Do American Viticultural Areas Really Matter?

The Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) is in charge of reviewing applications to create new appellation names for wine labels. Students of wine are constantly trying to memorize lists of the approved American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These grape growing areas in the United States define the geographical boundaries, but nothing else. Producers can grow any variety of grapes and make any style of wine. As of January 2012 there were 199 AVAs in the United States with 114 of them being in California. This does not include wines labeled by country, state or county. This type of labeling is allowed but is not AVA labeling. It is referred to by the federal government as Appellation of Origin labeling and any county or state may be listed on the label if at least 75% of the grapes come from the area listed. Some states have set more stringent standards.

California has four large, regional AVAs: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast and Sierra Foothills. The three coastal AVAs are meaningless in terms of predicting style. That Paso Robles and Morro Bay both fall within the Central Coast AVA and yet often differ from each other by 50 degrees F in the middle of a summer day is laughable. Sonoma Coast AVA within the North Coast AVA is more meaningful but still covers too wide an expanse stretching inland just beyond Santa Rosa. San Francisco Bay AVA includes six counties and stretches just beyond Livermore. Does this entire region really share a common soil type and climate? This AVA seems to have been created solely to make it easier to sell wines internationally and is misleading. Much more benign is that there are at least seven AVAs in California with only a single winery within each; including: Cole Ranch (Esterlina), Guenoc Valley (Guenoc/Langtry), Dos Rios (Vin de Tevis), Pacheco Pass (Casa de Fruta), Malibu-Newton Canyon (Rosenthal), Saddle Rock Canyon-Malibu (Semler) and San Pasqual Valley (Orfilia). Some of these wineries are producing lovely wines and others are not, but it is easier to define the wineries than the AVAs. There is also the AVA that got left behind with zero wineries or commercial vineyards. Though still on the books, Benmore Valley might be better named as No More Valley. Don’t get me wrong, there are many AVAs that have unique terroir and whose wines have clearly identifiable traits. But that is a discussion for another day! For a more detailed discussion see my ramblings on Silicon Valley Bank’s blog.

What are your thoughts on AVAs and USA wine labeling?

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By David Glancy | | David Glancy, Wine School |
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