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The rapid proliferation of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Washington State—four of the nine were approved in the last two years, with more coming—can help tell the story about the state’s diverse wine industry. But individual AVAs must work together for the common good to prevent fracturing and diluting the message, agreed a panel of wine industry representatives discussing the pros and cons of appellations.

AVAs can be both friend and foe from the media’s perspective, Wine Press Northwest Publisher Andy Perdue said during a morning session at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention. "From a media perspective, AVAs are interesting to look at and help to drill down the wine’s regionality." But he noted that wine writers from out of state are likely unfamiliar with the different AVAs in Washington and are still trying to figure out what the wines in the state are all about.

Staff writers and wine critics from Perdue’s magazine spent a week last year in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to see if they could taste differences between the six newly approved subappellations within Willamette Valley. After days of tasting, he said they now better understand the geography and what sets the six AVAs apart. "For me, AVAs help tell the story of those wines," Perdue said. "I prefer to write about wines and the story behind them."

The Napa story

Since America’s first AVA, Napa Valley, was approved in 1981, it has been subdivided into 14 subappellations, with another subappellation pending, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Association Web site.

With so many sub-AVAs contained within California’s Napa Valley AVA, is there danger of confusing the consumer and diluting the message about Napa Valley?

Not in California, answered Dawnine Dyer, past president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and winemaker for Dyer Vineyard in Calistoga, California. "It’s easier for us to claim all of the subappellations because we have a California labeling law that requires labeling of both the sub and main appellation. You can’t be a renegade and promote only your sub-AVA."

The Napa vintners group prodded forward the California labeling law to close a loophole in federal regulations allowing pre-1986 wineries that had the AVA in brand names to make wines from grapes outside the AVA. Wineries built after 1986 are not grandfathered under the brand name clause and must follow federal regulations that require 85 percent of the wine to be made from grapes within the AVA if the AVA is stated on the bottle. The legislation took six years of legal challenges before it was implemented. Although the law only applies to wines from California, the issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The 1986 grandfather clause was a bit of a problem for us," Dyer said, adding that 37 brand names have Napa as part of the name. One large winery in particular, Napa Ridge, used grapes from throughout California for its wines. "Consumers assumed that if it had Napa on any of the label, that the grapes were from Napa. It was a truth-in-advertising issue." She said that region is important to consumers, according to surveys conducted in Europe and by the Napa vintner association. The majority of surveyed consumers believe that the wine region is an important wine-buying decision factor and that the region is extremely important in determining wine quality, she said.

Promoting both Napa Valley and the sub-AVA allows the consumer to be comfortable at whatever wine knowledge level they are interested in, she said. "AVAs are a powerful tool, providing authenticity and tie to the land. I encourage you [Washington wine producers] to drill down as small as you can."

String of pearls

Ciel du Cheval Vineyard owner Jim Holmes, of Benton City, Washington, believes AVAs are worth the effort. "Location does improve the product value," he said. "It’s not just wine. Consumers love to know where things are from."

He also said that AVAs are a platform for increasing the return on investment and are the basis for quality. He used the Lodi-Woodbridge AVA in California as an example of wine producers carving out an area and promoting quality apart from the rest of the state’s San Joaquin Valley.

Moreover, appellations are not the end all to wine production. "Winemaking still trumps the AVA terroir," Holmes said, adding that the award-winning Quilceda Creek wines were made from grapes from two different AVAs. "Wines made from single-source AVAs are not any better than other wines. AVAs can mislead the consumer because it doesn’t mean that it’s better than others. Wine ought to be sold on its own merits."

Washington is still "at the first quarter" when it comes to the appellation game, he said. Holmes can envision many more appellations and subappellations that would be appropriate for the state. Columbia Valley, with its 11.5 million acres, is ripe for subappellations. "I think size is irrelevant. Promotion is the key."

But AVAs do represent competition to other in-state wine regions. Washington’s wine industry is at risk of losing industry cooperation and cohesion as it fractures into subappellations and appellation associations.

"We should be promoting each AVA for its unique character," he said. "We should be working together like a string of pearls, with each pearl representing an appellation on the wine highway, exploiting our differences in a positive way and cooperating in joint advertising and ventures."

The bottom line is that AVAs should work together for common goals, he emphasized. "We can overcome our human nature of running down our neighbor. When consumers visit your winery, it’s an economic win for you to say that your neighbor is good, too."

Promoting AVAs

It is possible to differentiate appellations in a positive way, agreed Alan Busacca, of Vinitas Consultants, Hygiene, Colorado. Busacca has provided geological information for several Washington AVA petitions and was a geology and soil science professor at Washington State University until he recently began his own consulting firm.

"Each place, no matter what the size or scale, has a story that can be told in an authentic way in hopes of forging a bond with the consumer," he said. The story can be told through geology and history of the region and by authenticating the AVA "experience" at the vineyard or winery.

For example, winery buildings can be designed to replicate or authenticate regional industry or geological features, such as turning packing houses or dairies into wineries or using basalt rock in the building design. Incorporating artisan food products from the AVA is another way to develop an AVA identity.

He encouraged wine producers to exploit AVA linkages that are based on geological stories, cultural history, indigenous farm and industry architecture, and regional cuisine.