A Modest Proposal for American Viticultural Areas

Are there too many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Or not enough? Herewith a modest proposal for maximizing the benefits of American wine appellations.

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Whenever a  list of newly-approved  American Viticultural Areas is released I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. Bah humbug! You see, I’m a true dismal science Scrooge and so my first reaction is always to think about the economic value of the new designations and sub-designations.

Only a few American appellations have substantial economic value in the sense that a bottle of wine is worth more if the magic name appears than if it doesn’t.  Napa is a good example of an AVA that pays. 

Many if not most AVA designations add little monetary value and sometimes they might actually subtract value generally by confusing consumers who wonder what it all means and how one is different from another.

Not (Just) About Money

It took me a long time to get over my focus on money and to think about other factors. In many cases the goal of an AVA is simply identity — the desire to be something particular in a generic world. There might be a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) in that, too. I get that. We live in the Age of Identity in many respects. Why should wine be different?

Another result if not a goal can be solidarity, since having an AVA application approved is not an easy thing and requires wine growers to work together.  Once they’ve worked together to create an appellation, perhaps other opportunities to cooperate can be found, too. That’s not a trivial thing.

The role of AVAs in creating or strengthening identity and solidarity made me think of a little-known political-economy theory called the North Dakota Plan. The creator was the famous economist  John Kenneth Galbraith and the idea was this. The nation-state is a good thing in part because it gives its citizens sovereignty, which is important as we now realize from the way that it is highlighted in the current UK Brexit policy debates. More states would mean more sovereignty and more benefits. OK so far?

The North Dakota Plan

But sovereignty is troublesome because one state’s sovereign actions can sometimes threaten another state’s sovereignty and, in worst case scenarios conflict and even war break out. How can the world maximize the good of sovereignty while minimizing the bad of war?

The solution, Galbraith proposed back in 1978, tongue firmly in cheek, was the North Dakota Plan. Divide the world up into dozens of nation-states each about the size and shape of North Dakota. North Dakota is more or less a rectangle, if you haven’t looked at a map recently, so the new borders wouldn’t necessarily take into account geography or demographic patterns. They’d be completely arbitrary.

There would be lots of small states — so lots of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and sovereignty. But each country would be too small to have much of an army or navy, so conflict would be limited. Their focus would have to be more on how to live together, since their ability to meddle in other countries’ business would be limited.

I think I recall a variation on the theory where each country would be given one small nuclear device to deter enemies. The idea was that no one would ever use their nuke because, with it gone, they would be defenseless. Peace would reign supreme.

To the best of my knowledge no one ever took Galbraith’s modest proposal for a world of North Dakotas seriously, which is probably just as well. But it inspires me to propose my own satiric plan for American AVAs, which you can probably already guess,

North Dakota AVA System

Why not maximize the number of AVAs by covering the wine country map with hundreds and hundreds of them in arbitrary shapes and sizes.  I’d shape them like pieces in a jig-saw puzzles, but you can have squares or triangles if you prefer. Each one would have a name, of course, and an identity.  More AVAs, more identity, everyone is better off. What could go wrong? 

Each would face a challenge, too, which would require solidarity to solve.  With completely arbitrary borders — unlike the border lines today that are sometimes determined by a mixture of terroir and politics– geography could not be relied upon to make an AVA distinctive. The growers and winemakers within each block would have to work together to create a real identity — a common blend, style, or signature wine grape variety, for example. They’d have to work to make the AVA mean something because, otherwise, it would be just another meaningless, soon-forgotten shape on the map and name on the label.

The Thing About Modest Proposals

The thing about Modest Proposals is that they are not always what they seem. The most famous Modest Proposal — Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish parents should eat their starving children — wasn’t intended to encourage murder or cannibalism. It was meant to shock readers into recognizing the harsh and heartless treatment of Ireland’s poor and the dire conditions they experienced. It worked, too, waking up English citizens to the reality of their government’s Ireland policies.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s North Dakota Plan probably reflected his experiences as a diplomat in the Kennedy administration (he was US Ambassador to India). He knew that big, powerful states were no guarantee of peace and prosperity — in fact, they were often just the opposite (think Cold War mutually-assured destruction). His North Dakota thought experiment flipped reality in search of a better solution to world problems.

No one would seriously consider my “North Dakota” plan for AVAs. It is ridiculous. But this is what American wine could more or less look like in 30  years if current trends persist. It won’t happen all at once, just a couple more AVAs here and there. But it will add right up all the same and then, well, there you are.

Maybe AVAs were the best way to establish identity back when there were only a few of them — remember that the very first AVA granted back in 1980 was not Napa (it came a few months later) but Augusta in Missouri. Maybe today, when the AVA count is in the hundreds, there are better paths to follow. If not, then the future could be a jig-saw puzzle world of wine.

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Wine jig-saw puzzles can be quite entertaining if done right. Check out the wine and spirits puzzles that Rebecca Gibb MW has created at Bamboozled Games!

Just to show that I am not a complete Scrooge, here’s a musical tribute to names, songs, and dreams. Enjoy.

9 responses

  1. Great piece Mike and very topical for many many reasons . I seem to have spent a life living within Appellation Systems and actually have a book which belonged to Barone RicasolI on the history of the establishment of the DOCG Chianti Classico -( based on political boundaries rather than geological )

    It is a pity that the “newer world ” producing countries have seen it necessary to copy what is largely the French system and the reasoning which they applied to create and sustain it. However a closer look at its origins ( which are relatively recent ) and how it was imposed , is worth looking at, in light of continued discordance by those who find it restrictive and mismatched both from Viticultural perspectives ( the late Ampelographer, Pierre Galet ) as well as evolving market needs.

  2. I love this comment because it brings the rest of the world’s issues into focus with wine districts. Thanks for your intelligence and clear thinking about this thought experiment.

    Forcing neighbors to create an identity sounds great…but then you run into the issue of branding, when a solid identity is created for the rest of the world, when its meaning in reality may be less valid or exaggerated. You might have gone further in noting that if grape growing and wine making is ALSO about a palpable, tastable sense of place, “terroir” even, then the disparate geography of arbitrary borders prevents a common, truthful identity when parts of a regions are closer to the ocean, at higher elevations, composed of different soils, and winemakers deal with those parameters in ways chosen by those factors and their artisanship.

    And then there is the notion of the deep pockets of existing owners of property and their ability to bend the will of the other winemakers. Sounds like our current political dilemma with the eLECTORAL College and big money tilting the election away from the will of the people.

    Of cours a wine district is not a large nation that is supposed to be driven by issues of equal justice for all under the law. The Dakotas suggestion has other problems outside of the world of wine.

    But you certainly got me thinking and more determined to watch the debate tonight as painful as it is to watch an egotistic bully try to intimidate a well intended gentleman who has virtue on his side.

    Thanks Mike, for bringing intelligence to wine blogging. You are a vinous Paul Krugman. No small praise, unless you are a fan of Milton Friedman’s blindness to the role that government SHOULD play in regulating free markets. Adam Smith is ashamed of Friedman, FYI. His book, “The Moral Sense” cautions the the invisible hand must be regulated with conscience.

  3. One driving force for establishment of AVAs is the right to label as Estate grown and bottled. My firm worked briefly last year with a small group of growers in the foothills above Fresno. It proved more than they were up for to do the work to get approval, but I know first hand that the two main goal were to differentiate from Valley floor plonk, and to be allowed to use Estate Bottled. Currently TTB rules state this is only allowed if the vineyard is inside an AVA, and the winery is in the same AVA.

  4. As a winemaker and an AVA Petitioner of 4 AVA’s that have enjoyed Final Approval, I’m not sure the AVA system needs to be rehabbed or re-invented. If the (EU) AOC/DOC systems are prescriptive, the AVA system is DE-scriptive–meaning it allows nascent regions to define their own boundaries and then slowly allow a wine style or regional character to develop.

    While your idea of more pleasing geometric boundary shapes might be easier to understand from a public perspective, the utility of an AVA currently is limited to the same kind of wine drinker that buys $30+ bottles of wine in general, in other words, geeks. The system works well for geeks, established AVA’s (Napa) and the newest (Alisos Canyon for example).

    Respectfully, from someone who has actually been immersed in the AVA and TTB systems for 23 years and 4 petitions, an AVA is not perfect, but there’s no need to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Let me know if you’d like to chat about this further.

  5. Astute post. Here in Michigan, one AVA was created by a single winery that is — ahem — no Chateau Grillet. Thirty years later, it’s still home to just a couple of others. I’m sure similar examples exist elsewhere. In addition to terroir, perhaps there could be a minimum number of wineries or value of wine produced for a region to qualify for an AVA.

  6. Interesting ideas on an exciting and currently “hot” topic! Notions of identity, solidarity, geography, politics, all remind me of my working experience at the OIV, all of a sudden!! Maybe because wine is just like life itself? At least on this planet and us humans as the dominant species. Inspiring and thought-provoking piece, Mr. Veseth! Thank you

  7. It drew my attention. I, along with several folks at my neighboring vineyards, are in the process of securing an AVA for our region. It’s the Lake Champlain Valley of Vermont. Our quite distinct region, thanks to the geography of the lake and its shore, is significantly different from the surrounding terrain in NY and New England. It seems to me this being designated an AVA makes sense. I do wonder, though, about the continual splitting of what seem like reasonable geographic and climactic regions (Napa Valley, The Finger Lakes, Sonoma. etc) into finer and finer sub-appellations with, to the most of us, obscure geographic designations.

  8. As I lived in Australia for a decade or so, arriving with no knowledge of their AVAs, if they even have them, I did find geographically defined regions useful (Margaret River, and the like) as a suggestion of liked, or avoided terroir.

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