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Is California running out of new AVAs?



The state already has about 183 American Viticultural Areas, * which is a lot, but nowhere close to France’s 300-plus appellations, not to mention Italy’s 800 or so assorted DOCs, DOCGs and IGTs.

Most of California’s AVAs are along the coast, from Mendocino County down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara, which is logical, since that’s where most of the vineyards and wineries are.

It used to be that new AVAs were big news. Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview; all of the these carve-outs, in their day, excited wine lovers, and the wine media covered them heavily.

But excitement over new AVAs seems to have palled in recent years, perhaps due to the sheer number, but due also, I think, to a sense on the part of the public and the media that new appellations these days seem to be more about marketing than true terroir. The explosion of sub-AVAs in Lodi and Paso Robles may have added to this blasé attitude. In those cases, it will take us quite a while to sort through the finer distinctions between, say, Paso Robles Willow Creek and Paso Robles Geneseo District, and one may wonder if it makes any difference anyway, outside of the immediate area. Certainly, sommeliers will have a say: there’s no one like the somm community when it comes to driving interest (or the lack thereof) in a new region.

My own view? The Coast is pretty much nearly out of new AVA candidates, with a few important exceptions. As I’ve argued for many years, the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up. I have my own ideas concerning how; they tend to run along north-south (warmer-cooler) lines as well as east-west. Another important need, as I’ve also argued for years, is to appellate the Mayacamas mountains that rim Alexander Valley’s east side. This would most likely be based on a minimum elevation line. The fact is, not only do those high-altitude vineyards need their own appellation based on their unique terroir, but the public seems to have got an idea fixed in their minds of Alexander Valley wine (especially Cabernet Sauvignon), and these mountain Cabs are so different from the valley floor Cabs, it’s not even funny. There might even be room for two or more separate appellations up there, the way they did with Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. Finally, the far Sonoma Coast should be further sub-appellated. Annapolis seems obvious, as does Freestone. Maybe Occidental. Maybe others.

So there are three glaring opportunities: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Alexander Valley. Anyplace else? You could tinker here and there, with, say, Anderson Valley, or the Santa Cruz Mountains; you could add Los Alamos, down in Santa Barbara, and Pritchard Hill, in Napa Valley. You could theoretically split Carneros into Haut and Bas. You could—dare I say it?—resurrect the old “Bench” concept in Oakville and Rutherford (at the cost of provoking a civil war). Could there potentially be important new appellations in Humboldt County or the L.A. area? Maybe, but I don’t see it anytime soon. Lake County? Not until the public takes more notice of that prime growing region. San Benito? Done. Monterey? Done. San Luis Obispo seems pretty well sub-appellated, with the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. Ventura? I don’t think so.

It’s fun to play with the California wine map and try and figure out where it’s going in the future. But, of course, our glimpse into the future is “through a glass, darkly.” Who knows what the AVAs will look like in 50 years?

* According to Wine Institute’s compilation; the number is approximate

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    If wine trade professionals can’t retain in their head even a few dozen AVAs, then I think it is wishful thinking to hope that the wine buying public can.

    In the consumer packaged goods industry, there is this research-based longstanding metric: consumers in the grocery aisle spend less than two seconds initially speed reading your front label before making a “possible buy/don’t buy” decision.

    If sufficiently intrigued, they will pick the product up off the shelf and more thoroughly read the front (and maybe back) label.

    How many California wineries conspicuously promote their AVA on their front label?

    How many of these AVAs even register with the buying public?

    (Aside: the same buying public that largely can’t even name all 50 states. Or a dozen state capitals. Or even their own representatives in their state legislature or the Congress.)

  2. Bob Rossi says:

    I guess things have changed a lot since we stopped traveling to California 30 years ago and I pretty much stopped drinking California wines. I don’t recognize half the appellations you mention. And speaking of appellations, I recently had an interesting conversation with a French winemaker about a particular vineyard of hers. We were visiting her small winery in the Loire Valley last week, and she took us on a drive through several vineyards. One of them was her Touraine Chenonceau appellation vineyard. She said that before she could call the wines from it Touraine Chenonceau, they had to have been certified as TC by someone who came out and inspected it for things like slope and soil. If it hadn’t qualified, then she could only have called the wine Touraine. By the way, the wine was excellent. And she also made wines from grapes like Pineau d’Aunis and Orbois, which could not be called AOP Touraine because if the grapes. So they are either IGP Val de Loire or Vin de France. I believe that in California the AVA does not control what grapes can be used. Is that true?

  3. Hi, Steve. I think you transposed some numbers. California has only 138 AVAs, not 183.

  4. The wine geek in me loves exploring AVA’s and I can appreciate what the different AVA’s represent.

    However, the wine industry is always talking about how to get more people to drink more wine and a big part of doing that is demystifying wine for the average person who is just looking for a good wine to have with dinner.

    Go into any grocery store and walk down the wine isle. Hundreds of wines are there and they represent only a fraction of all the possible wines that are available.

    Now just imagine if you walked into you local grocery store to pick up something for dinner that night and you are confronted with hundreds of difference carrots (different types, from different regions, different styles of growing, etc.) to choose from. Then the same thing with all the produce, the breads, milk, meat, etc.

    While I’d hate to see a wine selection at the grocery store I frequent have only a red, white and rosé to select from, I have to wonder what would happen to wine sales if the average consumer wasn’t faced with hundreds of wines (and the number is always growing)to select from when they were just looking for one bottle to take home that night.

  5. Dear Karen, I counted up the list at Wine Institute’s website and that’s the number I got. They do sometimes break big appellations, like Central Coast, into separate ones by county, so that inflates the number. That’s why I said the number is only approximate. Thanks.

  6. Another example of how confusing the AVAs are getting when two wine people can’t even agree on the same number of AVAs in California.

  7. Steve, I love your blog. It’s the only wine tasting-related blog I care for. Would love to get a glass with you sometime.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Perusing the above AVA link . . .

    I live in Los Angeles. Work as a wine industry professional.

    I have NEVER heard of this area:

    Think any consumers have heard of this area?

  9. Bob Henry says:

    From Yelp:

    “Leona Valley Winery – CLOSED”

  10. Thank you Gabriel. I write it for people like you.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript to “never heard of you before” AVAs . . .

    A winery north of Los Angeles is up for sale.

    “Agua Dulce Winery Outside L.A. Hits the Market for $12.8 Million”

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