Defining Napa: Shaping an Appellation

Is there such a thing as terroir? Professor Mark Matthews of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology says no. He argues in his new book that terroir is a myth, without any scientific basis. I have a different belief. Terroir exists, and Napa Valley is the perfect testament to its reality. I lay out the case in my new book, Appellation Napa Valley: Building and Protecting an American Treasure.

I first learned about terroir while working in Burgundy for a négociant. My job was to explain the French wine appellation system to our foreign visitors and then lead tours of the appellations and tastings of the appellation wines. My experience there taught me that terroir encompasses both the natural factors of the growing site (soils, climate, elevation, aspect, and the like) and the viticultural and winemaking practices of the area’s growers and vintners. This latter, human side of the terroir equation involves the traditions, customs, and history of the place. Clearly, Burgundy has a rich and deep winegrowing culture, but so does the Napa Valley. Inspired by my time in France, I moved here in 1979 to pursue a career as a wine lawyer and a winemaker, and I had the privilege of playing a role in building and protecting this unique American treasure.

The history of winegrowing in the Napa Valley dates to the mid-1800s, to George Yount and European immigrants like Charles Krug, the Beringer brothers, and Gustave Niebaum, who fled the European Revolutions of 1848. They brought to the Napa Valley their vision, dedication to excellence, spirit of innovation, sense of hospitality, commitment to community, and wealth. Our growers and vintners today carry that torch.

Protecting Napa’s Land

Another group of visionaries took steps in the 1960s to preserve Napa Valley’s agricultural lands forever in the face of urban and suburban sprawl in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Agricultural Preserve is Napa Valley’s cultural legacy. By that I am not referring to a single act or a single actor. In fact, I tried hard to identify the person who invented this ingenious way of protecting our agricultural land and preventing it from being paved over, as occurred in Santa Clara Valley. I found not one person but a group of smart, courageous, and far-sighted people. What they did in the groundbreaking Agricultural Preserve legislation, adopted in 1968, was to employ the carrot and the stick. The carrot was a lower property tax on agricultural land—based on its lower agricultural value rather than its higher market or development value—if the landowner agreed to keep the land in agricultural use for at least 10 years. The stick was the increase of the minimum parcel size of those prime agricultural lands from one acre to twenty acres, then ultimately 40 acres on the valley floor and 160 acres in the hillsides. The same carrot and stick exists to this day, and it prevents the building of subdivisions while at the same time incentivizing agriculture.

The Agricultural Preserve inspired many subsequent actions in the service of agriculture. They include important citizen initiatives like Measure A (1980 Slow Growth Initiative) and Measures J and P (Agricultural Land Preservation Initiatives of 1990 and 2008); government actions like the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance, the 1991 Conservation Regulations, and the 1998 appointment of the Napa River Watershed Task Force; and private actions like volunteer river and stream restoration projects and the conservation easements of the local land trust. Today, conservation easements protect 57,000 acres in Napa County, which is more than our total planted vine acreage. Together, these actions have curbed rampant growth, kept our vineyards and wineries vibrant, and conserved and protected our environment, wildlife, and waterways.

Looking back now, this is crystal clear: the creation of the Agricultural Preserve happened in the nick of time, when Napa Valley was still sleepy and before it appeared on world wine maps. The decade of the 1970s witnessed what Leon Adams called “the wine revolution.” There was a meteoric rise in the acclaim of our valley and our wines and a corresponding rapid increase in new wineries (the number of wineries more than doubled in that decade) and in planted vine acres (an 82% increase over the decade). Napa Valley attracted worldwide attention, particularly after the Paris Tasting of 1976. This year is the 40th anniversary of both the Land Trust of Napa County and the Paris Tasting.

Developing an American Appellation System

With this increased international attention on wine origin, it was inevitable that we would adopt formal wine appellations in the US and that Napa Valley would be at the forefront of this movement. But establishing an authentic American wine appellation system proved to be more difficult and contentious than anyone thought.

For one thing, no one wanted to follow down the path of the French with their appellations d’origine contrôlées (AOCs). The strict French appellation controls over viticulture and winemaking, enshrined in the cahier des charges for each AOC, make no sense in a young country that relies on innovation, experimentation, and open sharing of know-how, experiences, and even equipment. Tying the hands of vintners and growers through appellation controls would have been wrong-headed and, well, un-American.

For another, our vintners had to contend with a federal agency: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, commonly known as ATF. (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as TTB, was established in 2002 and took over the regulatory and tax-related functions of ATF.) ATF never relished the idea of running the appellation program and initially proposed that each state create its own wine appellations. That proposal failed, and the task fell to ATF. But the agency doesn’t have its own experts in the evolving sciences of viticulture, enology, geography, pedology, geology, and climatology. Instead, it relies on the public rulemaking process to bring to light the merits and demerits of any proposed AVA. The AVA petitioners and the public all have an opportunity to comment, and the impartial federal agency makes the final decision. Personally, I think that should change and that TTB should have the expertise to lead—not just follow—the important discussions about viticultural distinctiveness. The federal decision-makers also don’t taste wine. On more than one occasion, I tried to convince them that a proposed appellation boundary line was correct by inviting them to taste the wines made from grapes grown on each side of the line, but they declined, claiming that was too subjective.

Boundary Disputes

We also faced complicated appellation boundary and naming issues. For the Napa Valley AVA, for example, established in 1981, there was a battle over whether to include the eastern valleys: Pope Valley, Gordon Valley, Wooden Valley, and Capell Valley. The original proposal, propounded by the Napa Valley Vintners and the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, was that the Napa Valley includes the watershed of the Napa River. This is the classic definition of a valley: an elongated lowland between ranges of mountains or hills, often having a river running along the bottom. But this definition excluded the eastern valley growers, who claimed an equitable right to the appellation name because their grapes historically had been used to make Napa Valley wines. ATF agreed with the growers and expanded the AVA to include all of Napa County except the area northeast of Lake Berryessa.

These complicated issues led to some epic battles as we began to sub-divide the Napa Valley AVA into what are colloquially known as sub-appellations. (Note that AVAs nested within larger appellations are not technically sub-AVAs.) Along the way, we established important precedents for our evolving appellation system. One of the most important and colorful stories is of the Stags Leap District AVA. Both Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Carl Doumani of Stags’ Leap Winery lay claim to the Stags Leap name (with or without an apostrophe). But the neighboring growers and vintners, themselves an illustrious lot including John Shafer (Shafer Vineyards), Dick Steltzner (Steltzner Vineyards), Joe Phelps (Joseph Phelps Vineyards), Tim Mondavi (Robert Mondavi Winery), Bernard Portet (Clos du Val), Gary Andrus (Pine Ridge Winery), and Angelo Regusci (Regusci Winery), believed that Stags Leap also is a place, deserving of recognition as an AVA. I prepared the Stags Leap AVA petition. Not surprisingly, Winiarski opposed it. The parties settled their differences when the proposed name of the AVA was changed to Stags Leap District, which Warren accepted as the way to differentiate the brands from the appellation.

But the wrangling didn’t end there. The AVA boundaries also were in dispute. First the Disney family, which owns Silverado Vineyards, fought its way into the appellation, and then Stan Anderson of S. Anderson Vineyard, which today is Cliff Lede Vineyards. Only at the very end of the four-year proceeding, when other landowners proposed to move the AVA boundaries further north and south, did ATF put its foot down and hold the line.

Protecting the Napa Name

As a more modern appellation system, we learned from the mistakes of the traditional European winegrowing regions. For example, we saw what happened in Bordeaux where the small sub-appellations of the Haut Médoc like Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Margaux, and Pauillac over time eclipsed Bordeaux so that today “Bordeaux” is often nowhere to be found on those labels. In the Napa Valley, we took steps to prevent that by authoring a conjunctive labeling law that the state of California adopted in 1990. That law keeps Napa Valley front and center on all these wine labels. The wine is not simply Oakville; it is Oakville – Napa Valley.

I was not surprised that our phenomenal success attracted interlopers trying to trade on the good name of Napa Valley. In the 1980s, when I began teaching wine law in France, I met with the Chief Counsel of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). He showed me all the Champagne knock-off products against which the CIVC was fighting: toothpaste, beer, furniture, candy, etc. Little did I know that I would fight the same battles for Napa Valley 30 years later!

The surprise was that the first interloper was inside the US and not abroad.  But what can we say about a man who says, “We can grow on asphalt. Terroir don’t mean sh*t” (Fred Franzia, quoted in a 2007 article by Joel Stein in Business 2.0 Magazine). To confront the Napa-named, non-Napa “grandfathered” wines of Franzia’s company, Bronco, we wrote and defended a truth-in-labeling law that broke new ground. The Bronco saga lasted nine years, from 1996 when Bronco’s first Rutherford Vineyards was released to 2005 when the US Supreme Court said no to Bronco’s final appeal. None of this would have been possible without the leadership of Napa Valley Vintners.

Looking Ahead

Today, we face new challenges. Around the world, we are protecting the Napa Valley name from knock-offs: the Valley Napa, Napashangu, and Napalli wines of China; the Ca' de Napa wines of Italy; the Napareuli wines of Spain; the Napa Mieng wines of Thailand. Here at home, we are addressing important environmental issues: water, climate change, traffic, and the like. Thanks to the battles they have already fought and the lessons that came with them, the vintner-grower groups in each of the valley’s AVAs are now well positioned to lead the effort toward sustainability, and that is good news for all of us. Local by definition, they can spearhead projects, as Napa Valley Vintners did with the Napa Green environmental certification program, the Rutherford Dust Society did with the Napa River Rutherford Reach Restoration Project, and the Carneros Wine Alliance did with the Huichica Creek Stewardship Project.

I am confident that we can meet all these difficult challenges. One of the greatest sources of optimism are the young people who are working here in our valley—winemakers, grapegrowers, restaurateurs, and others. As they have come to understand, Napa Valley is a national treasure, a working agricultural and cultural landscape befitting of designation as a World Heritage Site. If we treat it that way—with the same vision, dedication, and respect as our pioneers, with sustainable practices and good management, with community participation, and with acceptance of our common culture—we will preserve Napa Valley for generations to come.


In Appellation Napa Valley, Richard Mendelson tells a detailed story of the birth, definition, and protection of America’s most famous wine region. Along the way, he provides portraits of the men and women who participated in this history, igniting a revolution in American wine and food in the process. Find the book at www.appellationnapavalley.com or the GuildSomm Amazon shop.

Mendelson is a wine lawyer at Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty. He also directs the Program on Wine Law and Policy at UC Berkeley Law. He is a graduate of Harvard College (BA 1975), Oxford University (MA 1977), and Stanford Law School (JD 1982).

  • Great article, Richard.  I could barely believe the Franzia quote - and dug up the article. Here is the link for the curious:   money.cnn.com/.../

  • Having worked in 4 different states "Wine in America" is a staple in my library (Thank You) and I'll certainly pick up "Appellation Napa Valley".  Any thoughts on the incoming administration's bullish trade policy regarding the EU?  I find it hard to imagine a scenario where it would benefit us domestically or abroad.

  • To respond to Nick's question, the incoming administration's tax reform bill, called "a better way," if adopted, will not be good for lovers of fine wines from around the world. The goal may be America First, but we can't make the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and other renowned appellations on home soil so the platitude of returning production to the States makes no sense. Protectionism will lead to foreign reprisal, and the wines of Napa Valley, the whiskeys of Tennessee, and other high visibility American products are sure to be among the targets.

  • Thanks for your insight Richard.

  • Excellent article and timely comments (to Nick's question) on the possible repercussions of the incoming administration's tax reform bill. As such, some of my Italian producers and their governing bodies are bracing for the possible impact of the new reforms.

  • But what about the very pricy, popular jam bombs derived from multiple vineyards?  Don't wineries like Silver Oak, who test their wine on hordes of tasters in order to bottle the one that appeals to everyone, destroy the whole idea of terroir?