Wine shoppers looking for a wine to have with dinner face an often bewildering array of label information. There is the winery name, varietal, alcohol content and then there are the place names, known on American wines as American Viticultural Areas or AVAs.
For the wine industry, AVAs are a fact of life, but do they help wine consumers better understand the value and quality of the wine in the bottle? Let’s take a look.
Since 1980, when the first AVA was awarded to Augusta, Missouri, 240 AVAs have been approved for a wide range of wine areas throughout the U.S., with a continuing move to add new ones. California has the most — 139 — with Sonoma County accounting for 17 AVAs. Those numbers, however, beg the question: What is the importance of an AVA to the wine consumer, and does the mention of an AVA on a wine label influence a wine purchase?
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade, known as TTB, all AVAs have equal status under the law. In practice, though, wine sales show that having Napa Valley or Alexander Valley on a bottle of cabernet sauvignon carries more weight than, say, Mendocino County.
Awarding an AVA takes into account hard-to-define factors like the strength of location and image, climate, geography and history. Also, to get approval for an AVA, applicants must show evidence that the proposed AVA is locally or nationally known, provide historic evidence that the boundaries are legitimate and show evidence that growing conditions such as soil and climate are distinctive.
However, the American AVA system is not as rigid or exacting as the French AOC, on which the AVA is loosely based. In 1935, the French government enacted a codified system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée, or AOC, to act as a “controlled designation of origin.” The AOC system carefully regulates such things as vineyard yield and pruning methods, allowable grapes and amount of new oak, The AVA system, by comparison, places no such restrictions in the vineyard or winery.
French AOC works, in part, because of the long history of growing wine grapes and making wine in France. For generations, trial and error has shown, for example, that cabernet grows better in the climate and soils of Bordeaux and pinot noir does best in Burgundy. Wine grape growing and winemaking in the United States has a much shorter history than in France and the diversity of wine regions is spread over a far greater area.
New world winemakers want the freedom to experiment with planting different grapes and to practice different winemaking techniques. The complaint with the restrictive AOC system is that rules covering agriculture practices and techniques disrupt the vine’s biological balance, causing the wines to lose their typicity.
Supporters of the American AVA system argue that the clout a particular appellation, like Napa Valley, wields on a label is immeasurable in sales. Critics maintain that the U.S. AVA system is too simplistic and broad, relies too much on marketing decisions and is possibly influenced by politics.
One example of the broad diversity of the AVA system is the state of AVAs in Sonoma County. Currently, the 17 Sonoma County AVAs range from the relatively unknown cool climate of Sonoma Coast, to the warmer and more popular Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley AVAs.