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A “Wine Country” Is Born

Jeffery Lindenmuth / July 2012

What defines an American Viticultural Area and how can it define a wine? Jeffery Lindenmuth opens a discussion of the most recently established AVAs and how they might impact restaurants’ selection, selling, and service of wine.

As they set about forging a winemaking nation in the 1970s, some larger American wine producers resorted to familiar French names—Chablis, Burgundy, Champagne—to denote their wines. In 1980, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, now the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, offered a more original solution, with the creation of the first American Viticultural Area—a new way to identify American wines, and wine country. Beginning with Missouri’s Augusta AVA in 1980, followed by the Napa Valley AVA in 1981, the TTB has approved a total of 203 AVAs, adding six since the start of 2011.

The AVA system defines only geographic location, taking a laissez-faire approach when it comes to grape varieties, irrigation, yields, alcohol levels, and other parameters dictated in much of Europe. So, the ultimate success of an AVA rests largely with the producers who inhabit it. “Even in Burgundy, with far more regulation, it still comes down to the producer,” says Dennis Kelly, MS, head sommelier, The French Laundry in Yountville, California. “AVAs are a useful tool for the sommelier, because there are certain AVAs that we all associate with quality. It begins with the character of the terroir, which can then attract the right producers,” he says.

For their part, TTB does not take lightly the duty of delineating U.S. wine country. “I started my petition with the Fed back in 2005 and it took me seven years to finally get approval on April 23 of this year,” says Steve J. DeBaker, owner and winemaker of Trout Springs Winery, responsible for spearheading the nation’s newest AVA, Wisconsin Ledge. “It’s not just given out. Ours is based on the geomorphic region called the Niagara Escarpment. I had to document weather going back 125 years to show there is a cumulatively warmer growing region here than to the east, south, or west of us,” says DeBaker. Incidentally, this same geological feature reaches across Canada, famously revealed at Niagara Falls, before crossing into New York State, where a Niagara Escarpment AVA exists.

Despite the warmer climate, which helps grapes achieve greater ripeness than the surrounding region, the cold winters of Wisconsin Ledge are challenging for European vinifera grapes, making hybrids the top pick. Wisconsin Ledge is also notable for its sheer size, with just under 2.5 million acres and 15 established and bonded wineries.

Other newly established AVAs, however, may be a party of one. Philip Cline, owner and winemaker of Naches Heights Vineyard, is the sole producer in Washington State’s newest, and least planted, AVA—Naches Heights, including just 13,254 total acres, with 40 under vine. “For now, I have the luxury of having my own personal AVA,” says Cline, who grows, manages, or consults for every vineyard in the region.

In Naches Heights, experiments with Malbec, Graciano, Tempranillo, and other grapes from Austria to Portugal are underway, with the first vines just a decade old. Cline is especially optimistic about the potential for Riesling and Syrah. In addition to the characteristic windblown volcanic soil, or loess, Naches Heights is distinguished by the fact that all of its fruit is farmed sustainably, biodynamically or organically. “I can’t dictate what anyone does with regard to new plantings, but I’m hoping to lead by example, by having success that people will want to emulate,” says Cline.

Ryan Pennington, communications director for the Washington State Wine Commission, says new AVAs are widely celebrated because they signal a growing industry and further refinement of the American wine landscape. “Ten or 15 years ago, you might have seen an ‘American’ section on a wine list, although it would have been mostly California. Then it became refined with Napa and Sonoma Coast. Now, you might see sections for Washington and Oregon. Eventually, you may see whole sections for Walla Walla and Yakima,” says Pennington.

Several new AVAs, like Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, which overlaps portions of Alexander Valley, Northern Sonoma, and Mendocino County, represent further refinements of established wine regions. With the proliferation of California AVAs, even identifying a suitable name can present a major hurdle. “The regulations state that the name must be currently and directly associated with the area, and it must be locally and nationally known by the name,” says Liz Kann, AVA program coordinator for TTB.

During the public comment period, designed to enable industry and public policing, some Napa vintners bristled at the proposal for a Pine Mountain-Mayacmas AVA. “Pine Mountain has been around for a couple hundred years with grapes here since 1855, but if you do a search in the U.S., there are some 150 Pine Mountains, so we needed a modifier. When we added Mayacmas we got resistance from Napa that they were going to fight it,” says Benjamin Sharp, president and CEO of Captûre Wines.

With California notables, including Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery and Pete Seghesio of Seghesio Family Vineyards among the original petitioners, Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak arrives with considerable star power for a new region. Now, the region’s growers, including the Captûre team that purchased Tin Cross Vineyards in 2008, can focus on defining the quality and character of Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. With all of Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak’s 230 acres of vineyards located above 1,600 feet, the region is focused on Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, which benefits from the lack of fog and abundant sunshine. “I think it’ll take five to 10 years to earn validation over several vintages,” says Sharp.

Coombsville AVA, the newest and 16th sub-appellation of Napa Valley, came into effect on January 13. Like much of Napa, Cab is king here, even as the cooler climate permits Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to succeed. The Coombsville and Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak names are already appearing on some wine labels from the 2010 vintage, permitted as long as the wines include the minimum 85 percent from the denoted AVA. “I think to the guest, the name Coombsville on a label means little or nothing,” says Kelly. “However, we’ll list AVAs on the wine list as long as it’s listed on the bottle. We’ve actually been referring to the region as Coombsville in conversation for a while, simply because we like the fruit and the winemakers that are drawn there,” says Kelly, supporting the idea that AVAs are not invented, but recognized.

The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, which includes Flowers Vineyards & Winery and Hirsch Vineyards, as well as vineyards from Marcassin, Pahlmeyer, and Peter Michael, represents the latest step to add detail to the mammoth 480,000-acre Sonoma Coast AVA. Despite nearly 10 years of lobbying, it’s yet to be seen whether consumers, and even the winemakers themselves, will latch on to the new AVA, with Sonoma Coast already so recognized. “I often try to explain my wine suggestions in terms of the AVA, but I think at some point it can become overwhelming for guests. I’m not saying it is with Fort Ross-Seaview, but eventually you reach a point where it becomes too complicated,” says Kelly.

AVA petitioners, however, continue to gather evidence in support of new AVAs, knowing recognition holds benefits not just for winemakers, but for tourism and regions themselves. According to Kann, of 160 petitions to create, alter boundaries, or change names of AVAs submitted over the past decade, 68 have passed, a success rate of less than 45 percent. With wine country in America just over 30 years old, and AVAs now approved across 32 states, the changing landscape of wine country, as determined by the folks who make wine, is a great place to observe the latest developments in the American industry. And, just maybe, the emergence of America’s next great wine region.