It’s become something of regular feature of being an American wine writer and enthusiast: Every few months, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) formally approves one or more new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and the wine world largely scratches its head and wonders where in the heck these appellations lie. Devoid of context, how many of you could place Upper Lake Valley, Rocky Reach, Paulsell Valley, Lower Long Tom, or White Bluffs? All of these have been approved in the last 15 months or so, and in doing so they join a growing number of obscure AVAs that raise the question of who this system benefits and serves.
First, it’s worth taking a moment to understand why the AVA system was created in the first place. Prior to the establishment of the first AVAs in the early 1980s, the only legal geographic designations for American wine were political units — states and counties. Those remain legal labeling terms, but the AVA system was created to allow for more specificity. As American wine looked to stand on an equal footing with the other major wine-producing nations of the world, AVAs served as a very rough analog for European classification systems.
After the laws governing these appellations were passed, many of the AVAs created now seem almost comically large. Some span across multiple states, as is the case with the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA; while others cover huge swaths of land within a single state, like the North Coast AVA in California. It has made plenty of sense to divide these into smaller and more congruent units, particularly for regions like Napa Valley, which are both densely planted and of great interest to consumers and the wine trade alike.
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To better understand the process of how an AVA comes to be, I spoke with Kevin Pogue, a professor of geology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Pogue is responsible for a number of successful AVA applications, mostly in Washington State. We discussed plenty of topics, from the time it takes to go from application to approved AVA (often upwards of three years) to the cost (anywhere from $20,000 to more than $200,000, depending on who you hire).
My key takeaway, though, was that from the perspective of the federal government, you only have to prove that your proposed AVA is distinctive from surrounding areas in regards to climate, geology, or other conditions that might influence the finished wine. Someone needs to be growing wine grapes there, of course, but there are no thresholds of volume, quality, or notoriety to meet — just a valid proposal and some patience.
“Oftentimes a new AVA comes from a group of wineries that feels like if they can get their area delineated, they can build more intrinsic value to their wine if they can put that AVA on their labels,” says Matt Hensel, owner of 45th Parallel Wines in Portland, Ore. “I don’t know that they get a huge return on investment for pushing that through, though.”
With the flood of obscure AVAs showing no sign of abating, it’s become clear that somewhere along the way, the purpose of creating new AVAs seems to have been lost, or at least greatly confused. Instead of helping to define vital growing areas with an appropriate level of specificity, now they can be perceived as vanity projects. Or perhaps they’re also cynical acknowledgements that a technical term on a label might allow a producer to charge a premium, even if the end consumer has no idea where the appellation is or why it has been set apart.
Some might argue that creating these appellations could help to create demand for these wines, but this notion runs contrary to the guiding principle behind most such programs throughout the world — i.e., they exist to codify and protect an already-established and well-regarded regional industry, not to create it out of whole cloth. Different DOCGs in Italy might vary in terms of absolute quality or historic importance, but they’re not created merely as marketing tools, even if they often eventually become them.
The actual name of the new AVA can play a role in how powerful a marketing tool it might be, however. Take Candy Mountain AVA in Washington State. Approved in 2020, it has several advantages: The name is distinctive and appealing, it has an easy claim to fame as Washington’s smallest AVA, and it’s right next to perhaps the most prestigious AVA in the state, Red Mountain. Seth Kitzke works extensively with fruit from his family’s vineyard on Candy Mountain as the winemaker at Kitzke Cellars, and he knows the importance of that name. “The AVA name definitely matters when you’re selling wine on a shelf,” Kitzke says. “You might be more dependent on the track record of the vineyard and the producers that put it on their label, but the name matters. It’s definitely part of the reason that so much of the Candy Mountain AVA just got planted.”
So what’s to be done about the deluge of new AVAs? Well, it’s unlikely that the TTB will take a different approach any time soon, but I for one would welcome a slightly higher bar that proposals need to clear. Historically, the quality of wine has not in any way been used as a determinant for whether an AVA proposal would be approved. And that’s not what I’m proposing. But I do think that it should be incumbent on applicants to prove not just that the place in question is distinctive in terms of geology, climate, hydrology, or what have you, but that the grapes grown there, and the wines made from them, are both distinctive and sought after. This would require a certain critical mass of production and demand before an AVA could be formally approved, which would serve most interested parties fairly well.
Ultimately, the AVA designation on a label will never carry the same kind of comprehensive statement about the wine as many other appellation systems around the world. But this requirement would at least ensure that consumers — many of whom already find wine to be confusing — can be confident that there’s a real and robust wine industry in the area described on a label, not just some different rocks.