There is an interesting post today at Steve Heimoff's blog on the current mess that is the Tax and Trade Bureau's (TTB's) approval process for American Viticultural Areas (AVA's). I posted a comment on his site that I thought warranted a fuller treatment here.
Steve's core point is that the AVA approval system is in disarray, with wineries and regional associations manipulating the system to the point that it's nearly meaningless. I don't share his pessimism on the motivations of regions and wineries but I do agree that right now what the TTB is doing is not working (made worse by the TTB's perplexing attempt to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game). Where we differ is that he suggests scrapping the system and perhaps turning it over to the states, while I would propose that the TTB take a better look at the rules that it has been using for years and if anything make them stronger in defense of place.
The TTB has proposed two main changes to the AVA approval process that it oversees. The first makes it more difficult to register an AVA that is nested within another AVA. The second (which I called "a well-meaning step in the wrong direction" in a post from December) proposes a new set of grandfathered brand names that would greatly expand the list of brands with permission to use place names on wines that come from other places.
First some background. The TTB recently gave preliminary approval to a proposal to expand the existing Paso Robles AVA to include a small area at the southern edge of the current AVA, in the town of Santa Margarita. This expansion was proposed as a part of the plan whose core proposals were eleven AVA's within Paso Robles, and had the goal of making a more logical and contiguous Santa Margarita District. One of the core principals we used in creating our AVA's was to avoid whenever possible overlapping AVA's. Without this extension, the Santa Margarita district would have sat partially within the Paso Robles AVA and partially outside.
Yet, when you submit a group of new AVA's (or amended AVA's) to the TTB, there is no guarantee as to what order it will rule on the proposals. Approving the expansion of the Paso Robles AVA while not also addressing the reason for it (the newly proposed Santa Margarita District) made Steve, and I'm sure others, speculate on the motivation of the member wineries. And I think that's too bad. I am on the Paso Robles AVA Committee that drafted the proposed new AVA's. We did everything that we could to ensure that the boundaries that we proposed we scientifically based, reasonable, and defensible. If you accept that it is possible for regions to share macro-level similarities but still have micro-level differences, I don't see that many of the proposed AVA's are controversial. Paso Robles is a huge AVA, with regions that vary widely in daytime high temperature, elevation, and soils. The original Paso Robles AVA was drawn to include a contiguous area that shared basic characteristics, and I think that these similarities still hold. The entire AVA shares a high day-night swing in temperature, very low humidity, a similar number of sunny days, shared lack of rainfall until late in the season, etc, that makes it different from other appellations to the north and south of us.
What's more, the thought of moving away from the existing Paso Robles AVA would have enormous consequences in the marketplace. The accumulated understanding of what Paso Robles is, based on twenty-plus years of wineries within the AVA promoting their wines around the country, is substantial. The proposed new AVA map:
Back to the current AVA extension. It appears that the reason that this AVA extension was ruled upon by the TTB before the rest of our proposals is that it was the only uncontroversial piece based on the new rules that it published after the AVA's were submitted. In my opinion, it's these new rules that are at the heart of the problem.
The TTB's new rules display a deep skepticism about the wisdom of creating AVA's nested within other AVA's. This skepticism is at odds with centuries of history of AVA systems around the world, all of which balance overall regional similarities and more local specificities. Consumers and the wine trade understand that Pommard is a part of Burgundy, and Stag's Leap District a part of Napa. The current TTB rules warn that anyone proposing an AVA that nests within an existing AVA is subject to the possibility of the new AVA being removed from the old AVA if it is found to be sufficiently different. This has the end effect of paralyzing the TTB's ability to rule on new AVA's. They're caught between two of their rulings, having to decide it's "unique" and therefore worthy of its own AVA as well as sufficiently like its larger umbrella AVA to remain a part of that AVA. No wonder the TTB has held up consideration of any AVA that fits these criteria!
I feel that the TTB has landed itself in a mess of its own making. The only good solution seems to me to go back to their older rules, which give them criteria that they can reasonably follow to rule on AVA's on their merits. In an ideal world, they'd strengthen the protection for place name designations (giving, perhaps, a 10-year window for any brands that use place names to either source grapes from the place incorporated into their brand or move to another brand). I'm not holding my breath, but would hope that we can at least move back to a more orderly consideration of new AVA's.
In any case, I think it's great that Steve is focusing attention on the current state of affairs. If you've somehow made it to this point without reading his post, go read it now.