Wine ZIP codes

Knowing where your wine is from can make a big difference

By Michael Cervin


mericans crave labels. From shoes to cars to stock, we love the idea that anything we’ve purchased comes with a label everyone recognizes. The same holds true with wine. Every bottle states the maker of the wine, the vintage (the date the grapes were harvested) and where the grapes were grown, Napa Valley, Central Coast or Edna Valley for example.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has federal jurisdiction over specific growing regions known as American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). Santa Barbara County has four AVAs, including the Santa Ynez Valley, which is comprised of 77,000 acres. A region that large simply cannot express with any accuracy the quality of all grapes grown there. As Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards noted, “The Valley is a composite of canyons, hills and mesas, with varying soils and sun exposures.” Claiming that a particular wine from Santa Ynez is exceptional because of its location is simply a false statement. Though ultimately, AVAs do give the wine buyer an idea of what is to be expected. Napa, for example, has 16 different AVAs within its valley that is only a mere 44,000 acres.

The Santa Rita Hills AVA is known for chardonnay and pinot noir. This doesn’t mean that chardonnay or pinot from another area is inferior but that, overall, the optimum conditions for those grapes exist in the Santa Rita Hills. Ventura isn't even on the radar and is actually part of the South Coast AVA, which is over 2 million acres and includes four counties.

I asked John Falcone, winemaker for Rusack Winery if AVAs make a difference. “Well, yes and no. It does benefit the consumer, definitely. They have a specific idea of where the wine came from. But it takes time to educate them as to why a particular area is important.” He added that if certain varieties of grapes are grown in non-specific areas, either too cool or too hot, you end up with a wine that doesn’t showcase “the grapes’ full character.”

Nick Fisher, owner of Ventura Wine Company, feels that AVAs are more dependent on the consumer. “There’s no middle of the road on this one,” he said. “Either people understand AVAs and care, or they don’t — they just want to drink the wine.” He estimates that 60 percent of his customers know and seek out specific AVAs on a label when purchasing wine.

If a label simply states “California” or “Central Coast,” for example, that indicates the grapes could come from anywhere within those areas. There’s no guarantee that grapes from “California” don’t come from Fresno or Riverside, rather than a well-known wine region like Paso Robles or Sonoma. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Fresno or Riverside, but those areas are simply not known for premium grapes. And if you’re spending $30 on a bottle of wine, it had better be worth the money.

So the next time you grab a bottle off the shelf, read that label. You may be glad you did.


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