Wine lovers and geeks, oftentimes not the same thing, revel in the unending parade of aromas and flavors from wines. Actually finding two alike in the vast array of wines offered from around the world is a near impossibility. Some wines may have qualities akin to others, but for the most part the smells and the tastes are different with every cork you pull or every cap you unscrew. Such fun!
And just when you think you have found that single key to understanding what’s going on from anywhere, along comes a new harvest, or an aged specimen, or a new area you have never even heard of. Who the hell several years ago knew that the South Island of New Zealand had a great valley known as Central Otago? Now you seek out pinot noir from this spot of geography as if you were looking for Dufosset Street Uptown. It’s around here somewhere, I just know it is.
Then there are the issues of specified and named places where grapes have particular characteristics and these qualities are evinced in the resulting wines. To assist with the separation of product from each grape-growing area, your Federal Government has established American Viticulture Areas. These geographically defined areas, which for the most part are not the same as political boundaries (even crossing state lines in some cases), are supposed to have similarities of soil types, drainage aspects, annual rain totals, elevations, sun experiences, and the like.
There are over 210 American Viticultural Areas in the United States, with some of them being well-known, like Napa Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek, while are others not so well-respected or known, like Louisiana. Yes, our entire state is considered an AVA. Betcha didn’t know that.
There are multiple reasons why any area would want to be designated an AVA, not the least is that with identification comes consumer awareness. It takes all of an area’s wineries working together and going through the bureaucratic motions to define boundaries within which there are shared conditions for growing grapes. Assuming you don’t know the winery name on the label of a bottle you are considering for purchase, you might have previously had wines from the defined area and you enjoyed them. That is the hoped-for goal.
An AVA is not a guide to quality nor does the designation guarantee that every bottle from the region will even be similar. But it’s a beginning to understanding the crazy-quilt selection of wines available on the retailer’s shelves. That is why wineries are so driven to achieve AVA designation, if not status, and why the originally defined areas are so highly defended. Attempts to expand AVA boundaries by folks who came late to the party and are on the outside looking in, are met with rebukes from neighbors. Land within an AVA is usually much more valuable than land just sitting out in the mid-day sun without a designation.
And now to the list of those government-designated, usually oddly-shaped, wine grape growing regions come two more, Malibu Coast and Manton Valley, both in California, the newest members of Club AVA. The multi-year application process went relatively slick for Malibu Coast. At 46 miles long and 8 miles wide, with 198 acres planted with vines, the proponents included many fringe areas which are usually the root of dissension among neighbors. It took three years within the approval process for AVA status, a time-frame relatively speedy by governmental standards. The Santa Monica Mountain location of Malibu Coast AVA, along with stunning vistas (which don’t enter into the equation for AVA status but are a great bonus for visitors) provides good growing conditions for syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
The Santa Monica Mountain range is an east-west traversing crop of highlands which begin in the south and east with the Hollywood Hills and head out towards the Pacific.
Manton Valley is more traditional grape-growing country, along with another not-so-legal cash crop, located at the other end of California from Malibu, a 4 hour drive north from San Francisco. Redding is the nearest “big” city. Manton is 347 souls, no gas station, but there is a diner. Earthquakes are not so much the problem here but forest fires can be frequent and horrendous.
Mt. Lasson is a dominant feature on the horizon and the AVA boundaries cross the Tehama and Shasta counties’ line. Grapes have been grown here since the early 1970’s, and, as you would expect, pinot noir and chardonnay, grapes that love cool evenings, do very well here.
Don’t expect to see wines from these areas anywhere around here soon. There just is not enough juice to supply markets outside of California. But when you are in Los Angeles or far northern California, you can note with some degree of smugness, “Oh sure, I know all about this place. I read about it once somewhere, just can’t remember where.”