What’s in a name? , Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked.
If the name is Napa, consumers across the country think of fine wine, despite those "Napa Stands for Auto Parts" bumper stickers sold in other envious wine regions.
Other regions of California also have carved out wine reputations; from Sonoma and the Central Coast to Lodi and Amador County. Wines with those names on the label command premium prices as well.But most of the wine produced in the Golden State carries the generic California appellation – not Napa or any of those other regions. That means the grapes could be sourced from anywhere in the state. In reality, they come from the San Joaquin Valley.
And truth be told, tons of San Joaquin Valley grapes find their way into higher priced coastal wines, because the regulations allow a percentage of the wine to contain grapes outside the appellation.
What thoughts come to mind when Californians hear the name San Joaquin Valley? Lots of distinctions, some dubious: hot, flat, dusty, poverty ridden, gang infested, drug addled.
To be fair, there are lots of positive aspects to the Valley – the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables grown here manifesting itself in the summer farmers’ markets, the small town atmosphere of much of the Valley and all that sunshine. But the good stuff is known mostly to Valley residents and not the outside world.
Wine doesn’t seem to break the consciousness of either Valley residents or outsiders, despite the fact that the Valley is the epicenter of California’s wine industry.
Peter Vallis would like to change that. Vallis is the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, a group of growers and wineries working to improve the quality and reputation of Valley grapes and wine.
"Given that we are the biggest grape-growing region in California, it seems silly that we haven’t done anything in 70 years to promote it," said Vallis in a recent interview. "It’s about changing the perception of where California wines come from."
Vallis is quick to point out that San Joaquin Valley winemakers have no reason to be ashamed. Many of the region’s wines have won awards in blind tasting competitions against higher priced competitors.
"Quality and price don’t seem to run together," said Vallis. "The lowest cost thing in a wine is the grape, and it’s 100 percent made from grapes. We (Valley growers) can get the same quality and more tonnage."
So, how might the Valley wine industry get consumers to ignore negative images and equate the San Joaquin Valley with good wine?
Well, to start with, Vallis believes the American consumer doesn’t hold negative images of the Valley. Californians do, but the nation as a whole doesn’t, he said. In fact, Vallis said consumers don’t have any image of the San Joaquin Valley. Most don’t even know where it is.
If there is a negative image, it is attached to the Central Valley rather than the San Joaquin Valley, according to Vallis – even though the San Joaquin Valley makes up about half of the Central Valley and is the area from which most of the negative images spring.
So, the San Joaquin Valley is a blank slate waiting to be imprinted with the idea of inexpensive but delicious wines.
What’s next? Well, first of all, Vallis’ organization is interested in promoting wine in general and California appellation wines in particular. Americans still haven’t embraced wine like Europeans have. We drink a lot of beer, coffee, soda and bottled water.