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.



28 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - November 26, 2007

    Vast appellations that have no reason to exist other than marketing occur all over the winemaking world. In 1999 the French government approved a new “Vin de Pays de Mediterranee,” an area that encompasses the Rhone Valley, Provence and the island of Corsica. Talk about dizzying diversity of soils, terroirs, climates and so on! I think this is the first appellation that includes an off-shore component. The point is, such a huge “official” winemaking region is ludicrous, like South Australia or North Coast.

  2. ian - November 26, 2007

    there are appellations within appellations (and appellations within appellations within appellations) all across Europe.. not sure what the TTB’s problem is

  3. Tish - November 26, 2007

    Average American eyes glaze over when hearing about American AVAs just as they do with European AOCs, DOCs, etc.

  4. Tom Wark - November 26, 2007

    Exactly…However, that looks at the issue from a marketing perspective. Is there any reason to think that we should have expectation that the AVA system has any meaning beyond marketing?

  5. mark bunter - November 26, 2007

    Tom- That’s a well written story. I think that AVAs, even large ones, are useful because they do help consumers make distinctions and decisions. If I can get a Sonoma wine for the same price as a California wine, my experience has been that the Sonoma wine is usually better. Climate has a lot to do with wine quality. Unless and until there is some qualifying body that actually evaluates quality, however, there is no assurance that AVAs correlate with value or quality. When all the variables of growing and winemaking are basically unregulated, the term “terroir” is a big joke. To wit: poorly grown or vinified Napa wine is as bad as anything Lodi or Fresno ever produced, at three times the price. Also, the explosion of “dry” wines, from all AVAs, that aren’t, and red wines, from all AVAs, that have never seen a barrel, and taste like it, shows how cynical winemaking trumps any geographic influence. Brands are the only meaningful concept these days. They are much more reliable as predictors of style or quality than AVAs. I figure that as long as my fellow Americans are willing to drink sweet crap, things will never change. In a way that’s good, because it creates demand for the production of wineries whose product has more intention and concern for quality behind the winemaking. Until, that is, the brand owners sell out, like Robert Mondavi or Ravenswood or Bonny Doon or Estancia or countless others have done. Of course selling out is their right, but it catches their customers unaware. AVAs without quality regulation are almost pointless. At most, they help, along with regulated label wording, a customer choose within a brand. Caveat emptor is the byword these days.

  6. Thomas - November 26, 2007

    “AVAs without quality regulation are almost pointless.”
    I would amend Mark’s above quote by removing the word “almost.”
    Without quality parameters who cares about AVA? (And as Tish said, most Americans don’t.)
    TTB will likely get it wrong–again. I wonder if the Treasury Dept (that’s where TTB is) has even one winemaker in a position as decision maker???

  7. Tom Wark - November 26, 2007

    I think you can make the argument that an AVA without quality or production requirements can and do have meaning. However, that meaning must be sought out.
    For example, you can have certain expectations about wines made from grapes grown in Green Valley or on Howell Mountain or on Atlas Peak. But yes, you need to educate yourself. The question is whether or not the climatic and geologic distinctions that make up an AVA are what is at issue here. Unless you are advocating for smaller AVAS, whether inside or out established AVAs, then then you are advocating a marketing tool rather than an educational tool.

  8. Blackbird - November 26, 2007

    Something akin to Grand Crus or First Growths (which would be updated more frequently than they do in Bordeaux)is the only reliable index of quality. This usually means vineyards, sometimes wine making (John Alban, for example, regardless of where he sources his grapes, can’t make anything but a spectacular Rhone). Sometimes both (Paul Hobbs Pinot from the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros I think sells for something like $150 as compared to the BV Carneros for $18). Which is why Tom’s piece is on the mark.
    That said, it is probably valid too that collectively Russian River Pinots (and Chards) are superior to their counterparts grown in Los Carneros, so larger AVAs have some validity, even if this is due to winemaking and not terroir.

  9. Chris Riney - November 26, 2007

    Comparing US AVA’s to European VA’s is like comparing apples and onions.
    In Europe, the winery is also usually required to be in the VA. In the US the winery only has to be in the State where the AVA is defined.
    So technically someone in San Diego could produce a Lodi AVA designated wine.

  10. Thomas - November 26, 2007

    Quality also means growing grapes where they belong. For instance, Riesling allowed in a Southern California AVA gives little credence either to Riesling, which is a cool climate grape, or to the AVA, which is quite warm.
    TTB doesn’t concern itself with such matters and, to me, that’s what’s wrong with our AVA system.

  11. Tom Wark - November 26, 2007

    “Quality also means growing grapes where they belong. For instance, Riesling allowed in a Southern California AVA gives little credence either to Riesling, which is a cool climate grape, or to the AVA, which is quite warm. TTB doesn’t concern itself with such matters and, to me, that’s what’s wrong with our AVA system”
    This is where it gets very interesting and very “American”. I’d argue that all that is required for an authentic, reliable and useful AVA system is for AVAs to actually refer to some relatively consistent and specific climatic and geological characteristics. The rest will shake itself out. Expectations by the consumer will lead to whether or not Southern CA riesling is a good thing, just as consumer expectations will determine if Atlas Peak Syrah is a good thing.
    The AVA system, when done right, really need not address quality. That’s a fairly subjective matter. It need only identify something about a specific area.
    America will never have a Euro AVA system where quality producers or vineyards are officially singled out. There will never be requirements that certain varieties be used to put “Russian River Valley” on the label. Nor will any particular growing or producing techniques specific to an AVA be instituted. Acceptance for that kind of dictate just isn’t in the American soul. However, categories of natural phenomena in particular areas works just fine for the American soul.

  12. Wine Scamp - November 26, 2007

    I think too many small AVAs can be really bewildering for consumers.
    Sonoma may be too large to have “unity or consistency… in a viticultural sense,” but if AVAs get too small (and thus by definition better defined), you risk beating the consumer away by dint of requiring too much education to make sense of the regulations designed to ease the buying decision in the first place.
    Precision is certainly to be lauded, but Keeping It Simple is a core tenet of marketing, isn’t it?

  13. Tom Wark - November 26, 2007

    If a particular winery was concerned that a smaller, lesser know AVA might confuse their customers they are certainly at liberty to place an appellation on their label that is larger and better know and also encompasses the smaller (more confusing and lesser known) appellation where their grapes actually came from.
    In this way you have both the option of specificity as well as the option to use that specificity; you have marketing concerns taken care of as well as the chance to be authentic in your labeling.

  14. Thomas - November 27, 2007

    I’m trying desperately to understand how knowing the weather gives the consumer any more information than knowing the weather. They have to know what the weather means to the wine, and you haven’t persuaded me to see your point in that regard.
    As to quality: once parameters are set and agreed upon, it loses its subjective cloak. But I agree with you, without parameters, quality is as useless as the AVA.

  15. Tom Wark - November 27, 2007

    “Tom, I’m trying desperately to understand how knowing the weather gives the consumer any more information than knowing the weather. They have to know what the weather means to the wine, and you haven’t persuaded me to see your point in that regard. As to quality: once parameters are set and agreed upon, it loses its subjective cloak. But I agree with you, without parameters, quality is as useless as the AVA.”
    You’ve got two chardonnays in front of your. Both Still wines. One carries the “Anderson Valley” appellation. The other carries the “temecula” appellation. I’d guess given your background and knowledge, you could make some good, sound fundamental assumptions about the wines without tasting them.
    It’s not the job of the AVA system to make sure all consumers know the implications of every AVA; only that the AVA are drawn in such as way that if a curious consumer wanted to investigate, the characteristics of the AVA had the strong potential to impart information.

  16. Fredric Koeppel - November 27, 2007

    Mark, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Bonny Doon “sold out.” Randall Grahm did sell two of his very successful brands (Cardinal Zin and Big House) and cut production drastically so he could concentrate on making wine from his own vineyards, which are now certified biodynamic. That’s hardly betraying his principles.

  17. Thomas - November 27, 2007

    Historically, European designations began as indications of quality and controls. The grapes that grow in a specific designation were agreed upon by govt and producers, based on a combination of location and tradition; the general order of importance of each variety was established; harvest parameters were established (tonnage, too); even winemaking processes were sometimes spelled out. Marketing the specific designations followed rather than led the system that set up quality parameters.
    The American system has no quality parameters–it’s just the weather and the topography. Two producers in the same AVA can grow whatever grapes they please and they can crop as densely or as sparsely as they please. What does knowing the AVA offer the consumer about the separate wines of those two producers?
    Marketing appears to lead in the AVA system, and I am not sure the govt should be a marketing arm for the wine industry.

  18. Thomas - November 27, 2007

    “You’ve got two chardonnays in front of your. Both Still wines. One carries the “Anderson Valley” appellation. The other carries the “temecula” appellation. I’d guess given your background and knowledge, you could make some good, sound fundamental assumptions about the wines without tasting them.”
    Perhaps, but I would be dead wrong about one or the other if one Chardonnay is barreled and buttered to death and the other is not.
    But if I knew the growing, harvesting, and winemaking parameters specific to each AVA I’d have a better shot at it.
    Without a set of parameters over the process, only thing the AVA hints at is potential. I guess that’s something, but it isn’t much to get worked up over.

  19. Mark Koppen - November 27, 2007

    I was at a trade dinner last night, and while trying as a group to select interesting Burgundy and Rhone wines for our dinner, three things always came up – appellation, vintage and producer. I think you will never get the full picture of the quality of a wine from just the appellation, no matter where it is produced. The real key will always be who is making the wine – are they a quality producer? Now we all may say DUH to that, but wine consumers sometime do put too much faith in appellation, lacking other information, especially if they’re not very experienced.
    That being said, I do believe that appellations do offer SOME beginning indication of quality, or at least authenticity for the source of the grapes, and therefore have some amount of indicative value for wine consumers – it’s just that it will never be the whole picture. Sometimes consumers have to learn that the hard way, which is unfortunate. But I think that is more desirable than a more regulated system of “quality” controls that leads in a direction of the too highly regulated French model.

  20. Thomas - November 27, 2007

    The “too highly regulated” French model is actually the Portuguese model and then there’s the German model and the Spanish model and, finally, after years of infighting, the Italian model. The models worked well into the 20th century, until the upstart New World changed the focus. Now, all those models are falling by the wayside slowly, but falling.
    In my view, if we are going to produce wine a la “Wild West” the AVA is an intrusion not an advancement.
    Tom’s question to me about those two Chardonnays would be relevant if two things existed: the grapes are grown and harvested under an agreed upon standard, and the winemaking is area specific. Other than that, I just don’t see what AVA does for consumers beyond tell them that “grapes grow here”–so long as it isn’t the arctic or the tropics, grapes grow all over the place!

  21. mark bunter - November 27, 2007

    I don’t know RG, so his motivation is beyond speculation. “Selling out” I mean to be construed literally, not as a moral judgement. My real gripe with BD is that their red wines seem banal, veggy, or unfinished, and they have sent me recently a very very bad bottle of rose. (BD is the only wine club we’ve joined, because the wines were interesting when we visited). There’s selling out in the cashing out sense and then there’s selling out in the cheap winemaking sense. As for biodynamic, it’s a marketing hook if you ask me. Yes, it’s better for the planet, but it doesn’t in itself improve wine quality any more than dry farming does. And I feel sorry for all those cows who had their horns ripped off in the prime of life, just so someone can put a word onto a wine label. Imagine never being horny again forever. Of course, that would save us a lot of moola, wouldn’t it?

  22. Mark Koppen - November 27, 2007

    Hi Thomas –
    I think appellation tells consumers a bit more than you’re indicating here, even if it is far from complete or perfect.
    Re more regulation of appellation, to me it is just not the “American way” of doing things – even if a good model could be found and agreed upon, no one would stand for it at this point in history, and who wants more government involvement in this area? Not me —
    So I think we have to live with what we have – far from perfect, but it goes back to Tom’s original point of being as specific as possible with our appellations in the U.S. It would be a step in the right direction.

  23. Chris Riney - November 27, 2007

    As a Grower, I’m glad the government doesn’t restrict what grapes I grow at the location that I’m at. As I, and the state Viticulture support team, have no idea what will grow best at my location at this time, even thought grapes have been grown in the area for close to 100 years.
    I’m in what some would call a Mediterranean environment, but Riesling has grown decently for 20 years with it’s own flavor profile. Cabernet Sauvignion on the other hand has exhibited a wimpy profile most years. I’m starting to put in a few test rows of Mediterranean Spanish and Italian variatials to see how they handle the summers here. The issue with Riesling in warmer areas is that it wants to start growing at the slightest hint of warm weather in the spring, but it is no more cold hardy than Cabernet Sauvignion.
    The AVA just indicates where the grapes where grown, not where the wine was made. An AVA is suppose to describe or represent items like climate and soil. The soil, more than the climate has a consistent impact on the flavor components of the grapes. The climate has a major impact on which grapes can survive. I have no problem with sub-AVA’s as long as there is a sufficient distinction of the sub area, other than geo-political boundaries.
    The (American) wine maker can exist in another area and either screw it up royally or produce something extra fine.
    The wine maker and grower, in my opinion, need to decide which explicit AVA they wish to market any particular wine as being from (including vineyard designation), and not be inclusive of all possible AVA’s.
    I’m also fortunate to have not been included in the most recent AVA created in my state, as it covers about 80% to much area.

  24. Chris Riney - November 27, 2007

    There are some things that listing an AVA on a label allows a wine maker to add to the label that they other wise might not be able to.
    * Grape variety.
    * Estate designation.
    * Vintage.
    Some of these are allowed with county (or local equivalent), State name, or “American” as the defacto VA designation.

  25. Fredric Koeppel - November 28, 2007

    Mark…. I too think that Randall’s faith in biodynamics is misplaced; I’m a thorough skeptic on that issue. (And where do those horms come from?) I was just pointing out that he had a particular focus in mind when he sold Cardinal Zin and Big House. As for the BD wines I’ve tried in the past four or five months, I guess I had better luck than you did, though I think the rose is the weak link.

  26. Thomas - November 28, 2007

    Mark Koppen,
    Seems to me the points you make are exactly the points I make–the AVA doesn’t seem to do much for the consumer, but it certainly does a lot for marketing.
    I’m neither for nor against stringent regulations as a given..that should be an industry/government deal. But I certainly don’t think a meaningless regulation is worthwhile. As a wine consumer, I can clearly see that the AVA system isn’t anything worth fighting to keep.
    If I were a wine marketer, however, I’d be fighting to the death to keep it as it is–seemingly classy enough to sound like a real benefit to the consumer.

  27. Mark Koppen - November 28, 2007

    I guess we can agree to disagree here – strictly as a wine consumer, I would still want to know, as a starting point, where the grapes in the bottle came from (as well as vintage, varietal, producer), so the more specific we can be with AVAs, the better as far as I’m concerned.

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