How many wine drinkers can define the AVA (American Viticultural Area) a wine comes from without reading the label? An AVA is not some haphazard approach to a winery saying where the grapes for a bottle of wine originated. To get to the point of a defined AVA the wine industry has spent money and time on research, surveys, samplings of weather patterns, and tracking boundaries of unique soil composition; all part of an effort to get the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) to approve the designation of a specific land area as a unique AVA.
Back to the original question: Is all of this work, to get an AVA, important and does it add value to the wine consumer by way of unique quality of a specific wine? For example, is a Napa Valley designated Cabernet noticeably different, in a positive way, than a Cabernet from say the Wild Horse AVA (as an illustration only)?
The following highlights the science that goes into applying for and eventually obtaining an AVA designation for a viticulture area. Further, one assumes there must be an underlying marketing advantage, branding, and/or economic value to this immense effort. Only the consumer can answer the question of value for wines being from a specific AVA.
As of January 2016 there were 234 AVA’s in the U.S. California, as expected, has 138 such designations; 59% of the total. Interestingly, 25 states have designated AVA’s. In California, Napa and Sonoma have 17 and 16 respectively.
There must be some value to a winery being within an AVA; probably marketing because we see more and more labels defining a wine as being from a specific AVA. To market a wine being AVA specific the fruit for that wine must be 85% from within that AVA boundary. That requires a great deal of monitoring and enough fruit to make abiding to the restrictions profitable.
Establishment of an AVA in general can be a multiple year process and it can be expensive. Here is a quick summary of the requirements for an AVA petition: (summarized from TTB’s American Viticulture Area Manual)
- The name identified for the proposed AVA must be currently and directly associated with an area in which viticulture exists. All of the area within the proposed AVA boundary must be nationally or locally known by the name.
- The petition must explain, in detail, the basis for defining the boundary of the proposed AVA.
- The AVA application petition must provide, in narrative form, a description of the common or similar features of the proposed AVA affecting viticulture that make it distinctive. The petition must also explain with specificity in what way the features are distinguished viticulturally from features associated with adjacent areas outside the proposed AVA boundary.
- Narrative and exhibits also must address:
- Geology detail. Underlying formations, landforms, and such geophysical events as earthquakes, eruptions, and major floods;
- Soils composition and chemistry;
- Physical features–flat, hilly, or mountainous topography, geographical formations, bodies of water, watersheds, irrigation resources, and other physical features; and,
- Elevations to include contour details.
- Maps must be in an appropriate scale using the U.S.G.S. map(s) showing the location of the proposed AVA.
Just looking at the subject of “unique climate conditions”, the attention to detail is mind boggling. The application must explain details that address the following:
- Temperatures by day and time of day (degree days).
- Precipitation by day
- Presence of fog
- Wind speeds by time of day
- Marine and mountain factors relative to climate and air flows
- Specific soil attributes and how geological and climate factors influenced same
So, why is there so much interest in wanting to get an AVA designation? The answer lies in understanding one of the elements of marketing—branding. Part of building a brand is to highlight unique attributes of a product (wine in this case). Another desire is to create, in the minds-eye of the consumer, particular product attributes that have actual or implied value. And hopefully, there is a way of defining some attribute no one else has, and what better way than to have the government designates a one-of-a-kind area of land.
A lot of research has gone into ways of influencing consumers relative to how they will judge a wine. For example: the written word on a label, label design, critiques, and effective PR campaigns. Recently, a study was done at tastings that showed the influence a simple facial expression can have, on the perception of a wine being poured; the smile, the look of pleasure on the face of a server is important to wine acceptance. Transferring that fact to the subject of an AVA as a branding tool has an impact. The simple implication of sacristy, out of the ordinary origination of a wine, and the inordinate effort expended by wineries to “patent” a unique plot of ground can be part of branding.
In the final analysis, for the average wine consumer, the AVA can create a branding perception that a wine is special, worthy, and limited. In this case perception becomes reality. The price of a bottle of wine is worth exactly what the consumer is willing to pay.