Steps to Enhance Credibility of AVAs

August 2016
by Richard Mendelson

Editor’s note: The following excerpt, with certain modifications, is from a new book by Richard Mendelson, Appellation Napa Valley: Building and Protecting an American Treasure (Val de Grace Books 2016). In his book, Mendelson, who managed the legal work for many appellations in California and elsewhere, tells a detailed story of the birth, definition, personalities and protection of the Napa Valley. In so doing, he offers insights into the establishment of American Viticultural Areas and the future of vineyard designations in the United States. Mendelson’s book is available for purchase at

Book cover

In 1978, the United States adopted a formal wine appellation system with a new category of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Since then, more than 225 AVAs have been established in 32 states. And while some AVAs have been wildly successful and are recognized today around the world, others have “died on the vine.”

From 2007 to 2011, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) conducted a thorough reassessment of the AVA program. While this review was welcome, it was an opportunity lost. As I learned after more than 30 years of battles over the establishment and protection of AVAs, the appellation program is in need of change. With the benefit of hindsight and with the recognition that our AVAs now compete on the world stage, I believe that the TTB can—and must—take steps to enhance the credibility of U.S. appellations.

TTB expertise
Coincidentally, the changes that TTB should pursue are the very ones it rejected at the outset of the appellation program. In 1975, many vintners and growers urged ATF (TTB’s predecessor, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) to appoint vintner-grower advisory committees at the local or state level to help the agency evaluate AVA petitions. ATF rejected this idea and instead trusted the public rulemaking process to bring to light the merits and demerits of any proposed AVA. In rulemaking, all concerned parties have a chance to comment on AVA petitions and TTB’s proposed decisions. Based on that public record, an impartial TTB makes the final decision.

This approach is no longer adequate. Terroir is too complicated, and TTB officials are not sufficiently versed in the evolving sciences of viticulture, enology, geography, pedology (soil science), geology and climatology. TTB must have the expertise to lead—not simply follow—the important discussions about viticultural distinctiveness.

Having appellation experts at TTB would help to address the most frequent criticism of AVAs—that they are marketing devices that impart no useful information to consumers.

Bill Earle, former assistant director of the ATF, says, “The agency has long been wary that industry members might try to establish AVAs for marketing reasons, without adequate scientific evidence. The agency should do comprehensive due diligence not only on specific AVA proposals but also on the petitioners themselves.”

I agree; if there is no funding to hire in-house experts, TTB can appoint a federal advisory committee consisting of various industry experts. Federal advisory committees were first authorized by Congress in 1972 to help the government manage and solve complex or divisive issues. Congress requires that the membership of advisory committees be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented” and that the committee’s advice be objective and accessible to the public.

When I first studied appellations of origin at the London Wine and Spirits Education Trust, I learned that appellation classification systems are designed to help consumers understand wine origin. Consumers then can explore—and get excited about—wines at each level of the appellation hierarchy: from the largest to the smallest—country, region, district, village and vineyard, like the rings of a concentric circle.

That hierarchical organization is lacking in the American system. Our AVAs range from multi-state areas like the Ohio River Valley (16.6 million acres, covering parts of four states) to the tiny Cole Ranch AVA (189 acres in Mendocino County, Calif.) to AVAs that partially overlap.

Jess Jackson of Jackson Family Wines, during TTB’s reassessment, recommended that the agency adopt a tiered AVA system with zones, regions and districts, similar to Australia’s classification of its geographical indications (akin to AVAs) into zones, regions and sub-regions. TTB rejected this proposal.

At a minimum, TTB should require petitioners to describe how their proposed AVAs compare viticulturally to other existing AVAs in the same geographic area and how the new AVA, in that context, will inform—rather than confuse—consumers. This lack of context is why I started filing multiple AVA petitions simultaneously—to force TTB to consider the relationships among AVAs. I did that first with the Rutherford, Rutherford Bench, Oakville and Oakville Bench petitions and later with 11 petitions for nested AVAs (filed in 2007 and approved in 2014) inside the 614,000-acre Paso Robles AVA.

Vineyard designations
Another major change that TTB should make is to formalize vineyard designations. Vineyards are an increasingly important part of the hierarchy of a wine’s origin. In the 1970s, ATF proposed to regulate vineyards, but the agency backed away from the idea because it seemed unnecessary. As a result, vineyards today have no officially recognized boundaries.

On a wine label, a vineyard designation refers to whatever plot of ground the grower—or with the consent of the grower, the purchasing winery—determines. There is nothing to stop the expanded use of a vineyard designation, even for land that is non-contiguous or under separate ownership. Additionally, the holder of a trademark registration to a vineyard name can use that mark for wines made from grapes grown elsewhere.

Vineyard designations make good sense—and so did ATF’s original 1976 proposal that would have required wineries or grapegrowers to notify TTB of their vineyard designations prior to using them on wine labels. The notice would tie the vineyard name to a particular property or contiguous p roperties so that, like an AVA, it can be found on the ground. TTB would then establish rules on how vineyard designations can be used on wine labels, for example, in direct conjunction with an AVA, no larger than half the size of the brand name, and always with the name “vineyard” to ensure ready identification by consumers. As with brand names, TTB would stay out of private disputes over vineyard names; those fights would be resolved by the parties, with or without resorting to the courts.

Fortunately, TTB already has taken steps to resolve some potential conflicts over vineyard names by requiring, as it does for geographic brands, that vineyard designations that include AVA names can only be used on wines that qualify for the named AVA.

Today’s wine enthusiasts and wine critics focus increasingly on vineyard designations. Already there is talk about the grand crus and the premier crus of American wines. This sort of ranking is inevitable. I am not suggesting that TTB undertake such a classification scheme, but by recognizing official vineyard boundaries, TTB would enhance the integrity and the relevance of vineyard designations and give wine critics and consumers reliable and verifiable information for their own classifications.

Experimentation and Innovation
From the outset of the appellation program, Americans have consistently rejected rigid farming and production controls such as those found in the French appellations d’origine contrôlées (AOCs). ATF’s early proposals for seal wines and controlled appellations were widely criticized and quickly abandoned.

For a New World country that is still actively exploring its terroir and developing traditions and culture, rigid appellation controls run the risk of stifling innovation and impeding product development. There is also a real risk that we might make the wrong decisions and be unable to readily reverse them.

While it is not in the American DNA to dictate to farmers what grape varieties are to be planted where or to control the art of winemaking, it is part of our culture to experiment. Being local by definition, the vintner-grower appellation associations now established in many AVAs are well positioned to lead these experiments.

I would not be surprised if someday a vintner-grower group were to adopt a voluntary, private program covering grapegrowing and winemaking practices and a tasting of the finished wines as part of a collective effort to enhance the expression of the AVA’s most distinctive wines.

Winemaker Warren Winiarski believes that this is what Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs should do: investigate the distinctive character of their wines and, if it can be identified, take steps in farming and winemaking to enhance the expression of that character. This might include standards for rootstock and clonal selections, specific viticultural and winemaking practices, and standards for volatile acidity, acid and sugar levels, and even alcohol level—surely a hot topic.

Highly extracted, alcoholic wines diminish, if not obliterate, distinctiveness and the sense of terroir. Whether the agreed upon practices and standards to enhance terroir expression become part of a cahier des charges (technical specifications) for a particular AVA’s wines, as they are for all French AOC wines, will be for future generations to decide. There will no doubt be strong resistance to encroaching on individual freedom.

These are the kinds of local, private, voluntary and experimental programs that will keep our AVAs vibrant and meaningful in the future—without any governmental involvement or interference. It is not TTB’s mission or its responsibility to make an individual AVA (or an individual vineyard) meaningful to consumers or successful. The growers and vintners of each AVA are responsible for that.

AVAs are created by the federal government, but they succeed only with the ongoing cooperation of local vintners and growers united in the effort to make the best wines from their distinctive terroirs and dedicated to the promotion and protection of the AVA.

Richard Mendelson is a wine lawyer at Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty in Napa, Calif. He also directs the Wine Law and Policy Program at UC Berkeley Law School. His previous books include From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America and Wine in America: Law and Policy.

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