Uncorked - Jan-April 2008

By Dan Taggart

Uncorked Draeger's Wine Consultant

“Buying local” has been, for most of winemaking history, the norm. Absent the ease of modern transportation that most of us take for granted, we would be drinking wine made in our own shed, at a local cooperative, or in a small regional winery within walking, or at least horse and cart distance. That’s the reason that most wines from Western Europe have historically been labeled with a geographic term, rather than by the name of the grapes in the bottle, a practice that has become prevalent in the New World.

Chianti is the name of a district; the mix of grapes used (mostly Sangiovese) has, over the centuries, been determined by what was grown within the district (and, often, local politics). Barolo and Barbaresco are both made from the same grape (Nebbiolo), but labeled for the regions within which they are made in Italy.

VinyardIn the U.S.A., our “local” is different because we are a mobile society, and because we have little regional tradition when it comes to winemaking. In California, the first wines of substance appear to have been what we now call Zinfandel, brought by Italian immigrants in the mid-1800s, but which we now know originated in Croatia. The wine made from those grapes was mostly locally consumed, though many producers survived Prohibition by shipping grapes to home winemakers in the eastern big cities.

California wine regions are less the result of historic population patterns than designations reflecting fairly broad geographic growing areas. So Sonoma, Napa and Central Coast are legally recognized (by the federal government) winegrowing regions, but little in those names gives a good clue to what might be in the bottle.

There is a trend toward more specific labeling of the fruit of the vines, though it sometimes has as much to do with marketing as winemaking. Sub-appellations like Russian River Valley and Carneros exist because local growers petitioned the government for the right to put the region’s name on a wine label, and they usually charge more for those wines. Some legally recognized growing areas (AVAs) include so much land with so many variations of geography and climate within them that they may not mean local in any real sense. Sonoma Coast comes to mind, covering a huge range from Mendocino to Marin.

In the New World, “local” refers to the source of the grapes, not the production facility. Swift transportation allows wineries to harvest grapes and move them to winery facilities several hours away. It is not unusual for a Sonoma winery, for example, to make a Paso Robles Cabernet sourced on the Central Coast, and there is nothing inherently inferior about such a wine.

Finally, one’s ability to taste “local,” to sense the origins of the grapes used to make the wine, is also influenced greatly by viticultural practices. But that’s another discussion.