How Many AVAs are Enough?

“How can you govern a country with 246 cheeses?” Charles De Gaulle.

The US Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)  recently approved the Snipe’s Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation — the tenth AVA in Washington State. There are nearly 200 AVAs in the US (click here to see the list), most of them in California. Not as many AVAs as French cheeses, but we are gaining on them.

This news provokes some thoughts on the meaning of AVAs and the obvious question, how many AVAs are enough?

Staking a Claim

AVAs are geographic designations — they tell us something about where a wine comes from. They “stake a claim” as the old prospectors used to say, in a particular patch of dirt (although it might be a pretty big patch, as the map indicates).  Prior to the introduction of AVAs, American wines mainly were labeled by state — California Zinfandel, New York Riesling.   These very broad designations are still used for wines made from grapes sourced from several different regions within a state.

A Zinfandel made from equal amounts of grapes grown in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lodi (three different AVAs) must wear the generic California designation rather than a more specific geographic indicator. At least 85% of the grapes must come from a particular AVA for its name to be used. Wines that blend grapes from different states are simply American and I’ve seen this designation from time to time — most recently on a California-Oregon blend.

The evolution of American AVAs is complicated, but I think it is fair to say that they generally began with relatively broad classifications and have in recent years become increasingly specific.  In Washington, for example, the first AVA was Yakima Valley (1983), followed the next year by a much broader designation (Columbia Valley — see map above) that encompasses most of the state’s major vineyard areas and essentially replaced the “Washington” designation plus a second relatively narrow one (Walla Walla).  Both the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla AVAs span the Washington-Oregon border, showing the vines and state lines don’t always align.

The Yakima Valley AVA has been partitioned by subsequent AVA claims and now includes three sub-regions: Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and the new Snipe’s Mountain AVA.  There are now seven AVAs within the Columbia Valley appellation, with an eighth (Lake Chelan) on the horizon.  If Washington’s AVAs are this complicated, with AVAs and sub-AVAs, you can only imagine what the California map must look like.

Appellation Wars: AVA versus AOC

In America we talk about AVAs while the French and others speak of AOCs (or their equivalents) and you might assume that the concepts are the same even if the names are not.  But you’d be wrong.

AOC stands for Appelation D’origine Contrôlée, a system that began as a simple geographic designation like America’s AVAs, but has developed into something more complicated and, well, more French.  Originally AOCs were all about fraud prevention — protecting the reputation of honest Champagne winegrowers, for example, by making it illegal to put the Champagne label on a wine made mainly from grapes grown in other regions. This assurance, it was believed would give the Champagne regional “brand” greater value.

And it did, but this led to a different kind of fraud.  Some producers cut corners, over-cropped and so forth, making cheaper, poorer wine that could legally wear the geographic designation because of the grape’s origins.  The only way to protect the region’s reputation (and the value of its brand) was to regulate both  where the grapes were grown and how the wines were made.  And so the contemporary AOC system was born.

AOC regulations start with a defined geography and add detailed rules regarding wine making.  They are meant to assure that the wines are made to a particular recognizable standard and are typical, in both type and quality, of the region.

(As we know from the Super-Tuscan controversy, winemakers don’t always agree believe that the AOC standard wine is the best wine that can be made — typical is not necessary superior.  Super-Tuscans are wines, frequently excellent ones, that do not satisfy the AOC rules because they use non-standard grapes and non-standard winemaking techniques.)

AOC in USA: Coro Mendocino

There is only one AOC in the US as far as I know. A voluntary association of  Mendocino, California wineries have created a wine standard they call Coro Mendocino.   Coro means chorus in both Italian and Spanish and refers to both the harmonious group of winemakers behind this program and, I suppose the designated blending of grapes.  You can read the production protocol here. The website explains that

  • Coro wines must be made exclusively from Mendocino fruit
  • Zinfandel is the dominant varietal and represents 40-70% of the final blend.
  • Second tier varietals may not exceed Zinfandel as a majority component and are limited to Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera and Primitivo.
  • A “free play” of up to 10% of any vinifera source may be used for fine tuning if desired.

Coro Mendocino is a typically American solution to the problem of setting a standard.  It is a voluntary association built around a shared commerciall  brand — the labels of wines from different makers all employ a standard design so that they are recognized first as Coro Mendocino and only secondarily as the product of a particular winery.  Coro Mendocino reminds me of the better known and quite successful  Gimblett Gravels initiative in New Zealand, which is essentially a privately-sanctioned AVA within the Hawkes Bay region.

Too Much Information?  Or Too Little?

Appellations are controversial at every level of analysis.  In Europe, for example, the existence of hundreds of tiny regional subdivisions is seen by some as a roadblock to effective wine marketing.  The wine market is being rationalized by the new EU initiatives and simplicity is the order of the day.  Local winemakers are outraged, however, because they fear the consequence when their local appellation “brand” is merged into a less distinctive (but perhaps more marketable) regional appellation.

On a local level, I have heard many winegrowers grouse about whether a new AVA really has a distinctive  terroir or if it just had enough money and political clout to get its designation.  And of course the drawing of lines is controversial, since who is in and who is out can be pretty arbitrary at times.

From the consumer standpoint the existence of AVAs does potentially provide information.  Theorists say that information is any news or data that reduces uncertainty.  In wine, information would reduce the buyer’s uncertainty about what’s in the bottle and so increase confidence in the buying decision.  Sometimes AVA or AOC designations do this, but not always.  Buyers need to know what the appellations mean and this can be problematic if the regions are very large and diverse in a geographic sense and if the producers make wines in very different styles.

And, of course, too many AVAs can produce a sort of ungovernable confusion of the sort that De Gaulle bemoaned in France. Uncertainty increases with the number of AVAs at some point.

I will be interested to see how the reputation of the Snipe’s Mountain AVA develops.  It certainly is a distinct geologic feature of the Yakima Valley (check out this map), but the reports that I have read stress its historical importance more than its terroir. Snipe’s Mountain was the site of one of the first important plantings of vitis vinifera grapes in Washington State.

Wade Wolfe, who knows Yakima Valley maybe better than anyone, has made wine from Snipe’s Mountain fruit and thinks it could have a bright future with the additional attention the AVA designation draws.  If so, then one more AVA is will not be one too many.

3 responses

  1. I think the answer to the question of how many AVA’s are enough is easy to answer. AVA’s are set aside for areas with unique soil and micro-climates. So the answer would be in a form of a question; Just how many regions have distinct soil and micro-climates that factor into the unique production of grape varietals? How many regions can produce unique wines in their soil and space? There should be no limit, but only unique characteristics that define them.

  2. It’s impossible to equate US AVAs with terroir. They’re just too big and there’s too much variability in all the physical parameters (soil, bedrock, climate, geomorphology). I had temperature monitors on Snipes Mountain (one of the smallest AVAs) during the growing season last year, and they showed huge variations in several important climate parameters. The top part of Snipes Mountain rises above the cold air pool that regularly forms in the Yakima Valley and so it’s much warmer and has a much longer growing season. The Walla Walla AVA has at least 4 distinct soil terroirs and the average annual rainfall varies from 7 to 24 inches within its boundaries!

  3. Hi Mike,

    There is not, never has been, and may never be a better model for wine production than that of France. For hundreds of years this has been the most imitated and desirable model for dealing with the agricultural and production aspects of growing fruit and making wine. The bad news is that for hundreds of years we also though capitalism was the ‘end-all’ but that remains to be seen at this point.

    Anyhow back to wine. A look at Bordeaux reveals that like many areas in France, it gets further defined over time, to wit: France, Bordeaux, Mèdoc, Haut Mèdoc, Pauillac and so on. Appellation within appellation, within . . . The remarkable 1st Growth, Haut Brion, was subject to the lower appellation (same as an AVA, only in France) of Graves until it was carved out of the appellation in 1987. This elevated everything going on in Pessac-Léognan.

    I believe the AVA status actually elevates the quality of wines made in the United States. Can you not imagine that vignerons in Napa, or Sonoma or anywhere would not want to ensure that the best wines come from their environs? Of course they want to protect their efforts from being usurped by estates with less lofty goals. The Super Tuscan debacle is a prime example of being too restrictive in regulating how wineries produce their products, so certainly we must understand by example that there should be limits to regulatory encroachment.

    American Viticulture Areas are completely simplistic compared to other countries, particularly Europe’s. Germany really pops up on my radar when it comes to winemaking and labeling restrictions. Any winemaker in the US can sidestep the regulatory authority anytime by just not including AVA information on the label (just like the Super Tuscan wineries did). More restrictive is the classifications and a great example of excluding themselves from such participation in pretty much anything, is Château Pètrus in Bordeaux’s Right Bank. They could care less and they don’t have to care because their wine is in enormous demand worldwide at amazing release prices. And if you want to realize the very worst nightmare, get into Burgundy and their convoluted world of Napoleonic law – yet they produce some of the best wines in the world.

    Europe’s tiny sub-regions, as you call them, help me very much in relying on my wine purchases but one cannot dumb-down the world of wine the way Vino 100 and similar franchises try to do. America’s AVAs are still innocent like our country was before 9/11. Except I feel sorry for these guys in Mendocino who somehow think that Zinfandel and Primitivo are a different grape variety. I applaud Snipes Mountain !

    David Boyer

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