There’s more to becoming an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, than producing wine that tastes good and slapping a name like “Willamette Valley AVA” on the bottle. In fact, from analyzing soil maps to drafting boundary lines, there’s enough to discourage even historically relevant wine growing areas from applying. In comparison, the IRS tax code sounds like fun.
But wineries and vintners associations from Malibu to the Mississippi, and all 16 of Napa Valley’s sub-appellations, have gone through the Tax and Trade Bureau’s arduous process to establish a protected place name. The American version of European place names like “Champagne,” “Chianti,” or “Burgundy,” AVAs legally define growing areas, allowing wineries to stand out on the basis of special features like volcanic soil or incredible elevation. AVAs also mean a few extra dollars on the price tag of a finished wine, or for grapes sold off in bulk. At their best, AVAs give regions globally recognized credibility, but at their worst the process costs thousands of dollars, creates bitter feuds and leaves many wineries in a state of labeling limbo.
When you add money to the mix, it’s easy to see how the combination of government interests and the private sector make drawing land boundaries and controlling wine products complicated and daunting. Plus, the TTB—like most government bodies—has a fondness for complicated forms and legal jargon, which means wineries and regions need even more cash to pay lawyers, and a serious commitment, to start the process.
Yet no matter how discouraging the process is, new regions continue to be defined every year, proving the letters “AVA” on a label really do matter. Beyond drawing geographic boundaries, these limitations also exist to help consumers shop more easily. Geographical designation systems go hand in hand with the idea of terroir, and that regional differences have a massive impact on finished wines.
So in 1980, the United States started designating American Viticultural Areas to help us wine-drinking plebeians shop with ease, and protect truly special wine regions from being undercut by cheap impostors. And its defending consumers against impostors where the AVA petition process gets interesting, according to Rex Stults, Government Relations Director of the Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVV).
“We’re the leader in battling for integrity of products of place. Sometimes, things really don’t go smoothly because of that, but we believe in defending the integrity of these places and the process. It’s what winemakers have earned and consumers deserve.”
On the hills of the Malibu Coast, where grape growing has a 150 year history, Elliott Dolin was surprised no formal boundaries existed for the region, to both help consumers and to deliver the integrity he and others believed the region deserved.
“There had been single-winery AVA designations, but nothing for our region, which has over 40 wineries, and we wanted some recognition,” says the founder of Dolin Wine Estate, adding that the process seemed simple.
Like the vintners represented by Stults and the NVV, Dolin hoped to show consumers the unique characteristics of his cool Malibu vineyard, a site defined by steep slopes and volcanic soil. Equally, he and others wanted to stop labelling the bottles with a generic “California” sticker. “We were ready for that bump in credibility to go with our work, so we found a consultant who had a track record for helping new AVAs, and just jumped on it.”
It’s worth noting that in places like Napa Valley, where big money and world-renowned wines collide with competition in a fiercer environment than Malibu, the process rarely proves easy, nor as streamlined as Dolin’s consultant, Ralph Carter, made things for Dolin.
The first step for vineyard owners or associations is to file an official petition to the TTB that details, with lots of maps, the geographical boundaries of a proposed AVA and its distinguishing features. To become an AVA, a region must prove that it has unique qualities, like microclimate or topography. For Napa appellations like those Stults oversees, that means citing distinct soil differences compared to neighbors, and drawing those boundaries clearly.
“As a group, the NVV doesn’t recommend new AVAs with boundaries that overlap, or ones that leave little slivers of no-man’s land in between established areas. It just creates room for conflict and confusion.” Take Carneros AVA, for example, which straddles both Sonoma and Napa, constantly confusing tourists on wheels and drinkers at home.
After an initial petition is filed and approved, the TTB begins a public comment period. During this time, anyone can voice support or opposition for the proposed AVA. After this period, the original petition is either accepted or rejected, and vintners can rejoice, or head back to the drawing board.
“We all expected kickback and resistance at some point,” says Dolin of the 2-year process the Malibu Coast AVA completed in 2014. “But not a single person or business objected to our petition. The only slow-down was time while the TTB passed our petition from desk to desk.”
In Calistoga, things weren’t so easy. When the famed Calistoga AVA was proposed in 2003, longtime resident Bo Barret of the eponymous Chateau Montelena (Yes, from the Bottle Shock movie and the Judgement of Paris) and his neighbors at Calistoga Cellars saw no disagreement to delineating the area. Clearly, it’s northerly situation in Napa and census data reaching to the 1880s declaring Calistoga unique warranted an official AVA.
In addition to defining a region however, an AVA-labeled wine is required to contain 85% grapes from the stated place, in essence because allowing less than that could significantly change the resulting wine. According to the TTB and place of origin advocates, it also provides an unfair opportunity for businesses to mislead consumers.
When Calistoga Cellars discovered it would have to include 85% Calistoga grapes in all of it’s wines that carried a “Calistoga” label, things got messy. Despite a discovery after the public comment period, this conflict worried the TTB, since severely harming businesses is against its ethos, despite protecting customers.
“We told them we’d take this thing all the way,” says Stults of the incident. “We made a lot of suggestions to Calistoga Cellars, like creating a second label for wines from non-Calistoga fruit.”
Stults also explained how a simple grandfather clause—allowing pre-existing wineries to use place names despite AVA rules—could have spelled disaster across the wine business, not just in Napa but across all AVAs. In the clause, any wineries existing before the 1980 start of the AVA with a place in their name could avoid rules, and put any plonk into an AVA-labeled bottle. For example, Napa Ridge Winery, a brand owned by conglomerate Bronco Wine Company, would have been able to produce “Napa” wine for a fraction of the price by buying cheap fruit from outside Napa’s borders. In doing so, the brand challenged the quality and hand-crafted image of Napa wines, completely misleading consumers. But a California court ruled this clause was not OK, and that 85% of the fruit in the bottle must be from the AVA on the label. This didn’t please Bronco because the monetary value in getting to use the Napa name was huge, so the company petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, three years into the Calistoga AVA battle. The petition was rejected and the California court ruling that a grandfather clause was unfair to consumers reigned. The Napa Name Clause was born.
Thanks to the Napa Name Clause, no wine labeled with an AVA can contain less than 85% AVA fruit, and consumers can rest assured that their wines are what they claim to be. As Stults points out, “Nobody in Europe is allowed to put fake labels on their wine, and US consumers deserve the same, whether we’re talking about wine, cheese, or Idaho potatoes.”
And, the TTB simply refuses to arbitrate disputes any longer. Calistoga AVA was finally approved in 2009, and wineries had just a year to comply or change their names.
There’s a lot that goes into becoming a protected place of origin, especially as a wine-producing region in the United States, but it’s clearly a title worth the 35 pages of required paperwork. So when you see the letters AVA on a bottle, trust them, because they exist to help you.
And if you ever end up in the wine biz, take Colin’s biggest piece of advice: “Definitely get a good lawyer.”