“Napa Valley” and “Russian River Valley” Dont’ Matter

Due to working with a number of different wineries over the past year that have their vineyards in lesser known areas, I’ve had the chance to think about California’s system of identifying viticultural regions or, as they are formally known, American Viticultural Areas. This work has led me to ask some questions.

What the hell does the “Sonoma Coast” American Viticultural Area mean?I think it pretty much has the same meaning as “Russian River Valley”, “Carneros”, “North Coast” and “Napa Valley”: very, very little.

These huge AVAs have little in common when you compare their northern and southern extremes, making them little more than hat racks: something upon which a winery can hang their marketing hat.

The idea of the American Viticultural Area was developed in the late 1970s when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms begin approving them at a rate exactly identical to the rate at which marketing pros could think them up. Which leads to the questions: what are they worth and what do they mean.

I think we can safely say that AVAs have nothing to do with the character or quality of a wine that originates from them. Is there any real and consistent distinguishing feature of the Pinot Noirs that are made from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley? Hardly. If we can’t identify a Russian River Valley Pinot from its character, then what is the value of putting “Russian River Valley” on its label? This brings us to what is the value of an AVA.

Marketing. For the small and medium-sized wineries, AVA has been the primary marketing tool over the past 20 years. The number of clients’ wines I’ve helped tout based on the AVA in which they were made is in the hundreds, perhaps thousands:

“The Dry Creek AVA is defined by the cool breezes and consistent fog cover that invades the region throughout the growing season, providing the grapes with the opportunity to ripen slowly over the course of the season and deliver the full, complex flavors for which wines of this region are so famous.”

Notice that there is no mention of the character, flavor profile, or structure for which the Dry Creek Valley’s wines may be know. And for good reason, this outline of land that has been created for marketing purposes does not lend any consistent character, flavor profile or structure to the grapes that are grown there. It’s too big, it’s too varied in it’s terroir and the winemakers of the region toil under no expectations for meeting any “Dry Creek model.” Nevertheless, the vast majority of AVAs in California have become affective marketing tools because some much time, effort and money has been devoted to the notion that there is something about an AVA that can be found in the wine. It’s rarely true.

Happily, there are a few AVAs in California that are showing the potential to have meaning when they appear on a bottle. The Anderson Valley is quickly become a region from which elegant, light to medium structured, slightly more acidic and spice-laden Pinot Noirs are born. Green Valley, inside the Russian River Valley, is almost completely given over to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the exception of a few old vine Zin vineyards. Atlas Peak, overlooking southern Napa Valley, is an AVA that is highly influenced by its elevation, winds, demonstrably cooler climate and thin soils.

Yet the exceptions to the rule don’t negate the fact that most California AVAs will continue to be flogged as something of meaning when in fact most are mainly spots on the map that wine lovers identify as places they can go wine tasting. The reaction to this reality is being seen by the many winemakers and winery owners who are more and more choosing vineyard designations as the defining element of their wines’ character. This trend will continue unabated. Simultaneously, you can expect winemakers and marketers to acknowledge the uselessness of the AVA as they make the case that blended wines made from grapes taken from here or there give them the most freedom in crafting something interesting and unique.

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