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So You Want To Be an AVA?

Today Lot18 is offering the first wine ever to be labeled with the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA – the newly recognized region straddles the Sonoma-Mendocino border in California. An AVA is an American Viticultural Area, as defined by the U.S. federal government – but, let’s be honest, not everything Uncle Sam stamps its seal on is particularly noteworthy. So how big a deal is it for an AVA to be established?

Actually, it’s a really big deal. Getting an AVA approved is a thorough, expensive, political, exhaustive ordeal that can take years – only to crumble at any point in the process. When a sliver of a larger wine region earns the right to be emblazoned on a label, that truly is a sign that you’re drinking something special. If that weren’t the case, getting an AVA recognized would be far too much trouble for anyone to bother.

Just take a gander at the website of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly and still somewhat commonly known as the ATF (new name, same touchy-feely agency). Start here, with the explanation that the “the main AVA petitioning elements include substantive documentation and evidence for the name usage, boundary line chosen, distinguishing features of the area, and a written boundary description with accompanying USGS maps.” If you dare, and you have a particular fondness for bureaucracy and legalese, click here to see just how many factors or features of the prospective AVA must be defined, explained and proven – whether through history, soil chemistry, climate or maybe even a distinctive, eye-pleasing feature. From there, the application is processed and petitioned for public comment once it’s published in the Federal Register.

This is where things can really go haywire – and get political – if all the details of the proposal aren’t wholly compelling. Check out this 2007 article by my former Wine Spectator colleague Dan Sogg, on competing AVA petitions to separate California’s Paso Robles wine region into East and West AVAs, or into 11 separate appellations within the region. Today, in 2012, Paso Robles remains undivided (and I suppose you’d have to ask a few local winemakers if they remain polarized on the different proposals). Either way, if no one’s come to agreement after five years, I’m guessing they won’t anytime soon.

And there’s not necessarily a victory dance among all those involved when an AVA does manage to get approved. Imagine you own a winery and vineyard, and the redrawing of the wine region’s borders affects your property and products. The situation might be one in which new restrictions force you to reach into your own pocket to re-label your wines just as they were about to go to market.

So, yes, the establishment of the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA is important. Just how special this place is, however, depends on your taste buds.

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