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On Wine Origins: I'm Napa Valley, and You're Not!
By Roger Morris
May 17, 2023
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One cool morning this April, I sat down for a hotel breakfast in Washington, D.C., with a visiting delegation from Napa Valley Vintners who were in town to taste with the trade in the afternoon and the media that evening.  But their primary reason for being in the capital was to meet with regulatory agencies and Congressional representatives about a topic higher on the group’s business agenda – the protection of wine origins.

“We just got recognition in Vietnam for the Napa Valley brand,” said Rex Stults, the NVV’s VP for industry relations, who had with him winegrowers Doug Shafer of Shafer and John Skupny of Lang & Reed.  Getting Vietnam’s recognition was no small accomplishment, Stults explained, because some Asian countries still falsely label wines from elsewhere as being from America’s most-prestigious appellation.

For several years, Napa Valley has partnered with Champagne and other wine regions in this manner to protect their names of wine origins internationally.  But Napa Valley has also had to fight even within the U.S. to keep its name from being weakened.  For instance, in 2005 the late winegrower Fred Franzia sued Napa Valley to use less than the prescribed 75% of grapes from Napa Valley in his “Napa Ridge” brand.  Napa Valley won that battle, an important victory that said even registered geographic brands have to be true to regulations of that appellation.

In recent years, the narrative of protecting wine origins has taken many forms:

> “The Champagne of Beers” Crushed.  Even serious issues such as protection of origins have their humorous, headline-making moments.  Because of trade agreements, the word “champagne” as a generic for sparkling wine has mostly disappeared from American wine labels.  But can Miller’s call its brew “The Champagne of Beers?”  Not in the European Union, where 2,000 cans were crushed in Belgium earlier this year when they were shipped there, presumably in error.  But a larger question was ignored – who would pay to have an American beer shipped to Belgium, of all places?

>Homage or Appropriation?  In recent years, there have been a lot of impassioned conversations about “cultural appropriation,” by which a person from one culture dabbles in that of another.  Is it stealing, or is it paying homage?  It’s pretty much agreed the using Champagne’s name for another region’s sparkling wine is stealing from the French region that has for centuries invested in brand equity.

But to my knowledge, Bordeaux hasn’t objected to Napa Valley winemakers (or wine writers) calling their reds “Bordeaux blends.”  And my guess is that Wente and Joseph Swan wineries consider is an act of homage, and not appropriation, when other wineries advertise on their labels they are using the Wente or Swan clone.

The use of “Port,” still legal on American fortified wine, is a more-complicated question.  For another article for another publication, I spoke with Peter Prager of Prager Port Works in Napa Valley.  “We use ‘Port’ because it’s illegal for us to put ‘fortified wine’ on the label,” Prager told me.  “It’s real sad,” he said, “TTB thinks ‘fortified’ will make it sound like it’s a lot more intoxicating.”  So the TTB, which regulates labeling, is now considering proposals to create an American term to replace the stolen Portuguese one.   

>Sacre Bleu: C’est Bourgogne, Embéciles!  The Burgundy wine region in France has a low-level campaign to convince us English speakers that we should be using the French spelling and pronunciation – “Bourgogne.” – for both for the region and the wine.  After all, they argue, we Americans and Brits use the correct French spelling of other wine regions, such as Champagne, Bordeaux and the Rhône.

While the Bourgignons are serious, they are not serious enough to offend us into quitting buying Burgundy, no matter how it is spelled.  An English wine writer I know is sympathetic, but demands a quid pro quo.  “I’ll start saying ‘Bourgogne,’” he says, “when the French stop calling my home town ‘Londres.’”

As far as I’m concerned, I invite all Bourgogne winegrowers to send me all the samples of red, white or sparkling Bourgogne wines their coeurs desire to my address in the États-Unis.
>Blockchain for Brands.  We should have known that technological wine advances would not end with screwcaps and Coravins.  Now we have major winemakers adopting the bitcoin technology of blockchains to authenticate their wines at the source.  Keep that in mind the next time you buy a recent vintage of Petrus for $5,000.  Be comforted knowing it came from a vineyard in Pomerol and isn’t an Australian Shiraz poured into a previously used Moueix bottle.

But I decided to take blockchain seriously when a frequent source of mine, Jamie Ritchie, recently left his perch as head wine guy at Sotheby’s to join BlockBar, a company that buys wines at the source, authenticates them, markets them, and even stores them if the wine lover/financial investor wants that.  (Or at least, I think that’s how it works.)  Otherwise, buyers can pick up their Penfolds or Ruinarts at more than 150 duty-free locations worldwide.

So, before we move on, a shout-out to my WRO colleagues and Wine for Dummies authors, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan:  I think there’s a market out there for a new volume – Blockchains for Blockheads.

>The Region on the Label, but Which Region?  The breakfast in Washington was not the first time I had talked with Stults about wine regions.  A couple of years ago, I was writing a piece on the growing interest of wine drinkers and collectors on which region within Napa Valley birthed their wines.  After all, Oakville, Stags Leap, Coombsville and Spring Mountain, for example, all have their individual terroirs, tastes and fans.

Stults explained that while Napa Valley Vintners is proud of these sub-appellations or districts, they do not want the children to get too big for their terroirs by trying to become more prominent than their parent.  So, several years ago, NVV had legislators act to protect Napa Valley’s superiority.  Today, when a winery puts the name of its district on the label, the words “Napa Valley” must be just as big and just as prominent.  Otherwise, the label is tossed.

Putting aside the brand strategy logic of not letting a world-famous violinist get second billing to the orchestra, it’s also a pain in the butt for wine writers such as me.  Take, for example, a label that says 2018 Robert Mondavi Winery The Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s 96 characters and spaces, and I don’t get paid by the number of characters used.  Sorry, Napa Valley, and sorry Robert Mondavi Winery, in my review this wine comes from Oakville!

A similar thing happened several years during a delightful interview with Aubert de Villaine at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (that’s in Bourgogne, by the way) when two minutes into the discussion I referred to the estate as “DRC.”  Aubert interrupted me. “I despise that name,” he protested.  Understandably – “DRC” has none of the romance of “Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.”  But when I wrote my article, the second and all subsequent references to the origin of my interview was still “DRC.”

Even place names have their place.

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