Divide and Conquer

Philosophers and other Big Thinkers tend to fall into two great groups, colloquially called the Lumpers and the Splitters. Lumpers are always looking for ways to show how details fit together into broader wholes. Splitters think truth is best served by subdividing things as far as you can go. Recently the Lump/Split dichotomy has appeared where you’d least expect to find it, in the down-to-earth, idiosyncratic world of wine.

At issue are the official designations known as American Viticultural Areas—AVAs for short. AVAs are obtained by applying to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. If winemakers and grape growers can persuade the bureau that their product is somehow special, distinguishable in some significant geographic or climatic way from other wines in the neighborhood, they will be authorized to use a special, unique designation on their bottles.

In Washington, AVAs range in size from the tiny Red Mountain appellation near the Tri-Cities to the all- engulfing Columbia Valley appellation, which stretches from the west of Yakima almost to Spokane, and from Lake Chelan in the north all the way to the Columbia River. An AVA that large and diverse is of dubious use to anyone, consumer or not, and there are moves afoot to chip off pieces of that sprawl. Growers in the Columbia Gorge region have already persuaded the bureau to grant them their own AVA. The Horse Heaven Hills are next in line, and it would come as no surprise to see Wahluke Slope (Moses Lake and points south), Rattlesnake Hills (north of the Yakima Valley appellation), and Lake Chelan file applications soon. Oregon winemakers just got permission to create three subdivisions of existing AVAs, including the designations of Yamhill-Carleton and Dundee Hills within the former Willamette Valley appellation.

To the Lumpers, all this subdivision is not only unnecessary but, possibly, economically suicidal. The future prosperity of the American wine business, they argue, is in persuading more and more Joe and Joan Citizens to make wine their tipple of choice. And the last thing we need to achieve that end, they say, is to complicate the “wine experience” even further. People are already daunted enough by trying to remember the difference, if any, between pinot gris and pinot blanc. Do we really need to steepen the learning curve by asking them to decide whether a Dundee pinot noir is likely to be enough better than a plain Willamette Valley pinot to pay a few bucks extra for it?

Because that’s the awkward little side issue behind the Splitters’ enthusiasm for new AVAs. Nobody yet has ever gotten a chance to primp his wine up with an appellation label and proceeded to cut its price. Never. How do I know this, you ask? Well, I don’t. But I’m certain just the same.