What’s in a Name? Another New AVA Proposed in CA

As Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name still smell as sweet?” Or, more to the point, would a wine labeled by any other AVA still smell (and taste) as wonderful?

An AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a delimited, geographic region used to designate wine regions within the United States. Modeled (somewhat) after Europe’s AOC (Appellation d’Origin Controllee) system, an AVA provides the consumer with information as to where the grapes were grown and the wine made. By law, if an AVA is listed on the wine’s label, at least 85% of the grapes must have come from that area (75% if just the state name is listed, with the exception of Oregon, which has a 90% minimum).

In theory, AVAs are supposed to be based upon historical and scientific evidence that this delimited area is different than adjacent areas. In reality, a lot of the AVAs are the result of political boundaries and marketing efforts. So, when I heard that a new AVA, Paso Robles Westside, had been submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for approval, I was somewhat lukewarm to the idea. However, having visited Paso Robles last month, I was curious to learn more about what the proponents of the PR West Side had to say for themselves.

In seeking to achieve the same recognition for its wines, US wine regions are beginning to make a name for themselves in connection with key grape varieties. Building on this, consumers are looking to these regions and their respective wines (i.e. Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir) as indicators of quality. Thus, consumers have shifted from California to Napa and then to Rutherford, with greater and greater specificity. But, many wine producers are not content with the current designations and are, instead, seeking to carve out yet smaller enclaves to further build recognition that equates particular grapes with particular geographic areas.

Among those lobbying for a new designation, a group of wineries on Paso Robles (CA)’s west side wants to distinguish themselves as “Paso Robles Westside AVA.” Whereas the initial Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983, this group first came together in 1993, but no firm decision was made. Talks resumed in 2003 with the application submitted in December 2005; public comment was invited through April 26, 2007. As with all AVA applications, they must prove that historical and scientific evidence supports their claims to the selected name and its unique attributes as a separate wine region. Their claim is that their side of town differs sufficiently from the west side to merit its own AVA. Specifically, they have argued that their area is cooler in climate with hilly, steep-sloped vineyards and higher rainfall than their counterparts across town. (See www.pasorobleswestsideava.com for more detailed information, including a copy of the actual application that was submitted to the TTB).

With time, it is expected that consumers will become more savvy about AVAs. This is especially important as more specified wines frequently command a premium in the marketplace. Such knowledge is particularly useful in understanding why two wines from the same producer might seem to be the same, but differ markedly in price. If one learns to read the “fine print,” it should become clear that the sub-appellation or single vineyard designation is expected to be better than the one from the larger AVA. However, in the end, it is what is inside the bottle and not the name on the label that counts. 

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