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Over the line: The complexities of US cross-state-border AVAs

In a place as vast as California, AVAs can create distinctions in wines. Consumers can understand the differences between Napa and Sta. Rita Hills, for example. But when it comes to cross-state-border AVAs – a somewhat common occurrence in the Pacific Northwest – what is the impact on both regional marketing and labelling laws?

At the end of 2023, the United States was home to 269 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These are meant to denote a specific sense of place – and, arguably, quality. Winemakers see these boundaries as a key piece of their marketing message.

However, when the AVAs cross regional political borders, does that impact consumers’ understanding of them and muddle any clarity that conversations about a sense of place and terroir hope to communicate?

The AVAs at a glance

Five of these crossover viticultural areas are located in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia Valley, Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley AVAs cover vineyards in both Oregon and Washington. Meanwhile, Snake River AVA includes land in Oregon and Idaho, and Lewis-Clark Valley includes vineyards in both Washington and Idaho.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) website, a multi-state AVA may contain no more than three contiguous states. Fruit may come from any of the states within the appellation and must be vinified within approved state borders as well.

Defying political lines

For winemakers in this part of the country, terroir trumps politics when it comes to drawing borders.

‘The Walla Walla Valley (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) is a fully contained valley at the foothills of the Blue Mountains in Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon, and the AVA was drawn to follow the natural contours of the valley,’ explains Ryan Pennington, chief operating officer of L’Ecole N° 41.

‘The ideal use of the appellation system in America is when it mirrors the natural landscape and the growing conditions for wine grapes to the greatest degree possible. Walla Walla Valley is a great example of that. It just so happens that it crosses two US states.’

L’Ecole N° 41’s estate vineyards are on the Oregon side of the AVA, but the winery is in Washington. Pennington says that because both the estate vineyards and the winery fall completely within the boundaries of the AVA, they can use the Walla Walla Valley AVA on labels.

Toeing the line

It gets a little tricky with nested AVAs, such as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. The Rocks, for short, was created in 2015 to highlight a single soil series – a cobbly loam soil, according to Delmas’ Steve Robertson, one of the AVA’s architects.

Although it is within the Walla Walla Valley AVA, its boundaries reside completely in Oregon. For wineries with facilities in Washington, this poses a major problem, as producers are not allowed, by law, to bring fruit across state borders and still use The Rocks District AVA on their labels.

These rocky soils, reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, are what drew French vigneron Christophe Baron of Cayuse and Bionic Wines to The Rocks District area in the late 1990s.

Although Baron was one of the first to plant in the region, he finds more value in the broader Walla Walla Valley moniker and feels it will lose impact if it becomes subdivided by nested AVAs.

‘I think we should definitely take advantage of the name Walla Walla Valley,’ says Baron. In addition, keeping the distinctive wines from The Rocks District as part of the larger AVA helps raise the profile and reputation of Walla Walla, especially on a global scale.

Christophe Baron of Cayuse pioneered the planting of the rocky Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, planting vines with his father in 1997. Credit: Bionic Wines

To Baron, The Rocks District holds no gravitas: 33 members of the Rocks District Winegrowers association identify with the region, either as sourcing or growing fruit. Yet, because Baron’s winery and vineyards are completely within The Rocks District AVA, he is one of only five winemakers who can legally use The Rocks District AVA on his labels. However, he refuses.

Robertson, though, is not deterred by the fact that The Rocks District is allowed to appear on a scant few bottles. He points out that there’s nothing precluding winemakers from including The Rocks District on their website or marketing materials.

There’s also a matter of size. Currently, 191ha are planted in The Rocks District – that’s the equivalent size of Côte-Rôtie. ‘Delmas makes 1,100 cases of wine at full capacity,’ says Robertson. ‘Everything about us is small.’

Given the boutique nature of most labels, the majority of wine is sold direct-to-consumer or solely at outlets within the Pacific Northwest. At the current scale, there isn’t much need for branding in a big way – for now. ‘We’re in it for the long play,’ he says, and as the AVA grows, he believes it will earn its recognition over time.

The role of US states in wine labelling

Melanie Krause is the owner and winemaker at Cinder Wines in the Snake River Valley AVA, Idaho’s first appellation and one that crosses its border into Oregon. She sources mostly from Idaho vineyards but does make a single-vineyard wine from Emerald Slope Vineyard in Oregon. Although she has the right to use Oregon in the name, she opts just to label it as Snake River Valley AVA.

When asked if she thought there could be benefits to adding a well-known winemaking state like Oregon on the label, she shrugged. ‘I’m not super interested in screaming Oregon at the top of my lungs for one tiny little block,’ she says. ‘There’s got to be a greater breadth of varieties and sites for me to really want to go the whole hog about advertising Oregon versus the Snake River Valley.’

For Krause, it comes back to the fact that an AVA signifies a unique terroir and, by extension, a quality. ‘Most of our customers, who are premium-priced wine consumers, are used to seeing AVAs on wine labels,’ she says.

The historic schoolhouse L’Ecole Nº 41. Credit: Issac Baik


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