When Augusta, Mo., was named the first American Viticultural Area in June 1980, it surprised many that it beat Napa Valley to the designation by just eight months. But Missouri winemaker Lucien Dressel predicted a much tougher road for his California counterparts, whose stature was skyrocketing in the global wine industry following the 1976 Judgment of Paris. “Nobody knows where the Napa Valley begins or ends,” Dressel told reporters. “That will be a real battle.”
That issue — what defines Napa Valley and the wines it produces — was indeed the crux of a cumbersome, sometimes contentious saga of meetings, petitions, and hearings leading up to the creation of the Napa Valley AVA, which became official on Feb. 27, 1981. In 1978, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now known as the TTB) established criteria for defining an AVA and, as such, the appellation of origin on a bottle. But a major sticking point that emerged among vintners and grape growers across Napa County was how one of those factors — the geographic boundary — would be determined.
There were two opposing viewpoints, one maintained by the prominent Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, led by Andy Beckstoffer, who remains one of the most powerful names in Napa, and the 35-member Napa Valley Vintners. Both groups agreed that the watershed of the Napa River should set the boundaries of the AVA, and in 1978, they jointly commissioned an engineering firm to draw a map showing those boundaries based on U.S. Geological Surveys.
On the other side were growers from eastern Napa County, including prominent names like Inglewood Winery and Domaine Chandon. Calling itself the Eastern Valley Growers, the group asserted that grapes grown throughout the county, not just in the watershed area, had long been associated with the Napa Valley, and that their contributions had helped its rapidly rising stature. That contingent ponied up to hire an attorney, Washington D.C.-based William Demarest, who also noted that using the more limited watershed designation would mean fewer grapes, less wine, and higher prices for consumers.
The years-long debate culminated in a two-day hearing in late April 1980, at a Holiday Inn in Napa, where a five-member BATF panel from Washington, D.C., heard testimony from dozens of witnesses about soils, climate, and geography (in other words, excellent reading for wine geeks). The statement from Bill Jager, a partner in Freemark Abbey and Rutherford Hill wineries (who didn’t attend but had his commentary read aloud), was especially direct (if not a bit dramatic): “If BATF fails to recognize the universal notoriety that Napa Valley wines have achieved … our government will be brought under worldwide ridicule and the full brunt of that fiasco will fall upon the Bureau.”
In the end, the Eastern Valley Growers prevailed, and the BATF allowed the inclusion of Pope, Wooden, and Gordon valleys, among others, into the newly formed Napa Valley AVA when the bureau’s labeling regulations went into effect on Jan. 1, 1983. And even though the watershed recommendation failed, Beckstoffer credits the AVA’s creation for setting a new standard for savvy consumers who want to know exactly where their wine is coming from.
“Since that time, all the sub-appellations — Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena — have been developed,” Beckstoffer told VinePair. “Now people are looking for vineyard designate, so you peel that onion all the way down to that. That’s the evolution that helps define the Napa Valley and its quality.”
Not to mention set an ever-higher price tag for some of the world’s most coveted bottles. “This changed the world of California wine forever,” says George Webber, staff historian for the Boisset Collection and an expert on Northern California wine history. “If it wasn’t for the Judgment of Paris, we wouldn’t have the AVA, and then we wouldn’t have $1,500 bottles of Screaming Eagle, which almost defies human understanding.”