Some fine French wines just don't travel well. And it may be that some fine French wine customs may not travel too well, either.
What I've got in mind is a little-known federal program that openly imitates the French, whose regulations control every aspect of the growing and processing and thus the quality of those familiar wines that carry on their labels such area names as burgundy, bordeaux and cote du rhone.
Rules set up in 1979 by the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) allow for the establishment of U.S. government-approved "vitacultural areas" which can then be used as "an appelation of origin on wine labels and in wine advertisements." That's the government's way of saying that American wine growers in a significant and identifiable grape-growing region can get themselves listed for wine-labeling purposes if BATF approves both the name they have chosen and the region boundaries they have established.
To qualify, the petitioning wine growers must supply evidence that the soil, elevation and other physical features of the area distinguish it from surrounding areas. They also must supply BATF with evidence that the name selected is nationally or at least locally known as referring to that specific wine-growing region.
This latter provisin has not turned out as easy for petitioning vintners to prove as it might have seemed. And nothing illustrates that point better than the fight that has now broken out over the attempt by some wine growers in Amador County, Calif., to get their area of about 10,000 acres designated by BATF as a vitacultural area. It's laid out in the April 13 Federal Register (page 21623).
The issue is simple and obvious. The name that these California vintners want to attach to their wines is "Shenandoah Valley," and not surprisingly the folks in Virginia don't like it.
As the BATF notice points out, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia "is well known," and in fact was the area for which the California valley was named. Thus, the notice says, "the [BATF] is very concerned about the likelihood of consumer confusion concerning grape origin if the name 'Shenandoah Valley' is used to identify this vitacultural area."
Although comments on this particular area are allowed until June 12, BATF officials say the issue is already considered "sensitive" based on the initial responses. Depending on the additional views that come in, there may be a public hearing on the matter, or BATF might decide it has enough to make a decision.
Of 22 petitions for vitacultural areas received since the program began, only two have been granted. Napa Valley is the well-known one, and even there the BATF people had to do some juggling with the geographic areas to be included within that designation.