AVA’s: How many is too many?
- Mike Willison
There are currently 199 American Viticultural Areas approved in the US by the TTB, with many more seemingly on the way. 112 of those AVA's are located in winemaking mega-state, California. This is enough until something significant changes. The US has the world's smallest and the world's largest appellations in the Cole Ranch, California AVA at 189 acres and the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA at 19.1 million acres, respectively. While each state, hamlet and outcropping of rocks aims to distinguish itself by proving to the TTB that it, by virtue of its unique geographic and geological conditions, can make wines of identifiable distinction, three realities exist that preclude anyone from actually caring.
The first is the totally beat-into-the-ground by bloggers and wine geeks that is a totally true trend that most wine is not particularly different seeming than its neighbor geographically, varietally, or by virtue of shelf positioning at the bottle shop.
The second is that the historical precedent for appellations has been eroding into the ether for some time now. 300 years ago the world was very, very big. It was difficult for wine folk from the far reaches of the empire to communicate about methods, best practices and innovation which meant there was little corroboration between the winemakers of Alsace and Sicily, for example. Technique was passed down through generations and was collectively copied and tweaked within villages creating a sense of place that, in today's terms, was extremely small. The world, being very small now, has changed so that community includes us all, from the biggest wine barons to the smallest producer of closet blaufrankish, and we have the same tools, insights and technology available. Our village has become the world.
The third contributing factor is that many wine drinking people just don't care if their wine comes from San Ysidro or the Niagara Escarpment, just that it costs $X, depending on who they are trying to impress, if anyone.
If good wine tastes like it comes from somewhere and bad wine tastes like it comes from anywhere then we have been living in a pretty mediocre time for wine.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
While I do think that there is some snobbery and certainly no shortage of marketing involved in the distinction of AVAs, I also think that the regional (and sub-regional) breakdown of winegrowing areas is a practice that can, and should, continue.
Wine regions are created to distinguish one region from the next, some based on soil type, some based on geography, some based on climate. While these may seem arbitrary to the average consumer, they are anything but to the winemakers and grape growers who exist within their confines.
The concept of terroir is alive and well in these debates. And we can't bring up this concept without allowing for its ambiguity. Given this, it doesn't make sense to argue that they are ill-defined or vague. By nature, of course they are.
When we start to ask smaller regions to distinguish themselves from one another without ANY ambiguity allowed, we may find it difficult to distinguish the large ones for truly solid reasons as well. It's a slippery slope. And with so much personal interest locked into the classifications of the different AVAs, attempting to place hard, factual, solid regulations upon a concept that is anything but is an impossible task. I say why try? Drink, enjoy, and be happy that people are taking enough pride in where they make wine to put their region on a map.