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Tuesday Thorns
Let’s Kill The AVA System Now

By Charles Olken

I joke, of course. The AVA system may not be perfect. In fact, it is far from it. But just like capitalism and democracy, it is the best thing we have at the moment and we have nothing better with which to replace it.

I do worry about the AVA system. Purists like me think that large AVAs purporting to be smaller places are not especially meaningful. And it distresses me, when I think that much of the Napa Valley is divided up by political boundaries rather than by definable land masses and microclimates. There is a distinct difference between the Cabernets of East Rutherford and those of West Rutherford, yet we have no West Rutherford AVA—only Rutherford itself from east to west. So, yes, the AVA system is not exactly perfect.

On the other side of the fence are those who think all California wine tastes alike anyhow and AVAs simply get in the way of enjoyment. To listen to them, the only consideration that ever went into AVA formation was marketing power. There is a certain amount of truth in that assertion, but even for Rutherford, it belies the fact that Rutherford, east or west, is still significantly different from Howell Mountain or Carneros or Coombsville.

That’s why it just stuns me that our morning newspaper seems to think that AVAs are part of the problem here in California. If we have a problem, and arguably we might, it is that we have grown so fast, made so many changes in plantings, technique and technology over the past forty years that we might now be better off taking a deep breath and having a look around before plunging ahead into the next period of growth and change. The slow economy may seem to be allowing such a period of introspection, but the truth is that all we have seen so far are wineries struggling to keep their heads above water and wineries who have not had to struggle and so are keeping on with keeping on.

That’s sort of the American way anyhow. Damn the torpedos. Full speed ahead. The entrepreneurial spirit is not given to introspection. It is not built on self-examination. We do things and ask questions later. That’s how Connoisseurs’ Guide got its start. That’s how thousands of small, family-owned wineries got their starts. And, we are not going to change that system any time soon.

And while some of us would be happy to see the AVA system scrapped and to start all over again, that is just a pipe dream. And when our morning newspaper lists abandoning the AVA system as one of five things that would make California better, it is indulging in a kind of intellectual self-pleasuring that is very far removed from reality. No, let’s not scrap the AVA system and replace it with nothing. If it becomes an abject failure, it will die of its own weight. So far, even with many AVAs that could have been better defined, the AVA system itself is one of the best things that has happened to California wine, not one of the worst.


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No Subject
by TomHill
Posted on:7/12/2011 9:42:29 AM

Awwwwww, Charlie. I think you're putting too much weight on Jon's rant about the AVA. You should just let it go as a pot-stirring rant and put no credance in it.

   But, I am with you on this one. The AVA system may not be perfect (too much politics in many AVA's and not enough terroir), but it's the best thing we got and way/way better than the French AC system.

   It does exactly what it's supposed to do...identify where the grapes come from. It says nothing about quality. Nor should it. We, as consumers, can figure it out....that a RussianRiver AVA meens more about quality of the wine than, say, Lodi ( that really true??? I'm not convinced). On the average, of course.

   True...some of the AVA's, like SonomaCoast, are so large that they have little to do w/ terroir. But they do, on the average, have something to do w/ quality. When I see SonomaCoast on a label, my interest is immediately picqued. I then try to discern if it's from a cold-climate part of the SonomaCoast, rather one of the warmer areas.

   But..yeah...scrapping the AVA system would be stupid. It's simple, but it works...more or less...mostly more. Our gubbmint defines for us quality in how weiners are made. Don't want them doing that for our wine.



Who Hates AVAs
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/12/2011 9:53:15 AM

Hello, Tom--

Jon's rant is just the tip of the iceberg here. It was not a serious comment because he is not that silly, but he does have a penchant for doing things like attackng the AVA system and then telling us in detail about places in Portugal like the Douro and the Alentejo.

As a wine lover, and as one who likes Portugal, the place, I am rooting for Portuguese wines, so I have no problem with Jon when he writes about little known places and wines that are hard to find.

I just wonder how he squares his desire for us to know about the Alentejo with his desire for us to forget about AVAS here.

who cares?
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/12/2011 5:28:26 PM

"I just wonder how he squares his desire for us to know about the Alentejo with his desire for us to forget about AVAS here."


I may be just guessing, but I'd bet that he squares the two desires by knowing that in Portugal, the system attempts to codify quality and not just location, as Tom alludes to as the thing the US AVA system intends not to touch, which is what, in my mind, make it a ratjer uninformative system. I already know where the grapes grow; I'd liek the system to explain why they grow there and whether or not they meed any standarsd of production in a particular VAV, which of course our systm does not do.

I'm not saying that the European system is perfect and I'm not syaing that it actually is spot on with regard to quality. I'm saying that it is an attempt at identifying something, and ours is an attempt at avoiding making any identification, as you point out regarding East and West Rutherford.

Put simply: our AVA systme doesn't tell us much of anything and it would not be missed if it were scrapped, and it does not matter much that it remains.

who cares?
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/12/2011 5:30:17 PM

My God, that post of mine is riddled with typos. I wish we had editing capabilities on these blogs, but you can figure out what I was trying to type, tipe, teip, tiep...oh, forget it.

No Subject
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/12/2011 10:21:14 PM


I am guessing that you are not particularly correct about the purposes behind trying to tear down CA AVAs and telling us about unheard of places abroad. This is journalism, and taking the path less travelled is one way of trying to appear more knowledgeable than the average punter.

But, that is all speculation. What is not speculation, in my mind, is that Rutherford is a more useful appellation than Napa Valley. Sure, I want east and west separated, but the name Rutherford means that the wine was not grown in the Carneros or in Calistoga or on the hills or in Chiles or Pope Valley, and that information does have value.

Tom Hill makes the same point in his appreciation of the Sonoma Coast AVA. It is far less than ideal, but it is better than Sonoma County.

Winnowing and whining
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:7/13/2011 10:53:40 AM

Bravo again, Charlie, for a more considered, sensible assessment of the AVA system.  Who doesn't agree that it's imperfect?  What country's system isn't? 

The logical "fix" is to keep winnowing down (i.e. "West Rutherford") until the political boundaries take on meaningful, terroir related sub-boundaries.  Gevrey-Chambertin, after all, is much less a guarantee of exceptional quality that Chambertin.  Ditto Bereich Bernkastel vs. Bernakasteler Doctor.  So it's a little "hard" for consumers to immediately comprehend the delineations. That's the way it is; and if you really care to know the systems, you will know.  I'm no genius, and I pretty much get it.

So to folks still crying over the bastardizations of "Napa Valley" and "Sonoma Coast":  get over it.  The work of sorting out the sub-AVAs will go on; and the more we narrow things down, the less the geeks and fussbudgets will have to whine about...

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/13/2011 4:57:42 PM

Forgive my reference to Hair in the subject line, but I think what is going on in Italy right now, concerning their (and the European) concept of updating the DOC (AVA) system points to the overall ineffectiveness of such systems in the intl. wine market these days.

No Subject
by Michael Verlander
Posted on:7/13/2011 7:44:15 PM

Spot on, Charlie.  Now only to get the government to understand and embrace it!

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