Have you heard of California’s latest AVA, Petaluma Gap? Would you be interested in tasting a Petaluma Gap wine?
If you answered “yes”, I’m prepared to bet that you are either a wine enthusiast with an interest in US wines, or a wine professional eager to taste anything and everything wine has to offer. Statistically, you are also very likely to live in the Bay Area around San Francisco.
I know this, because freely available data from Google Trends shows a recent increase in online searches for Petaluma Gap – in San Francisco. Few people from Los Angeles, on the other hand, have seen the need to do a Petaluma Gap search.
Play this game for yourself, and you’ll find that the same phenomenon applies to all but a limited number of appellations that have wider national or global resonance.
Unfortunately, in a world that’s packed clever and well-marketed brands into every sector of our lives, very few wine appellations have enough money or skills to scratch most consumers’ consciousness.
All this proves is that we all still live in our own villages, towns and valleys, cut off from what makes the vast majority of the rest of humanity tick. We don’t know about wine appellations in other countries. Then again, until a major event thrusts them onto the front pages of our newspapers, we probably can’t often name the prime ministers or presidents of those nations either.
Does a lack of global resonance matter? It could be argued that when producers add another unfamiliar geographical appellation to a label, it doesn’t help consumers so much as thicken an already frighteningly impenetrable forest. Ah, say the wine enthusiasts and apologists for appellation systems, all that those lost shoppers need to do is ask the manager or owner of the store for some information.
I tried asking about Petaluma Gap in a couple of stores, but to no avail. Sadly, not all sales staff have yet been educated to Master of Wine level. Nor do they have intimate knowledge of all the bottles on their own shelves.
But, say the wine lovers, this is 2021, and we no longer need to rely on human beings. We can type the name of the unknown region into the search bar of our smartphones and all will be made clear.
I went to Wikipedia looking for information on Petaluma Gap. It told me, in the space of around 400 words, that the AVA was born on January 8, 2018, and is located between the coastal lowlands to the west between Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay and to the east by San Pablo Bay around the mouth of the Petaluma River. I discovered that wine has been produced there since the 1870s and that nowadays it specialises in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
I also read that “Wine grapes growing in the Petaluma Gap are said to be influenced enough by the… climate to give the area's wines a distinctive character. Mornings in the region tend to be foggy, followed by sunny days and windy afternoons. The cool evening temperatures help to preserve the natural acidity of the grapes over an extended growing season”.
How helpful is this to anyone browsing in a wine shop, deciding how to spend their $25 or $35?
Fortunately, a 2017 article in Forbes is more informative, including a quote from a producer called Evan Pontoriero that "The wind makes the grapes develop thicker skins and smaller clusters; the phenolic compounds are more present in the skins, so when you change the ratio of skin to juice, you have a more intense flavor". The wind, he continues, is an "amplifier and equalizer, both intensifying the flavors and balancing the wine with natural acidity and integrated tannins that will allow for long aging potential."
For the tiny minority of shoppers who take the trouble to do this kind of research, that kind of information may be enough to give them confidence to buy a bottle. Most people won’t have got that far.
I suspect that the real potential value of small appellations lies where it has always done: in the producers’ tasting rooms. A winery that previously produced a $25 Carneros Chardonnay can now also offer a Petaluma Gap cuvée that cost the same to produce, but which sells for $35. In other words, the AVA can fill the same role as a French Premier Cru designation or an Italian Riserva.
As more producers are forced to sell directly to consumers, it may turn out that appellations and the stories that go with them will prove to be very useful tools when hand-selling their wines. As they will when these wines appear on the list of restaurants with good sommeliers.
But producers who imagine that the appellation on their label has much value when cast adrift in the jungle of general wine retail, are often deluding themselves.