The Rise of Willamette Valley’s Sub-Appellations — Statistically Speaking
Since writing about the proposed conjunctive labeling law in the Oregon legislature meant for wines produced in the Willamette Valley, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Willamette Valley. I continue to believe that the proposed conjunctive labeling law that will require all wines carrying any of the sub-AVAs located in the Willamette Valley on their label to also place the words “Willamette Valley” somewhere on the label, is imprudent.
However, I’m a bit less concerned today about this conjunctive labeling proposal given that the bill that would advance it, SB 829, explicitly notes that “Willamette Valley” need not “(a) Be included in or near the appellation of origin; or (b) Be in the same size or font as the appellation of origin”. In other words, if the winery wants to hide the term “Willamette Valley” somewhere on their label rather than putting it front and center alongside, say, Dundee Hills or McMinnville, they can do that.
Among the claims that have been put forward by the proponents of this bill is that over the years the term “Willamette Valley” has been replaced by reference to the smaller, sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley and that “Willamette Valley” is more and more left off the labels. Claims like this often go unchallenged or even unchecked. I checked.
The proponents are right.
Over the past decade, the percentage of labels approved for use by the TTB that were for wines produced with Willamette Valley grapes and that identify a sub-AVA other than the larger “Willamette Valley” AVA has indeed increased.
In 2009, just under 30% of wines labels approved by the TTB and meant to be placed on a wine produced with Willamette Valley grapes carried only a Willamette Valley sub-AVA (Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, McMinnville, etc.). In 2018 over 45% of wines produced from grapes grown in the Willamette Valley held a Willamette Valley sub-AVA on its label. Put another way, in 2018, nearly half of all wines produced with grapes grown in the Willamette Valley did not mention “Willamette Valley” as their official appellation of origin.
Another way to look at the rise of Willamette Valley sub-AVAs is to observe the increase in use on labels of the individual AVAs compared to the increase in the use of just “Willamette Valley” on labels. From 2009 to 2018, labels approved for use carrying the larger “Willamette Valley” AVA increased 110%. However, use of only sub-AVAs on labels collectively increased by 315%. A look at the 2009 to 2018 changes in use of the individual sub-AVA use on labels tells another story.
Chehalem Mountains: Up 258%
Dundee Hills: Up 205%
Eola-Amity Hills: up 469%
McMinnville: Up 900%
Ribbon Ridge: Up 315%
Yamhill-Carlton: Up 373%
Growth in the use of all the individual Willamette Valley sub-AVAs significantly outperforms the growth in the use of the larger “Willamette Valley” AVA on a label during the 2009-2018 time frame. What’s really noteworthy is that if you look at the growth of labels approved for use holding the larger “Willamette Valley” AVA from a slightly shorter timeframe, between 2010 to 2018, you notice a mere 13% increase as a result in a significant spike in “Willamette Valley” labels in 2010.
In using the COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) database to track the changes in use of the various sub-AVAs in the Willamette Valley and the larger Willamette Valley AVA, what’s clear is that Oregonian vintners very rarely used both the sub-AVA and the larger Willamette Valley AVA on their labels. In a few cases, a wine labeled with a sub-AVA mentions the larger “Willamette Valley” AVA on its back label copy, but this isn’t so much to identify the larger AVA but to place the sub-AVA or a vineyard in a larger context.
Vintners use smaller, sub-AVAs on their labels rather than the larger AVA (which they could if they chose) in order to associate their wine with a more well-defined and in most cases more highly valued and appreciated region. This clearly happens in the Willamette Valley as well as in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Mendocino County, to name just a few important winegrowing regions.
That the wines and grapes from the smaller, nested Willamette Valley sub-AVAs are more valuable than wines and grapes that carry the larger Willamette Valley AVA could be demonstrated by the price per ton that is paid for grapes with a sub-AVA provenance versus the price per ton paid for grapes with the larger Willamette Valley AVA. Unfortunately, the annual Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report produced by the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement at the University of Oregon Eugene does not track average price per ton paid for the sub-AVAs. Its annual report looks at the price per ton paid by only “North Willamette Valley” and “South Willamette Valley.
However, it turns out that that the six Willamette Valley sub-AVAs land in the “North Willamette Valley” for the Report. What we find is that in the 2017 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report North Willamette Valley Pinot Noir averaged $2,534 per ton. South Willamette Valley Pinot Noir averaged $2,264 per ton.
Another source of information concerning the average price per ton paid for Willamette Valley grapes is GrapeConnect, a clearinghouse for grapes offered for sale. In their 2018 Harvest Report on average prices offered per ton for different AVAs on their website, you see a clear “sub-appellation premium” for Pinot Noir grapes offered in each sub-AVA versus Pinot Noir Grapes that carry the larger Willamette Valley AVA. Keep in mind, this is a very unofficial assessment of value.
Average Offer Price on a Ton of Pinot Noir in 2018 by Willamette Valley AVA/Sub-AVA at GrapeConnect
Ribbon Ridge: $3,727
Dundee Hills: $3,022
Chehalem Mountains: $2,630
Yamhill-Carlton District: $2,666
Eola-Amity Hills: $2,449
Willamette Valley: $2,129
The point, in the end, is that like in so many other aspects of culture, academics, and commercial life, specialization is becoming the norm. The same is true in wine. Even when the Willamette Valley Conjunctive Labeling bill becomes law (and it will), the use of Willamette Valley sub-AVAs on labels as the primary appellation of origin will continue to grow. I’d be shocked if in five years there are still more wine labels approved with the Willamette Valley as the primary appellation of origin than labels approved with sub-AVAs as the primary appellation of origin.
This is not to say that the Willamette Valley AVA is the equivalent of the “Central Coast” AVA in California, a gigantic AVA that primarily is the source of low cost, average wines. In fact, the larger Willamette Valley AVA has a rather stellar reputation for wines of quality and particularly Pinot Noir. However, it seems likely that over the next decade or more this stellar reputation will be taken advantage of with plantings on the valley floor rather than on the hillsides.
History has shown that the Willamette Valley made its reputation from grapes grown in vineyards on the hillside slopes of the Western part of the Valley. Valley floor vines are more vigorous and produce grapes of lesser quality. Nonetheless, such wines are eligible to carry the “Willamette Valley” AVA.
It seems far more likely that any damage done to the reputation of the Willamette Valley wines will happen as a result of valley floor plantings than a continued migration by quality growers to using only the sub-AVAs on their labels. Yet I’ve heard of no proposal in the works to limit plantings on the floor of the Willamette Valley. Rather, it has been the creation of the sub-AVAs that gave growers and winemakers of the Willamette Valley appellations not susceptible to bastardization.
When the conjunctive labeling law passes later this year it will create a circumstance where a more and more reputation-challenged “Willamette Valley” AVA is forced upon growers and winemakers using the more stringently regulated sub-AVAs. The goal of the conjunctive labeling project is to preserve the reputation of the larger Willamette Valley AVA by usurping the higher quality reputation of the sub-AVAs. Time will tell if this will work.