Exploring the Standards for an “AVA” in the U.S.

(Originally published June 2005)

OK, time to ditch all the “meta-analysis” and get back to talking about wine! Rock and roll!

Throughout the world each country has their own rules and regulations governing how wine regions are delimited and understood. In Europe they have hundreds of years worth of viticultural history to guide them. That this place is called “Bordeaux” and that place is not has been more or less settled by arguments over the course of generations. Naturally, this is not to say that (a) no one argues about this stuff anymore (they sure do) or (b) new regions are not recognized by the authorities each year (they are). But most of the major issues have been settled and are generally accepted. Really. They are.

Here in the U.S. of A we have a system modeled on how Europe recognizes the unique characteristics of a region — its soils, weather patterns, micro-climates, all that good shit. Naturally, though, there's a nice layer of American bureaucracy laid on top!

Starting in 1978, the specific wine regions which have been shown to represent a distinct “terroir” are called American Viticultural Areas (AVA). But even this is misleading as AVAs can actually be freaking huge. For example, the “Ohio River Valley” AVA covers 16,640,000 acres across four states: Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Here, you can pretty much throw the quaint notion of “terroir” out the window. While the grapes grown in such an AVA may have to meet certain federal and state regulations in order to be labeled with the AVA name there's just no way to have a center which holds in an AVA of such size. It is important to note that these regulations have nothing to do with quality, the regulations just are supposed to allow the consumer to understand where the wine comes from. That is, if it says “Napa Valley” on the label the wine in the bottle can't come from the “Ohio River Valley.” Actually, only 85% of the wine has to come from within the AVA; the other 15% can come from other places if so desired by the producer. Whereas in Europe the regulations are usually established to (try to) ensure minimal thresholds of quality, and in many cases which grapes may be grown, here it's more an issue of “truth in advertising.” Herein lies the most interesting trend of recent years in the United States — the introduction of new, smaller AVAs intended to address the issue of quality and similarity of product.

It takes a long, long time and lots of cash to get the regulatory authorities to recognize a new AVA. All kinds of specialists and experts have to testify in its favor. And someone has to pay the lawyers and accountants! Who petitions for a new AVA? The wineries within the AVA, as they are the ones who should benefit from the stricter delimitation and “sense of place” the more select AVA brings. Note that an AVA can exist within another AVA. Like beautiful concentric circles, each AVA thus brings with it greater levels of specificity. So that, you, the consumer may buy with confidence. Sweet.

As of December 2004, there are over 170 separate AVAs in the United States. Over 90% of the wine made in the U.S. comes from California so it makes sense that most of the AVAs are in California (99 of them, in fact, if Hanes counted right). Belonging to an AVA is a great marketing tool for a winery, allowing them to hopefully band together with other quality-conscious wineries to raise public consciousness of what the AVA has to offer versus other winegrowing areas. Also, only if a wine has an AVA noted on the bottle may the wine additionally be labeled as “Estate Bottled” which brings with it a degree of prestige. Hanes thinks.

In a nod to The Movie Whose Name Cannot Be Mentioned, Hanes will now quickly provide an overview of an interesting and high quality AVA, Santa Rita Hills.

The Santa Rita Hills AVA was petitioned for in 1998 and approved in May of 2001. It is a curious one for, as noted could happen, it actually exists within two other AVAs. The Santa Barbara County AVA includes within it the Santa Ynez Valley AVA and within that resides the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Before 2001 wine bottle labels could only have used the two larger AVA names.

This AVA is known primarily for growing fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. One can also find Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Syrah grown. It encompasses about 100 square miles, making it one of the smaller AVAs around, and is about 12 miles east of the Pacific Ocean which provides a cooling, moderating influence on the temperatures to prevent a good deal of overripeness in the grapes and provide pleasingly higher levels of natural acidity. As one might assume from the name, it is a hilly area which provides many slopes ideal for growing grapes due to better angles to the sun and soil drainage. It is bordered by additional hills, the Purisima Hills to the north and Santa Rosa Hills to the south, providing further enclosure and insulation. The soils of the Santa Rita Hills AVA contain less clay and more calcium than those in the eastern end of the encompassing Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The growing season is extended nicely by the coolness of the weather, about 35-40 days longer than in many other areas of California.

There are over 20 vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, each offering their own distinctive properties and offerings. In many cases the fruit of these vineyards are bottled by the vineyard owners under their own labels. But a lot is sold to other producers and labeled with the vineyard designate on the label. Dunno, there's probably like 40 (if not more) wineries producing wines from the AVA. Hanes has his favorites, sure, but that's why you read every word of the review to find out which these are, right? In any event, given its relatively small size and keen focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is one area where it is truly fascinating to compare wines and see if Winery A's 2003 Pinot Noir from Vineyard X tastes differently from Winery B's 2003 Pinot Noir from the same Vineyard X. You can learn a lot about how “terroir” translates into glasses of wine and also how various winemakers “interpret” the same grapes.

You know, the real geeky stuff that gets the chubby, anti-social guy the blonde hottie at the end of the movie.