Celebrating The Best Defined Wine Growing Region in California

AVPNFOne of the criticisms of the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system (our appellation system) in the U.S. is that it imposes so few rules on the use of a place-name that buyers can have few expectations of what they will be tasting when they buy a bottle of wine with “Russian River Valley”, “Sonoma Coast”, “Dry Creek Valley” or any other AVA on the label. Beyond requiring that a certain percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from a given AVA in order to place that AVA on a label, there are few other requirements to place an AVA on the label.

While in many cases if one understands the climatic and soil characteristics of an AVA something then can be assumed about wines that carry a particular AVA on the label, the noted criticism above is valid. This is why it’s important for consumers to take note of AVAs where a single variety of grape dominates planting. This tells you that the AVA likely produces very high quality examples of this kind of wine.

However, there are very few AVAs where one finds a single variety of grape dominating plantings. Napa with its Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Willamette Valley with its Pinot Noir are the two examples that should jump out at you.

However, perhaps the best example of the maxim that an AVA dominated by a single varietal means high quality wine is Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

According to a 2010 census of vineyards in Anderson Valley, Pinot Noir accounted for 65% of all grapes counted. And I’d be willing to bet that this percentage has only increased since then. More importantly, an argument could be made that some of the best Pinot Noir in America is grown in Anderson Valley.

This makes the upcoming Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival (May 16-18) one of the most intriguing and worthwhile consumer wine events in the State. Add to this the absolutely stunning natural beauty of the Anderson Valley and this festival ought to provide wine lovers every reason they need to head up to this remote region tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the interior of Northern California.

This year’s Anderson Valley Wine Festival will highlight 50 different producers of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, providing the attendee with the opportunity to come away with a detailed understanding of the primary characteristics of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Additionally, the vast majority of wineries pouring are very small, hands-on, family run wineries that focus on producing unique, terroir-driven wines.

The Festival also sports a Friday Technical Conference in which a host of winemakers and grape growers will explore the details of the Anderson Valley AVA and winemaking techniques applied to the AVA’s grapes.

If you were to rank the California AVAs that with best defined personalities and highest quality wines, a very strong case could be made that none is more well-defined than Anderson Valley. This festival is highly recommended.

Buy Tickets and Make Reservations for the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.

Posted In: Events, Terroir


9 Responses

  1. Jerry Baker - April 15, 2014

    I realize you’ll get a thousand “but what about my appellation” comments. But seriously; Howell Mountain Cabernet…hello.

  2. Tom Wark - April 15, 2014


    No doubt, Howell Mountain falls into that category. But really, doesn’t every appellation in Napa (excluding the Napa side of Carneros) specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon? The thing about Howell Mountain, however, is that the Cab off the Mountain there can be very distinctive and identifiable.

    Thanks for commenting!!

  3. MacDaddy Marc Hinton - April 15, 2014

    Great article Tom, Anderson Valley has been wetting my whistle since the early nineties and I wished I had discovered their wines earlier. The Pinot noir is awesome but the Alsatian varietals from the region also deliver quality time after time.

  4. Babu - April 16, 2014

    Indeed very informative article, hope to visit Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.

  5. Randy Caparoso - April 16, 2014

    Thanks for giving kudos to Anderson Valley, Tom. I love it there — the place, the beauty, the wines. Still, let’s not overstate things. The dominance of a single grape in an AVA is more an indication of market demand. Gewurztraminer, for instance, does beautifully in Anderson Valley, but the only reason it isn’t 65% of of what is grown there is because there isn’t much call for it. Same for, say, Napa Valley, which is an incredible place for Zinfandel; but Zinfandel doesn’t butter Napa growers’ bread, so you see Cabernet Sauvignon instead.

    I’m just sayin’ because the American wine market is still in relative infancy. Fixation on just a few grapes is not entirely positive; especially since there are many other grapes entirely appropriate for American AVAs. To me, it’s a shame that consumers are only able to appreciate a few varieties at a time. There is so much potential for much more. Yet we’ve come a long ways — with a long ways more to go…

  6. Tom Wark - April 16, 2014

    Thanks for you excellent comment. Reading made me think about something.

    You said, “the American wine market is still in relative infancy.” I don’t necessarily disagree. But it makes wonder, what would the American wine market look like when it is mature?


  7. Richard - April 16, 2014

    Interesting that you should mention this Tom – my wife and I just returned from a small staycation on the coast and drove through and toured Anderson Valley – and while I agree it is a Pinot heaven and we tasted some wonderful Pinot, we also tasted some great Syrah and Zin. Think that once Anderson Valley really “comes into it’s own” and becomes more widely known, it will offer some real competition to it’s larger siblings (Napa and Sonoma). For quality, taste, and price, you can’t beat it – a nice bottle of Syrah, Zin, or Pinot for under$25 at many spots (which may seem like a lot for many consumers, but not if they are familiar with Napa Cabs and Sonoma Zins)… No complaints about Napa and Sonoma – we love the areas and most of my cellar is Napa and Sonoma wine; but we were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines… Though we wanted to keep it all secret so not everyone will start to flock to the area!

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  9. Kevin Pogue - May 30, 2014

    Actually, what one SHOULD be taking note of is whether the AVA has relatively homogenous terroir (few do) and is not delineated by haphazard boundaries that were conceived based primarily on marketing. The AVA-terroir connection is nonexistent when the land within the AVA boundaries contains several thousand feet of relief, dozens of soil series, and large variations in rainfall and other climate metrics. If a single grape dominates plantings, it may be more likely that the AVA is more terroir-specific – but that’s not necessarily the case, as it could be the result of market pressures. I’m not sure why that would lead to “higher quality” wines – except via competition between neighbors growing the same variety. A better indication of consistent terroir expression would probably be the size of the AVA, rather than the percentage of grapes planted to a single cultivar. Whether terroir expression = quality is another can of worms…

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