Spirit vs Politics of the AVA

In the March/April 2001 issue of the Chalone Wine Journal, Winemaker Dan Karlsen presented a comprehensive explanation of the abstract concept of terroir, using Chalone Vineyard as an intimate and concrete example to elucidate the complexity of the concept. If we were to coin a word today for terroir, it might be ecology.

During the course of Dan’s discussion, he briefly described designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and referred to appellations. From that discussion, it might be easily inferred that appellations and AVAs are synonymous with terroir. It could be argued that the spiritual intent of appellations and AVAs is to delineate terroir. At the same time, it can be demonstrated that terroir only marginally coincides with appellations. I believe that the concept of wine appellation has much broader sociological and political significance.

It All Began in France

To better understand the rationale for and meaning of appellation it is helpful to consider the historical development of the concept. We must go back to the turn of the century in Europe when the grape vines were under siege from phylloxera.

Vineyards were dying and being replanted. Decline in yields and quality, necessitated unprecedented and drastic measures to protect the livelihood of panicking wine producers. The quality standards implied by tradition began to be compromised by the importation and blending of wine from foreign regions and by nefarious production practices.

Recovery from this period of oenological anarchy began in the 1930s with the establishment of the Appellation d’ Origin Controlee (AOC). Laws were written that served to re-establish quality and reputation. Not only did the founders strictly delineate the geographical boundaries, limiting the use of labeling claims regarding the origin of the grapes and wine, but they felt that since the old traditional customs that assured quality in the pre-phylloxera era were in such shambles, they had to codify permissible grape varieties, yields, viticultural practices, harvest criteria, labeling terminology and, even, production methods in an effort to re-establish the traditional wisdom that had evolved over centuries only to be corrupted over a few decades. Similar laws were enacted in Italy, and Germany for similar reasons.

America Follows Suit

The American wine industry, like virtually all of the United States, was established by Europeans. The grape varieties were introduced from Europe, largely from France, and, for the most part, European winemaking traditions were adopted.

The American wine industry has lived through three phases: pre-Prohibition, the age of innocence and abandon; post-Prohibition, the age of commodity (dominated by large producers of generic wines labeled Burgundy, Sauternes, Rhine wine, etc.); and modern, the age of self-consciousness. It is this latter period, which began in the late 1960s, with which we are most concerned.

This era ushered in wine labeling by specific grape varieties and the ambition to compete against world-famous European wines. The professed desire to emulate the quality and integrity of great Burgundies, Bordeaux, Rheingaus, etc. was confounded by a fundamental historical difference.

Government Steps In

Though quality and integrity are frequently referred to as absolute terms, they are relative and require a frame of reference. The integrity of European wines is regional in nature and resides in the origin of the wines. Labels reflect the region, not the variety. The variety and, to some extent, the style is ordained by law. Relative quality must be played out within the framework of region, integrity and authenticity.

In the United States, and in California in particular, grape varieties were planted indiscriminately in all areas, true to American ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, chauvinism, and naivet?. Furthermore, the adopted European regional terms, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis, etc., had absolutely no legal standard or definition regarding the composition of the wines so labeled and were, therefore, meaningless. In an effort to bring some order to this American exuberance, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF), the eponymous government body responsible for regulating wine, was petitioned to establish some standards of integrity so that American wines could be defined in terms of relative quality.

Truth in Labels

In an official tome that deals largely with issues of tax revenue (and permissible adulterants and additives), there are a few paragraphs dealing with truth on labels and the implied standards of integrity. The most significant of these rules govern the use of varietal names and place of origin of the grape on labels, which finally brings us to the topic of this article.

Initially, there were three overarching hierarchical, political and geographical designations, which are still in use today. The first, American, refers to grapes grown within the borders of the United States (including Hawaii), implying, but not requiring, that the grapes come from more than one state. The second refers to grapes grown within the borders of any state, implying, but not requiring, that the grapes are from more than one county. The third refers to grapes grown within the borders of any county.

To be so designated, 75 percent of the wine type stipulated on the bottle must be from the designated area. Obviously, American gives us no information about what to expect from a bottle of wine. Likewise, a state designation is not very enlightening, though I would be suspicious of North Dakota. County designations can be useful. At least you might get a clue about growing conditions relative to general climate and soil types and the range of flavors to be expected, depending on the diversity within the county.

In 1978, to further define American wine, the BATF made a provision whereby any individual or group of concerned grape-growers may hire an attorney (for around $50,000 to $75,000) and petition the BATF to grant AVA status for a special geographically delineated area. The burden of proof rests in evidence that the name is recognized for the area; that the area has climate, soil, and physical characteristics distinguishing it from surrounding territory and that specific boundaries can be established using data from U.S. Geological Survey maps.

Spiritual Intent

What, on the surface, seemed like a very straightforward and fair way of making sense of the diversity inherent in regions defined by political boundaries has resulted in a great challenge to conform to the spiritual intent of the AVA system.

The best scenario for an AVA is that the delineated area be known for producing particular types of wine with identifiable characteristics. It should have uniform climatic conditions,similar soil types and a coherent vision by the members of the AVA to common marketing, grape growing and winemaking potential.

Spiritual Intent, continued

All too often, the boundaries are boundaries of convenience or political influence where petitioners seek recognition by association rather than being true to the geophysical and climatic attributes of the place. The region may be gerrymandered to include those willing to contribute to the cost of the petition.

Examples of AVAs with diversity so great that they have limited value as a representation of any uniform terroir would be Napa Valley (virtually the entire county), Sonoma Valley, Russian River, North Coast and Central Coast.

The AVA system is being refined as wine growers petition for sub-appellations to more accurately define and recognize the uniqueness of their terroir. This has resulted in AVAs with fairly uniform conditions that more accurately portray the tenets of terroir and, therefore, are more predictive of wine character. Examples would be Edna Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, Carneros and Rutherford Bench. It is amusing to note that some wines could legally carry as many as six appellations in a hierarchy of increasing specificity.

AVA’s Mission

The AVAs, because they do not have the legal constraints of our European counterparts, may seem, on the surface, to allow so much freedom that quality would be compromised.

The reality is that AVAs foster solidarity and a collective effort on the part of their members to organize and increase the quality of their wines, as well as provide educational materials and experiences for the wine-buying public.

It is an imperfect and still ill-defined system; however, it is a noble effort to reconcile the needs of a diverse group of dedicated producers and to provide consumers with a reference of meaning to the wines they purchase and enjoy.

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