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Making Sense of American Wine Regions

Fine Cooking Issue 43
Photo: Scott Phillips
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If you’ve spent time trying wines from a particular region (especially a European one), you probably know that most wine-producing countries have a system to classify their wines and help consumers know what they’re buying. The French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system (AOC), established in 1935, was the first of such schemes, with other countries following suit.

We too have an official system here in the U.S. to classify our wine-growing regions, officially known as American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. The AVA system, put into place in the early 1980s, isn’t as strict, as detailed, or as developed as its Old World counterparts, but it is law. Here’s how AVA provisions affect what’s in the bottle—and how they matter to you, the wine drinker.

Here are the rules

While in most countries, winemaking is overseen by the government’s agricultural office, American winemaking and AVAs are policed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, or BATF. (This is controversial, and many in the wine industry hope to return wine to more agriculturally geared supervision.) The laws stipulate:
• that 85% of the grapes used to make the wine must come from the designated appellation (for example, the Oregon AVA Willamette Valley) that appears on the label.
• that if the label lists a single varietal (like Pinot Noir), 75% of the grapes in the wine must be that grape.
• that if a vineyard designation is used (Ken Wright Cellars Freedom Hill Vineyard, for example), 95 percent of the grapes must come from that designated vineyard.
• that if a wine is labeled as coming from a particular vineyard “estate” (known as estate-bottled), the wine must be grown, produced, and bottled at the property whose name appears on the label. The winery must grow the grapes itself or manage all vineyard sources used to produce the wine. “Estate” is the highest designation an American wine can carry, and it’s an indication of artisan-quality expertise and care.

AVAs across the U.S.

California isn’t the only state with American Viticultural Areas, although it does contain more than of half the 139 AVAs currently recognized by the BATF. Other states containing AVAs include:

New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
Rhode Island
West Virginia

Designed for consumer protection

Though wine classifications can be confusing and many would prefer that the government be more handsoff, AVA designations can be helpful in a couple of ways.

Appellation rules prevent misuse of place names. The Napa Valley appellation, for instance, is considered superior to the Napa County appellation because of better vineyard sites and better fruit. So, a label marked “Napa Valley” probably means a finished wine that’s higher quality than one marked “Napa County.”

Appellation names can clue you in to a wine’s style. In California, a dizzyingly diverse range of wines is being made in equally diverse growing conditions. Generalizing is tricky, but an appellation can be an indicator of flavor. A Chardonnay from Napa tastes different from one from Mendocino, just as Chablis tastes different from Puligny-Montrachet, even though both are made from Chardonnay grapes.

What determines an AVA?

Although anyone can petition the BATF to define a new appellation or to change the rules of an existing one, it’s usually winery or vineyard owners who do.

Climate, rainfall, soil type, temperature, and elevation are some of the criteria for delineating a new AVA. The potential boundaries—mountain, river, valley, coast—must be readily visible on a U.S. Geological Survey Map. Geographic features and boundaries, such as state lines, county lines, highways, and byways are considered, too, if important.

AVAs can reach over state lines. The huge Ohio River Valley AVA, for instance, extends far beyond the valley itself and includes Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky, as well as Ohio.

Wineries have a stake, too

Designations also can also protect growers and vintners.

An appellation distinction can mean more revenue for a vineyard or a winery because a more selective designation nets the grower more money for the grapes, and it lets the winery ask a higher price for the wine.

Place names are a marketing tool. While a vintner with a proven record may not feel the need to put an AVA on the label, an up-and-coming winemaker might want to in order to help establish a reputation. That said, a wine needn’t carry an AVA to be a good wine. Again, some established vintners opt not to include district names on the label. And many make great wine by blending grapes from several different districts, but if what’s in the bottle doesn’t meet the grape percentage requirement for AVA declaration, the AVA name can’t appear on the label. ZD Chardonnay, for example, is a great California Chardonnay that carries no AVA; it’s a blend of grapes from several different AVAs.

American winemakers are working hard to raise the industry standard so that American regions gain some of the cachet and pride of place associated with them that Old World wine regions have, such as Bordeaux, Piedmont, or Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.


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