Remarkably, it wasn't too long ago that farmers and grape growers of Sonoma and Napa county were trying to define and receive recognition for the uniquely varied vineyard locations within the California wine country. For many years wines in the U.S. were identified with overarching generalizations based on the state, or county, in which they were made. Terms that seem commonplace for wine vernacular today, like terroir and AVA, were relatively new concepts for the American wine market a few decades ago. Now, as most who appreciate wine know, the physical area where grapes are grown is pivotal in how a wine is perceived, priced and consumed. Everything from elevation, climate, soil type, and the cultural/historical practices of a region contribute to how the fruit develops. These factors, whether they be drastic or minute, ultimately help tell the story for each bottle of wine produced from a specific area.
The French recognized the differences in agricultural regions as early as the 15th century, but not until 1936 did they establish a grape origin system called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée. The U.S. came to this realization much later, and in June 1980 the first official American Viticulture Area, the Augusta AVA, was appointed in Missouri (of all places). Following the creation of the Augusta AVA, both the Sonoma and Napa valleys went about trying to individually carve out their own AVA designations but the boundaries of each region were under constant debate. Tucked within this geographic wrangling, a similar but separate argument arose concerning the status of Los Carneros: a rugged and untamed region situated between the southeastern section of Sonoma County and the southwestern start of Napa County. Towards the end of the 19th century Los Carneros was home to swaths of premium grape vineyards, but with onset of Phylloxera and Prohibition, the area was mostly repurposed for hay production, grazing land, and dairy operations. In the 1970's, when wine grapes were widely re-introduced in Los Carneros (or simply Carneros), it was clear that the land lent itself admirably for growing very distinct and stellar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet, since the area was divided between counties, was this land considered a part of Sonoma, a part of Napa, or both? The advocating and arguing on both sides was rampant.
Above - 40 Years Ago: A article from 1981 in the Napa Valley Register documents the debate surrounding the prospective Los Carneros AVA.
Below - A view from the Los Carneros AVA as it is seen now.
During the 1970's and 1980's, the wine making rivalry between Sonoma and Napa was fierce and much less collaborative than it is today. The wines that ended up winning the infamous Wine Judgement of Paris in 1976 came from Napa producers, which ultimately led Napa to be widely viewed as the most prestigious wine center in the U.S. However, Sonoma had just as much culture, history and wine making-wherewithal as its Napa brethren, but not the recognition. Even though the area known historically as 'Los Carneros' was predominantly located in Sonoma county, proponents jockeying for the region to be solely recognized within Napa seemingly had political and economic motivations for doing so. When discussions first arose to assign Los Carneros with its own AVA in the late 1970's, an application was filed to have the prospective AVA stop immediately at the county line rather than extend into any part of Sonoma. Although the topography, climate, and soil types were consistent throughout the entire stretch of the Los Carneros region, the suggestion that land within Napa was somehow more distinguishable than that on the immediate other side of a county marker sounded a bit preposterous. The rationale for those wanting a Los Carneros AVA to be exclusively within Napa were quick to reference the French wine control system where wine appellations overlapping multiple regions had been deemed illegal. Despite this reasoning, the gesture, at least in the eyes of some, suspiciously appeared like a ploy for Napa to gain more notoriety for itself while keeping Sonoma just a rung or two beneath it on the proverbial totem pole.
In addition, economically speaking, having Los Carneros entirely within the boundaries of Napa county would have enormous ramifications for vineyard operations on the Sonoma side of the prospective AVA. Growing grapes within a defined and recognized AVA meant exclusivity, exposure, and higher market demand. Needless to say, farmers in Sonoma were not too keen at the notion of potentially being compensated less for a product grown identically to their neighbors in Napa. Proudly, our founder, Dale Ricci, was one of the leading voices to fight this injustice being thrust upon him and his fellow grape growing cohorts. In 1981, in an effort to highlight the absurdity of having a Los Carneros AVA only in Napa, he was quoted as saying, "You need to determine geographical boundaries for the appellation, not geopolitical." To be shamelessly biased, Dale was right. If the primary purpose for defining an AVA was to highlight the nuances and characteristics wine grapes inherited from the land, why limit the definition to the boxed confines of a county?
"You need to determine geographical boundaries for the appellation, not geopolitical."
~ Dale Ricci, Napa Valley Register, January 15th 1981
Eventually, the TTB, the regulatory body responsible for setting appellation boundaries, approved a Los Carneros AVA designation in August of 1983. They took into account the concerns expressed from the Sonoma county grape growers and Los Carneros became one of the first AVAs to be comprised of multiple counties in California. After the AVA was established, some wineries using grapes from Los Carneros might still label their wine with specific designations of "Napa Los Carneros" or "Sonoma Los Carneros", but most producers list the wine origin with a simpler, all-encompassing Los Carneros or Carneros to avoid confusion. Lastly, in terms of the physical identity of the AVA, as of 2020 there were approximately 10,200 acres planted to vine in Los Carneros, of which, 67% is grown in Sonoma and 33% is farmed in Napa. It might have taken awhile for the dust to settle, but it appears that Los Carneros might be a little bit more Sonoma, and less Napa, in the very end.