, truth in labeling. We want the consumer to pick up that bottle, and if it says ‘Calistoga’ on it we want it to be Calistoga wine. I won’t push that note any further. (laughter)
 
I think it’s particularly important in the Napa Valley for any number of reasons. One of them is that in this valley we’re all ‘A’-type personalities. We all really want to do something that is excellent, something that really makes use of the land to its full potential, as we say here. And that’s hard to do and to convey that in any type of public sense in the Napa Valley because, if we’re known for anything, we’ve got 40 miles of immense diversity here, no matter what you look at.
 
If you look at bedrock or soils, we have stuff that’s coming out of the volcanic series, we have agglomerative materials like the Franciscan series in the middle of the range, we have old sea beds that have been compressed in the south part of the range; Mt Veeder has a little bit of that, I think. We’ve got all that. We have at least 33 soil types! Maybe 40, depending on what author that you read. We have half the basic soil orders in the US, actually in the world, here in this forty miles of the Napa Valley. That’s only part of the diversity.
 
You can look at other things. You can look at aspect, at exposure, we have hillsides, we have valleys, we have alluvial fans, the tree basic types, and every variation in between. Of exposure, every angle of the compass is covered in the Napa Valley. We have weather differences, temperature differences, I’m sure you’re aware of that. One author actually said the temperature difference on a warm day in the Napa Valley can be, let’s say between fog in Carneros and of fog at this end of the valley, can be as much as the difference between one end of France, the south end of France, and the north end of France on that day. That’s an amazing difference.
 
We’ve got rainfall differences. This end of the valley is the rainy end of the valley at certain times. And we’ve got an average of 50 inches of rain in here. Down in Carneros the average is a little over 20 inches, 25, 27 inches, somewhere in there. So you’ve got that kind of variance.
We’ve got different fog patterns in the valley. We have fog coming in from the south, we have fog also coming in from the north in the Napa Valley.
We have different humidity levels because of the wind currents in the valley.
 
We are a valley of diversity. How do you begin to make sense out of that? How do you find those sweet spots for your grapes? What grapes do you plant? That’s what we’re trying to convey by an AVA; to provide some knowledge, provide some generalizations. And they are only that, generalizations, not specifics. Obviously this vineyard on the east [gestures over his shoulder], facing east as it is, is going to be much different than a vineyard on the other side of the valley, even within the Calistoga area (a major temperature difference). And that’s what I’d like to talk about as an example of what we’re trying to do in an AVA.
 
So I’m going to speak to the Calistoga issue here in particular. And the TTB, our ATF formerly, used to require, used to, past tense, two basic elements: Historical distinctiveness and physical characteristics that are different from an adjacent area. Those are the two major categories they used to look at for making these AVAs. There might be some question of what they’re looking for now….
 
Does Calistoga have those things? Of course it does. Calistoga has been an established community since the 1850’s. Actually, by 1860 there was more written about Calistoga, collected by the California historian Bancroft, more written about Calistoga than all the rest of the valley combined. Plus we had that great character Sam Brannan to work with! My gosh! You want a character? There’s a good one. Lots of great stories.
Even our name theoretically came out of one of his ‘inspirations’ after he’d been drinking too much Brandy. He’d always wanted this to be Saratoga, California, but the way it came out was Calistoga, Sarafornia! (laughter) So even at the beginning there is a certain relation with wine, or at least one form of it in Brandy. And Sam used to be a Brandy distiller as well. But Sam was also at one time the largest grower in the Napa Valley. One author put him at 330,000 vines! He owned this property where you’re sitting right now at one time.
 
So there is a long history of distinctiveness, lots of tales to tell of that historical time. But I think some of the other factors, particularly when it goes for making the wine, have to deal with the physical factors here in this area. And it is different! Calistoga is different. We have Sonoma/Napa volcanics as the base of our soil. This is a volcanic region, its derivation is volcanic. It also has greater uniformity than other area of the valley in that sense. There is probably more soil commonality in this end of the valley than anywhere else, primarily because of stream/river activity, alluvial fans, etc. And the fact that the north end of the valley happens to be all the same kind of base rock, bedrock, which is volcanic.
 
Moderate to well-drained, that’s important to soil. Even more important is that its got the lowest pH range of any soil. And I don’t want to get too technical but the lower pH range, what that tends to mean in the soil is that it draws up certain minerals. Copper, Zinc, Cobalt, [missed one, recording too faint], Manganese, these are the kinds of things that do tend to come out in the wine in different ways. A certain minerality, a certain fullness on the palate, those particular elements are drawn up through the low pH soil and do appear in the wine, different than a soil with a higher pH.
 
There is another aspect to this end of the valley, Calistoga. We actually face south-east, the whole section. Most of the valley faces south. We face south-east. And what than does it tends to give you a slightly cooler exposure and a more even temperature throughout the day. Eastern exposure is very important. Let’s face it! I think virtually every grand cru, check me if I’m wrong, but every grand cru faces east or in an easterly direction. I can think of only one [in Bordeaux] that maybe doesn’t. There are some in Burgundy, too. Haut Brion might not.
Again, that gives you that longer, gradual growing day, solar radiation is really what it’s about, for that long development of grapes. A very important element. So you have physical factors. Obviously you have Mt. St. Helena that you looked at as you came up the valley, all 4,343 feet of it. But it’s important!
 
And there is one other factor, and that’s not even in this county, and that is the Chalk Hill Gap. That little bit of breeze that you feel is something that we have every afternoon because there is a gap in the hills between us and the ocean. And that gap is very important not only for the wind currents that come in, but it brings [too faint to hear], it brings that coolness in and it brings some rain in the summertime.
 
[Admin note: the Chalk Hill Gap breeze mentioned above coincidentally began to play havoc with my microphone's pick-up at this point in Dr. Seps' presentation.]
 
So we’ve got all these physical factors. And rain, as I said, this is the rainy part of the valley. We’ve had, actually, in two years [...] 90 inches of rain. And that’s primarily because we sit pretty darn close to Mt. St. Helena. It tends to come in from the north in the Wintertime [...] The good thing is that the rainfall pattern, we have less rain than anywhere in the valley in August, September and October. And guess what we do in August, September and October? (laughs) We pick grapes!
Do we want rain on Zinfandel? Absolutely not! Cabernet can take a little bit, but no. That rainfall pattern is very different up here. [....]
 
Wind patterns, fog, humidity… we have fog here, that’s a little known fact. The north end of the valley is foggy. We’re just as foggy as Carneros almost all the time. When Carneros has fog, we’ll have fog. But the strange thing is that the wind patterns also make a little bit of difference so that in the Springtime we are actually the driest part of the valley! There’s 10 to 20% less humidity in the Calistoga area than in the rest of the valley. And if you’re trying to protect your vines against fungal diseases then I assure you that 20% less humidity is a very important [thing]. [....]
 
And temperature, the last point. Actually, the coolest temperatures in the valley in March, April and May are in Calistoga. And if you’re looking at temperature charts, this is not the warm area. And here, even the Napa Valley Vintners is not right. They cite the warm area as Calistoga. It’s not true. The warmest areas are actually those vineyards along the Vaca Range, along our eastern hills, from probably Dutch Henry to just about Calistoga. They are 10 degrees warmer than it is in most of Calistoga.
 
So you have all these kinds of special things. What does it mean? Let me just sum it up. The [easing of] fungal problems, rain at the right time, coolest Springs, we can use our irrigation more practically, that kind of constant temperature, these are all the things that growers like. What does it mean for the wine? Well, we get fullness and intensity from that mineral factor of low pH soils that we have. There is also something called the ‘Mercedes’ or ‘luxury’ effect. There is a lower diurnal variation in Calistoga. Daytime and nighttime temperatures with less variance, and that tends to promote fragrance and aroma.
 
So, I would say to you in closing that maybe [R.L.] Stevenson was right. After all, he stayed in this area [...] and up on the hill here. So maybe there are in Calistoga some of “[t]hose loads and pockets of earth that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; whose virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has subliminated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry.” Thank you.
 
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2 Responses to ' The Fight For The Calistoga AVA, pt. 2 Terroir and History '

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  1. Morton Leslie said,

    on August 19th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I didn’t always feel this way, but I think the attempt to define an AVA with arguments that delineate it by soil and climate from an adjacent place have a limited value. Political divisions work just as well. Dr. Seps makes an excellent presentation on Calistoga, but my sense is that these general characteristics are of small consequence in the bottle, particularly in an AVA that is diverse in soils and microclimate. The real delineations of wine character and quality are terroir and they occur at the vineyard level, not the regional level. The vineyard is “the lodes and pockets of earth” to which Stevenson referred. An AVA that is diverse in soil and microclimate can be sorted out by the consumer over time… if the products that are so labeled actually come from vineyards in the AVA. The key is not so much the reason for the regional boundary, but the authenticity of the wines that come from it.

  2. Administrator said,

    on August 19th, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    I received this comment from Dr. J. Bernard Seps: “Thank you for providing a broader audience for my remarks on the Calistoga area and hopefully, one day, the Calistoga AVA. Morton Leslie’s comments underscore my opening considerations about St. Emilion, and that Cheval Blanc and Ausonne are not producing the same wine. Storybook Mountain, Montelena, and vineyards and wineries on the east side of Calistoga are not making the same wines either. Having cited these differences, however, I think you will agree that Cheval Blanc and Ausonne have more in common than either with Pomeral, just as the wineries/vineyards in Calistoga generally have more in common than any one of them with the wines of Stag’s Leap. It is these commonalities – based as they are to a limited extent on history in many regions, but more importantly on the physical attributes of the regions – that provide the rational for creating appelations and AVAs. These regional differences are the context, the parameters within which vineyards exist and winemakers produce. As one example, our cultural practices, philosophy as well as physical characteristics delineate Storybook Mountain and in the full French sense of the word are our “Terroir.” Since these factors have been relatively constant for over 3 decades, they provide a distinctiveness for those who know our wines and ultimately this is of the greatest value to us. Yet, the soils, climate, exposure, rainfall pattern, etc.that define us are different from those of Stag’s Leap or other areas and we, like everyone else, can only work within the general parameters of our region. To understand the differences between St. Emilion and Pomeral, between Calistoga and Stag’s Leap, is not the ultimate wine knowledge one might seek, but it is one of the necessary beginning points for understanding the wonderful world of wine.”
     
    Dr. J. Bernard Seps
    Storybook Mountain
    “Top 100 Wineries in the World”
    Wine and Spirits Magazine

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