Pretty dramatic beginning, what? To clarify, wine hubris has always struck me as far more over the top than regular, run-of-the-mill hubris. I often use the phrase, “It’s only wine,” when, in reality, I don’t mean to denigrate, I merely want to tone down the rhetoric.
Yet, passion is to be admired when it is well placed. When it is just a device to self-aggrandize, then someone should set a tone of humility. I may be the least of all the candidates to set such a tone but if not me, then whom else? Okay, you are correct, of course. It could be you. Still this is my space to let off steam every Wednesday, so I cast my vote for me.
What I am going on about are the sacred cows, American Viticultural Areas. And not just any AVA, but rather one in particular, Sonoma Coast.
Let me start at the beginning, and pay no attention to the fact that I am already at paragraph four. American Viticultural Areas are defining pieces of real estate, recognized by the Federal Government, which are supposed to assist the consumer in making an intelligent purchasing decision. These areas are constructed by winemakers, residents, farmers, and others who have vested interests in the region and who want to better “set” their location as a place that can turn out quality fruit.
The process and the definitions are used all over the world in just about every country that grows crops and processes agricultural outcomes. Kalamata olives from Greece, Valencia oranges from Spain, Key limes from Florida, and Creole tomatoes from Louisiana are each recognized for their unique qualities when compared to other, more ordinary products of their ilk. Consumers seek out these expressions of high quality and are willing to pay more because the superiority of such products is universally acknowledged.
In that vein, wine grape growers desire to set aside some of their bounty that expresses higher quality than similar products, which are good but not measurably at top of the line. The easiest way to define that special quality is to define the region of origin, associate that with a product that comes from the area, and let that speak for itself.
It’s the responsibility of the growers and the winemakers to make a case with the federal government seeking such geographic recognition. Many have done so. It is the responsibility of the Department of the Treasury and within that august and respected bureaucracy, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau, to officially investigate requests for such designations and then rule on whether the request is based on sound facts, historic footings, and common practices. There are over 230 such designated areas, AVA’s, in the United States.
Many factors enter the legal framework of such designation requests like soil types, rainfall, sun days, temperature histories, height above sea level, even historic incidents that bind an area together. The process to become an AVA is tortuous, expensive, and time-consuming. The application process usually takes years from start to finish in order to arrive at an acceptable result, or be rejected (not an acceptable result).
But overall, to the people of the region, these AVA designations are important. Usually there is a significant benefit, both in prestige and economics, when an area is awarded the right to note it is part of and within an AVA.
Sometimes the process is straightforward, without detractors. Even logical. At other times, politics rears its ugly head and before you know it, nonsensical compromise and geographic bastardization sets in and the outcome, going either thumbs-up or thumbs-down, causes the whole process to come into question.
Such is the case of one AVA in California, Sonoma Coast. This is the largest AVA in America, encompassing more than 500,000 acres across an area more than 750 square miles in size, and running from just south of Mendocino in the north all the way down to just north of San Francisco in Marin, all along the coast, including several places inland as much as 40 miles.
There are well over 110 wineries in this area and more than 730 vineyards.
The Sonoma Coast AVA is like a crosstown bus that moves through multiple neighborhoods, picking up whomever wants to hop on, with no commonalities except to adjoin the next neighborhood. While that approach may be just fine for public transportation, it makes no sense when defining all the forces that affect an agricultural product.
Some of the members of this AVA have seen the error of the Sonoma Coast designation’s size and diversity of geography and have petitioned the TTB for sub-classifications. Fort Ross – Seaview has already taken the step to be separately recognized. More such breakaway movements are on the way.
None of this is to suggest a lessening of quality of the wines that call this region their home. The whole matter is about providing a consumer with information needed to make an intelligent purchase, and for that consumer to have a reasonably proximate idea of what is being purchased.
The many wineries and vineyards that operate within the Sonoma Coast AVA are doing good work. It just should not be done all under the same banner.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored, at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life," hosted by Tim every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcast episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/