What are American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Are they appellations? AVAs are types of appellations—but not all appellations are AVAs. For example, California and Texas and Napa County and Sonoma County are considered to be an appellation of origin with respect to wine labeling. But they are not AVAs.
Both appellations and AVAs provide a significant amount of information about a wine. When used on a label, the wine tells a consumer that (at minimum) the majority of the grapes used in that wine were grown in the labeled appellation or AVA. However, appellations and AVAs have some differences. Appellations are generally defined by political boundaries, such as by the name of a county, state, or country, whereas AVAs are defined by geographic boundaries that are very carefully defined. AVAs are formed through a federal process overseen by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
History of AVAs
The AVA system developed with the idea that place—including geography, soil, weather, and other environmental factors—can influence grapes as well as a wine’s characteristics. This is very much in sync with the French term terroir—which derives from the French word terre (literally meaning “land”)—which, in summary, is the understanding that environmental factors can distinguish one wine from another. Terroir is taken very seriously in France, such that the French have developed a system called appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) through which the French grant geographic significance to certain wines based on their qualifications. Such qualifications mostly include the location in which the wine grapes were grown but may also include the types of grapes used, the harvesting techniques, production methods, and whether the wine was produced and bottled within the appellation (not an exhaustive list). Often, the local level may be involved in deciding the rules and laws of the appellation.
The AVA system is somewhat different from the French AOC system in that it is very much the exception (rather than the norm) that an AVA mandate the types of grapes grown or the processes that must be carried out by a winery within the AVA in order to use that AVA on the label of a wine. The one exception is that federal, state, and/or local laws may mandate that a winery use a certain percentage of grapes grown in the AVA in order to boast that AVA on the wine’s label.
Napa Valley is probably the most recognized AVA. It was formed in 1981 and was America’s second AVA (the first to be recognized in California). Napa Valley is located within Napa County, California. Today, Napa Valley houses sixteen sub-AVAs all located inside of the Napa Valley AVA. For example, Napa Valley is home to Calistoga, Coombsville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Stags Leap District (not an exhaustive list).
AVAs range significantly in size and some AVAs cover multiple counties while other AVAs cover multiple states. Some AVAs have other AVAs within them (generally referred to as sub-AVAs). Still, some AVAs are smaller than counties. Boundaries will depend a lot on subclimates that are typical of the AVA as well as geography, which help to break up and define boundaries of AVAs.
As of March 30, 2106, the TTB reports that 234 AVAs exist in the U.S. with the greatest number (138) located in California. See Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: Appellation: US by AVA. A full list of the established AVAs is found in 27 CFR Part 9, Subpart C. Subpart C fully details the name of the AVA, the approves maps for the AVA, and the boundaries of the AVA.
How are AVAs Formed?
Today, AVAs are formed by submitting a petition to TTB. According to 27 CFR § 9.11, anyone can submit a petition to TTB to establish a new AVA, but petitions are most commonly formed and filed by an interested industry member (such as a vineyard, winery, local vintners association, trade group, etc.). Petitions can also be submitted to change the boundary of an AVA or change the name of an AVA. The submission of a petition is supposed to provide TTB with sufficient information to support the establishment of a new AVA.
AVA petitions for the establishment of a new AVA must include the following information:
- Name evidence (such as name usage, source of name, and name evidence);
- Boundary evidence (must explain in detail the basis for defining the boundary of the proposed AVA);
- Distinguishing features (such as climate, geography, soils, physical features, and elevation); and
- Maps and boundary description (an appropriate scale the U.S.G.S. map(s) showing the location of the proposed AVA).
Once the petition is received by TTB, an appropriate TTB officer will perform an initial review of the petition to determine whether or not the petition is perfected. If the petition is not perfected, the officer will return the petition to the petitioner without prejudice for resubmission in perfected form. If the petition is perfected, TTB will decide whether or not to proceed with rulemaking. If TTB does proceed with rulemaking, the agency will advise the petitioner of the date of the rulemaking; if TTB does not proceed with rulemaking, the agency will provide the petitioner with an explanation.
If TTB determines that rulemaking is appropriate, TTB prepares and publishes a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register to solicit public comments on the proposed AVA. The notice and comment process is typical of TTB (and other governmental agencies) and is used by the agency in many instances in order to obtain industry comments on issues that impact the industry at large. After the comment period closes, TTB reviews the comments received and any other relevant information.
Next, TTB takes one of the following actions:
- Prepares a final rule for publication in the Federal Register establishing the proposed AVA;
- Prepares a notice for publication in the Federal Register that withdraws the proposal and provides explanations (one of which must be the following: (1) the extent of viticulture within the proposed AVA is not sufficient to constitute a grape-growing region; (2) the name, boundary, or distinguishing features evidence is not sufficient; or (3) the proposed AVA would be inconsistent with the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, another Federal statute or regulation, or contrary to public interest);
- Prepares a new notice of proposed rulemaking for publication in the Federal Register that describes a modified proposed AVA, for public comment; or
- Pursues another option as allowed by law.
While forming an AVA is subject to many regulations, the importance of a place or name on a wine label can be significant. The use of an AVA can help a consumer connect more with the wine and develop a strong identification of place. While the AVA system developed based off of the European appellation system, it has many differences that are unique to the American wine industry and the growing and winemaking processes of American vintners and winemakers. Nonetheless, the AVA system maintains a similar goal: to protect and promote place names and origins and demand truth in labeling.
For more information on wine or alcohol law, AVAs, or TTB matters, please contact Lindsey Zahn.
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is for general information purposes only, is not intended to constitute legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship results. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice.