Would a Wine Really Taste as Fine by Any Other Name?

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

To a group of Napa County, Calif., winegrowers, adding "Tulocay" as a geographic designation to their products' labels had a lot more cachet as a marketing device than the more geographically correct "Coombsville." So they were unhappy when Treasury Department regulators wouldn't let them burnish their bottles with the new moniker.

On June 19, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which reviews about 15 requests a year to award such identity labels for wine, issued a rare denial. It said supporters of Tulocay didn't have enough proof of its local or national recognition to qualify.

The disagreement reflects the impact of growth and competition in the wine industry. With $30 billion in sales in the United States last year, wine-growing areas earning a government-approved geographic appellation often can confer a more exclusive pedigree and a premium price.

"Americans want to know the place of origin of their wines," said Terry Hall, a spokesman for Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group in St. Helena, Calif., that supported Tulocay. And ultra-savvy buyers like to collect from various smaller growing areas because of the distinctiveness of those wines.

The rejection distressed petitioners, a group of about 60 landowners who hoped regulators would allow them to advertise the unique quality of their grapes grown in the cool, southeastern Napa area, more commonly known as Coombsville.

Led by Aaron Pott, a consulting winemaker who filed a petition with the government in 2006, the growers said the word Tulocay had deep, local roots that harkened back to an 1859 land plat showing Tulocay Rancho. Plus, they didn't think Coombsville was a pretty enough or marketable name to put on cabernets that are commanding as much as $125 a bottle.

"For every line you add to the label, you can add $5" to the price, said Tyler Colman, who writes a wine blog called Dr. Vino, offering another rationale for seeking the Tulocay designation. "The more information, the more exclusive it is."

The Treasury bureau, which regulates the labeling and taxing of alcohol, has awarded geographic appellations since 1980 as a way for consumers to better place the identity of the wines they are buying. There are 167 such designations. Once approved, 85 percent of the grapes used in wines bottled under the appellation must be from that area.

Napa became a special viticultural area in 1981 and now produces some of the best domestic wines. There are also 14 sub-appellations within Napa, including Oak Knoll and Rutherford.

In this case, a regulatory drinking brawl broke out when Pott and the group snubbed the Coombsville faction.

"We felt Coombsville sent kind of a redneck vibe," Pott said in an interview -- a point he also made in comments to a national wine magazine. He said the decision made by the tax and trade bureau showed "the tyranny of the minority."

Under federal rules, new viticultural areas must be supported with evidence that the name is locally or nationally known. This includes maps, historical evidence and other distinguishing features.

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