Keith Beavers is VinePair’s tastings director and host of the Wine 101 podcast. He is a staunch advocate for the rich, unique history of American wine.
We’ve been making wine in the States since the 17th century, but you could argue that the modern U.S. wine industry began in 1979. It’s the year the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), now known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), established the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system. Today we have over 200 AVAs, and while American wine drinkers may only know of a handful of them, each and every one is worth celebrating.
So, too, is the AVA system.
The TTB defines an AVA as a “delimited grape-growing region” that has “distinguishing features,” and a “name and a delineated boundary.” In other words, an AVA is a specific grape-growing area with a defined boundary that possesses the climate, geology, and physical features (such as elevation) that are conducive to high-quality viticulture. If a proposed new AVA overlaps, or lies within, an existing one, an explanation that includes geological surveys is required to prove the area is sufficiently unique from the existing AVA, and justifies special recognition.
Save for a few minor differences, AVAs have the same fundamental requirements as European appellations, including having unique climactic and geographical conditions. But the similarities stop there. We do things differently here in the States, and with big ideas and ample room for creativity, these differences make our wine truly American.
The establishment of the AVA system also marked a key moment in our wine history — a new chapter that realized a centuries-old dream of a storied president, who stubbornly envisioned a future when the United States would hold its own (and then some) on the global wine stage.
American Wine History Reconsidered
When most people explore the success of modern American wine, they look to the ’70s. Not to the year 1979 in the U.S., however, but 1976, when American (mainly Napa) wines were part of a Paris trade event in which they were blind-tasted against French wines. The results mostly favored the Americans. This event today is referred to as “The Judgement of Paris” due to an article published about it in Time Magazine that same year. It’s heralded as a major landmark in the history of American wine, but whether or not you consider this Paris tasting more important than the creation of the AVA system, American wine did not begin there.
From the eastern shores of the Atlantic to the plains of west Texas, and from the hills of Wisconsin down into the Ohio Valley and all the way to what is now downtown Los Angeles, we’ve been vinifiying grape juice since immigrants landed stateside. We even had a founding father and American president who dreamed of the U.S. becoming a fine-wine-producing nation like the regions he saw in France and beyond during his travels in the 18th century.
Thomas Jefferson is noted as saying, “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” meaning quality would compel people to favor wine over spirits such as whiskey, which was the drink of choice at the time. When we look back at his era and beyond, many say we “attempted to make wine,” due to the failures and struggles of growing European vines in American soil and the nation’s varied climates. That doesn’t give us enough credit, though. It was hard at times and didn’t always take but we made it happen and never stopped. We had tough winters, and a native louse, phylloxera, that almost decimated vineyards from France to the Napa Valley. We had world wars that cut production lines, and we had 10 years of Prohibition — and that’s just a shortlist. But no matter what we continued to make wine.
Fast-forward to the year 1979 when the ATF established the AVA system and it was on. Thomas Jefferson’s dream had been realized. But it wasn’t the Napa Valley that got its paperwork in order first. It was Missouri, a state with a rich winemaking history, that was awarded the first AVA in 1980 — the Augusta AVA, where the oldest winery, Mount Pleasant, is still in operation today and makes a mean Norton. Then came Napa Valley in 1981. From that point until 1991, 100 AVAs were awarded in regions across the country. Many of them were in California but also Ohio and Michigan, as well as Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Within that list are names almost everyone now knows, as well as many that even dedicated wine drinkers have probably never heard of. The point is, when these AVAs were established, all existed in relative obscurity.
American Ideals, European Traditions
The Judgment of Paris notwithstanding, there’s often a desire among American wine enthusiasts to cast ourselves as somehow inferior to the “Old World” winemaking nations. Some might argue that we have too many AVAs, and that the sheer number somehow cheapens the status. Currently, we have 267 and counting, while across the Atlantic Italy has 350 and France clocks in at 360. Both countries together wouldn’t take up even a quarter of our land mass.
If we’re to continue playing devil’s advocate, there could be a perception that, compared to the more rigorous regulations of some EU countries, AVAs are too easy to attain. Yet, consider that the Sonoma West Coast AVA was first proposed in 2010, wasn’t approved until 2022, and had been in the works since the late ‘80s.
There could also be an argument that most wine drinkers have no geographical clue where specific AVAs and sub-AVAs lie. Once again, we can question: Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? If you had the chance to sip on a very expensive and storied French wine, like Château Margaux, is the experience enhanced to peak pleasure only if you’re aware of the soil site and sun position of the property’s vineyards within Bordeaux’s Margaux commune? Could you even place said commune on a map of France? And in the case of Bordeaux, it’s worth noting that new vineyard acquisitions do not need to be approved by any governing body to receive the classified status of their new owner and immediately be incorporated into that producer’s blend — though this is fodder for a separate discussion.
The Future of American Wine
There are passionate people making wine in what you might describe as our “anonymous” AVAs, and just like it took decades for Napa to prove itself to the world, the future of new or older-and-yet-proven AVAs holds nothing but opportunity — and not just for producers themselves.
With wine comes economic benefits. And in this modern society with rapidly fluctuating economies and times of uncertainty, having the draw of agro-tourism anywhere in our 50 states worthy of an AVA is a win for a community. Sure, the wine may not be what we hope just yet, but it will get there. Winemakers are crazy. They will climb craggy hills, trudge through rivers, and scale mountains to find the best spots.
For budding winemakers and established producers seeking expansion, AVAs act as a calling card — concrete proof that a) winemaking is already happening there and b) the conditions are ripe for quality viticulture. The establishment of a new AVA is a shining beacon that says “get in on the ground floor while you still can” — can’t really do that in the Old World! — and also offers the opportunity for innovation and experimentation. That’s about as American as it gets. And one day in any of our existing AVAs a winemaker with a dream and the skills to make it a reality will plunge young vines into the earth, or rehabilitate a forgotten vineyard (see: the California Seiad Valley AVA), or make wine from a variety we haven’t yet heard of and further our wine culture.
We are a young country with an even younger wine culture, stunted for a decade by the Volstead Act of 1919. So we are really just getting started. At this moment in American wine history, we are witnessing a new generation of winemakers and vineyard managers with new ideas that will shape our drinking culture for the next few decades. I find that so damn exciting. I have spoken to, hung out with, and sipped with some of these new winemakers, vineyard managers, and even wine personalities who help shine a light on wine communities. And I wish I had every wine lover in the U.S. with me during these conversations. There is a new energy in American wine. New diversity. New focus. As our country changes and evolves, so, too, should our winemaking and wine-drinking culture.
Our AVAs are here to guide us forward and teach us about our land. The system gives the next generation stepping stones of past experience to draw from. Prepare for more AVAs in wine-growing regions like Washington State, and for new life being breathed into lesser-known areas like the Appalachian High Country, which straddles the Virginia/North Carolina border. Thomas Jefferson had the right idea and we are making it happen. So let’s celebrate all of our AVAs and encourage the winemakers doing the hard work to establish and help them thrive. Let’s stay curious about our land under vine by exploring our many delimited wine regions. I am excited for us.