Promote Viticultural Authenticity: You Can Do it!!
For some time now a controversy has been brewing over the system of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley…these are all AVAs, geographically delineated areas created/approved by the Federal Government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that in theory possess unique climate and geologic aspects affecting grape growing. AVAs are akin to Europe’s well-established appellation system. Unlike in Europe, America’s AVA’s do not come with rules on what grapes can be grown, how they can be processed into wine, etc. However, in order to put the "Sonoma Valley" AVA on your bottle of wine, 85% of the grapes that went into the making of that wine must have come from the the AVA on the label.
In theory (one uses that phrase a lot when discussing AVAs) the unique climatic and and geological elements of an approved AVA are supposed to impart something unique to the wines that are produce with grapes grown within that AVA. Why else would there be a reason to identify a particular area? However, when proposals for AVA’s are submitted to the TTB for approval, exactly what the unique character of wines produced from the proposed AVA are supposed to be really plays no role in whether the TTB approves that AVA. The question is only, does the proposed delineated area have unique natural characteristics that apply to the entire area inside the boundaries.
One could make a case that the Russian River Valley AVA in Sonoma County does indeed possess unique climatic and geologic characteristics throughout it’s vast area. The Russian River Valley AVA encompasses 126,000 acres. However, a much better case could be made that smaller areas within the Russian River Valley AVA possess even more precise and consistent climatic and geologic characteristics that are in fact quite different from other areas inside the larger Russian River Valley AVA. It’s this fact, one that can be applied to nearly every other medium to large AVA in America that has resulted in the brewing AVA controversy.
Last week the TTB addressed this controversy by discussing it and making suggestions for the future of AVA granting. Rich Cartiere of the Wine Market Report(subscription) has done a great job of outlining the substance and significance of the TTB’s Report. What’s troubling is the way the TTB understands the issue of "preciseness". Consider this statement from the TTB’s report:
"with reference to the boundary description and the geographical features criteria, a change in an existing AVA boundary, or the adoption of a new AVA within an existing AVA,could suggest that the original boundary was improperly drawn or that there is no unity or consistency in the features of the existing AVA that give it a unique and distinctive identity in a viticultural sense."
What they are acknowledging is that proposals for AVAs within AVAs (such as the Green Valley appellation within the Russian River Valley AVA) suggest that the larger AVA is not the climatically and geographically or geologically consistent area its approved status suggests its is.
Their proposed response to this "problem" is to let future petitioners for new AVAs inside established AVA’s know they "should be expected to dispel any apparent inconsistency or to explain why it is acceptable"
My guess is future petitioners will go with "explain why it is acceptable" since dispelling "any apparent inconsistency" would remove any good reason for having the new AVA if it’s climatic and geological features are consistent with the larger AVA’s.
The concern of the TTB is that AVA’s inside AVAs "might draw into question the accuracy and validity" of the larger AVA or even the entire AVA system as currently conceived.
The unique problem the TTB faces in trying to address the issue of what an AVA is comes from the fact that they apparently want to keep AVA’s as a marketing tool while more and more winemakers want to use AVAs as legitimate tools for discerning differences among growing regions.
Yes, AVA’s are marketing tools primarily. If they were genuine tools for identifying unique and homogeneous areas for grape growing you would not see so many huge AVAs that simple do not encompass homogeneous climatic and geologic features. Consider the original rational that was given by the government for the creation of AVAs:
"The establishment of viticultural areas and the subsequent use
of viticultural area names as appellations of origin in wine labeling
and advertising will help consumers better identify the wines they may
purchase, and will help winemakers distinguish their products from
wines made in other areas."
"Help Consumers" and "Distinguish Their Products" are marketing goals.
Yet back when this description of AVAs was created in 1986 vintners and growers were just beginning to really notice the differences among growing areas that often resulted in grapes from particular areas having distinct character. They were just beginning to really appreciate terroir. Today, that recognition is at the heart of every growers mindset. Growers and artisan winemakers need tools to communicate the very specific differences among terroirs. Most AVAs just aren’t the right tool. They are too big, too clumsy, and too general.
One response to this has been petitioning the TTB for AVAs within AVAs. Again, Green Valley, a much smaller tract of land located in the southern reaches of the Russian River Valley where the fog first hits and is the last to recede is a good example. Atlas Peak, a mountainous area inside the Napa Valley AVA where the winds and diurnal temperatures distinguish it from the much warmer Napa Valley floor is another good example.
But the existence of these and other sub-AVAs are consistent reminders of the problems with the larger AVAs within which they exist: They make little real sense.
Another response to the uselessness of large AVAs to distinguish real climatic and geologic reality is the increased use of Vineyard Designation on labels. By identifying the specific vineyard from which grapes came, a winemaker is in affect saying, "what’s unique about the grapes that went into this wine is not the character of the appellation we have on the label, but the climatic and geologic character of the vineyard we’ve identified on the label.
In the end, if the TTB is most concerned with retaining the marketing value of existing AVAs, then it should discourage the creation of smaller and, ironically, more consumer-friend sub-AVAs. And this seems exactly to me what they are concerned with. Otherwise they would not point with trepidation to the fact that "the adoption of a new AVA within an existing
AVA,could suggest that the original boundary was improperly drawn or
that there is no unity or consistency in the features of the existing
AVA that give it a unique and distinctive identity in a viticultural
They state this as though it is a problem; that noticing the lack of climatic, geological and geographical unity within so many of the existing AVAs isn’t a good thing. Well, it’s not a good thing if your concern is retaining the marketing value of existing AVAs.
However, if your concern is doing a good job of identifying authentically unique grape growing areas that, due to their specific combination of climate and soil have a unique effect on grapes grown in them, then you’d want to encourage MORE sub-AVAs.
A message to the TTB: YOU CAN DO IT. YOU CAN CAN HELP PROMOTE VITICULTURAL AUTHENTICITY.