Gimme MORE, MORE, MORE Appellations in America

I love American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). They help make a PR Guy like me busy.

That’s why my heart was wounded when the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Treasury Department, the agency that approves and regulates AVAs, announced a few weeks ago that they were suspending all new approvals or consideration of new AVAs…pending some sort of review of the process

I’ve been wanting to write about this wound to my heart for some time but have been waiting for the right moment and the right inspiration. I got that today in thinking about the French appellation system and after reading Alan Goldfarb’s article and interview at Appellation America about the TTB’s recent decision.

The implications of re-evaluating the AVA system are vast. Goldfarb sums it all up nicely when he writes:

"There are concerns as it applies to domestic as well as to worldwide
commerce and also pertaining to the viticultural significance of wine
grape growing areas. There are serious implications for geographically
named wineries and brands. Overriding it all is the very meaning and
future of AVAs in this country.

What conclusions will TTB make after it opens
yet-to-be-announced public hearings on the matter? Will there be
drastic changes? Will the broken AVA system – which some say is being
used merely as a marketing tool as opposed to the delineation of real
climatic and soil distinctions – continue to exist as we know it?"

I really wish the Treasury Department and TTB would just consent to leave the whole matter in my own personal hands as I could easily clarify the meaning of AVAs in America. In fact, let me save them some time and money right now.

1. FACT: The specific soils and climate of a well defined area has an impact on the character of wines made from the grapes grown in these specific "terroirs". The soil and climate won’t dictate the character of the wine, but it will have a consistent and identifiable impact on it. If you don’t believe this, ask yourself why they don’t make Cabernet Sauvignon in Germany.

2. An AVA, to have any meaning at all outside that which marketers and PR folks like me give it, must identify areas of consistent soil and climatic characteristics.

3. It is much easier to identify areas of consistent soils and climate when you are talking about much smaller geographic regions. In other words, 500 contiguous acres are more likely to have consistent soils and climate than 40,000 contiguous acres.

THEREFORE, it should be the mission of the TTB to encourage the creation of many more much smaller AVAs and sub-AVAs. We need more Green Valleys, Rutherfords, Mt. Veeders and Atlas Peaks.

THEREFORE, a winery’s brand name should be allowed to include the name of the AVA if it makes 90% of its wine from grapes grown in that AVA

THEREFORE, Any winery that has a placename in its brand name that is then later used as the name of a new AVA should be allowed to keep that brand name and not be forced to make 90% of its wine from that AVA: They were there first.

Up to this point the vast majority of AVAs have had very little to do with consistent soil and climatic factors except in the most meaningless of ways. As a result, these bigger, meaningless AVAs have become simple marketing tools that form the raison d’etre of local "regional associations" such as the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, the Napa Valley Vintners and the Carneros Quality Alliance.

Does anyone really believe that the climates of the southwestern and northeastern regions of the Russian River Valley really have much in common with each other? Or course not. All you have to do is observe where the fog comes in first and stays longest to figure that out. And what about the soils of the Russian River Valley. The RRV Winegrowers own website puts to rest any notion that there is anything consistent in this vast AVA’s soils when they write on their website: "Each of the various soil types has a sometimes subtle, sometimes profound effect on the grapes growing upon them."

There will be those that will object to the notion of creating more sub-AVAs inside larger AVAs and to the idea of creating more and more AVAs altogether. The argument is that we’ll just confuse the consumer even more.

I’ll grant them that.

It will be more confusing to have more and smaller AVAs inside larger AVAs running amok on the maps. The problem is that anything less is just a license to hoodwink the consumer by continuing to push the idea that the terms "Napa Valley" or "Sonoma Valley" or "Carneros" or "Russian River Valley" have any meaning whatsoever when it comes communicating what’s in the bottle that carries those AVAs on their labels.

My hope is that the TTB will be grateful I’ve cleared all this up for them and saved them the time of holding costly hearings. I’m not holding my breath.

Anyone who wants more insight into this very important issue should read Alan Goldfarb’s Appellation America piece. It lays out the issue wonderfully.

10 Responses

  1. Tish - September 4, 2007

    Tom, your passion is obvious and your logic reasonable, except for one glaring catch. Appellations and freedom do not make a good recipe for regional reliability.
    In other words, boundaries are nice for our sense of order, but as long as the people making grapes in those areas have complete freedom as to what they grow, how they grow it, when they pick it and how they make it, all you really have in the end is POTENTIAL identity for a given AVA.
    The ugly beauty of the French system is that when grapes and methodology are approached communally, a degree of consistency is built in. That’s why Sancerre tastes like Sancerre, and tastes different from other French Sauvignon Blancs. THe impact of terroir is significantly muted in (New World) regions where varied vintners take varied approaches to the land. This doesn’t mean we can’t find meaningful appellaitons in New World countries — Marlborough New Zealand Sauv Blanc is the best example I can think of — but as long as the laissez-faire of vintners is a fact of life, a mojority of American AVAs are going to have difficulty establishing the sense of place that Europeans have for a looooong time.

  2. Tom Wark - September 4, 2007

    Which is exactly why real appellations need to be small. I’d argue that even with the freedom winemakers have here in the U.S., there is a thread that runs through Green Valley Chardonnay. There is a firm edge to Atlas Peak Cabernet,etc. That said, I’m sure you noticed the caveat I left in describing what a well-defined region can offer.
    As for Sancerre, we should be clear that it tastes like Sancerre despite the terroir of Sancerre. Could you still have a sense of sancerre if growers and winemakers in Sancerre were allowed to trellis their vines in any way they want. I think perhaps so. Plus, you have the added benefit of freedom and the potential for a winemaker to be entreprenurial.

  3. Anneliese - September 4, 2007

    I’d even argue for a dividing line down Highway 101 to separate the west side from the east side. I’m a west side gal.
    I’d elaborate, only I haven’t the vocabulary to state my case – just a taste for the difference. 😛

  4. Ron - September 5, 2007

    Ok! This deeeeeeppp converstaion really hurt my vines. Off to find that Charles Shaw wine that says Napa on it but is really from…….At least it will make my head feel better! This topic will find its way into a court of law where a lawyer will decide what is fair and devided evenly…….Scary… Great Blog!!!!

  5. MS - September 5, 2007

    Villa Niederberger makes a Cabernet. In Germany. Receives good ratings.
    Just sayin

  6. JohnLopresti - September 5, 2007

    The Goldfarb interviews are a valuable into the cryogenic effect of the regulator with respect to AVAs. subAVAs seem like a free and open way to state our unique American view of grower freedoms without getting into the clash of titans that keeps French and other labels stratified and formal, although those countries state more with their labels than most US labels attempt to do. The back label in the US is getting to be information, in the management of some enologists and viticulturists here. Sometimes I wish northcoast growers could develop a list of viticultural conditions like the tasting score Amerine invented for organoleptic analysis of wine sensory values; without giving away all the secrets of proprietary food science unique to the best wineries. A viticultural composite numerical score could mean something, and help educate palates of buyers who actually read about the contents; and websites could supplement the numeric score printed on the label by listing the subcategories, each with its own numeric weight, and the formula to arrive at the score. The slowdown in granting new AVAs clearly benefits the folks trucking around 1,000s of gallons of out of region blending material. SubAVAs are an easy accessible way to keep the freedom in labeling. It is nice to see the Goldfarb’s interviewees working toward ending the fictitious parts of some jugwine manufacturer labeling. The technology has changed in these past thirty years.

  7. Dan Cochran - September 6, 2007

    For the most avid oenophiles, this must be an upsetting development, but for more casual wine fans like me, this is a tempest in a teapot. I can’t keep up with the huge number of existing appellations as it is, let alone keep track of the new ones.

  8. Brad Asmus - September 6, 2007

    How refreshing it would be if a government agency took the same kind of common sense approach you lay out. But then we probably wouldn’t have the jumbo, collosal and super collosal olives.

  9. genevieve - September 7, 2007

    When you’re talking in the context of people who search out wine blogs – more AVA’s are better. Then you can really get a feel for what the wine will be like before you lay out the cash. But at the Supermarket most consumers don’t know the difference between Napa and Sonoma never mind Green Valley, Chalk Hill or Rockpile.

  10. Nicole - November 9, 2007

    Good site! I’ll stay reading! Keep improving!

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