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A California AVA: for what’s it worth


California has a new AVA, its millionth. This time it’s Inwood Valley, up in Shasta County, which is way to the northeast of San Francisco, up toward the Oregon border.

Actually, Inwood Valley isn’t California’s millionth appellation, it’s only the 128th (by my count), but still, that’s about 28 more than the last time I counted, which wasn’t that long ago. So these things are proliferating faster than walking dead people in a zombie movie.

I have nothing against appellations, but consumers really have got to understand their limitations. The bottom line is that an American Viticultural Area is a guarantee of nothing except grape origin. The specific percentage that’s required depends on the type of AVA. For example, a county appellation (like Shasta County) calls for a minimum of 75% of the grapes from that county. A more specific appellation (like Inwood Valley) requires 85%. There are additional minor requirements, but that’s pretty much it.

You can’t get good wine from a bad appellation (not saying Inwood Valley is a bad appellation, don’t know anything about it), but you can get bad wine from a good appellation. That’s because the federal TTB (trade and tax bureau) requirements for appellations have nothing to do with quality. It’s strictly origin, like I said. Maybe they should, but this gets into governmental intrusions that I don’t particularly want to see happen. I’m not a small government guy, but can you imagine TTB “taste experts” saying what Napa Valley-grown wines can use “Napa Valley” and which ones can’t? That would be like getting Dan Berger, Wilfred Wong, Jim Laube and me into a room and making law.

Steve: I love this wine. I think it should qualify for a Napa Valley appellation.

Dan Berger: Are you crazy? It’s overblown! Look at that alcohol–15.5%. I say downgrade it to North Coast. Maybe even California.

Wilfred: Boys, boys, try to get along. Say, are there any hors d’oeuvres?

Jim Laube: I give it 100 points. Or maybe 57.

There are certain appellations that are more likely to be good than others:  Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder are two. Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills has a high probabilty of being good, but the bigger they get the more opportunity there is for so-so wine. Usually, the smaller AVAs in the better coastal counties offer the best chance for success. But, of course, smart wine lovers wouldn’t buy a wine based solely on appellation. They’d want a trusted recommendation, whether it’s from a critic, merchant or friend.

I poke fun at the proliferation of AVAs in California, but actually, there are lots of areas I’d like to see even more appellated, or sub-appellated. Alexander Valley needs to be split up, especially as regards elevation. I wouldn’t mind having Oakville divided into east and west, although I know that will never happen. Remember the carnage when somebody suggested an Oakville Bench? (They wanted a Rutherford Bench too.) There was blood running along Highway 29, and the Napa River ran red. But it wasn’t a bad idea then and it isn’t now.

I think Santa Lucia Highlands should be split into two, maybe three parts, on a northwest-southeast line. I’ve written plenty about sub-AVAs within the Russian River Valley and won’t get into the details again, except that there’s a big difference between south of River Road and the Middle Reach. Down in Paso, they’ve been hassling with sub-AVAs for years. I lost track of developments a while back. I think they were talking about an additional 11 or so new ones. Can that be right? Somebody let me know. Seems excessive. Sometimes in an effort to get things right, people go too far and just over-complicate them.

And, as I wrote in October, a Pritchard Hill appellation is long overdue, although that, too, is unlikely anytime soon.

What AVAs are just right? Yountville. Calistoga. Edna Valley. Arroyo Grande Valley. Diamond Mountain. Spring Mountain. Stags Leap. Happy Canyon. Santa Maria Valley. Those are a few. I’m not gonna go through all 128, so I’ll just stop here.

  1. Fun read and I mostly agree, but what is a bad appellation? That’s a pretty broad and unsupported statement.

  2. Gerald Asher says:

    Steve, the controls on a “controlled” appellation in France (and, I think, in Italy, too) are not imposed by “the government”, even less a group of wine journalists sitting around and giving vent to their opinions. In France, INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), the office of Repression des Fraudes, and doubtless other departments have something to say in accepting the contours (in every sense) of an appellation and in policing it, but its formulation does not start there. As here, it is a committee of local growers, the syndicat, that draws up proposals for the contours of an appellation. It’s just that they go further than we do both in attempting to define not just a geographic area, but the product that reflects that geographic area. All who own a bit of that defined zone have an interest in maintaining its value and protecting its reputation. Hence basic quality controls – not necessarily to produce outstanding wines (no one can legislate for that), but to encourage quality – crop limitations, for example – and tasting panels to weed out bad wines that reflect badly on the appellation and damage its value. The lkocal syndicat proposes the use of varieties and techniques that have shown over the years to best represent whatever the soil and situation offers. Any change originates with the growers expressed through their syndicat. The dominant grape variety, if there is one, is the instrument through which the “score” of the terroir is played. The syndicat makes decisions which are then ratified (or not) by the powers that be. It’s bottom up, not top down.

    Our AVAs work also best when there is general agreement among growers, and a recognizable style and quality. Chardonnay in Edna Valley, Zinfandel in Redwood Valley, Pinot Noir in Sta Rita Hills, for example. The right instrument in the right place. Economics and public preference then pressure the growers to conform. At a certain quality level, we expect specific differences between, say, a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and a Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. But first there has to be a style and quality associated with a geographic area. Then the growers can define that area and work out what it is that underlies its style and quality and help each other maintain it so that they speak, figuratively, with one voice. To succeed requires an agreed focus.

    Our great problem was created by the move – wise at the time – to replace European place names identifying wine types with the names of grape varieties. That has caused a confusion between grapes and wines that remains unresolved. That is why growers with only modest confidence in their ability to sell wine on the strength of its geographic origin till emphasize first the grape variety and then, almost by the way, add its geographic origin. It’s as if every piece of music we ever listened to was identified by the instrument or instruments, and only coincidentally do we learn that this this is by Brahms and that is Cajun blues. As long as we go on focusing on the instruments (and the winemaker/conductor) and dismiss the score – the wine’s origin or terroir – as barely relevant, or as nothing more than a marketing label – we’ll never get it right.

    Gerald Asher

  3. Michael Donohue says:

    If someone were to grow and vinify Sauvignon in Chassagne, Cabernet in Tain and Syrah in Paulliac what would we have? Sublime symphonies or cacaphony? I’m not convinced that just because the Cistercians settled on Pinot for the Cote d’Or hundreds of years ago there isn’t room for some experimentation – Bobal in Beaune? – and this from someone who gives thanks regularly for Philippe the Bold’s essential decree that Gamay is mauvais.

  4. Paso Robles definitely needs a breakdown…11? I don’t know, but at least 6 or 7. I’m currently in St.Emilion & under Grand Cru restriction regardin yield & alcohol, but that is about it

  5. Funny stuff as usual Steve, New World AVA mean little and because it is an agency run by our government, that will continue. Mostly marketing BS mostly but not always. Old World AVA, think Italy, France, Spain, Germany mean quite a lot & are not run by their government per se. The enjoyable Gerald even chimed in. 128 now? Lets confuse the consumer and customers of wine a bit more every year!
    Cheers to another great post!

  6. Dennis Schaefer says:

    Wow! What a treat to read Mr Asher’s viewpoint here. A great explanation.

  7. raley roger says:

    I bow before Gerald Asher. So cool he commented here.

  8. Gary Eberle says:

    Until there appears to be some reliable tasting showing a consistant difference in quality within the Paso Robles AVA I can see no valid reason to put AVA’s within. A new AVA should show at least some difference on a consistant basis before it can become a new AVA. Marketing, or the lack therof, should not be the driving force to establish a new AVA.

    128 AVA’s in California. We really need more so the consumer is even more confused, and wineries can claim they make better wine because they are in the if nif AVA with absolutly no proof that if nif produces better or different wine.

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