James Lawrence in Wine Searcher makes several important points in his argument that appellations have outlived their usefulness. I think there is an important perspective missing from his post, but first it’s worth reviewing why we have appellations.
A wine appellation was a snapshot in time: the cementing of traditions regarding viticulture and wine style; the protection (in theory) of quality and reputation. The raw materials behind the magic were mandatory and therefore (Alsace apart) superfluous to the wine labeling. Appellations represented the coming together of soil, climate, and vine; individuals were subordinate to the hive.
As he rightly points out, the appellation system is no guarantee against copyright theft or the erosion of quality. There are few mechanisms for forcing regions to abide by regulations if they don’t want to. Bad wines are as plentiful when produced under the auspices of an appellation as they are when produced outside the appellation system. Many producers have found success by abandoning the restrictions imposed by appellations, and the idea of terroir is compromised by industrial production methods and varietal labeling.
As Liber Pater owner Loic Pasquet argues:
“The modern guarantee is that the consumer is buying a flawless and non-toxic wine. This is from the food industry. I stopped belonging to an appellation because I refuse to produce an industrial wine. What is the benefit of having an AOC? Nothing. They are managed by the wine industry with the overarching goal of producing a standardized product.”
Most appellations are run by a sclerotic bureaucracy that enforces rigid rules that can’t keep up with a dynamic wine market or the need to respond quickly to the contingencies of climate change.
I think all of this is right. So why are appellations needed?
Because we need some way of organizing the wine world and I can’t think of, nor have I heard of, an alternative that does that better than geographical location.
No doubt there are successful producers who pay no attention to appellation rules, and industrial winemaking techniques make geography less important. But there are thousands upon thousands of artisan winemakers who make wines with meaningful typicity. To them and their customers, weather, climate, and soil composition still matter. The wine world is not a monolithic entity. The world of industrialized winemaking is one thing; the world of artisan winemaking quite another. Terroir-driven wines are still the engine that makes wine interesting
But more importantly, for those producers who no longer care about typicity and seek creative expression by breaking the rules, we still need some way of assessing their deviation, some way of explaining what they are deviating from. Conventions and traditions are not the enemy of innovation. They are the benchmark in light of which innovations are seen as significant. Without that baseline of similarity, diversity has no meaning.
We should strive to make the appellation system more responsive. But that is a different matter than tossing it out altogether.