Paso Winegrowers Back on TTB Track

After seven years, 11 districts await final approval

by Jane Firstenfeld
paso robles sub appellations
TTB is accepting comments regarding 11 proposed subappellations within the Paso Robles AVA. Image source: Tablas Creek Winery
Paso Robles, Calif.—It may be a record: In 2007, 59 winery owners and grapegrowers from Paso Robles asked the TTB to establish 11 subappellations within the 612,000-acre Paso Robles American Viticultural Area. The petitions, which occupy more than 30 pages of small type on the TTB website, remained in limbo for almost seven years, stalled while the TTB revisited its internal procedures and halted approvals for subappellations.

Wines & Vines and other industry media published extensive reports about the petition at the time, so there was a certain sense of “déjà vu all over again” when TTB posted Notice 140 on its website last week. Was this the same petition? The same petitioners?
    Four other AVAs approved

    Hours before the government shutdown, TTB issued a press release announcing final approval of four new California AVAs: Ballard Canyon, 7,800 acres in Santa Barbara County; 17,633-acre Moon Mountain District in Sonoma County; 11,000-acre Big Valley-Lake County and 9,100-acre Kelsey Bench-Lake County.

In its announcement, the bureau explained its policies and rationale: “TTB is issuing this proposal in response to 11 petitions submitted simultaneously by the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area Committee, a local wine industry group whose 59 members cumulatively own or manage over 10,000 acres of vineyards within the proposed viticultural areas. TTB designates viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.”

The original 2007 petition from the ad hoc Paso Robles AVA Committee headed by Jerry Lohr, remains intact in virtually all details. Christopher Taranto, spokesman for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, confirmed that although the TTB took its time to question certain issues, the committee’s initial investment in money and time eventually paid off, and no additional research was required.

When the petitions were first submitted in 2007, he recalled, the TTB was somewhat overwhelmed. “There were so many at the time,” he said. “This was also the most complex and thought-out application they’d had,” requesting an 11-part subdivision of an established AVA at one time.

“It was genuinely the largest single request,” Taranto said. “That alone had them needing to spend a lot of time on it. The TTB put in a moratorium while they rethought their petition/review process.” During that period and the simultaneous recession, the TTB trimmed its staff while attempting to streamline and speed up its services to the public.

Over time the bureau came back to the committee to clarify various questions. Interestingly, one gray area was in the furthest northwest quadrant of the Paso Robles AVA. The TTB wanted to know why was it not included in any of the new proposals? “It’s government property,” Taranto said. “It’s part of a military base.” Other gray areas appeared in municipal zones inappropriate or unavailable for grapegrowing.

The proposed districts are: Adelaida, Creston District, El Pomar District, Paso Robles Estrella, Paso Robles Geneseo, Paso Robles Highlands, Paso Robles Willow Creek, San Juan Creek, San Miguel, Santa Margarita Ranch and Templeton Gap.

Bases well covered
Composed of well-established wine and grape businesses, the AVA committee addressed the most potentially divisive issue in advance. Conjunctive labeling requires that wines from the subappellations continue to include the Paso Robles brand on their labels.

“We passed conjunctive labeling in 2007,” Tarranto confirmed. “Our labels will always say ‘Paso.’” This not only allows the Paso Robles AVA to avoid future problems but also to side-step the litigious trademark issues that initially put the TTB on pause while dealing with furious trade-name issues related to Napa’s Calistoga district, which was eventually approved in 2009.

Not a sure thing
Public comments on the TTB site confirm that this is not yet a done deal, and not everyone buys into the logic of 11 subappellations for Paso.

Stakeholder Steve Felten, owner/winemaker at 1,000-case Felten Cellars in Paso Robles, submitted this comment: “As a professional winemaker and consultant in Paso Robles for 18 years, and having managed or contracted with vineyards in all of the proposed AVAs, I am vehemently opposed to establishing any new viticultural areas in Paso Robles.

“There are enough microclimates and varying soil profiles within each area to make these designations meaningless and arbitrary. These requests were based on politics and bullying by a few large interests that have undue influence on local organizations. Wine producers in Paso Robles, as a group, would be better served to promote the region as a whole. We have bigger issues to address such as the water table, and the divisiveness that these AVAs will generate is counterproductive to our mutual success.”

A second negative comment came from Derek Engles, sommelier and wine buyer for a major Las Vegas concern (he asked that the name not be published). He called the proposal “A truly bad idea.”

Engles explained: “If a producer has that much of a drastically superior vineyard, then he or she should be focused on the promotion of that particular site. This proposal sounds great for those in Paso thinking that their subappellaiton will be the next big thing, but at the consumer level, it seeks to confuse and nothing more.”

Citing Oregon’s Willamette Valley, he questioned: “How much time, energy and treasure have they spent mapping out the intricacies of each sub-AVA,” only to have consumers continue to ask sommeliers if Yamhill-Carlton Pinot is as good as Willamette Valley?

“If Paso Robles spent a little more time getting the word out, and a little less time trying to be the next Napa, the long-term would be more promising for sure.”

Engles confirmed to Wines & Vines his belief that establishing the 11 new subappellations would create more confusion among consumers in the retail arena. “I still am dealing with guests about what Rutherford means to Napa.” Most consumers, he said, “just want to drink a good glass of wine. It took Burgundy 1,000 years to get their ideologies down.”

In a wine world where some drinkers are still not quite certain that Sonoma wines don’t come from Napa Valley, his point is well taken.

Taranto responded to this valid concern: “I get that people outside the region will say we are not well known enough (as a region). But we want to be prepared for the future. The areas are distinct.

“The big thing locally, for the most part, is that everybody here is still all about the Paso brand first. The 59 proprietors (on the petition) are still thinking that a rising tide floats all boats.”

As recognition and the Paso Robles wine industry grow, he commented, the region will not have to rush into anything or force an issues.

Too soon to celebrate?
Given the TTB’s long and careful examination of the petition, and barring any unforeseen trademark disputes, it’s widely assumed that the government will approve the petition in short order. Tablas Creek Winery published a celebratory edition of its blog to mark the occasion. 

But, with the onset this morning of the federal government shutdown, the TTB’s website welcomes readers with an ominous announcement: “Due to the government shutdown, information on this website is available, but may not be up to date.”

In Notice No. 140, TTB requested public comments on the petition to be submitted before Jan. 21, 2014. Whether these will be received, evaluated or posted in a timely manner remains in question. 

Posted on 10.08.2014 - 10:36:22 PST
Unfortunately, they will be named Drought sinkhole #1, #2, #3, etc.

Really, 11 different flavor profiles of Zin or Pets? Most consumers still don't know more than 2 in Napa, and 2 in Sonoma. Paso is a good place but does not command $50 plus on a routine basis. Who are they talking to with eleven more meaningless pieces of info to sift thru? How bout just a little bit of readable, factual info on your back labels and nevermind 11 places that THE CONSUMER doesn't need to know.
Donn Rutkoff