Friday, August 04, 2006

More AVA confusion

This from the Sun-Sentinel (syndicated from Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune):

"Lord knows wine lovers have a lot to think about when they go to the liquor store. Red or white? Sauvignon blanc or chardonnay? Oaked, unoaked? How much? It's enough to make you reach for the Scotch.
Well, add another question to the purchasing process: What AVA?
AVA stands for American Viticultural Area, and it's more than just more label clutter to confuse consumers.
The federal government established AVAs in 1978 to help set wine-growing regions apart. Think Napa and Sonoma in California. This system is similar to the French Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system, notes The New Wine Lover's Companion, the big difference being that the AVA is purely geographical and the AOC governs how French wines are made."


"Kevin Zraly, the wine educator and author, writes in his new "Kevin Zraly's American Wine Guide" that an AVA is not a guarantee of quality but it identifies a specific area "well-known and established" for its wine."

Now both of those passages are true, but what's left unsaid tells volumes.

First, as I have pointed out many times before, the AOC system does not guarantee quality EITHER. AVA's are also based upon prevailing weather and climate, not PURELY geographical in their nature. The statement that the AOC also governs HOW French wines are made is true, as is the regulation of which vines can be grown in each district.

He continues noting that the number of AVA's has increased by 32 in the past 5 years (16 new ones in California alone), and observing that...

The danger is if the wine industry goes too far in delineating AVAs. Just think of the nightmare of appellations that bedevil Burgundy, making it one of the hardest wine regions for budding oenophiles to understand. In California, especially Napa Valley, there are a number of AVAs within or overlapping each other. One Napa AVA, Carneros, even crosses into Sonoma.

Yeah, the Carneros AVA starts on the Napa side of the county line, then travels into Sonoma County [read it here if you really want to...] - and one might expect that AVA's wouldn't be confined to a single county, wouldn't they? I mean WHY would a geopolitical boundary that was created before viticulture really took root be applicable to where the conditions are best? In fact, it'd be much more suspect if the boundaries followed some arbitrary line created in antiquity rather than a line created with the end idea of defining a fairly uniform & distinctive area where grapes are grown... so in a sense who cares where the county boundaries are?...

An interesting observation to make is that most county borders on coastal & mountainous land is defined by ridges and mountains, where county lines fall in flatter areas they are frequently defined by streams and rivers. Notice how I didn't use any agricultural production criteria for that statement - and neither did the settlers who first came out to California...
After all, it's pretty difficult to know exactly where you are without a GPS, and visual references (rivers, mountain peaks, ridges) are key to those definitions of where one jurisdiction changed to another. That's the reason Judge Roy Bean was "the law West of the Pecos [river]", and not something like "the law where the cottonwoods grow".
You KNEW when and where you crossed the Pecos, even if it was out in the middle of nowhere in relation to towns or settlements.

Anyway, I've touched on the idea of what would happen if producers started to market multiple single vineyard wines, and I think the resulting confusion & dilution of brands would also occur if there is an over proliferation of AVA's [Single vineyard wines].


Quoting Diana Hamann of Wine Goddess Consulting in Chicago -"Our AVAs aren't inextricably linked to their best potential grape varietals," Hamann said. "We're getting closer. We've realized Oregon's greatness with pinot noir, Napa's with cabernet sauvignon and, increasingly, Santa Barbara's excellence with syrah to name a few. Who knows, maybe someday our AVA system will emulate the French AOC system, which may be confusing to some, but really is a tremendous crutch in deciphering the good wine from the masses."

Oh Dear GOD NO!

Why emulate the AOC when we have a chance to refine & correct it...and certainly to avoid the pitfalls the French have hobbled themselves with?
Her statement makes me think she's yet another of the "masses" who've equated AOC with Quality...which it isn't - at least not beyond controlling the fruit source and techniques that can be applied. It doesn't really mean "jack" regarding the wine's quality as a finished product...that's up to the producer.

And "Wine Goddess Consulting"...? Really now...


Blogger Benjamin Bicais said...

Interesting subject, and I agree with your appreciation of what the AVA system can develop into. Because of the politics, legal issues, etc. drawing boundaries for AVAs is an inherently difficult process. But it is both sensible and inevitable that wine producers will want to define their specific geographical region and market their wine based on it. Though there are arguably exceptions, I think that most of California's AVAs have discernable physical traits (i.e. soil and climate) that define them from other AVAs.

Of course not all producers will be at the same quality level from an AVA, but this is the case in most AOCs as well. The French do regulate how grapes are grown and how wine is made, but I personally like being able to taste a range of varietals and styles from a specific region. Both systems have their positives and adherents. Whether or not the AVA system will entirely catch on with the average American wine consumer is another question.

August 04, 2006 11:13 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

I love it when writers whose premise is that there is too much confusion actually add to the confusion in their conclusions.
The first guy confuses the growing number of layers of complexity with the thickness of the layers. AVAs are already there. So what if there are more? It's like complaining about new wineries.
The self proclaimed godess confuses rules with labels: is she sort of hinting that Santa Barbara be banned from producing Pinot Noir?
The whole point of AVAs is objective geographic distinctiveness IN THE GLASS, so that consumers can make informed decisions. Quality is a different layer, and they are on their own to make those choices. As it should be.

August 05, 2006 8:37 PM  
Anonymous Tish said...

I think AVAs are America's way of trying to have it both ways, as in 1) this area is special, but 2) we can still plant whatever we want here and make it however we want. Granted, this discussion can go on and on... Curious: what is your take on Appellation America. Have you posted on that?

August 06, 2006 7:21 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

I believe we’re thinking along the same lines, though I would posit that the thread which ties AVA's together should be geography and climate. Soil is just too diverse across something as small as a vineyard to be useful for AVA definition, and I think is one of the great myths perpetuated by the 18th century European Romanticism and centuries of stuffy nobility/genealogy/heraldry/etc.
Sorry - I don’t mean to sound harsh on that, I realize you were just using it as an example, and I’m not trying to take you to task on that – it just happens to be one of my pet peeves…I can’t help but respond to that line [just like my BioD rants when I hear people bring that topic up! There’s a raw nerve in there somewhere…].

I think the AVA system has already caught on – though some probably find the system’s usefulness in being able to AVOID certain AVA’s they have preconceived notions about. The over-proliferation I think would be a bad thing as too much specificity (too many AVA’s) would be about as meaningful as the [generic] tag “product of the USA”, which lacks enough specificity for anyone to really make an informed choice.

“AVA’s are already there”…& ”whole point of AVAs is objective geographic distinctiveness IN THE GLASS”… Bingo! …though vinting techniques may reduce that distinctiveness when applied haphazardly.
And I was getting the same feeling that the Goddess was advocating a varietal lockdown too, which is one of my worst fears.
Why for the life of us (economically at least) would we ever want to lock ourselves down like that?
And since we label wines by appellation & varietal (except for "table wine"...) the addition of the AOC’s varietal reg’s would be redundant here…as well as a flagrant disregard for personal freedom!

(I can just hear that infernal pit of ambulance-chasing-lawyers gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes and showing their terrible claws, just waiting for that day to file a-million-and-one civil rights class-action torts…[shudder!] talk about a quagmire for our legal system!)

Agreed that it seems the best solution to get both the consumer confidence the market needs while preserving our freedom of choice.
As for Appellation America, I haven’t posted on it yet, but now that you’re asking…


August 08, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Bicais said...


I agree with you that there isn't any evidence that soil will impart any specific flavor into wine. When I said soil I meant it in a broad sense including the slope, fertility, mineral, acidity, water retention, etc, and geography is a better term for this. I think that the French have relied on marketing based on their "soil" too much, when it is really a variety of factors that distinguish their wines. At the same time, the same grapes planted in very different geographical locations (including different soil compositions) will make different wines. But as far as I know, empirical evidence does not support directly correlating the specific chemical makeup in the soil with specific flavors or aromas in the finished wine.

August 08, 2006 7:07 PM  
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August 09, 2006 11:15 AM  

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