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Our Broken Appellation System

By Charles Olken

In his blog column yesterday, Steve Heimoff commented on the meanings of various local appellations and his struggles to define what they deliver in terms of categorizable wine characteristics. I read his blog every day, in part because he is only wine blogger I know of who publishes every day. Full credit to Steve for that. Even between Steve Eliot and myself, CGCW seems able to manage only a couple of columns per week.

Heimoff’s latest, as if often the case with his writings, tosses out lots of observations, some of which impress me as spot on and some that seem like hopeless generalizations that sound good but have trouble standing up to close scrutiny. I mean that comment as no great criticism. Wine opinions always have counter opinions. And as he himself admits, and I agree, exceptions always exist because wine is not monolithic even from the same exact sites. The intent of the winemaker trumps all and explains why some folks make wines with high acidities and lowered alcohols while others want the expressions of riper grapes. Nowhere are such opposing trends more evident than in cool locations like the Santa Rita Hills, western Sonoma County and up in Anderson Valley.

The preference of the makers by themselves often blur the lines of appellation definition and will make Heimoff’s attempt to attribute recognizable characteristics to individual appellations difficult in the first place. But, what he has said about other appellations like the community-based names allowed in the Napa Valley (think Rutherford, Oakville et al) adds to the difficulties. Heimoff points out, as CGCW did in its seminal work on Napa Valley appellations back in 1976, that Napa westside is different from Napa eastside is different from Napa floor—all of which means that there is no such thing as a “Rutherford” characteristic even though that one appellation is perhaps the best known, most respected in all of California and is probably the most widely recognized outside of California and around the world.

What is wrong with the appellation system, and not just here but elsewhere in the world as well, is that too much of it is based on existing geographical boundaries whose shape and nomenclature have nothing to do with grape and wine characteristics. And when you think about it, why would Rutherford, as a political entity, be appropriately broken up into east, floor and west?

Yet, if there were an appropriate set of appellations for that part of the Napa Valley, they would start with the bench lands on the west side whose characteristics from Yountville north to St. Helena are far more consistent than what one finds from west to east in any of the communes whose names are currently used as appellations.

I started this essay with the assertion that our appellation system is broken. And I am going to end it with an apology. When one makes such an assertion, one is, in my own opinion, required to offer ideas for correction. Sadly, I doubt that correction is possible. We are not going to correctly define Napa Valley or Russian River Valley, which are two of the most famous appellations in California and whose boundaries are bloated and overly expanded for the benefit of the industry and not for the benefit of the consumer. The best we can hope for is a continuing movement that would bring smaller gradations of appellation into existence. It may be only that a handful of consumers will really care, but those are the consumers for whom appellations are important and make a difference, and they are the consumers who study, taste, learn about wine differences and are willing to pay the premium prices that drive the upper end of the wine markets.

Correctly identified small-area appellations are what consumers deserve. It is not what we have today.

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by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:10/8/2014 8:54:46 AM

Probably and ultimately appellations are meaningless, given the confusion and exceptions. But politically they're necessary. Consumers ilke  them, wineries love them and gatekeepers (critics, somms, etc.) demand them.

by Paul Wagner
Posted on:10/8/2014 10:02:24 AM

Hi Charlie

Good comments here.  As someone who advises wine regions (and serves as the executive director of the Rutherfor Dust Society) I would only point out that there is an issue of critical mass when it comes to AVAs.  Too small, and they simply don't have the wineries, wines, or marketing firepower to develop a brand awareness in the market.  Too large, as you correctly point out, and the distinctive characteristics of the region become blurred.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that NOWHERE in the AVA application with the TTB is there any request for a definition of the distinctive character of the wines.  There is a space for history, for geology, etc...but no place for a statement about the fact that the wines from this region have a distinctive flavor profile. 

Without that requirement, our AVA laws will always be suspect.

As usual, ain't no simple answers to complex problems.

by Patrick Shabram
Posted on:10/8/2014 10:11:02 AM

While the AVA system is far from perfect, it does offer protection to the consumer as well as the domestic wine industry (as do overseas appellations for overseas winemakers). Regulations in place prevent less than scrupulous winemakers from selling, as an example, a "Napa Valley style" wine in the US. Specific unique geographies and corresponding style may be hard to pin down, but at least some application of locality can be applied.

by TomHill
Posted on:10/8/2014 10:25:36 AM

Nope, Charlie....not broken at all. It does exactly what it's supposed to do.......identify the geographical location from which the grapes for this wine originated. Nothing more.

   Now....if you go further and expect/demand all the wines from some given AVA to display some commonality of character (that ugly "terroir" word that all the wine geeks seem to love), then you do, indeed, have a point that the AVA system is "broken". 

   But I, for one, don't expect all/most of the wines from a designated to display that AVA's "terroir". But I do like to know where the grapes originate and it's my job to see if, in my mind, I can identify the "terroir" for that AVA. Most of the time, I cannot. There are too many variables.

    Just because some AVA has a comon climate/soil type/etc; why should all/most of those wines display some sort of commonality or "terroir"??

   As you well know, some AVAs are so large that trying to identify any "terroir" in the wines is out of the question. Yet I think I can identify "terroir" in some AVAs, like SantaLuciaHighlands, or (community-based) Lodi or ContraCostaCnty. But "terroir" in SonomaCoast...I just can't identify any.

   Heck, even some wines from a single vnyd, where you'd expect the "terroir" to be's not. I've tasted AlbanVnyd Viognier from John & Ehren side-by-side any number of times. Danged if I'm sharp enough to identify any "terroir" in there.

   If there's any flaw in the AVA system, it's the expectation that wines from a given AVA display "terroir". Sometimes they do...oftentimes, not.

   Sorry, Charlie...just a bit cranky today.



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/8/2014 10:25:41 AM

Unfortunately, the AVA system will never be fixed. It was essentially rendered less than it could have been the moment that BATF (we do all remember them, don't we?) approved AVA boundaries that had nothing to do with similar characteristics and everything to do with how wine was sold.

Lord knows that the Napa Valley, in most of its parts, is an important designation with at least some distinctive meaning. It was thus before I started writing some years ago, and it is today. But it is also bloated and has been since the day that BATF allowed it to include "historic" lands that had nothing to with the Napa Valley as a unique place other than that some folks had been able to use the name on their labels.

The sin was compounded with the decision to use commune names and boundaries to define the inner Napa Valley instead of places with common characteristics.

One of my favorite tastings of the year is the Rutherford Dust Society event each summer. Very often, that event sees its wines presented by area from east to west. And for good reason. There are distinct flavor and structural differences from one side of Rutherford to the other. 

Ultimately, we are not going to solve the problem. That horse ran out of the barn long ago. But, we can, and should, in my opinion, demand that smaller AVAs (sub-AVAs as some people call them) be established, and we should, as the inestimable Mr. Wagner has pointed out, also demand that tasting profile become part of the reasoning in defining these smaller AVAs.

But, Paul, we have small appellations in Burgundy and they do not hurt anyone even if it takes a bit of study to learn what they mean. Those for whom such knowledge is important will learn where and why these names have come into existence. And the rest of us cannot afford the hyphenated Montrachets anyhow.

Yes and No. A Little of Both
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/8/2014 10:38:17 AM


The AVA system is such a mish-mash of identifications that some of them simply defy any sort of meaning. Most Napa Valley wines come from the  Napa Valley proper, but some do not, are not even remotely similar save for history, but they exist anyway.

Some like Russian River Valley are almost disgraceful with extensions south to Petaluma and east into Chalk Hill where there is not even history let alone geology to justify such extensions.

You are, of course, that the AVA system does have some utility even for Napa and the RRV. But its real value lies in more tightly defined areas like Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands. 

The Rutherford AVA, which I dislike, is still better than simply putting Napa County on a label.

I apologized in the text for not having a good solution to the problem, but I will emphasize my strong belief that the next best answer to scrapping the entire thing and starting all over again is to work towards smaller AVAs with at least some semblance of flavor profile similarity to their definition.

by TomHill
Posted on:10/8/2014 11:11:47 AM

Charlie sez:"I will emphasize my strong belief that the next best answer to scrapping the entire thing and starting all over again is to work towards smaller AVAs with at least some semblance of flavor profile similarity to their definition."

What you seek, Charlie, is all well&good and I can't dispute that. At least in an ideal world.'s probably not going to happen and I doubt the Feds/BATF (yeah...of course I remember them)/TTB are interested in that nor qualified to mediate/arbitrate that.

   Can you imagine RajParr and BrianLoring and WesHagen  agreeing on what the Pinots of the StaRitaHills should taste like?? I certainly cannot.

   But scrapping the whole AVA system and starting afresh would have one would provide lifetime employment for all the US wine bloggers!!! :-)



Well, Maybe
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/8/2014 11:25:59 AM


Thanks for contributing. We may not solve any problems, but it sure is nice to think that we can someday move closer to something more precise.

As for SRH debates among Raj and Brian, Wes and Greg Brewer, I would love to be a fly on the wall as they continue their existence inability to agree with each other. Oh, and throw Gavin Chanin and some others into that mix.

But, there is some understanding of similar conditions in the SRH area, and debates about how wines should be made do not really come into the picture. If we can agree that similar winemaking would produce similar results, then that is all that I need, and I do not have to pick sides in the stylistic debate. 

As to SRH itself, I do believe that it is someday going to be broken up into smaller patches both north and south as well as east and west. 

I also expect the RRV to get the same treatment because Freestone is so very different from Westside Road in terms of the wines they produce. And while I do not expect Chalk Hill to ever be removed from RRV for political/industrial reasons, it bugs me when a winery east of 101 in the hills plants Pinot Noir because it can put an RRV tag onto those wines despite their having so very little to do with what has made RRV Pinot so well accepted.

Besides, Tom, who said that these essays had to be practical. A little dreaming does not hurt either.

by David Rossi
Posted on:10/8/2014 12:01:02 PM

Agreed that the tightness of the AVA really matters.  I have to just mention Chalone AVA(not the brand).  It not only defines the geographical boundaries of the region, but delivers on a unique profile of wine (Pinot and Chard mostly, but others as well).  It lacks the muscle of a big AVA from a Marketing standpoint, but it is special because it's size dictates a specificity of wine characteristics. Vineyards like Brosseau, Antle, Michaud, and Chalone(estate) still make wines of distinction. So I think the AVA system isn't broken, but just needs a century or so to get specific enough.

Paso Robles just split into new areas, and Petaluma Gap is going to help break up the monsterous Sonoma Coast AVA.  We'll get there.

by TomHill
Posted on:10/9/2014 11:11:11 AM


   Maybe we're not as far apart in our views as I thought. I, too, am in support of more sub-AVAs. The more information we have, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Eventually, though, those sub-AVAs will get so fine grained that they will become useless and fall by the wayside, I suspect/fear.

   Now Paso has 11 brand-spankin' new sub-AVAs. I fear that, like in Lodi, many of them are so obscure that they'll never be used. You (and I) coould taste Paso wines every day for the rest of our lives (which is a good many yrs I suspect) and we would probably not be able to come up with a characterization (i.e. the terroir identifier) of any of these 11 sub-AVAs.

   Presumably, as the sub-AVAs become more fine-grained, it should become easier to identify the terroir character of each sub-AVA. But, in reality, I don't think we will come into agreement on that one.

   But, as you say,'s OK to dream. I can go along w/ that idea.



Hope So
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/9/2014 11:39:27 AM


Re Paso: when we have had the time for development, experimentation, replanting, etc, that has marked Napa, them I expect that some of the AVAs there will be identifiable. 

I wont swear to this, but I believe we can pick out many PN locations and some Napa locations blind. And certainly, when tasting Rutherford Cabs, I do think that there are identifiable differences from the east and west alluvial slopes and then again from the valley floor. But, as we all know, the winemaker's hand also plays a big part.

So, yes, the hope is that most small AVAs will make some kind of sense. Some would today. Some might in the future.

The system has evolved...
by Patrick Shabraam
Posted on:10/9/2014 12:15:19 PM

Great discussion. I said in my previous comment that the AVA system is far from perfect. I probably should have said “it has been far from perfect.” I’m not saying it’s perfect now, but many of the processes for approving and modifying AVAs has greatly improved over the years. When people talk about all that is wrong about the AVA system, they usually point out older, what I’ll call “legacy” AVAs. Sonoma Coast is one I hear and read a lot. It’s important to keep in mind that the people petitioning for these AVAs, however, were the growers and winemakers of that time. Most of these AVAs were helped along in there creation by people we today celebrate as industry pioneers.  The tools, knowledge base, weather data, experience, and presence of viticulture were much more limited in the 1980s and 1990s than they are today. Granted, the ATF was often cautious on the side of inclusion when competing interests set to the task of drawing these legacy AVAs, but even so these AVAs served a useful purpose then, and in many cases continue to serve a useful purpose today.

Mr. Rossi has a point when he says “we’ll get there.” More recent AVAs have tended to be better tied to the unique geographic characteristics they represent.  That’s in part due to the prevalence of data, more plantings, more experience through experimentation, and better geographic tools. What passed as adequate evidence in the ATF days is no longer sufficient with today’s TTB. More attention is paid to names that identify specific geographic areas, and the TTB has gotten better at consistency in what it expects of petitioning parties. What makes the AVA system imperfect today is in many cases these same legacy AVAs. In creating new or modifying existing AVAs, we often have to work around them or within them, or account for names that have come to mean broader areas. Disagreements between people within the industry itself also help make this an imperfect system. Processes are in place that could make the Sonoma Coast smaller or remove Chalk Hill from the Russian River Valley, and the TTB is willing to entertain such ideas while the ATF may not have.  Yet, it would require cooperation from affected members of the industry that in many cases just isn’t there. Many using the Sonoma Coast name, for example, would object to being removed from the AVA and might suffer financially because of it, and so for now, we have to work with what we’ve got.

Nope 1
by Kyle Schlachter
Posted on:10/9/2014 3:02:47 PM

LaCollina is correct; AVAs do exact what they are intended to do. Now, exactly how meaningful is it to know that at least 85% of grapes in a wine came from the Upper Missippi River Valley (or the North Coast) is debatable. The government doesn't want to decide what wine from Rutherford should be made from or taste like and I assume winemakers would want that even less.

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