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Is there such a thing as too many AVAs?

The recent news of the Naches Heights AVA has got some folks asking:” is this really a good thing? Another AVA?” Some in the industry feel that the more smaller AVA’s that are created, the more it takes away from the Columbia Valley “brand” which to this day still has a long ways to go in regards to out-of-state marketing for better consumer awareness.

I decided to get the folks who are directly impacted by AVA, to see what they’re thoughts are on it – here’s what they had to say:

Love the topic, I have been talking about this for a long time. I am for more AVA’s but also understand that the further away from WA State you get, the less they know. BUT, you have to start somewhere, and if the facts are there for a new AVA, something that differentiates itself from the rest, then make it so. It is up to the winery to actually use the AVA, so at that point it is a marketing question.

In Walla Walla, we have 4 or 5 very different AVA’s, in my opinion. I have written about this before for another article a while back. Seven Hills Vineyard (and the surrounding hills above it), The Rocks (Milton Freewater area where Cayuse and many others now have planted in the ancient riverbed), Pepperbridge area (valley floor, whatever we want to call it, ripens a good 2 weeks after Seven Hills), and the Foothills (Les Collines, Spring Valley, Blue Mtn Vineyard, and others in this area, cooler site, more rainfall than the rest of the valley). Each of these areas (and we could probably divide the valley up further) is distinctly different from the rest, whether it is the soil, weather, or both.

Napa has been proactive in dividing the valley up into sub-AVA’s and because of that we as consumers can taste the differences in Rutherford fruit from, say, Calistoga fruit. I believe they have at least 13 or 14 sub-AVA’s. Now, do consumers know anything about Atlas Peak, or does it have MORE worth than simply having NAPA on the label? Don’t know, I am guessing no, but someone should take a poll (West coast, Midwest, and East coast to see the differences). It could be argued that the Sub AVA’s is about as important as a vineyard designate. Maybe it is more for the winery, or the wine geek who appreciates the extra information on the label, and not the everyday consumer. Wine is about many things, and educating consumers is but one small part of wine marketing. Arming the consumer with as much information as possible about what they are drinking can only be a good thing. Remember, this is coming from someone who puts A LOT of info on the back of his labels. If I had more room, I would put more info. As it is the font is just at the legal limit for a back label!

If the Walla Walla Valley were eventually divided up (and again, I am for it), I would use both AVA’s on the label in some way or form.

  • Sleight of Hand Cellars
  • 2013 Funkadelic Syrah
  • The Rocks AVA
  • Walla Walla Valley

Trey Busch
Sleight of Hand Cellars

I’m in favor of AVA specificity: the more precise the AVA, the greater the indication of wine character for the consumer.  Yes, there may be some initial confusion for the consumer, but in the long run it helps guide the consumer more accurately towards what he/she prefers.  The mature appellations of France, for example, have all evolved to greater precision: e.g., from Burgundy to Cote d’Or, to Cote de Nuits or Cote de Beaune, to Village, to premier or grand cru.  With each “smaller circle” the consumer has a greater indication of what the wine’s character will be, and for Burgundy, wine quality.

Bob Betz
Betz Family Winery

I’m not sure to what extent AVA’s are meaningful to the average consumer.  I think they do have value for wine producers based on the interest they create among connoisseurs.  In that regard I have two general objections to the proliferation of AVA’s.

First, and a bit complicated, is the claiming of territory and brand ownership by those seeking new AVA’s.  The issues here are twofold.  One issue is the parsing of the borders of an AVA based on geography and winery location rather that cohesion of identifiable terroir, cultural, or geological factors.  I think elements of this existed in both the recent Wahluke Slope AVA and, to a larger extent the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Both of the identifiable boundaries of the namesake features  are much greater in extent than the ultimately delineated AVA boundaries. The second part of this issue is the one best raised by the Calistoga AVA in California.  That battle is a story in it’s own right.

The second thing I object to is the expenditure of tax dollars by the TTB on small AVA’s.  While I think it is arguable that there is general widespread if intangible public benefit from  broad AVA’s such as the Columbia Valley or the Walla Walla or Yakima Valley’s, it is hard to see how tiny plots like Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain or the rumored Walla Walla Rocks are more than self interested marketing developments.  The costs of these should be borne by the vineyards not the taxpayers.

John Morgan
Lost River Winery

I think there should be some “refining” of just exactly what “AVA” stands for and their approval process, but they are a great place to start.

In the scheme of the wine world, America is fairly youthful.. let alone Washington.  AVA’s help us describe (to those few interested) exactly where the wine is from..soils/weather etc which are often unique to that wine. 

They can be confusing, but it’s a place to start and something to work with that I do not feel hinder the WA wine effort and only help with the story of the vine..

When I market, I start with “I am from WA”….THEN.. “I am from Walla”…Then “I am Dunham Cellars”… trying to avoid confusion as much as possible…

Eric Dunham
Dunham Cellars

For a small producer like us more AVA’s are a good thing.  We currently are not marketing our wines out of the northwest and we are striving to create that sense of place withinWashington.  Connecting consumers with that place is something they love to know about and relate to.  I hope one day we see more emphasis on vineyard designations within Washington.

Not sure if that helps you as your question is posed for marketing efforts and the bigger picture, but that is not something I know a whole lot about.  My perspective on the bigger picture is that if you are going to be drinking wine somewhere out of the northwest and it is a Washington producer it is probably one of the major players like CSM, Covey, etc., Having Washington on the label seems to be the best way to market those wines, and don’t even bother with AVA.

When I travel to other areas I am seeing a lot of state designations or Just American Wine.

Shane Collins
Tsillan Cellars

Good questions.  AVA’s are a natural progression for our industry as we grow and learn more about the different areas we grow grapes and the wines they make.  I would agree that more AVA’s could confuse the market outside of our state.  However, not having these AVA’s could also confuse consumers especially with varietals like syrah.  They may see flavor profiles all over the board and perhaps the AVA’s could help define what style of wine the consumer can expect.  Our AVA’s are still new, that it adds a layer of confusion now, but in the long run will provide better clarity for the consumer.

Craig Mitakul
Owner / Winemaker
Crayelle Cellars

I believe the smaller Ava’s are a natural progression of a maturing wine region/industry.  I do think the smaller AVA’s can help the consumer identify with a particular style of wine assuming there is typicity…which I also believe is a bit of a stretch and difficult to identify with young vines/vineyards.   Overall I agree with your assertion that outside of WA most consumers are still trying to develop a relationship with WA wines from even some of the more established AVA’s like Columbia Valley, Yakima, Walla Walla and Red Mountain, so certainly with more AVA’s there is a chance for some dilution of message.  I think we (Washington State wineries and vineyards) should continue to brand and emphasize the Washington State aspect of our wines and stay focused on quality wines at all price points and let the AVA’s provide more geographic narrative. 

John R. Bookwalter
Bookwalter Winery

Actually, it’s a very good question and one I’ve thought about for a while now.  This subject has come to mind a lot for me since I occasionally teach an evening class on WA AVAs as part of Dieter Schafer’s series of wine education classes at South Seattle Community College’s Continuing Education Program.  Historically, AVAs are patterned after the French AOCs and Italian DOCs, which are formalized ways of defining terroir.  For these definitions to be meaningful, distinctive qualities in wine must be consistently observed over the extent of the region being defined (be it AOC, DOC, or AVA).  Very restrictive laws defining how grapes are grown and wine is made in the Old World effectively do this for their regional definitions.  However, Americans, bucking every kind of attempt to reign in the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirits that grow grapes and make wines here, refuse to be confined by laws this restrictive.  Such control is anathema to American grape growers and winemakers.  Therefore, there is no regionally distinctive wine quality that can be observed on a consistent basis for the vast majority of AVAs, though some of the older, more-well-known ones, such as Napa Valley, sort-of approach this situation.  In my experience there is much more wine character variation between vineyards within a WA AVA than there is between WA AVAs.  Part of the reason for this is that WA AVAs are very large regions (except for Red Mountain).  Columbia Valley covers WAY too much territory to be meaningful as an AVA definition, though to be truthful, wines blended from grapes harvested from vineyards over the majority of this AVA show a distinctive bright, fruit-driven, balanced character that is unmistakeable as Washington wine.  But you have to step back a long ways to observe this character in and amongst all the other nuances that are really vineyard driven.

So to answer your original question, I don’t think the current AVA definitions are particularly meaningful for the vast majority of AVAs primarily because there are no consistently distinctive wine characteristics that can be associated with most of these AVAs.  But I don’t think that listing WA AVAs on labels is necessarily confusing.  I just think they’re not particularly meaningful, and most people will either ignore them from the start or learn to ignore them as they fail to define consistently observable wine character.

I also add that the current primary function of WA AVAs, as I see it, is to help promote the marketing of wines from a region or of the region itself, not necessarily to help define or characterize the wines that come from it.  The AVA listing on the label works hand in hand with other marketing activities undertaken by local wine associations or regional tourism associations.

John Bell
Winemaker / Owner
Willis Hall

I don’t think adding AVA hurts or helps Washington. The current system offers smaller wineries an opportunity to highlight their regions while keeping the larger Columbia Valley and Washington AVA available for larger wineries that need to use a more widely known appellation. The best outcome would be for those smaller appellation to get known for something great – I can imagine Red Mountain being Cab King, Chelan being Chardonnay country etc… That would allow the wineries in those regions to charge a premium, be known for something and elevate the image of Washington as a whole – As it is those smaller appellations are not a guarantee of higher or specific quality versus the larger appellations – that is a challenge that smaller AVAs have to tackle if they want to be successful.

Nicolas Quille
Pacific Rim Winery

I do not think adding AVA’s in Washington affects the marketing efforts outside the state.  At this point in time the AVA’s are basically for helping to brand regions within the state to the local consumers.  Lets be honest and admit that most consumers do not know much, if anything, about Washington wine and when the state is mentioned to them the majority have the opinion that it rains a lot here.

Don Phelps
Hard Row to Hoe

Washington State continues to make a name for itself across the country and around the world, and the establishment of new AVAs within Washington State gives people the opportunity to discover new aspects to our industry.

The establishment of new AVAs doesn’t really impact our marketing efforts. At the end of the day, we all have to continue doing what we’re already doing to get the word out about Washington State wine. New AVAs are just one more element to the story – one more chapter in the book of Washington State wine.

Ryan Pennington
Washington State Wine Commission

Thank you all for your input – I think, more than anything, what we can see from the slightly differing opinions on the impact of AVA’s in our state is that nobody knows for sure the long-term benefits (if any) that they’ll have on people’s experience with the great wines of this state.

As with most consumer products, the ownis is on us, the consumers, to educate ourselves about the various wine regions and ultimately train our palate. After all, the more we get to know about where our consumable products come from and how that impacts our experience, the more fun it s.