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Tales from the AVA front



“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.

I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.

This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”

Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?

Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.

But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)

It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.

But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?

There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.

This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.

Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.

My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.

  1. Just so there’s no confusion, the current eastern boundary of the northern valley of SRH is not the 101, it’s a ridgeline that defines the outline of the valley. The new expansion would use a road as the eastern line.

    But you (Steve) do bring up a very valid point: one of the biggest challenges in having AVAs that provide useful information requires growers and winemakers to have a shared “vision” of what style of wine the region should produce. Even though I’m oppossed to the SRH expansion, in the long run it probably won’t really make that big a difference. What concerns me more are the low alcohol folk who are picking fruit so early that the resulting wines bear no resemblance to the rest of the wines from the AVA.

    While I think the low alcohol folk are misguided in attempting that in SRH, I’m can’t say that they’re wrong. That will be up to the consumer. But it does create a confusing situation in that there is no well defined style emerging from SRH these days. And without that, the AVA designation is somewhat meaningless.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Unlike European models, the U.S. AVA system, by definition, is not concerned with style. The TTB treats AVAs only as a system of origin, with the appellation system here looking at unique geographical features that impact viticulture, but without concern for wine style. Strictly speaking, then, your point about style is irrelevant to the way in which U.S. AVAs are defined. Still, that doesn’t negate the question of stylistic clarity or consumer interest. It just shifts the attention of the relationship between style and region away from AVA towards winemaker, which is perhaps more where it rested all along.


  3. Hi HW,

    You’re right, style doesn’t matter when defining AVAs. I was just musing a bit on Steve’s Pisoni Vineyard example… and something that I’ve often wondered/worried about when trying to convey information to the consumer.

  4. The Pisoni Vineyard demonstrates how complicated it can be, even within one vineyard. The Pisoni Vineyard, like many of the vineyards at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, is really a collection of vineyards farmed exceedingly well by Mark Pisoni. At the southern end of the SLH, the elevation increases, the soils become poorer (good for vines) and the places to plant become fraction-alized. Each section of the Pisoni Vineyard is unique, with different exposures, soil fertility, row direction, etc. Each section actually has a different name. And if you listen closely to Gary Pisoni (who planted these sections) he describes them as the “Big Block Vineyard”, “Hermanos Vineyard”, “Tinas Vineyard”, etc. I believe that is because, in his mind, they are different vineyards. Certainly that is how Mark farms them, uniquely based on the needs of each site.

    So, for instance, at Siduri we get each of three aforementioned sections from the Pisoni Vineyard (there are others). We pick them sometimes not just two week apart but we have actually picked the Big Block and the Tina’s sections as much as 5 weeks apart. That is us, one winery….But in our mind, each section, farmed precisely, deserves to be picked and produced so that it has the best possibility to achieve its highest potential.

    Not sure that clears up anything…probably only muddies the water. But hopefully it does point out how challenging it can be even with one producer in one vineyard, to boil the points down into one or two salient examples.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. Thanks Adam. Kinda makes my point about AVAs. And vineyards!

  6. It’s disappointing feeling after reading all what you wrote. What came to my mind was the Cole Ranch AVA(when I studied Cali AVAs last year as a hobby):it’s the smallest AVA in the US (at less than a quarter of a square mile); it’s a single-winery AVA owned by Esterlina. But why it was rewarded as an AVA at the first place? You probably know better than I do-the mesoclimate, the month-delayed harvest, the weird “togetherness” of cab, pinot, chard, riesling at the vineyards, and etc.. Does it exemplify the original purpose of an AVA’s establishment?

    Grapes from an individual AVA hold their distinct genes; they are then reincarnated in the form of a glass of wine in front of you. You sip it and chew it; with some hocus-pocus chanting, the whereabouts of this “being” soon flashes on your palate with an AVA ID.

    Is it just my idealistic imagination of an AVA and wines it produced?

    Now I’m not sure about my faith in AVAs; I’m also lost with my bearings in exploring California wines. On a more cheerful note, an AVA maybe still a young male who can’t control his own destiny yet because he has not known what it is.

    Earlier this summer when I was in Anderson Valley, I heard that Esterlina was on the market for sale. I wonder what will be her destiny.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    I’m going to formally promote the establishment of the Trefethen AVA. When grapes that historically have reached their pinnacle in cool and not quite as cool climates……in hillsides of grey slate and limestone and granitic soil and red clay…..when they all can thrive side-by-side like ebony and ivory on the same warm, fertile, flat-as-Goldie Hawn piece of land, clearly we are witnessing a unique and special terroir that should…..nay, must be recognized as such by the ttb.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Porsche Racer AVA!

    Bill Haydon
    Soviet Mole in MI-6

  8. Bill Haydon,

    The French need the American market for their wine exports even more than before.

    ~~ Bob

    From The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” Section
    (September 10, 2014, Page B8):

    “China Crushes French Spirits”


    By Ruth Bender
    Staff Reporter

    Exports of French wine and spirits dropped sharply in the first half of the year, hit by a dramatic slowdown of demand for pricey drinks in China.

    Exports of wines and spirits — one of France’s top 10 exports — fell 7.3% to €4.8 billion ($6.2 billion) in the first six months of the year, according to data released Tuesday by the Federation of Wine and Spirit Exporters.

    Exports of wines and spirits to China fell nearly 30% as sales for expensive drinks, such as cognac and Bordeaux wine, tumbled. Chinese consumers have refrained from buying expensive bottles since the Chinese government’s austerity campaign banned extravagant gift-giving among officials last year. The crackdown has hit profits at large foreign drink makers, including France’s Pernod Ricard SA and Rémy Cointreau SA.

    Executives at large drinks makers have predicted Chinese demand will pick up again next year, and Pernod Ricard said last month it has seen signs of improvement in the latest quarter.

    Exports of spirits fell 9%, dragged down by a drop in cognac exports, which have been hit particularly hard amid the Chinese campaign. Rémy Cointreau, which depends for the bulk of its revenue and profit on its flagship Rémy Martin cognac, is among those hit hardest by the Chinese slowdown. The company’s profit was cut in half last year.

    Exports of wines fell 7% as growth in Champagne exports helped stem some of the declines for high-end Bordeaux wine.

    Exports of Bordeaux wine fell 28% in the first half. China has become France’s main export destination for wine recently. Between 2009 and 2014, exports of wine to China more than doubled as more wealthy Chinese began to collect French wines.

    Write to Ruth Bender at

  9. Randy Caparoso says:

    So the AVA system is messy. What’s new? So are all the appellation systems — Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, you name it. Anytime you’re dealing with natural boundaries and parsing historic usages and contemporary needs at the same time, a system is going to be messy, and consistently in need of revision. Hence, the mess in Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, etc.

    But what’s important is that a system is in place; and after 35 years, I would say that the AVA system has accounted for itself in mostly positive ways. The big thing for me is that it establishes a dialogue between the industry and consumers focused on regional identity rather than just brands and grape varieties. The best wines, after all, are as much (or more) reflections of where they’re grown as the people who make them and the grapes that are used to make them.

    That is to say, the AVA system — right down to seemingly inconsequential tiny AVAs such as Cole Ranch, to the largest, most overlapping AVAs such as Upper Mississippi Valley — helps us all understand and appreciate fine wine the way it’s supposed to be understood and appreciated: as representations of places, as much as anything. We can disagree on details, or even terminology, but it still makes American wine a helluva lot more interesting.

  10. Larry Brooks says:

    I remember thinking years ago when I was at Acacia and involved in the formation of the Carneros AVA, that this was all a bit premature. I believe that it takes many generations to understand the capabilities of the land both in terms of quality and style. Certainly the larger AVA for Pinot like Carneros and Russian River need to be broken up into smaller units with more attention paid to consistency of soil in particular. Recent scienitific work has clearly established the link between soil and flavor. Most traditional French systems of wine classification are soil centric based on long observation. Much of California coastal winegrowing land is a melange of soil types. Here in the Edna Valley which is tiny we have 50 distinct soil types. Soil conditions as varied as this may resist any valid classification on a regional level.

  11. Just to clarify – Great Britain/England was not then, nor is it now, a Democracy, but a Parliamentary government. Just as the United States is a Republican form of government, not a democracy. Winston Churchill’s comment likely was a comment on “Democracy” as defined by the Ancient Greeks as opposed to defining England as such.

  12. If you overlay Randy’s supportive comments with Larry’s comments on the limitations of meaning that can be applied, especially to large appellations, you get to the heart of the matter.

    No one is going to come up with a perfect system. Burgundy may be broken up by soil types, but Bordeaux is broken up by communes as is much of the Rhone.

    Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are both widely regarded AVAs, yet each is too big by itself to be precise for every wine or type. Once one accepts that the AVA system is imperfect, that even vineyard designations are not necessarily specific since exposures, elevations, soil depths and even soil types can change within a vineyard, then it is easy to accept any system of appellations, including AVAs as better than the alternatives of no appellations smaller than counties–which is where we were not all that many years ago.

  13. I fully understand the pride that wine grape growers and winemakers take in their “terroir” / “sense of place.”

    But do consumers commit to memory — and use as a buying guide — the geographic borders and geological/climate characteristics of AVAs?

    We have debated on this blog the putative benefits of “estate bottling” versus “estate grown.”

    I think it becomes a case of “too much information” to ask the general buying public to track 115 discrete AVAs in California (as of the end of calendar year 2013 — as quoted to me by The Wine Institute moments ago).


    Recall that the consumer spends only 3 seconds reading a wine bottle label on a store shelf before making a preliminary “buy / don’t buy” qualifying decision.

    The AVA of the wine won’t register in those 3 seconds. The graphics and the grape variety and the brand name will.

    Better to put your marketing efforts behind “branding” your winery and its named vineyards. Or co-marketing efforts “branding” the vineyards you source your contract fruit from.

    (Historical example: manufacturers who joined the “Intel Inside” campaign to co-market their computers.)

    Ask a burghound what is the single largest impediment to “mastering” red Burgundies, and the answer is learning the nuances of the village and Premier Cru and Grand Cru system.

    Properties no bigger than a proverbial postage stamp subdivided and farmed by multiple family members — and picked / vinified / bottled / branded / distributed separately.

    (A mental image of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” comes to mind grappling with this complexity.)

  14. Cris Carter says:

    Obviously, this is a matter of money- increased land and fruit prices for within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The boundary as it stands now bisects the John Sebastiano Vineyard, most blocks within (Pinot noir) and others just outside (Syrah, Grenache, Gruner.) If the owners had planted it all as Pinot, could we honestly say that one block, twenty feet from the other is worthy of the AVA and the other not? As the SRH contains a wide variety of soils, we need to define it based on topography and climate. The climate on this particular hilltop is cooler than the warmest parts on Santa Rosa Rd. (Rio Vista Vyd.) because of the constant breeze and 1000′ elevation. It’s a large hill, contiguous with the rest of the Sta. Rita Hills, so it fits topographically. The area another mile or so east gets lower in elevation, flatter and a few degrees warmer on an average day, so it doesn’t meet the climate and topo criteria. Just food for thought. I buy JSV fruit, but don’t really have a horse in this race.

    Cris Carter
    Weatherborne Wine Corp.

  15. An interesting juxtaposition, and one Steve, Brian and Adam all address in a way, is that the ‘old world’ set up is more about ‘typicity’ than geography, as our system is. And based on that, typicity really does not come into play – well, it does, from a marketing standpoint, for sure . . .

    Take the Sta Rita Hills, for instance – you can be standing at Clos Pepe or Rancho Las Hermenas in the middle of most vintages at 9am, and it will be relatively cool. Head east on Santa Rosa Road, and you’ll find the temps rising precipitously – perhaps over 20 degrees (no, I am not exaggerating).

    Well, you can imagine the subsequent wines from these two areas will be QUITE different, yet they still fall within the same AVA. And top off that with winemaking styles – rather excess or not enough alcohol – and you’ve got wines that show very little if any ‘familiar resemblance’.

    Same can be said with syrahs from Ballard Canyon, too. Drop down to Larner and it’s usually cool and most of the time shrouded in fog during harvest in the morning, yet head up the road a few miles to Tierra Alta, where it’s baking . . . .

    Just another data point or two . . .


  16. Great string of comments and the debate of SOMEWHERENESS goes on. A lot of AVAs are simply used as marketing bullshit. Russian River has been changed what 3 times? Old world vs new world product distinctiveness. Half the experts think terroir is a hoax and the other half believe they can taste place in a glass…and that is aok. Is a single vineyard better than a blend or the opposite? With all the tools that some winemakers have in their box of magic tricks,who is to say what is right? Yes it is a complex subject. Winston was right it is not perfect but it is the best thing we have…Cheers!

  17. Steve,
    You are absolutely right on how these geographic changes tend to be gradual rather than lines drawn in the sand. As a geographer working on AVAs, that’s one of the difficulties I grapple with all the time. The 85% rule is based on a very specific number, hence very specific boundaries are necessary. It often requires applying a classification to areas that are easily classified into one piece of geography or the other. What helps in this case is the name. A very specific eastern edge to the name “Santa Rita Hills” is given by the USGS Board on Geographic Names.

    I also wanted to note that from what I understand, Los Olivos District is going to include quite a bit more than just Los Olivos. I haven’t seen the petition, so I can’t be sure. In this case, I could imagine one of the challenges is in getting the right name. If it includes Ballard and Santa Ynez, both of those names are already taken by Ballard Canyon and Santa Ynez Valley.

  18. Susan Wu,
    The ATF/TTB have evolved along with the AVA program. Although technically no size restrictions exist, a modern test for the TTB is “can this area be considered a viticultural region?” (My words, not the TTB’s, but reflective of modern practices.) If the petition for Cole Ranch was submitted today, I doubt it would have been approved. It would be hard for an AVA that size to pass this test.

  19. Randy Caparoso says:

    Larry, I think your comment behooves follow-up: I agree that many AVAs were established more on the basis of broadly geographic, climatic and historic precedences, and less on soil distinctions, which is a shame. Some sub-divisions, however, have been primarily soil driven: for instance, the 7 sub-AVAs of the Lodi AVA were all soil based. The soon-to-be-approved sub-AVAs of Paso Robles will be primarily soil and topography based. There have been, and will be, some very intelligent choices made, and undoubtedly more controversial ones as well.

    Inevitably, of course, even the smallest AVAs will always have soil variations: that’s part and parcel of the entire West Coast, a jigsaw of terroirs if there ever was one. Face it: we see that all over even the best examples of appellation identification in Europe as well. Cheval Blanc is distinctive within Saint-Emilion, Petrus within Pomerol, Wurzgarten within Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and so forth. That’s the way it goes.

    I cannot agree, however, with the contention that this is all too much for consumers. Maybe for casual consumers. But there are countless consumers who are knowledgeable and care very much; who know their regions and sub-regions, and who put a lot of stock in it.

    It’s obviously important for growers and winemakers to understand Howell Mt. vs. Rutherford vs. Coombsville, etc., and it means a heckuva a lot to our more serious, high paying wine consumers, too, not to mention our specialty retailers, sommeliers, distributers, high-end online merchants, etc.

    Virtually every facet of the commercial wine industry benefits from our AVA system, and thank goodness we have something more to talk about with our geeky, detailed oriented consumers other than brands and grapes. As Mr. Olken pointed out, the beneficiaries of the AVA system are definitely the industry as The American AVA system may be far from perfect, but its ours!

  20. Patrick Frank says:

    Bob Henry, I want to know everything I can about a wine, so as Randy said, even if the AVA system is not perf., it still gives helpful information. No I don’t keep track of 115 AVAs but I do keep track of several of them very closely. Too much information?! Not by a long shot.

  21. Patrick, et. al.:

    “Assuming” the luxury of single vineyard bottling a wine exists, knowing (say) your Diamond Creek Cabernet came from Volcanic Hill — as distinct from Gravelly Meadow, as distinct from Red Rock Terrace, and as distinct from Lake Vineyard — is much more pertinent information than the AVA.

    ~~ Bob

  22. Sorry — one of the vineyards escaped my copy and paste . . .

    Patrick, et. al.:

    “Assuming” the luxury of single vineyard bottling a wine exists, knowing (say) your Diamond Creek Cabernet came from Volcanic Hill — as distinct from Gravelly Meadow, as distinct from Red Rock Terrace, and as distinct from Lake Vineyard — is much more pertinent information than the AVA.

  23. Back in 1994, I organized a “single blind” comparative tasting of every Pinot Noir made from the 1991 vintage Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, by opening up the commemorative 9-pack of those wines released to mailing list patrons.

    (Each 9-pack offering one bottle of each producer’s 1991 vintage wine, and three bottles of the 1991 vintage cuvee comprising one-sixth of each producer’s wine, fashioned by Bruno D’Alfonso.)

    Attending the event were winemakers Jim Adelman (Au Bon Climat brand), Richard Dore (Foxen brand), Rick Longoria (Gainey brand), Bruno d’ Alfonso (Sanford brand) and Lane Tanner (eponymous brand). Not in attendance: Brian Babcock (eponymous brand).

    Also in attendance were about ten Los Angeles area wine collectors.

    (Sorry Mr. Loring; we didn’t get introduced until circa 1996?)

    One AVA. One vineyard. One grape variety. One vintage.

    Each bottle was brown paper bagged and “randomly” assigned a pour order — save for the cuvee, poured seventh which served as the “baseline” wine.

    I asked the five winemakers if they could identify their own wine.

    Only Bruno was able to ID his own handiwork.

    That’s how subtle were the nuances between each wine.

    And yet: they picked at different times. Used wild yeast and inoculated yeast. Used different barrels (forests and toast levels). Fined and filtered differently.

    Terroir and Mother Nature trumped the art of the winemaker.

    So when you starting trying to tease out the differences between AVAs, be mindful that teasing out the differences between wines made from a single vineyard may be just as vexing.


    See spreadsheet titled “California Pinots – 1991 Tasting”

  24. For a different perspective on terroir and Pinot Noir, see yesterday’s wine column in the Los Angeles Times titled “Winemaker Greg Brewer as the conductor of Melville’s ensembles.”


    “In a tasting seminar he [Greg Brewer] gave recently for a group of wine professionals, we tasted through several flights of Pinot Noirs in which every wine had been made exactly the same — vinification, fermentation, the use of neutral barrels — except for one element. In some cases it was the type of soil, in others it was the varietal clone or whether stems were included during the fermentation. Considering that the barrel samples all came from just one area (the Santa Rita Hills) and one estate, the wines were astonishingly different. And yet each was a complete wine and could easily stand on its own.

    “Those wines were just a very small sampling of the palette of Pinots available to Brewer at Melville Vineyards, where he has made 17 vintages so far. The vineyards are picked in a certain order, so he can keep track of which grapes from which rows or blocks go into each of the 140 fermenters.”


    And the accompanying sidebar titled “Wine’s elements of change: soil, clones, stems and more.”


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