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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.

Critics also like to cite two huge AVAs in Northern California — North Coast AVA and San Francisco Bay AVA — to illustrate the uselessness of AVAs for assessing wine quality.

Approved in 1983, the North Coast AVA covers more than 3 million acres, stretched over six counties, including parts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Within this vast area are smaller, more focused AVAs like the Petaluma Gap AVA, the latest to be approved in 2018 in Sonoma County. Critics ask if consumers can make a meaningful assessment of wine quality or distinctiveness from such large entities as the North Coast AVA, considering its wide range of soils and climates.

Equally challenging for consumers is making sense of the San Francisco Bay AVA. Approved in 1999, the AVA covers more than 1.5 million acres in the counties of San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and parts of San Benito and Santa Cruz. The larger San Francisco Bay AVA contains smaller AVAs like Santa Clara Valley and Livermore Valley.

Understandably, wineries located within a smaller AVA would prefer to promote their local name, rather than the larger San Francisco Bay AVA. Wineries, though, like Wente in the Livermore Valley, label some of their wines as “Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay.” It could be argued that Livermore Valley is not part of what is commonly known as the San Francisco Bay, but having the valley and bay AVAs on the label may help consumers in their buying decisions.

Whether an American Viticultural Area on a bottle of wine is of value to the consumer is up to each wine buyer. Perhaps one answer is found in a conclusion reached at the 2018 Washington Winegrowers Convention.

The attendees predicted a new trend in wine buying, away from wineries listing grape names and AVAs and toward branded wines such as Kung Fu Girl from Charles Smith Wines and 19 Crimes from Treasury Wine Estates.

Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Reach him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net

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