Ever wondered how new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are established? Ask the winegrowers who often instigate the lengthy beaurocratic process to achieve AVA status and they’ll say there’s no shortage of blood, sweat and tears involved.
“From start to finish, the establishment of the Middleburg Virginia AVA spanned six years, from 2006 to 2012,” says Rachel Martin, executive vice president of Boxwood Estate Winery in Middleburg, Virginia, who spearheaded her area’s petition for AVA status.
As designated wine-grape-growing regions in the United States, AVAs must have clearly drawn geographic borders defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), not to mention “distinguishing evidence of soils, geology, geography and climate,” notes Martin, perhaps explaining why just four new AVAs were approved in 2012.
Given the arduous nature of the approval process, petitioners weigh the pros and cons of vying for AVA status carefully, including the value to consumers. In other words, what’s in it for them?
“The advantage to wine drinkers—and I’m one of them—is that AVA designations give a greater relative understanding of wines produced within [a] state,” says Martin. “For example, when I purchase a Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley and one from Santa Lucia Highlands, I know how the two wines will compare. It makes the experience of drinking wine more enjoyable when the consumer is able to feel more connected to the wines they love.”
Wine Enthusiast highlights the five most-recently created appellations in the United States, and break down the AVA application process in layman’s terms.
1. Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley (AVA established November 19, 2012)
Commonly known as Quincy Basin, nearly 1,400 acres are planted to vine in the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA, located in scenic Eastern Washington. Bounded by the Columbia River, the Winchester Wasteway, the Beezeley Hills and the Frenchman Hills, this cool-climate appellation is known for Chardonnay and Riesling, though small amounts of Syrah, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux varieties are also planted. There are currently 12 winemaking facilities in the nearly 163,000-acre AVA, including Millbrandt Vineyards, Evergreen Vineyards (whose grapes have turned up in the 2010 Eroica Riesling and Efestē Winery’s Riesling) and White Heron Cellars.
2. Inwood Valley (AVA established October 15, 2012)
The Inwood Valley AVA, located in scenic Shasta County in Northern California, is a 28,441-acre viticultural area with approximately 62.5 acres planted to wine grapes. “It’s a small percentage due to [the fact that] the county is hostile to plantation development,” says Reverge Anselmo of Anselmo Vineyards, the driving force behind the petition. “Yes, there are plans to increase it,” he says. Inwood Valley is known for producing “premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Burgundy varietals,” says Anselmo, along with Syrah and Zinfandel. The area also includes Lassen Peak Winery and Matson Vineyards.
3. Middleburg Virginia (AVA established October 15, 2012)
The Middleburg AVA in Virginia is home to some 200 square miles in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties, and is the seventh AVA in Virginia. Located about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. and bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and Potomac River, the Middleburg AVA has nearly 24 winemaking facilities, including Boxwood Estate Winery (which instigated the lengthy petition process in 2006), Sunset Hills Vineyard and Barrel Oak Winery. Major grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Viognier.
4. Wisconsin Ledge (AVA established March 22, 2012)
After a seven-year bid, Wisconsin Ledge finally became the third AVA designation in the state. The Wisconsin Ledge—located in the northeastern part of Wisconsin running along Lake Michigan—covers some 3,800 square miles of the Niagara Escarpment, stretching through 11 of the state’s 72 counties. Grapes include many French-American hybrids that can withstand the area’s frigid winters, including Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, Niagara and St. Croix. Some 14 wineries, including Trout Springs Winery, Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery and Captain’s Walk Winery, produce mainly direct-to-consumer wines on just 320 acres of vineyards (projections are that an additional 70 acres will be planted).
“The lengthy process to develop the AVA application and seek its approval—approximately seven years—was well worth the effort and wait,” says Eric Fowle, executive director of the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. “The AVA designation not only recognizes an additional unique quality of the Niagara Escarpment’s globally significant landscape, but it also sets the stage for future economic growth in terms of locally produced goods, jobs and increased geotourism opportunities.”
5. Coombsville (AVA established December 14, 2011)
Napa Valley’s 16th subappellation is bound by the Napa River to the West and the rim of the Vaca Range to the east, at altitudes that vary from sea level to 1,900 feet near Mount George. Approximately 1,360 acres of the 11,075-acre area are planted to vine. “I would say the focus is on the Bordeaux varietals followed by Chardonnay, Syrah and some Pinot Noir,” says Tom Farella, winemaker and farm manager at Farella Vineyard, who spearheaded the Coombsville AVA petition process.
Coombsville boasts a relatively temperate climate due to its proximity to the San Francisco Bay. Eleven bonded wineries fall within the Coombsville AVA (in addition to numerous other growers), including Ackerman Family Vineyards and Bighorn Cellars.
The AVA Petition Process in Five Steps
Rachel Martin, executive vice president of Boxwood Estate Winery in Middleburg, Virginia, details the AVA application process.
1. Submit a proposal that states a group of unifying features (soil, geology, climate, geography) that distinguishes the area from surrounding areas. The proposed name requires referential evidence and a historic background. Guidelines for forming a proposed petition for establishing an AVA include:
– History of area
– Name evidence of proposed named AVA
– Boundary evidence
– Geology, soil, climate,
– Distinguishing features
– Geography, geology and soil
– Supporting material
– U.S. geological survey maps
– Boundary description
– Comparison charts to surrounding areas
2. Upon acceptance of the petition, a draft notice is finalized, edited and reviewed by numerous divisions within the TTB.
3. A finalized notice of proposed rulemaking of the AVA is published in the Federal Register allowing a 60-day period for public comment.
4. If all the comments are supportive, the TTB will move forward with a final ruling (another lengthy process of drafting, editing and reviewing). The final rule is reviewed within TTB and also needs to be reviewed and cleared by the Treasury Department.
5. The final rule is published in the Federal Register, with an effective date 30 days later.