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12.19.2011  
 

Gallo Winery Gets AVA Expansion

Russian River winemaker laments diluted appellation authenticity

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 
merry edwards
 
Vintner Merry Edwards is confident that her brand will continue to thrive, but believes value of the Russian River Valley AVA is weakened by the recent TTV expansion.
Sebastopol, Calif.—All it took was “Money and time,” said winemaker Merry Edwards, describing the denouement of her lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful fight to prevent expansion of the Russian River Valley viticultural area. “I didn’t call you back before because it was too depressing.”

After years of regulatory wrangling, mega-producer E. & J. Gallo Winery eventually emerged victorious in its quest to enlarge the RRV AVA, in a decision announced by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) on Nov. 16, 2011, effective Dec. 16.  As requested in the petition from Gallo Family Vineyards, the ruling expands the RRV AVA by 14,044 acres and the overlapping Northern Sonoma AVA by 44,244 acres. The AVA now covers parts of what most locals might consider Central/Southern Sonoma or the Petaluma Gap.

“All you have to understand is that Gallo had been trying to do this since before 1993,” Edwards said last week. Edwards, owner of Merry Edwards Winery, had spoken to Wines & Vines regarding Gallo’s controversial petition to enlarge the AVA in 2008, when she led opposition from area winegrowers under the ad hoc Russian River Valley Boundary Integrity Coalition (RRVIC).

Established in 1983, the RRV AVA was previously expanded by 30,200 acres in 2005, in response to another Gallo-backed petition. The Russian River Valley Winegrowers had supported that redefinition of AVA boundaries.

“I was the bad girl. I withdrew from the board,” Edwards recalled last week. Of the larger wineries in the area, she said, “A lot of people do business with Gallo.” She speculated that motivated support for the company’s position.

When the TTB announced the most recent proposed rulemaking during the 2008 crush, Edwards quickly allied with other local growers and winemakers to form the RRVIC, which requested and obtained an extension of the abbreviated public comment period.

Then, Edwards said, “whole companies threw their staff into the research TTB wanted” to counter Gallo’s arguments favoring the expansion. Public comments, mostly adverse, poured in, reaching an impressive total of 171.

In its rulemaking, TTB broke these down as follows: 26 in support, 133 in opposition, and 12 others. Of the 26 supporting comments, 20 were from area grapegrowers, the balance from “the petitioner and its two consultants; Constellation Brands Inc., and Allied Grape Growers.” 

Opponents included 78 area grapegrowers and wineries, plus consumers, wine professionals, and the membership of the RRVW, although the RRVW board had remained neutral.

Insufficient evidence
Edwards said she was “flabbergasted” that in the end, the TTB not only discounted a 50-page document that RRVIC submitted to counter the petition but also “refused to acknowledge the influential people involved with it.

“We requested a flyover,” Edwards recalled. “They didn’t do that,” nor did TTB assign any bureau representatives actually to visit the vast and varied area.

“We objected and asked them to come here,” but, Edwards said, “Everything’s occurring in D.C.,” a bureaucratic limitation she termed “highly flawed.” “If the work we did was not enough, there is no recourse.”

Thomas Hogue, congressional and acting media representative for the TTB, told Wines & Vines that the bureau bases its rulemaking on the substance of the comments and documentation submitted. “It isn’t the who, it’s the what” that matters in evaluating the decisions, he said.

The lengthy and costly process of obtaining or altering an AVA requires multiple layers of review within the TTB and the Treasury Department and, he pointed out, the bureau works with petitioners prior to publishing pending rulings for mandated public comment.

“We want them to put their best foot forward,” he said. “We want it to be something that can work.”

According to the final ruling, TTB “noted that the assertions in the correspondence were not accompanied by any specific data that contradicted the petitioner’s submitted evidence.” Opponents, the bureau said, “are mostly vineyard or winery owners from the existing Russian River Valley viticultural area.”

Following the approval, Gallo chief viticulturist Jim Collins released a statement: “We are pleased to learn that the Treasury Department has decided to expand the Russian River Valley viticultural area. The expansion area shares with the original AVA the same coastal fog intrusion, climate, topography, soil and growing conditions which is why the expansion petition had broad support from local farmers, winery owners, consumers and agricultural organizations.”

Weakening the brand
“I was one of many people who made a public comment for the TTB…opposing the move. I don’t have a monetary stake in the issue; I’m just a wine lover, and specifically a Russian River Valley wine lover,” wrote W. Blake Gray in his Gray Report of Nov. 21, “Gallo beats its neighbors and consumers, again.”

“The TTB deferred to Gallo and made a formerly great Sonoma County appellation less meaningful,” wrote the blogger and columnist.

With her winery’s firmly established reputation, Edwards said, “I have a good brand. I’ll be fine. I believe in the Russian River Valley, but if I were banking just on the area,” the future might be a little less secure, she acknowledged. In earlier days, she said, “Nobody wanted to be in the Russian River Valley AVA. Now everybody does. Trying to confuse people,” is what’s wrong with the system, Edwards said.

The TTB has posted numerous petitions and rulings in the past month. Wines & Vines will survey these in an upcoming Headline.

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