What's in a name?

Last week, my article on terrior sparked a question about what "AVA" stood for. So, this week, I thought it might be worth looking at the United States' answer to the French appellation controlee system.

If you read my article from May 2011, on Old World vs New World, then you might remember that French wines are not identified by the grape, but rather by the region or appellation d'origine controlee, or AOC (a controlled geographic growing area). In 2011, the name changed to AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee), but the idea remains the same. The name was changed to help standardized the European Union.

In the United States, we identify our wines by the grape, or the grapes within a blend. But, we also know that a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley will taste different than a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia River Valley in Washington. The United States government, under (at the time) the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms created the AVA, an acronym for American Viticultural Area.

Augusta AVA
The AVA system, unlike its' French counterpart, was designed to identify geographic locations, where at least 85% of the grapes (and 75% of the named grape) within the wine were grown. The biggest difference with the AVA system, versus France, is that there is no limitation on which grapes can be grown in the area, and the harvest, and methods to vinify the grapes, are not restricted. The very first AVA in the United States was established on June 20, 1980, and is the Augusta AVA (in that "hot bed" of wine...Missouri). The newest AVA is Coombsville (in the Napa Valley) established December 14, 2011. The total number of AVA's is now 202. For a full list of all the current AVA's check out the list at the TTB website.

Current regulations imposed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), to qualify as an AVA:

  • Evidence that the name of the proposed new AVA is locally or nationally known as referring to the area;
  • Historical or current evidence that the boundaries are legitimate;
  • Evidence that growing conditions such as climate, soil, elevation, and physical features are distinctive;
Petitioners are required to provide such information when applying for a new AVA, and are also required to use USGS maps to both describe (using terms from the map) and depict the boundaries.

The AVA system is much less restrictive than its' French counterpart. Some will argue that this is an example of the "wild west", and needs to be more controlled (that would be the Old World argument), while others will argue that it allows American wine makers to experiment, and find out what works best.

So, the next time you buy a bottle of wine, check out where its' from. Then check the TTB site and read up on the AVA, and learn a little bit more about what you're drinking.


  1. Hi Jim,

    So I have 3 possibities, on the TTB list, for my wine's location of origin: Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Mountain. My label just says Sonoma County. Which link should I click on (or will any one of them do?) Thanks again! ~Teri

  2. Actually, Sonoma County isn't an AVA. What this means is that less than 85% of the grapes in the wine came from a specific area, so the winery's only choice is to use the all encompassing county designation.