Defending California's Honor

Jeffery Lindenmuth - November 2005

By rallying the like-minded, a pillar of the wine community hopes to ensure the integrity of California vintages.

Like many longtime wine lovers, Anthony J. Terlato, chairman and chief executive of Terlato Wine Group and Paterno Wines International, can recall a time when California wine evoked only chuckles from serious wine enthusiasts. Following the repeal of Prohibition and well into the 1960s, most California wine was jug wine, often sweet, with the most successful sold under appropriated French appellation names like Burgundy and Chablis. According to Terlato, in the 1950s wines contained as little as 50 percent of the grape variety listed on the label, if one was listed at all. In fact, many wines of the era listed no grape varietals, origin, or vintage—information that defines California wine today.

Through the efforts of a few pioneering vintners and ever more stringent regulations governing varietal composition and vintage dating, plus the institution of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), California quickly began to compete with the Old World wine deities, even besting them at the 1976 blind tasting in Paris.

Terlato was recently moved to act when he heard about what he perceived as a potential crack in America's wine commandments: the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recently sought public comment on Notice No. 49, a petition from a California wine industry association seeking to change the vintage wine requirements from 95 percent in-vintage wine to 85 percent for wine labeled with a state, multistate, county, or multicounty appellation of origin. This would reduce requirements for appellations like Napa County, Sonoma County, and Santa Barbara County.

"The vintage is one of the surest elements of winemaking integrity and consumer comfort. We can't effectively put an asterisk after it that says ‘mostly.' I use 100 percent in my four wineries," says Terlato, in reference to Chimney Rock Winery, Rutherford Hill Winery, Alderbrook Winery, and Sanford Winery. "What worries me is that once you make a change like this to a high standard, they could next change the varietal composition, so instead of 75 percent it's 65 percent. They could change the AVA. When you think about it: why?"

The proposal supporters specifically point out that other nations are more lax in their vintage requirements, noting that Australia, New Zealand, and the member states of the European Union require 85 percent same-year content for vintage-dated wine. In Chile and South Africa the requirement is only 75 percent. In theory, the 95 percent rule in the United States applies equally to foreign imports, but there are obvious challenges in enforcing the regulation.

More freedom to blend wines across vintage would no doubt give certain producers a greater ability to compete with lower priced imports, especially the new breed of so-called lifestyle wines.

Paul Einbund, sommelier at restaurant Bacar in San Francisco, agrees that large producers would be the beneficiaries of the rule change. "This would better suit a table wine where you never want vintage variation. In these wine styles you want a house style that never changes, but in premium wine we want to see vintage variation from year to year so this does not serve the connoisseur or artisan," says Einbund. "In California especially, we want the vintage to speak for itself." While Einbund is not convinced the change is an "altogether horrible" idea, he does say that the unscrupulous producer, looking to stretch a great vintage into more bottles, is the scenario he deems most likely.

Of course, any producer is free to blend across vintages at will, simply by eliminating the vintage date. "What they are showing is how important it is to have a vintage date on the bottle. So why denigrate it? Why not produce a nonvintage wine?" poses Terlato. Rather than lower the standard, Terlato suggests that California should continue to be a leader and make the standard 100 percent same-year wine for vintage dating, something that unknowing consumers may already assume.