October 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Why Form an AVA?

Costs and potential benefits in Lodi and Monterey

by Larry Walker
Borden Ranch AVA
A trace of morning mist lingers over Las Lomas Vineyards in the Borden Ranch AVA, one of seven new sub-appellations formed within California's Lodi-Woodbridge district.
Photo courtesy of Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission

  • American Viticultural Area designations usually pay off in terms of consumer awareness, higher wine prices and eventually higher grape prices, too.
  • AVAs allow vintners and consumers to refer specifically to the characteristics of a wine made from a geographic area as having an intrinsic connection to that area.
  • Growers who have recently gotten AVA approval recommend being inclusive of neighboring vineyards, and using local staff and resources rather than expensive consultants when mounting an AVA campaign.
Establishing an American Viticultural Area (AVA) can be a lengthy exercise in jumping through bureaucratic hoops. An AVA application takes hundreds if not thousands of hours, and requires thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. Yet growers and wineries around the country continue to charge at those hoops, because they believe AVAs pay off in terms of consumer awareness, higher wine prices and eventually higher grape prices, too.

That picture emerged when we debriefed the proponents of two of the most ambitious AVA campaigns in recent years: the large San Antonio Valley in California's Monterey County and the diversified new group of seven AVAs in Lodi, Calif.

This past June, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved the San Antonio Valley AVA in southern Monterey County. This sparsely planted 234-square-mile region is within the larger Monterey AVA and the even more expansive Central Coast AVA, and is the ninth AVA within Monterey County.

Steven Yates, a grower and the president of the San Antonio Valley Vintners and Growers Association (SAVVGA), said the process of establishing the AVA began in early 2003 as a joint project involving both growers and vintners.

Grapes were originally planted in the San Antonio Valley in the early 1770s at the Mission San Antonio de Padua. The late John Gill of Lockwood Valley Vineyards is credited with ushering in the modern era with his plantings in the 1990s. He founded the SAVVGA in 1997, and from the beginning he worked toward establishing an AVA.

San Antonio Valley is big for a sub-appellation, measuring about 150,000 acres, with about 800 acres of vines and more than 20 varietals currently being grown. The AVA comprises a warm high valley, with an elevation of between 980 and 1,300 feet. Soils are gravelly loam and clay, and most stakeholders believe that in the long run, Rhône and Bordeaux varietals will be the AVA's strongest entries.

Yates estimates that about 100 hours of labor went into processing forms, research and developing maps. The main costs were $1,000 in fees and $1,500 for a survey map. The map funds were donated by the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association (MCVGA).

AVA Projects Compared
San Antonio Valley: 1 AVA
Monterey County, Calif.
150,000 $2,500 100 3 Years
Lodi: 7 sub-AVAs
Central Valley, Calif.
485,000 $30,000 1,500 5 Years

Asked how AVA status would help him as a grower, Yates told Wines & Vines, "The AVA provides a venue to identify the characteristics of our unique growing area. It is these unique characteristics which impart identifiable tastes into our fruit."

Steve Cobb, viticulturist at Delicato's San Bernabe vineyards, also in Monterey, owns and operates Magpie Vineyard in Lockwood and is a member of SAVVGA's board of directors. He agrees that the AVA status will help establish an identity for grapes and wine from the area, especially in relation to the cooler regions of northern Monterey.

"It will allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographical origin," he said.

Asked what advice he would give to anyone wanting to establish an AVA, Cobb said the most difficult part of the process was finding the weather data. "Most everything else was available in the Soil Survey of Monterey County USDA. After that, it is just evaluate, compile and report the evidence and submit the maps."

Yates added, "Do as much research as you can in-house. Consultants are available to assist in preparation of an application, but are costly. We were fortunate to have some very talented and hardworking members in our association who were able to collect information and present it in our application."

Alternative text
In contrast to much of the Monterey AVA, of which it is a sub-appellation, the San Antonio Valley's 150,000 acres enjoy a warmer climate, shown here at Pierce Ranch Vineyard.
Photo courtesy of San Antonio Valley Vintners and Growers Association
Looking at the new AVA from a broader perspective, Rhonda Motil, executive director of MCVGA, said in a statement: "The San Antonio Valley AVA gives consumers yet another 'sense of place' when making their purchasing decisions. Many wine consumers assume that Monterey County is solely a cool climate area, due to Monterey Bay's influence. San Antonio Valley's AVA helps to further differentiate our wine region with expanded, warmer climate Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, once again highlighting the diversity of quality wines coming from Monterey wine country."

Subdividing in Lodi

The Lodi-Woodbridge region east of San Francisco Bay really hit the jackpot when the TTB approved its seven new AVAs simultaneously in August. In many ways, the Lodi region could make a good case study in how to market a geographic wine area. Winegrapes have been grown there since Gold Rush days, and alert wine consumers have long been aware that some of the best buys in California wine can be found there. But Lodi was unknown to most consumers, even though producers were well aware of the quality of the area's grapes.

After the area's growers organized in the 1991, formed the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission and raised the quality bar, Lodi began attracting the attention of serious wine geeks as well as even more premium wine producers. In 1991, there were only eight wineries in the region. Growers mostly sold the grapes to large producers elsewhere, such as Sebastiani and Canandaigua, or to the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge jug wine operation.

Now there are almost 50 wineries using Lodi-Woodbridge grapes exclusively. The Lodi appellation is beginning to turn up more frequently on wine labels. More than 60 California Zinfandels list Lodi as the AVA of origin. Delicato winery, located outside the AVA, has played a key role in pushing for recognition for Lodi wines, especially the Clay Station line, named after an historic Lodi stagecoach stop.

The seven new viticultural areas are: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Cosumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse. It was a rather bold move to go for seven new sub-AVAs at one blow, but Mark Chandler, executive director of the winegrape commission, feels it was justified.

"We know that in some ways this subdivision might be considered premature," he said. "Some of the AVAs don't even have wineries in them, but high-quality wines are being produced from grapes grown within them. When you look down the road at the pace of winery development in this district, it is only a matter of time."

Chandler said that as interest has grown in the Lodi appellation, more and more questions about Lodi have come up. "We are constantly being asked about vineyard specifics--soil, water, climate. I feel that these sub-AVAs can be important tools in telling the Lodi story to consumers and the trade as educational tools, not marketing tools."

He added that the producers understand this. "To a person they understand that we cannot sacrifice the momentum we have gained for the Lodi appellation for some completely unknown sub-appellation. We have not mandated the use of 'Lodi' with the sub-AVA, but we think most producers will do so. This only makes sense, to piggy-back on the positive reputation of an up-and-coming wine region."

The process of creating the new AVAs began in the summer of 2001, and from the beginning involved both growers and producers. Markus Bokisch, Bokisch Ranches, who is both a grower and a producer, said the application for the AVAs was about 230 pages long. It included climate, soils and historical data for all appellations.

Bokisch told Wines & Vines that in the beginning, no one really knew how many AVAs they would end up with. "As the process moved forward, to our great fascination, it became apparent from both the historic as well as the scientific points of view that exactly seven AVAs were needed to further refine the knowledge of our area." He estimated that the group spent between 1,200 and 1,800 hours preparing the application. He added that all the members of the group also contributed financially, with about $30,000 being collected to fund the research and applications.

"The greatest benefit to the use of the new AVA names will be to the consumer. It will help educate the consumer on the diversity of this region, not its homogeneity. The second group of benefactors will be the wineries, which will be able to tell the story of their grapes within the context of their soils, climate and history to a public willing to devour all this new information. Perhaps the people who will see the least amount of immediate benefit are the growers themselves. The focus from the start was to adopt a long-term approach. Perhaps our children will be the benefactors of this work," Bokisch said.

Asked if the new sub-AVAs might take something away from the overall Lodi AVA, Bokisch said he doesn't think so. "A person who buys an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon has no doubt as to the origin of the fruit coming from Napa Valley. A person buying a Russian River Chardonnay would not dream of the fruit coming from anywhere but Sonoma County. Likewise, in the future, a person who buys a ripe, delicious Mokelumne River Zinfandel will have no doubt as to the Lodi terroir it is grown on. Sub-appellations only serve to synergistically support the larger AVA they fall under. I disagree whole-heartedly with those who believe that a smaller AVA dilutes a larger one. Ask the consumer."

Asked for his advice to those thinking of seeking AVA status, Bokisch said, "Be as inclusive as possible with your neighbors. To define who you are begins by defining who you are not. Your neighbors' input will further refine your AVA. Second, find a leader in the group who is a consensus-builder. Third, hire only the best researchers and historians to make sure your findings are factual."
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