What’s In a Name? The AVA Creation Process 2.0

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many e-mails asking me to specifically write about a certain topic here on Vinography. In the past few weeks I’ve gotten a raft of requests to address the issue that we may refer to in the future as Calistogate 2007.

Regular readers may remember the news that the government indefinitely suspended the process by which new AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) were created. They did this because of a quagmire surrounding the imminent approval of a new AVA in the Napa Valley covering the Calistoga area. The idea being that Calistoga would become the 15th distinct sub-region of the Napa Valley for growing grapes, joining the better known names such as Rutherford, Stag’s Leap, and St. Helena.

The process of approving a new AVA is a bit like getting elected to public office. The results do not always reflect which candidate is best for the job. The concept of an AVA, like that of any appellation, is founded in the idea that it represents a region whose environmental characteristics, and their influence on the wine produced in the area, are distinct from those around it. This is straightforward enough. Where things get tricky is the fact that AVAs are like hybrid car engines. Once someone has one, everyone wants one, because if you’ve got one, you can sell more wine.

The dirty little secret about AVAs is that they make wineries more money. On the flip side, however, the truth about AVAs is that in some cases they truly do describe a significant regional character to their wines.

The world, as it turns out, is not black and white.

Which brings us back to Calistogate 2007. The Calistoga AVA approval process hit a little snag earlier in the year when the government realized that it would have to deal with the fact that there was a winery named Calistoga Cellars that didn’t actually make wine from Calistoga. This issue of brand names conflicting with geographical designations is a thorny one, and it apparently was so controversial that it brought the revision of the laws around these designations to a screeching halt earlier in the year. Especially since such things tend to make many people’s blood boil in the wine industry. Place names are very sacred cows.

The Tobacco Trade Bureau, or TTB, which oversees this process as part of the US Department of Treasury recently released its new and improved proposals for how to handle the issue represented by Calistoga Cellars, as well as all future such conflicts. Not surprisingly, as is always the case when Government has to decide something, there are a lot of unhappy people out there. Perhaps none more so than the Napa Valley Vintners association, whose members were chiefly responsible for the petition to create the Calistoga AVA in the first place, and who do not count Calistoga Cellars among their members.

The government’s solution is a typical hedge. Folks that have been using a name for several decades are grandfathered in without the need to change the name of their winery just because there is a new geographical designation that exists of the same name. More recently established wineries are allowed to use the name, provided they offer a statement on their label that “sufficiently dispels the impression that the geographic area suggested by the brand name is indicative of the origin of the wine.”

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards spent some time on his blog recently describing why he thinks this is an issue. Essentially it leaves open the possibility for someone to create a wine called “Rutherford Gold*” with a tiny little statement somewhere on the label that reads “oh, by the way, this wine ain’t really made in Rutherford.” Which is sort of sneaky and not really a good idea.

In the true governmental tradition, however, it’s not really the main issue addressed by the legislation that presents the greatest problem. In the case of the recent TTB proposal, there is some additional language that is far more worrying, which would completely change the way that AVAs work in America.

This language suggests that in cases where an AVA is completely contained by another one (think Paso Robles inside the Central Coast, or the Russian River Valley inside Sonoma County) wine made in the inner AVA would not be able to carry the name of the outer AVA.

Which means, as far as I understand it, that you could have a Stag’s Leap Cabernet that wasn’t allowed to be labeled as coming from the Napa Valley.

Which is just plain stupid, and about what you’d expect from Washington politicians these days.

It’s hard sometimes to know what to think about all this naming of appellations, and the fierce protectionism of geographical origins. I tend to have a certain amount of ambivalence about the whole thing. Is Calistoga Cellars really hurting anyone? On the other hand, it’s a good thing for consumers to know where their wine comes from, and to not have a false impression of its origin drive their purchase decision.

I can’t help feeling like the whole problem with this issue is that the government is involved in the first place. Why can’t we set up a body of independent, non-partisan, tee-totaling scientists who can spend all their time figuring out which regions of the world really are distinct from a climate and geologic perspective and draw the lines according to empirical data? I guess that’s like hoping we could agree on whether or not to teach evolution in our schools.

I encourage you to read more on this subject from Tom Wark at Fermentation.