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In Praise of AVAs That Get It Right

By Stephen Eliot

The roster of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) now includes well over two hundred legally defined wine-growing districts and has generated more than a bit of criticism, much of it justified. It is far from perfect, and both politics and money have factored into its making as much as the supposed and nobler intent of recognizing sites of distinctive character, but not every name on the list is without meaning, and some have very much proven their worth.

Now the idea of legally restricting the varieties that are allowed within an AVA, as is the practice in most of Europe’s long-established and widely heralded AVAs, is anathema to freewheeling American winemakers, and I cannot imagine a time when statute will dictate what an AVA may or may not grow, but, over time, experience buttressed by a healthy dose of common sense has necessarily led vintners to specialize in what works best in their place. Many AVAs may immediately bring certain wines to mind such as Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley or Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, but few of them were initially created with specific varieties in mind. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and the Santa Ynez Valley figures as a significant one.

Although the Santa Ynez Valley was granted AVA status in its own right back in 1983, it is now home to three smaller, “nested” AVAs within its boundaries, and it is easy to argue that the Sta. Rita Hills (2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (2009) and Ballard Canyon (2013) are AVAs that are as meaningful as their ill-conceived counterparts, the Sonoma Coast or San Francisco Bay, are fundamentally useless. Although there are no government mandates as to which varieties are permitted, each was created with certain varieties in mind. Champions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay won approval for the western, very cool Sta. Rita Hills district while the warmer Happy Canyon at the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley claims Bordelaise varietals and those of the Rhône as its strength, and the newest of the bunch, the tiny, centrally located Ballard Canyon appellation was founded with Syrah as its signature grape.

They are collectively among the more sensible and valid appellations in California to date and stand as models of what is right with the AVA system when smart and experienced vintners and growers who understand their climate and soils work together to make their case.

It is easy enough to get cynical when looking through the overly long list of AVAs, and I confess to still wondering what the approving government agency could have been thinking when giving the nod to more than few, but there are times when the answer to the question of “what’s in a name?” is a very great deal.


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Appellations (part 1 of 2)
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/17/2015 3:00:22 AM

[PREFACE: My attempts at posting this comment seem to give CGCW’s website “indigestion.”

I will try again sans embedded links.]

I "assume" Charlie was referencing my comment to this Steve Heimoff's blog “Thinking About Appellations . . .”

My salient point:

I invite Steve’s readers to seek out The Wine Institute’s website section on California AVAs.

How many folks can recite even a low double digit [< 25] number of these AVAs?

(As challenging as naming a low double digit [< 25] number of grape varieties on the Wine Century Club list.)

Allow me to elaborate in my sequel comment.

Appellations (part 2 of 2)
by Bob Henry
Posted on:10/17/2015 3:01:51 AM

For most Americans buying wines at their neighborhood grocery store, they are indifferent to the geographic origin of California wine grapes.  Almost all of the under $10 retail "fighting varietal wines" come with labels that denote "California" as the generic appellation.

That makes the source of those wine grapes an undifferentiated commodity in the public's mind.

"Fine wines" (defined by Silicon Valley Bank in its annual research report* as those selling for $20 or more) denote specific appellations to differentiate themselves.

And wines priced in the teens between "fighting varietals" and "fine wines" increasingly denote appellations to attract "upmarket" (less budget conscious) consumers.

Only serious wine hobbyists/collectors place an emphasis on appellations.

The "One Percenters" who read CGCW and Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator and International Wine Cellar and Wine Advocate.

A market research report I am acquainted with projects domestic wine drinkers numbering upwards of 35 million.  Wine Spectator's subscription rolls number roughly 350,000 . . . or one percent of those national wine drinkers.

(*Google the key words “Silicon Valley Bank 2015 Wine Report.”)

One Per Centers?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/17/2015 11:09:42 AM

The AVA name, Napa Valley is known to far more than the one percenters. The AVA name Russian River Valley is known to far more than the one percenters.

But more importantly than that, the old appellation laws, the ones that the consumers finally got tired of the generalized nonsense and insisted on more accuracy, allowed the name Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to be constructed of wine that had very little to do with the name.

Back then, and we are only talking thirty years ago, Napa Cab could be 51% from Napa and 49% from anywhere else. It had to be 51% Cab, but it did not have to be 51% Napa Cab.

It was allowed to be 26% Napa Cab and 25% Cab from elsewhere for its 51% Cab, and it could be another 25% Napa anything for its 51% Napa-ness. But it could also be 24% anything from anywhere. 

Not only am I not for going back to those bad old days of potential mislabelling, but I see no value in large-area, generic appellations when it is obvious that more specific identifications are desired by both consumers and producers.

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