Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel discussing the process behind and prospects for the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs (short for American Viticultural Areas). This panel was a part of a conference organized by the Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB), for attorneys interested in wine law from around California. Joining me on the panel were Steve Lohr (of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, another founding member of the Paso Robles AVA Committee) and Carol Kingery Ritter (of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, the law firm that shepherded the AVAs through the federal approval process). [Map below, courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Click to enlarge, or here for a PDF that also includes descriptions of the sub-AVAs.]
Much of the discussion focused on how the AVAs came to be: the genesis of the idea, the research that took place to discover and support how to draw the boundaries, and the convoluted process that took place once the petition had been submitted to the TTB, lengthened by the TTB's decision to reconsider the fundamental nature of AVA labeling after receiving the submission. I've written about all of these, and particularly the TTB's struggle with the concept of nested AVAs, on the blog in the past (you can find them all by scrolling through the Legislation and Regulation category tag). I won't repeat those thoughts here, though I encourage anyone interested in the often convoluted regulations that govern the production, marketing and sales of wine to explore the archive at their leisure.
More interesting, to me, were the questions I received about why I thought the approval of the AVAs a good thing for Paso Robles, and how I saw them being used in the marketplace. I'll dive into both topics in this blog.
Why the 11 AVAs area a good thing for Paso Robles
For me, there are three main reasons why the approval of the AVAs are good for the Paso Robles region as a whole.
- Their approval is a concrete data point that the region is maturing. When the Paso Robles AVA was first proposed and approved back in 1983 it contained only five bonded wineries and fewer than 5000 planted acres of vineyard. Big swaths of the AVA, including the area out near us, were largely untouched by grapevines. In the last thirty years, Paso Robles has grown to encompass some 280 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres. Until the new AVAs were approved, it was the largest unsubdivided AVA in California, at 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVAs delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. The growth of the region has been a story in itself in recent years, but the approval of the AVAs is something tangible and official that encourages press, trade and consumers to take a new look at what Paso Robles has become.
- The approval was done collectively, as a region. There were 59 different Paso Robles growers and wineries involved in the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and the work was done hand-in-hand with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. This cooperation allowed the region to push (and eventually pass) a conjunctive labeling law, which guarantees that any winery who uses one of the sub-AVAs on their label will also be required to state Paso Robles equally prominently. This safeguard ensures that the region will keep the accumulated marketing capital that we've all been working to build in the national and international marketplace. And the cooperative nature of the AVA Committee reinforced the bonds of our community, which is in my experience a rare and valuable point of distinction for Paso.
- It provides a framework for wineries, sommeliers, and wine educators to discuss the incredible diversity of Paso Robles. Those of us making wine here have been talking for years about how varied the climate, soils, and geography are in Paso Robles, and largely relying on anecdotal descriptions to support our points. The research that went into the AVAs puts these facts at our fingertips, and facilitates the discussions that show why Paso Robles can make world class wines from grapes as diverse as Cabernet, Syrah, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Zinfandel. As a quick summary:
- The Paso Robles AVA stretches roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south.
- Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections (like where Tablas Creek is) to less than 10 inches in areas farther east.
- Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet.
- Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin.
- The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree degree days) than the coolest. This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV. This is the equivalent difference between regions like Bordeaux or Alsace (both Winkler II areas) and Jumilla or Priorat (both Winkler IV areas).
How I expect to see the AVAs used in the marketplace
A criticism that I see commonly tossed out by the opponents of new AVAs (and not just Paso Robles') is that an AVA may be approved before it has meaning in the marketplace. To me, that's putting the cart before the horse. At the time ours were approved, really only the Templeton Gap AVA had any particular association in the market, and that was mostly as a geographical feature more than as a delineated area (in fact, much of what locals refer to as the Templeton Gap lies west of the Paso Robles AVA entirely).
Given that relative lack of market knowledge about the sub-regions of Paso Robles, should the TTB have denied the petition? If they had, it's hard to see how these regions could ever be recognized. Drawing the lines is an essential step in allowing those regions to develop an identity. At that point, it's up to the wineries within (or at least, who source grapes from) those regions to make their names. If they're successful at associating the region with quality and distinctiveness, the market will follow. What is key is that the lines are drawn using good science, and I think that it's here that the Paso Robles petitions were particularly strong. The climate, soils, and elevation studies that went into the proposals were the most comprehensive that the TTB has ever received, and I believe they will stand the test of time.
To get a sense of how we're using the new AVA designations, take a look at some of the wines that we bottled during the second half of this year. You can see several (Tannat, Petit Manseng, Mourvedre, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and Panoplie) with the new Adelaida District AVA noted. The Patelin de Tablas, which incorporates fruit from four of the sub-AVAs, retains the umbrella Paso Robles AVA. The Full Circle Pinot Noir, sourced from my dad's property about 8 miles south-east of us, carries the Templeton Gap AVA (click the photo to expand it):
The distinctions between these different labels will make it easier for us to tell their stories: whether they are estate or not. Whether they are single-vineyard or not. Whether they are from our home vineyard or not. And the fact that they all say Paso Robles should keep the market from being confused as to the bigger picture.
If I had to look into my crystal ball, I'd guess that of the 11 AVAs, there will be 4 or 5 that will achieve some market recognition within the next few years. There will be another 2 or 3 that will achieve it, but somewhat later. And there will be a few that never achieve much recognition in the market, either because there doesn't develop a critical mass of wineries located within that AVA to champion their AVA, or because the wineries that are located there decide that they would prefer to remain associated with Paso Robles rather than their sub-region. And that's OK. How many AVAs can anyone but the most bookishly-inclined sommelier name? Even among wine lovers, most would be hard-pressed to name more than 30 of the 231 approved AVAs (as of November 2015). If Paso Robles can add a few more to the common lexicon, it's a win for all of us here, and for wine lovers everywhere.