I just finished a typical blending exercise in which a disturbing question came up yet again. Sell the sizzle or the steak? We were looking at two blends for WineSmith Cabernet Franc, a flagship wine for which we are well known. Although we have always made it from 100% Alexander Valley fruit, I have insisted we label it as California. The reason is that escalating real estate prices are driving grape prices for Sonoma County fruit through the ceiling, and I have feared that one fine day we’ll need to look elsewhere for affordable fruit. Sure enough, in 2007 we started working with a Lake County grower, Diamond Ridge, which grows spectacular Cab Franc for half the price of our priciest Sonoma grower.

So here’s the ridiculous conversation that went on, identical to what goes on in most every winery all the time. On the one hand, we could blend all our Sonoma and Lake County wines together, resulting in 400 cases of a spectacularly delicious blend that’s 38.5% Lake County (thus entitled only to a California or North Coast appellation) at a price that would make it possible for restaurants to pour by the glass. OR we can blend away half our beautiful Lake County wine into some other program and end up with 325 cases of an inferior, more expensive wine with no prospect to be sold by the glass BUT at 24.9% Lake County we can use the holy Sonoma County appellation, thus making it much easier to sell.

Less wine, higher price, lower quality. Why would we even consider such a bonehead move? Because consumers have been bamboozled by appellation hype as a mark of quality assurance.

Pandering to the appellation feeding frenzy is a fine art in most wineries today. Any honest winemaker will tell you about the endless tradeoffs we endure between actual wine quality vs hype-value.

Appellation consciousness is a good thing, and I look forward to the day (long in the future) when Amador Zinfandel or Monterey riesling becomes as standardized in style as Beaujolais or Amarone so New World appellations can guide consumers in their purchases and food pairings.

But an appellation is not an insurance policy for wine quality. You get what you pay for. And you get more for your dollar when winemakers have complete flexibility.

My advice: at a given price point, always go for the broadest possible appellation, or choose one like Lodi or Fresno that has no price loading.