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09.06.2007

Much Ado about AVAs

AVA stands for American Viticultural Area, and refers to a designated geographical area that may be legally printed on a bottle of wine if 85% of the grapes that went into the wine were grown in that area. Sometimes these areas, like the Russian River Valley, for instance, are referred to by the generic (and French derived term) appellation.

AVAs are overseen at a national level by the Tax and Trade Bureau, which for the last few decades has been managing the process by which new AVAs are recognized and codified. This is a long, drawn out, and often political process through which many prospective wine regions in America have struggled, sometimes to triumph and sometimes with tragic frustration.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when the TTB basically pulled the parking brake on the moving car. You'd have to be in, or well connected, to the wine business to know, as this wasn't exactly a piece of news that made front page headlines anywhere (except perhaps the pages of Wine Business Monthly and the Napa Valley Register) but when the TTB indefinitely suspended all pending and future AVA approvals until further notice, a shockwave rippled through the wine industry.

What's going on? Well, there's an interesting interview over at Appellation America that explains it through an interview with a couple of the consultants that fledgling wine regions often hire to help them through the AVA petition process. For those interested in the political and business side of the wine industry, or for those interested in rubbernecking at a (admittedly, slightly esoteric) fermenting scandal, it's worth a read.

Thanks to Arthur over at redwinebuzz.com, who tipped me off to the interview.

Comments (17)

andrea gori wrote:
09.07.07 at 1:57 AM

really an almost italian situation...here in chianti classico a project of dividing the "classico" zone in subzone like Panzano or Berardenga has been halted because the people that owns the land don't want its value to change with the sub-appelation

09.07.07 at 12:30 PM

Wow. VERY interesting. Thanks for posting this, Alder. It's so interesting that the hoopla has nothing to do with whether a proposed AVA is distinct in its terroir, so to speak. Instead, it's all about whether to allow big corporations to capitalize on a well-known geographical region with their brand name. Hmmmmm.

Arthur wrote:
09.07.07 at 4:18 PM

Which big corporations are at play? Calistoga Cellars produces no more than 6000 cases a year. I may be wrong, but I do not believe that Calistoga Estate does not produce a whole lot more wine that Calistoga Cellars.

What if they were both small operations making no more than 3000 cases a year for the last 3 decades? Who would we say is the big bad wolf here? The folks seeking Calistoga sub-app status? The TTB? Some yet unnamed evil corporation? Both of these labels have been around for a while and the crux of the dispute (in Calistoga, at least) has to do with the fact that two established brand names (both preceding the inception of the group seeking sub-AVA status) would be wiped out by the creation of A Calistoga sub-app.

Using geographical names in wine branding is risky. It can even piss off your neighbors. However, we should note the undertones or the unspoken things in this interview: There are a number of reasons why Napa has its clout and reputation: Successful marketing of the Napa brand being one and a distinct character being another.

Lia,

In the article, Sara Schorske says that “it’s up to you [growers or wineries ] to give value to your appellation”. There are those that say terroir and regional distinction are just a fabricated "story", a marketing pitch, suggesting that it is aimed at selling a wine based on the (supposedly nonexistent) notion of uniqueness. The proposed AVA may actually offer the potential for regional distinction. However, whether the vintners (small and large) of that area would actually MAKE wines that express that distinct character is another question. I defer to Dan Berger’s writings (see Appellation Ameirca) on that subject as I do not cover Napa.

Jane wrote:
09.08.07 at 9:56 AM

I believe I actually broke this story on winesandvines.com on Aug. 1. Rep. Thompson's communication to the TTB, and its response, are pretty telling.

Go to winesandvines.com and search AVAs, or try this link:
http://www.winesandvines.com/search/article.cfm?content=50018

Steve wrote:
09.08.07 at 4:52 PM

Good story, Alder, and kudos to Alan Goldfarb and Jane at W&V. It's an interesting twist on an old debate. I think it's likely TTB will go back to the tried and true system after a period of mulling it over. That's basic D.C.-CYA behavior. As for AVAs, like I've always said, the ultimate AVA is the winery itself. People don't understand you can be in a so-called great AVA and make lousy wine. Ultimately this little Calistoga tussle is all part of being in our capitalist system where everyone is looking for an edge over the competition. Let there be a million AVAs, who cares, it's not about appellation, it's about wine!

Alder wrote:
09.08.07 at 5:12 PM

Steve,

Thanks for the comments. Can you imagine, though, what the French would think of your argument of this stuff being about capitalism? For all the political and commercial aspects of AVA petitions and creation, the heart of the issue is terroir, which everyone thinks of as different, but which most experienced wine lovers would say actually has some basis in reality.

Here in the US we lack the several hundred years of winemaking tradition that make the boundaries of say, Chambolle-Musigny an accepted fact by most people. Yet we're looking for some way to codify the same sort of sense that the wines that come from C-M are different than those from Meursault, which makes some sense. Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley IS different from the stuff made in Mt. Harlan.

I'm totally with you on the winery being the real thing to care about, though. The greatest terroir in the world doesn't mean the people harvesting grapes there know how to make a good wine, or even make a wine capable of expressing what the place has to offer.

Jeff Butler wrote:
09.09.07 at 10:52 AM

The issue with "the winery being the thing to care about", Alder, is that wineries are fluid, too: winemakers come and go, properties change hands, etc. Think of the number of classed growth BDX chateaux that are punching either above their weight (i.e., the quality of their wine is not necessarily reflective of their classed growth status). A focus on terroir at least indicates the relative potential of an area. Let's think about the story from a couple of years ago where Franzia grafted over zin from the northern Central Valley, to PINOT (of all things). Even if I had never heard of Franzia/Charles Shaw, my awareness that the Central Valley is not conducive to good pinot would have prevented me from buying a bottle of pinot displaying that AVA.

Regards,

Jeff

Steve wrote:
09.09.07 at 11:17 AM

Yes, Jeff, but your awareness that Russian River Valley (for example) IS condusive to good Pinot would not assure you of buying a good bottle.

Jeff Butler wrote:
09.09.07 at 6:17 PM

Steve-

Your point is a good one. Of course, knowing that good pinot can- and is- grown in RRV is no guarantee of a good bottle from that region. For that matter, this statement can be applied to Burgundy itself (lord knows I've wasted good money on bad Burgs). However, a declaration of appellation is a useful tool for making wine buying decisions- I would not, for example, buy a Merlot form the Cote de Nuits (even if it were possible). Similarly, I probably wouldn't want to buy pinot from Amador, nor Cab from the west end of Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Rita Hills) where I live. It comes back to the old saying that you can make bad wine out of good grapes, but you can't make good wine out of bad grapes: everything starts in the vineyard, and, by extension, in the appellation.

Regards,

Jeff

Jeff Butler wrote:
09.09.07 at 7:27 PM

As an aside, Alder, congrats on the nice article in the NY Times- great write-up for you!

Regards,

jb

John Skupny wrote:
09.10.07 at 9:29 AM

Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate were both founded and created in the late 1990's. They should have known better as Calisotga has been a significant viticultural area that was surely going to be defined at some point.

The ATF [ne: TTB] had a grandfather clause that allowed wineries that contained AVA names to exist only if they predated 1986. Even this has been challenged via litigation [Napa Valley Vintners vs Bronco] that made it all the way to the California Supreme Court on two occasions, both times the court up-held the strengthening of the AVA via the use of the Napa Valley name. It is a truth in labeling issue as much as one of terrior etc.

A couple very honorable producers located in the proposed Calistoga AVA ceased using brand names that contained 'Calistoga' when the AVA was proposed to TTB. This should be the case with both Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate but obviously they predicated their wineries with the intent to trade on a name that had recognition and now they are crying foul.
I smell something fishy with TTB halting of the process, one can imagine grown men stamping their feet with threats of lawsuits… what a shame, Calistoga and the proud producers in that area deserve the rightful use of this AVA name.

It is not a perfect system, but what government-regulated system is!

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
09.10.07 at 5:17 PM

Here in Oregon we have, over the last several years, seen the willamette valley subdivided in to smaller AVA's. Though this process was quite political is was not the result of some evil empire at work but the work of dedicated growers who believed these different sub regions delivered unique wines.
As a winery that lies outside these new AVA's I have had one perisitent fear. Based on the comments above my fear has come to life.
Comparisons to burgundy are not totally appropreate for the simple reason that AVA' ARE NOT QUALITY DESIGNATIONS. It is not comparable to the Cru system. AVA's ARE TO BE INDICATIVE OF WINE STYLE and should be viewed in this light. Several posters above have gone beyond the purpose of the AVA systems and began associating wine quality with AVA designation.
In Oregon a Dundee Hills wine is not inherently better than a ribbon ridge wine but they are cetainly different. My fear has been that being a winery not included in one of the small sub appelations, the consumers ( like many readers above ) might automatically consider my wines as inferior. Care must be taken when discusing 'terrior' and AVA's and such. I might make wine that only qualifies as Willamette Valley but I will put it against any wine made in any AVA in Oregon. Just because a piece of ground falls into an AVA doesn't mean it is of greater quality than one that doesn't.
Remember these AVA's are only lines on a map. These lines were drawn by human beings that certainly had thier own self interests in mind. For the purposes of full disclosure, prior to the TTB suspension of the designation process, I was begining to organize an application to create another AVA in Oregon that would cover the East side of the Northern Coast Range.
I do beleive AVA's provide the consumer with valuable information, I only hope that people realize exactly what claims are being made.

09.10.07 at 8:58 PM

John Skupny's comments echo my own thoughts, which I could not say but only imply in my Wines & Vines piece. I believe it was disingenuous, at the very least, for those two businesses to adopt the Calistoga name. I personally wonder who got paid how much in D.C. to stop in its tracks a process that has worked well and fairly for decades. As the letter from the wine caucus stated very clearly, the AVA system is meant to inform the consumer. That one or two businesses desire to disrupt this process, and are somehow able to do so, makes me question the system.

Jeff Butler wrote:
09.10.07 at 9:14 PM

Jerry-

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I should have made my comparison to a region other than Burgundy; I definitely mixed my metaphors there. However, my broader sense is that style and quality reach a vanishing point somewhere. Certainly, there is a place for huge, extracted zins from Lodi; that place is just not in my mouth. As a result, the style of that AVA reflects on my qualitative, necessarily subjective, sense of the wines' quality. To come back to Burgundy, I do prefer Cote D'Or to Cote de Beaune; many others feel differently. While I would never suggest that Cote D'Or wines are objectively better, I appreciate being able to use my knowledge of these cru to in making decisions.

Regards,

Jeff

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
09.11.07 at 9:49 AM

Jeff,

I do see your point and some of the examples you presented are quite valid. Another thing the AVA system does not do is limit which varietals can be grown in a given AVA. Rutherford may be a great AVA for Cabernet but Pinot from the AVA would be another story. I think that this was your point, and I agree that this is the sort of conclusion that a consumer can fairly draw.
This is not the case here in Oregon, where each of these AVA's produce Pinot Noir of high quality but very different styles. Also I wanted to comment on the sense that these new, smaller, AVA's are producing wines of higher quality than growers and producers that only qualify for Willamette Valley status ( such as myself ). Again, I agree that AVA designations are meant to provide the consumer with useful information and that they can in fact do so; I just think we need to be clear about what an AVA designation really says about a wine and what it does not.
Also I think the smaller and more specific these AVA's become ( look for many of oregons new AVA's to be subdivided even further in years to come ) the less useful they will become to consumers in general. Hardcore Oregon Pinot fans on the other hand will love the intellectual challenge involved in understanding the differences.
Does anyone out there have any opinions/thoughts on how consumers really use these designations?

09.11.07 at 12:31 PM

Are AVAs about style or quality, or simply where the grapes mostly came from? Unlike a French appellation, there are no rules about what you can and can't grow, when you pick, and whether the resulting wine accurately reflects the style of the appellation. Francois Cotat ran into problems a few years back with Sancerre that couldn't be labelled Sancerre because the appellation tasting panel didn't think the wine was dry enough. Henri Goyard had a problem in the Macon because his wines had too much botrytis and residual sugar to be considered typcial of the appellation. The style of Lodi zins isn't a factor in the Lodi AVA. Rather, I think it's a market trend that fits the hot climate there (the SF Bay influence notwithstanding, it's hot in Lodi). It's true that regions like Lodi tend to reflect certain styles of winemaking and grapes, but again, it's not really an AVA thing. Is it?

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
09.11.07 at 6:18 PM

Vincent,

How are things? The driving force for arguing that an AVA is justified is that the wines from vineyards in that AVA have similarities. So yes to some extent I believe that AVA's are supposed to relate, to the consumer, that this wine will be of a general style. I would bet that you would acknowledge the difference between a Dundee Hills Pinot and one from the Yamhill Carlton District. However the only thing that can for certain be said about a wine being from an specific AVA is that it is from a certain geographical area. Though the wines are supposed to have some similarity, we both know that the winemaker has a tremendous impact on wine style. I think this is what you were eluding to.
If we are to believe 'the hype' about 'terrior' or, as I prefer, 'a sense of place' then the geography/geology of where the wine comes from SHOULD have a significant impact on wine style ( the old you can't fit a square peg in a round hole argument ). Are you questioning the existance of 'terrior' or suggesting that winemakers are the primary influence in wine style? Or are you suggesting that AVA's are arbitrary lines drawn on maps and are essentially meaningless marketing rubbish? If so you might be onto something. Another thing to consider is this; if given the choice would the french ( or other european producers ) still allow governments tell them when to pick, how much crop to have, which varietals to plant, etc? Would they, by choosing not to be so tightly regulated, blur the lines of 'terrior' ( sense of place )? In your example above; could you make a Lodi Zin taste like a Dry Creek Zin? Certainly both could be made in the come lately over the top style but would they be the same? More importantly COULD they be the same? I argue that wine style starts in the vineyard, the winemaker can manipulate the wine but the wine will only yield so far. This is why Burgundy is only grown in burgundy ( for better or for worse ) and Napa Cab comes from Napa. If place had no impact on wine style then only varietal ( or even producer ) would matter.

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