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Another conversation about AVAs and terroir


There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.

I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.

Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”

First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.

Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.

The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.

Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.

All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.

Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”

  1. Steve, I love the way you stir things up. I have always believed that somewhereness is generally in the eye of the beholder or taste of the beholder so to speak. The fact that terroir is supposed to be about distinctiveness is in general a MISTAKE. Things were simpler in bygone days when the term terroir began to be used. Fast forward to modern day wine making and AVAs multiplying like bunnies and it makes the concept quite silly. Terroir is 95% marketing and I may be incorrect on the percent but you get the point. Great post!

  2. Hi Steve, great post about the confusing and challenging AVA system of organization we use for our California vineyards. As a wine professional that spends a fair bit of time talking about vineyard locations and qualities, I, like you, do find AVA’s useful and I generally support them and hope to see further expansion of the system in the future. I also agree with you that the AVA’s in California are too diverse and complex to be defined by a single style of wine containing a set of aromas, flavors and structures that can act as a paradigm by which all other wine should be judged. The French would call this “typicity,” which is as it sounds makes a wine “typical” of a varietal and or a place. This can be a useful concept, if it is not taken too far. After all isn’t ranking of vineyards by their conformity to a standard one way to define qualitative vineyard terms such as “Grand Cru”, ”Premier Cru”, etc.? Aren’t these terms expressing how closely a particular wine is to an ultimate standard? Grand Cru should be the most precise and complete definition of a particular terrior. If we start down the road of trying to rank vineyards into some sort of hierarchy, we start down the path of typicity, which I think will lead to a loss of one of the most exciting things about California wines–diversity. That said I think there is a middle ground where similar wines, (such as RRV Pinot Noirs) often share similar traits. As a winemaker that makes up to twenty different Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley each year I see familiar traits that reoccur year after year. A spicy, red fruit quality, plush, fine grain tannins, moderate, supple acidity. Just because there is similarity amongst some wines from an area should not temp us to try to define what makes for a “proper expression” of Russian River Pinot Noir. Down this path lies ruin–ruin of one of the best parts of winegrowing in the new world. That is that vintners are free to experiment, and pursue any combination of varietal and soil they choose. Out of this process we receive a bounty of interesting and stunningly unique wines that smell and taste like nothing else on the planet. So instead of “Vive Typicity” I say “Vive Diversity” and let the AVA system try to catch up to the incredible range of wines being made from them.
    James Hall- Patz & Hall Wine Co.

  3. Dear James Hall, thank you. I echo your call: Vive diversity.

  4. The article is correct in pointing out that “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable” because you can just look at it and read the label! I wonder if the article meant only that. The continuation of the sentence, with its reference to labels, suggests as much.

  5. Rob Griffin says:

    Hi Steve,
    It’s difficult to consider the specific flavors and attributes of AVA wines when the system for their creation is so blatantly political. Here in Washington the TTB (or was it ATF) accepts AVA applications over the protests of industry authorities and consultants and creates areas that are in reality neighborhood trade associations and not actual geographically or historically defensible. Hope the California experience is more scientific and less political.

  6. Rob, what you call “neighborhood trade associations” are in actuality usually groups of vintners working within a given region. They’re your friends and neighbors; they want to produce great wine. Rightly or wrongly, they feel that their region needs a new name. As for “not actual geographically or historically defensible,” the TTB makes these applicants go through a lot of hoops to prove the actual geographicity and historicity of the regions. So I’m not entirely in agreement with you on this one.

  7. Steve – thanks for the discussion. I’ve been wondering about the new appellation issue with regards to Hidden Ridge. As you know we are located just a mile or so outside of the Spring Mountain appellation and a mile or so outside of the Sonoma Valley appellation as the crow flies. (It’s a 45 minute drive from the vineyard back to Santa Rosa and then into the Sonoma Valley). If we create our own appellation it would be very small mountain area in eastern Sonoma County. Our current appellation of Sonoma County is represents huge diversity. Should Hidden Ridge be happy with our Sonoma County designation? Should we try to join an existing appellation through expansion? Should we form our own appelation? What about a Mayacamas appellation covering all of the mountain vineyards in Sonoma county from Kamen to Hidden Ridge to Peter Michael to Verite? I’d love to know what your readers think.

  8. Casidy, I’ll let my readers weigh in. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Hidden Ridge should become know for the quality of its wines, not for its appellation. A good example from France is Mas de Daumas Gassac, which became famous (and coveted) despite its lowly status as a vin de pays from the Languedoc.

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