SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A bill written by Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) aims to make wine from Paso Robles internationally recognized by designating the area as the second official wine region in the U.S. to have label protections enacted.
AB 87 is a conjunctive labeling bill, which means that it aims to connect wineries from Paso Robles together under one recognizable name, which will be printed on their labels. It was modeled after a similar bill introduced by Napa Valley in 1989. Their bill made it so that wineries within the Napa Valley appellation, a federally defined region, could market their wines as being exclusively from the area, which helped to communicate a set of standards put into the winemaking.
“I think it makes good business sense,” Terry Hall, Communications Director of the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), said in a phone interview. “If you want sustainable agriculture and if you want to have sustainable family business, you have to do everything you can to protect your intellectual property, which is this brand.”
Napa Valley was the first sub-appellation in the U.S. A sub-appellation is a region within a region, and in the viticulture arena it refers to a protected brand name whose wines consists of only grapes from that area. The NVV began to push for conjunctive labeling a few years after.
“We really believe in that concept and thought that it was a good model.” Stacie Jacob, Executive Director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said over the phone.
What the new bill will do is allow all current and future wineries within the existing Paso Robles American Viticulture Area (AVA) to identify themselves by placing the Paso Robles designation on their products. Additionally, any wineries that produce wine containing at least 85 percent grapes from Paso Robles will have the choice to put the designation on their labels.
“As our wineries continue to mature and grow we knew that sub-appellation
would become something that our region would have in the future,” Jacob said. “It protects the brand equity that’s really been built in the AVA.”
The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is a group of grape growers and winemakers within the designated AVA. Inspired by the path that Napa paved, they consulted with NVV, and then determined the best way to become recognized as a region was to push for AB 87.
“They’re trying to keep the synergy that’s already here,” Cathy Sanchez, owner of the Paso Robles Wine Country Shuttle, said in a phone conversation.
Blakeslee’s Legislative Director Mark Smith said in a phone interview that it’s important for wineries, especially those within rapidly growing industries, to promote their products as a region because the more an appellation subdivides, the more it tends to dilute the recognition of the overall product.
“Paso Robles is a region that’s just exploding,” Smith said. “They are sub-appellating into these smaller little regions. As a result they’re concerned they’re going to lose their [uniqueness]. It’s an attempt to maintain a regional identity.”
Regional identity is important when it comes to wine. According to Hall, only 4 percent of the wine in California is from Napa Valley, but it is still one of the most widely known regions.
“Everyone talks about Napa Valley first and foremost, because it markets so strongly with a single unified voice from such a small region,” Hall said.
Additionally, Napa Valley has recently had a new kind of honor bestowed upon it. The European Union has recognized the area’s wines as the first outsider wines to be promoted and endorsed by the European community. NVV attributes this to the brand recognition they’ve created.
“Napa Valley tends to command $20 more per bottle on the shelf in the store,” Hall said. “You become strong industry leaders.”
Napa boasts a diverse offering of wine and more than 400 wineries in the region. However they feel that their unity in vision is what truly makes their wines remarkable. In the same way, Paso Robles strives to set themselves apart.
According to Jacob, there are a variety of things which make Paso Robles so unique for growing wine, including a diversity of nearly 45 soil types such as weathered granite, sandstone, volcanic rocks and both old and young marine sedimentary rock.
She touts the Paso Robles region as having various microclimates and diurnal temperatures. “[Paso Robles has] the largest variance of daytime highs and nighttime lows,” Jacob said.
The bill, which was introduced in December, is currently being reviewed by a government organization committee. Smith said that a hearing will most likely be scheduled in the first half of April.
Brian Benson, owner and winemaker of Brian Benson Cellars, said that while he isn’t particularly keen on having new labeling guidelines to adhere to, AB 87 will help to create brand recognition.
Benson believes that if AB 87 doesn’t pass that it will deter people from buying wine from Paso Robles, because the region is not as well-known as Napa Valley.
“People may try a wine and not realize that it’s from Paso,” Benson said.
Because AB 87 will benefit not only the wineries, but also contribute to the economy, the bill has hardly been met with any opposition.
“It has tremendous support throughout our region and throughout the state,” Jacob said. “It really doesn’t affect anybody but those of us that live and work in the Paso Robles areas and our members are 100 percent on board with it. It’s a very logical concept.”
A fact sheet about AB 87 was released by Blakeslee’s office and cites a total of 11 official supporters but has no opponents listed.
“There are no opponents of the legislation because there really are no negative consequences to anybody,” Smith said.
“It’s unique to have a bill that’s so widely supported,” Jacob added.
However, some people don’t necessarily feel that AB 87 will make much of dent in the economy.
“I don’t think its going to increase the awareness at all,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s simply a way of the various wineries being designated more to the correct region that they’re growing their grapes in.”
Still, the wineries remain optimistic about the effect of having an internationally recognized product.
“You may be more likely to buy it if you recognize what part of the country it comes from,” Smith said.