GOV. JERRY BROWN of California may be proud of his state's chablis and mountain red, but the grapes of Robb may not be far behind. Thomas Jefferson tried and failed to cultivate European and then domestic wine grapes near Charlottesville 200 years ago. But modern growers have had considerably more success, and the 12-county Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia now boasts 16 commercial vineyards and three wineries. But our Shenandoah Valley isn't the only place in the country to bear that name. There's one in California, too, and growers there have been producing wine grapes for decades.
None of this should cause any problem, but it has. Because of the increasing sophistication of the American wine industry, producers have begun to designate their wine by a geographic name. True Burgundy comes only from that province of France, and purists insist that champagne comes not from Upstate New York or the hills of Northern Italy, but only from that area of France that has given its name to the wine. Following this Gallic tradition, California growers now label their wine "Sonoma Valley," "Napa Valley" or "Mendocino," for example, to assure the customer that such wine differs, in a very special way, from that bottled in, say, Arkansas. It is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the Treasury Department that has the responsibility for designating these "viticultural areas," and the wine experts over at the bureau are now faced with a unique problem: both Shenandoah Valleys -- the one in California and the one in Virginia -- produce wine, and both areas have applied for exclusive use of the name.
Jack Eisen, our Metro Notes columnist, who wrote of this conflict last week, is a longtime resident of Virginia but a native of California and the descendant of a winemaker to boot. He has claimed neutrality on this issue for sentimental reasons and because, if the truth be known, he likes the California wine. But the rest of us can't afford to be ambivalent. In the name of old Jimmy Stewart movies, heart-tugging lonesome cowboy songs and the memory of Mr. Jefferson, who did his best in this as well as all endeavors, the name Shenandoah clearly belongs this side of "the wide Missouri." BATF has already held hearings -- on both coasts -- on the conflicting claims, but it will accept written comments from the public until Oct. 4. This area will lose a part of its proud heritage if the name Shenandoah Valley is given exclusively to the winegrowers of California. Such a transfer would ignore history, confuse the public and deprive the growing Virginia wine industry of an important commercial asset. If you agree, let them know at the bureau.