COMMENTARY

Sub-AVAs Undercut Oregon

By Bill Hatcher


Our fixation on sub-appellations at the expense of raising the profile of Oregon over the past years is coming back to haunt us. As the economy tailspins, consumers, restaurateurs and retailers are returning to familiar roots. The results are pruned wine lists, repetitive shelf facings of monolithic national brands and small wineries being culled from wholesaler books. Gone are the halcyon days when someone picked up a $50 bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir in Memphis and said, “Cool, I didn’t know they were making wine in Oregon; let’s give it a try.”

If the majority of Americans cannot point to Iraq on a world map, do we really expect them to pinpoint the Eola Hills or Chehalem Mountains, let alone deconstruct the subtleties between the two? Further underscoring that presumptiveness, a recent study commissioned by the Oregon Wine Board revealed that over half the respondents in our target market were largely unfamiliar with Oregon as a wine-producing region. The sub-appellation movement reached absurdity with the Snake River AVA, containing one Oregon vineyard and no wineries, meaning that we had, in fact, finally parsed an appellation to someone’s backyard.

Even in long-established regions like Napa and Sonoma, it is a good bet that fewer than 10 percent of core consumers could accurately place a list of 10 famous wineries into their proper sub-appellations, let alone name three of those sub-appellations. A similar challenge was made to 200 people at a Portland business breakfast a couple of years ago. Only six people could name three of six northern sub-appellations and two of those six were winemakers. We are still explaining to visitors that “It’s Willamette, damn it.”

Apart from the over-zealous presumption of marketing sub-appellations before a substantive market for Oregon was established, it is probably still too early in our development to accurately authenticate the boundaries or intrinsic differences between the designations. That the Dundee Hills became the birthplace of Oregon Pinot Noir was as circumstantial as it was cognitive. Indeed, it proved serendipitous, as many exceptional wines have come from its soils. At the same time, emerging viticultural regions such as Silverton might someday hold equal promise but can claim no provenance more idiomatic than the Willamette Valley.

There is also a difficulty with the vast periphery of Oregon’s AVAs. Burgundy’s Côte d’Or may be the template for our AVA initiative but its area would fit into the Willamette Valley 200 times without filling it. Even if one wants to argue that we are only talking about the slopes that hem that valley (despite the increasing acreage planted on the overly fertile valley floor), all but the Dundee Hills and Ribbon Ridge AVAs are larger in area than the whole of the Côte d’Or.

There, 14 villages, or appellation côntrolées, are pearled along a 26-mile slope that never broadens to more than a mile. Each of the villages manifests a unique profile as the result of an upturned ancient seabed that created a Neapolitan ribboning of highly distinctive soil types. A Volnay and a Morey-Saint-Denis produced by the same hand will reveal decidedly different traits. There is little mistaking Meursault from Puligny-Montrachet.

While Ribbon Ridge and the Dundee Hills are perhaps small enough to embrace a consistency of soil profile and exposure, indubitable distinctions generally do not exist in the Willamette Valley’s sub-AVAs. In the case of REX HILL (for whom the sub-AVA system is theoretically beneficial), we have two vineyards in the sprawling Chehalem Mountain AVA. They couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is characterized by deep friable loam while the other straddles a boundary between volcanic and sedimentary soils and features rock outcroppings amid its shallow soils. The acclaimed Shea Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton District is sometimes described as several vineyards in one, having markedly different exposures across its ambit.

Making the point more directly, the chances of anyone correctly identifying the provenance of six wines, one each from the northern sub-AVAs, is not much higher than picking six out of six Powerball numbers. Ironically, the only way to derive a system that would ultimately have any epistemological validity would be to refine the appellations even further, similar to Burgundy. However, the TTB already has qualms about the integrity of the existing map and would be loathe creating further fiefdoms while holy wars would likely be fought on the boundaries in any case.

The misstep here is that without firmly establishing the mother appellation in the consumer’s mind, the offspring have no namesake but to the keenest aficionados. Every sub-appellation tries to build its case for being Park Place/Boardwalk but without the rest of the board, whether through readily discernible attributes or hierarchal quality, the nomenclature is meaningless.

The stock response to this criticism is that the sub-appellations provide more information to the consumer and, at worst, can’t hurt. I would argue, conversely, that Oregon’s pedagogical marketing has, in fact, hurt us. Where we do a better job than any other region marketing to one-tenth of 1 percent of the wine-drinking public, our esoteric, qualifying bent has likely turned away the more casual consumer who perceives Oregon as too complicated and too refined to appreciate. While price is certainly a factor, if Oregon wines were considered accessible and identified with Oregon’s mystique, distribution channels would not have closed to us as they have. Wine wholesalers are like anyone else in business; they carry what the customer wants to buy.

Moreover, those wineries that might have wielded leverage to promote Oregon as a whole became parochially self-interested and circumscribed their brands to their neighborhoods. While this may have sufficed when their core customers were buying four cases a year, it may turn out to be short-sighted if those customers now buy two cases, necessitating a broader if no longer attainable market.

Even in the supposed salad days just past, almost half of Oregon’s wine was sold intrastate. Few brands—perhaps 40 out of nearly 400—could be considered national. That being the case, if we were to insist on sub-appellations, a more recognizable subset might be something like “Next to Beaux Frères,” “Pretty Close to Archery Summit,” “Can Almost See Tony Soter’s House,” etc. At least such a system wouldn’t dissemble its real purpose of marketing.

This is not to say that Oregon’s major appellations lack indigenous differences. But it is to say that in our rush to judgment we probably didn’t conceive as coherent a map as might have been possible. More important, even if the map had been indisputably drawn, consumers weren’t ready for it. In cross-country markets, we routinely conduct our own informal recognition survey of Oregon, asking customers where they would place Portland in relationship to an Eastern Seaboard state or province. Usually, the guesses, even within the trade, fall no farther north than New York but have drifted as far south as South Carolina.

Hopefully, one day we will be able to more authentically redraw boundaries, refine districts and perhaps admit new ones. First, however, we must solidly establish Oregon itself in the consumer’s mind and subsequently, its distinctive major statewide appellations. Only then can we begin to make meaningful refinements to a critical mass of knowledgeable consumers. Toward that end, we should continue to explore soils, exposures, micro-climates and, most importantly, the unique characteristics of well-made wines from all plausible regions, whether or not they have been so designated. Meanwhile, Oregon should be our universal front label appellation with sub-genres relegated to the back.

An unspoken theme here is the want of collaboration. In the early days, the Oregon wine industry was much more interactive. Some of that was of dire necessity; the settlers didn’t have many covered wagons to draw into a circle. But there was a spirit of collegiality and desire to collectively do well that has in many ways given way to parochialism. Indeed, the industry is more disparate and, while there is nothing wrong with competition, it isn’t a zero-sum game. A rising tide lifts all boats—trite phrases are so because of the perennial truths they express. At A to Z, we encourage people to give ideas away as they don’t remain proprietary very long anyway, and we believe it is the best way to make room for new ones.

The industry has come to be driven more by politics and narrow self-interest rather than collective marketing economics or common sense, a polemic we can no longer afford (if we ever could) in these precarious times. More than a few wineries will fail in the coming months and more than a few vineyards will not be harvested. This is not the time for intellectually bankrupt parlor debates as to whose soil is redder and whose vineyard practices are greener, but rather a time to unite and underwrite the commonwealth of Oregon. ◊

Bill Hatcher founded A to Z Wines, along with his wife, Deb, and partners Sam Tannahill and Cheryl Francis. He is the CEO of Rex Hill Vineyards, as well as the owner and winemaker for William Hatcher Wines.

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