American Viticultural Areas
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the U.S. Government agency having regulatory jurisdiction over all U.S. wineries, recognize a “viticultural area” as one kind of appellation of origin. Appellations of origin are used on wine labels to denote the geographic origin of the grapes used to produce the wine. BATF regulation authorizes several ways to denote this geographic information. Their regulations make distinctions between appellations of origin for American wine and imported wine.
BATF permits the use of the following as appellations of origin for American wine:
1. The United States
2. a State
3. two or no more than three States which are all contiguous
4. a County
5. two or no more than three counties in the same States, or
6. a viticultural area.
The regulations further define the term “viticultural area” as applied to American wine as follows: A delimited grape growing region distinguishable by geographical features, the boundaries of which have been recognized and defined…”
While many wine consumers will recognize the names of states and, in many cases, counties, when they appear on a wine label, American Viticultural Areas are a hybrid form of appellation of origin. Regulations enforced by BATF establish higher standards for the use of an AVA on a wine label.
Concept Created in 1978
The viticultural area concept did not exist until 1978. Prior to that time, wineries complied with vague regulatory standards that permitted the broad use of many geographic indices on their labels. However, in that year, BATF issued final regulations amending certain regulations relating to wine labeling, and among the changes to the regulations was the addition of procedures for the recognition and establishment of American Viticultural Areas.
In the very same final rule, regulations implemented changes to the percentage requirements for varietal wine, the use of more than one variety, appellation of origin requirements, and the use of “estate bottled” nomenclature on wine labels.
BATF regulations distinguish between state, county, and viticultural area appellations for a reason. Wineries must qualify their wines to use of any of these appellations by meeting certain production and percentage requirements. The regulation is not only comprehensive, but complicated as well. With respect to the use of American Viticultural Areas, the regulatory requirements are rather straightforward. In order to use an American Viticultural Area on a label, at least 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must be from within the confines of the viticultural area stated on the label. In comparison, for single county or single state appellations, only 75% must come from the labeled state or county.
Estate Bottled Wine
Unless a winery is located in, and gets all of its grapes to produce a particular wine from, a common viticultural area from vineyards that it owns or controls, the winery cannot designate the wine as “Estate Bottled” wine.
BATF regulations permit the use of the term “Estate Bottled” to designate combined growing and production conditions. The requirements are very strict and require, among other things, that the bottling winery and the vineyards where all of the grapes are grown are located in the same viticultural area; that the winery own or control the vineyards where the grapes are grown, and that the wine be produced in one continuous process, the wine at no time having left the premises of the bottling winery. “Controlled by” refers to property on which the bottling winery has the legal right to perform, and does perform, all of the acts common to viticulture under the terms of a lease or similar agreement of at least three years duration.
There are certain instances where a winery and the winery’s own vineyards are NOT in the same viticultural area. In such circumstances, BATF has permitted the winery to designate that the wine has been “Proprietor Grown” or “Vintner Grown” as long as the other requirements of “Estate Bottled” are met (i.e., that the winery grew all the grapes used to make the wine on land owned or controlled by the winery; the winery crushed the grapes and fermented the resulting must, and finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a continuous process) the wine at no time having left the premises of the bottling winery.
Viticultural Areas are not Government Endorsements of Quality
Unlike some of the appellation laws in other countries, BATF’s appellation of origin regulations do not address quality. Rather, they provide objective standards to qualify a wine to make a representation of geographic origin. This is evident in the common policy statements and disclaimers that BATF makes in every final rule recognizing and establishing a viticultural area:
1. “ATF believes that the establishment of viticultural areas and the subsequent use of viticultural area names as appellations of origin in wine labeling and advertising will help consumers better identify the wines they purchase.”
2. “The establishment of viticultural areas also allows wineries to specify more accurately the origin of wines they offer for sale to the public.”
3. “ATF does not wish to give the impression by approving a viticultural area that it is approving or endorsing the quality of the wine from this area.
4. “ATF approves a viticultural area by a finding that the area is distinct from surrounding areas, but not better than other areas.”
By approving a viticultural area, ATF claims that it is simply allowing an American wine producer to claim a distinction on labels and advertisements as to origin of the grapes. This act, in and of itself, imparts no commercial advantage of any kind. Rather, any commercial advantage gained can only come from consumer acceptance of wines labeled with the viticultural area.
In contrast, some governments in other wine producing countries take great pains to control production and the use of appellations of origin. Many European wine producing countries fiercely protect their appellations on an international level from erosion, misuse, or misappropriation (e.g., Convention of Paris Agreement of 1883, modified in 1934; The Madrid Agreement of 1892; the O.I.V. Agreement of 1924; the Lisbon Agreement of 1958), but the U.S. has not gone to such lengths for various reasons.
Many of the viticultural areas established have names that are relatively unknown. BATF readily indicates in several of its final rules that the commercial advantage that a winery receives through a viticultural area does not come so much from its regulatory recognition as much as its use. BATF’s regulations allow the use, but consumer acceptance rather than BATF recognition determines the true value of a viticultural area. Some would argue that AVA’s don’t help the consumer better identify the wines they purchase, but rather allow a winery to better identify a wine to a consumer.
There are other areas that BATF has “recognized” for their unique geological and historical distinctiveness which are equally as uncelebrated. Indeed, many of the viticultural areas that span across hundreds of square miles may contain only a small percentage of grape acreage. However, it is the suitability of an area for grape growing, and the area’s distinctiveness from the areas surrounding it, rather than the grape acreage, which is the proper regulatory criteria for establishing a viticultural area.
“Delimited” or Disingenuous
The viticultural area regulations permit AVAs to encompass more than one county and in fact can include more than one state. But if to establish a viticultural area, one must prove that the area is different from the areas surrounding it, how unique can an area be when it is part of three or four overlapping or wholly enclosed viticultural areas? How unique or delimited can areas be? There are many areas where viticultural areas overlap or are wholly enclosed within another viticultural area (e.g., Los Carneros partially overlaps Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley which are all totally engulfed by the North Coast viticultural area).
Some have criticized the viticultural area process because the system of recognizing uniqueness should not result in such wide disparities of size and the quizzical application of established criteria. Fortunately, different does not mean better, and historical and meteorological evidence has sufficiently persuaded BATF that areas wholly or partially enclosed in already recognized viticultural areas have independent properties that distinguish it from the areas surrounding it.
Viticultural areas can cover extremely large areas. The largest viticultural area, Texas Hill Country, contains approximately 15,000 square miles of “delimited area” and is larger in acreage than the land acreage of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Delaware, or Maryland. Three Avas are between 5-10 thousand square miles. The smallest viticultural area that we have acreage information on is “Cole Ranch,” located in Mendocino, California, which covers a little less than a quarter of a square mile.
Viticultural areas can be found in 25 of the 50 states. There are 12 viticultural areas that straddle state borders. These multi-state viticultural areas are generally larger areas. These are: Central Delaware Valley (NJ, PA); Columbia Valley (OR, WA); Cumberland Valley (MD, PA); Kanawha River (OH, WV); Lake Erie (NY, OH, PA); Mesilla Valley (NM, TX); Mississippi Delta (LA, MS, TN); Ohio River (IN, KY, OH, WV); Ozark Mountain (AR, MO); Shenandoah Valley (VA, WV); Southeastern New England (CT, MA, RI); and Walla Walla Valley (OR, WA).
California has the most viticultural areas. 63 of the 115 approved viticultural areas are located entirely within California, or 54% of all of the established viticultural areas. Because of California state law, which requires that wine bearing an appellation of origin located in California must be entirely made from fruit grown in the state, there are no multi-state viticultural areas that include California.
If you totaled all of the viticultural area acreage, being aware that there are some viticultural areas that overlap, one sees some interesting results. Although 55% of all American Viticultural Areas by number are located in California, only 19% of the total acreage is located within the state.
Sonoma County leads the California counties with 12 viticultural areas located wholly or in part within the county. Napa has eight viticultural areas wholly or partially within its boundaries.
Extracted with permission from “U.S. Viticultural Areas,” by Wendell C.M. Lee. Copyright 1992, Wine Institute, 425 Market Street, Suite 1000, San Francisco, CA 94105, 415/512-0151.
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Database used with permission of Vintage Wine Lover’s Software.