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Making Sense of Appellations
By Linda Murphy
May 25, 2011
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The overarching goal of the U.S. Treasury Department’s American Viticultural Area program is to eliminate confusion for consumers who shop for American-made wines. AVA status, conveyed by Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), is indicated on wine labels, and is intended to inform shoppers of the provenance of the wines. In short: AVAs are supposed to tell us where the grapes were grown, and theoretically, the style of wine inside the bottle.

If only it were that simple. Many AVAs, or appellations, are so large as to be nearly useless to consumers. The Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA covers more than 29,000 square miles in four states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois). Does a Wisconsin wine taste different from an Illinois wine? One would hope so, yet the AVA designation would be of no help to those seeking the differences.

The Columbia Valley AVA in Washington state and a tiny portion of Oregon checks in at 18,000 square miles -- huge, and rather generic in terms of terroir-based wine production. The Texas Hill Country AVA is 15,000 square miles in scope, encompassing 22 counties. That’s a whole lotta land in which winemakers can establish a “Hill Country” style.

These AVAs – and there are many more just like them – are so broad that they give wine buyers very little information on how the wines will taste. Some huge AVAs have been carved into smaller sub-appellations – Washington state has eight within the Columbia Valley, for example – as soil types, climate conditions, elevations and exposures are identified as producing distinctive grapes, and thus distinctive wines. Yet the slicing and dicing hasn’t happened everywhere, and large appellations with tremendous diversity in grapegrowing conditions continue to run against TTB’s stated mission of preventing consumer confusion.  

Take the guy who purchases a bottle of Finger Lakes AVA Riesling; he’s pretty much guaranteed that the wine will be aromatic and have crackling acidity, thanks to the cold conditions throughout the AVA. Yet the gal who picks up a Central Coast Syrah in a retail shop won’t know what she’s getting unless she is already familiar with the wine, or if there is a knowledgeable salesperson to help her. A Central Coast Syrah can be rich and muscular if the grapes were grown in a warm region such as the Paso Robles AVA in San Luis Obispo County, or it could be tighter and more structured if the fruit was grown in the cooler Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County. If it’s a multi-region Central Coast Syrah, it likely will show little, if any, specific terroir character.

The AVA system is just three decades old – infancy compared to the viticultural regions of Europe – and in 50 years, we will likely have a greater understanding of which grapes are grown best where, and designate the wines made from them accordingly. But for now, we live with the AVA structure, warts and all – and keep in mind that AVA status has no guarantee of wine quality.

Yet one particular California AVA has irked me for years, largely because it’s in my own backyard, and because I’ve tasted so many wines from the appellation that are not at all alike. I’m talking about the Sonoma Coast AVA -- crazy-big (750 square miles), sprawling (it runs from Mendocino County’s southern border all the way to San Pablo Bay, just north of San Francisco and includes parts of the Russian River Valley, Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain AVAs), and numbingly diverse, with dozens of soil types, microclimates, elevations and exposures scattered throughout its half a million acres.

The Sonoma Coast is so amorphous that it includes vineyards pummeled by torrential winter rains, icy Pacific Ocean winds and growing-season days where the temperature high is 80 degrees, and regions to the southeast that get half the amount of annual rainfall, “gentle” bay breezes, and 20 degrees more heat in the summer. Put a “true” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – made from grapes grown just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean – against a Sonoma Coast Pinot from the Carneros/Sonoma Valley area, and the wines will taste as though they came from different worlds. And they did. Yet the Sonoma Coast AVA makes no differentiation between the generally taut, minerally, savory and texturally focused wines of the west, and the fuller, fruitier, more accessible wines of the east.  

To add some sense to this dichotomy, producers in the “true” Sonoma Coast region have joined to educate consumers and trade on the differences in the west vs. east Sonoma Coast winemaking issues. Neither is better, yet they are different. That’s the message.

The new West Sonoma Coast Vintners organization (www.westsonomacoast.com) has two dozen members, including the Cobb, Failla, Flowers, Freeman, Freestone, Hirsch, Littorai and Peay wineries, which grow or source their Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay grapes from the chilly, remote hamlets of Annapolis, Occidental and Freestone.

Helen Turley’s famed Marcassin wines are produced from the “true” Sonoma Coast, and some of Jackson Wine Estates’ Hartford Court wines have west Sonoma Coast provenance, yet these producers are not yet members of West Sonoma Coast Vintners – though they are likely candidates, if the organization gains traction. It’s all voluntary, and unofficial, at this point. 
The current Sonoma Coast AVA is confusing at best and ridiculous at worst. Wineries in Carneros and Sonoma Valley that use their home-grown grapes for “Sonoma Coast” bottling are cheating just a bit, yet they are entirely within the federal guidelines for AVA designation.

I hope that the West Sonoma Coast Vintners will gain enough influence and traction to eventually sub-divide the Sonoma Coast AVA into more meaningful appellations that inform wine buyers on what they can expect from “Sonoma Coast” wines. That day will come eventually, though AVA recognition takes time, and I’m not holding my breath.