What is an AVA? 11 Things You Should Know

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Northern Oregon & Willamette Valley AVAs

Most high-quality, U.S. wines identify an AVA of origin on their label. The number of AVA’s is growing rapidly too. There are five new AVAs in the works, just in the vicinity Willamette Valley, Oregon. But what is an AVA? What does an AVA designation tell us about a wine? Here are 11 things you should know about AVA's:

1. AVA is an acronym for American Viticultural Area. It is a legal designation, identifying particular places as unique, wine-growing regions. The AVA system was created by the United States government. Other countries have their own laws and nomenclature to identify wine regions, but AVAs only exist here.

2. AVAs are administered by the TTB (Tax & Trade Bureau) of the U.S Treasury Department. The sole purpose is to allow producers to specify where the majority of grapes used to make a given wine came from. Because AVAs only relate to the growing of wine grapes, the boundaries are intended to be viticulturally relevant, rather than arbitrary or political.

3. U.S. law requires every wine label to state the place of origin for its grapes. The United States, each individual state, and every county are legally recognized designations (appellations) for the origin of domestic wines. They satisfy the labelling requirement and are convenient to the government for the purpose of calculating and collecting taxes on wine. However, they are not considered AVAs, because the boundaries are political and weren’t created with wine growing in mind.

4. AVAs only serve one purpose—identifying a growing area. This is significantly different from regional designations in specific Europe countries, such as AOC in France, DOC in Italy, and from the EU designations, PDO and PGI.

European regional designations may stipulate what grapes are grown in that region, what styles  of wine can be made, how much of a certain variety can or must be used in a blend, how long it must be aged, minimum alcohol percentages, minimum or maximum amounts of residual sugar, and many other specifications. The designations are sometimes considered an indication of wine quality too. If you know the rules, these designations can tell you a lot about wine from that area. AVAs only tell you where the grapes came from.

5. The AVA system was established in 1978. It then took two years for the first AVA to be approved, Augusta in Missouri. Today, there are 241 AVAs. California has more AVAs than any other state, 139.

To establish an AVA, someone in that region must submit a “petition” to the TTB. The application must include the proposed name and boundaries for the area. It must demonstrate that the desired name is well-recognized for the area in general and for wine specifically. The boundaries must be easily understood and identifiable, such as roads, streams, and ridge lines. The petition also needs to explain how the proposed area its different from neighboring zones in ways which are significant to the growing of wine grapes. Climate, soil, elevation, slope, and wind patterns are common distinctions. There must also be on-going commercial wine-growing activity in the area.

If the TTB finds the petition acceptable, the public is allowed to comment on it. People may write in support of the new AVA or object to it. Typical objections relate to conflicts over the name and disagreements about some aspect of the boundaries. Objections during this phase can drag on for years. When the TTB believes all reasonable objections have been resolved, it can approve the AVA.

Sometimes, based on a new petition, the TTB will revise the boundaries of an AVA. This is usually done to expand the region. Sometimes, though, it takes away part of the acreage from one AVA to include that territory within a new one. The TTB has never eliminated an approved AVA entirely, even though some are no longer commercial growing areas.

6. The smallest AVA, in total acres, is Cole Ranch in Mendocino County with 189. However, it typically has 50+ acres planted to wine grapes.

7. There are many AVAs that have more total acres, but far fewer actually planted. For example,  the Dos Rios AVA, also in Mendocino County, has only six acres of vines. There are several AVAs with even fewer.

8. The largest AVA, in total acres, is Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. It comprises 19,144,960 acres—almost 30,000 square miles—and includes portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.

9. At least 85% of the fruit used to make a wine which designates its origin as a state, country or AVA must be from that stated area. Some regions have higher requirements. If California, or any region therein, is listed as the origin, 100% of the fruit must have come from somewhere in California.

Some AVAs are small and sufficiently uniform in climate, soil, and aspect that consumers can expect a certain consistency among wines of the same variety. For example, both the Green Valley of Russian River Valley and Petaluma Gap AVAs are consistently cool throughout their territories, with growing seasons that feature foggy mornings and brisk, ocean breezes in the afternoons. Their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be expected to offer medium body and generous acidity.

In contrast, the Sonoma Coast AVA is very large and includes a wide range of climatic zones. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from that region can be light and very mouthwatering, rich and soft. or something in between.

Some AVAs are extremely large and useful only as an alternative to simply listing the state as origin. For example, the North Coast AVA is useful for sparkling wine producers combining fruit from Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties. The Central Coast AVA is helpful to a winery with vineyards in both San Benito and Monterey counties. Yet both AVAs are so large that no consumer can assume much about the character of the wine based solely on variety and AVA.

10. All AVAs have the same legal standing. Some AVAs are nested within others, such as Happy Canyon AVA within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. But Happy Canyon is still an AVA unto itself.

11. That said, for marketing reasons, some large AVAs got conjunctive labeling laws passed that affect AVAs nested within the larger AVA. That doesn’t change the status of either AVA and only pertains to wine labels. Both the Napa Valley AVA and Paso Robles AVA got such laws passed. So, for example, anytime the Rutherford District AVA is designated as the place of origin on a wine label, “Napa Valley” must also be listed on the label. These laws are also helpful to consumers who probably know where Napa Valley and Paso Robles are, but don’t know Coombsville or El Pomar District.

An AVA designation tells you where the majority of grapes in a wine came from. The smaller and more homogenous the AVA, the more likely it is to have enough typicality in wine profile to indicate what a particular wine might be like. Even then, though, knowing the producer’s usual style is also important.

The two best ways to get the feel of an AVA are going there and drinking the wine. JJ Buckley can help you with the latter. Here are some links to JJ Buckley's extensive selection of wines from some of the AVAs mentioned above.

Willamette Valley wines

Mendocino County wines

Green Valley of Russian River Valley wines

Sonoma Coast wines

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Feature map data by everyvine.com, design by John Fisher, geologic cross section by Timothy A. Cross. Sonoma County map courtesy of Sonoma County Vintners. All rights reserved.