To examine that question, let me state at the outset what they are not. They are not the hills that the Hatfields and McCoys feud in. Not the mountains from “Deliverance.” Nor are they a new hybrid type of fruit involving apples.
As Elvis would say, the dictionary definition goes a little something like this:
appellation \ap-uh-LAY-shun\, noun:
1. The word by which a particular person or thing is called and known; name; title; designation.
2. The act of naming.
For our purposes, an appellation is also a designation for a wine-growing region. The practice of stating where a particular wine’s grapes were grown was begun by the French at the beginning of the 20th century. The previous decades had seen the devastation of many of that country’s vineyards by mildew and phylloxera, a nasty little bugger of a louse that eats vine roots and leaves. So, people wanted to know that they were getting wine from areas that weren’t affected. The French, being French, set up a bureaucracy to deal with the issue and called it the appellation d’origine contrôlée. Also known as the appellation contrôlée, or AO, the system became the model for similar ones throughout the world.
So the AO went about its business of assuring consumers that the Bordeaux they were drinking really was from that area and not some other region with new, untested vines planted to replace the destroyed ones. In 1935, the French, bored with having only one bureaucracy for the wine industry, created the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, or INAO, to oversee and enforce the AO system.
You gotta love those guys. Even the Bozos in Washington could learn a thing or two from them when it comes to excessive government oversight.
And while we’re on the subject of Washington, it’s time to describe the American system of appellations. On this side of the Atlantic, we call them American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. Perhaps it doesn’t have the same Gallic ring as appellation d’origine contrôlée, but I’d bet a case of cabernet that it’s a lot easier to pronounce.
AVAs are administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Boy, it would be tough to sum up American culture any more concisely than with the name of that government department.) Our system is still brand-spanking new, having been adopted in 1979.
To date (as of December 2004) there are 145 AVAs in the United States and lots more are on the way. Some are huge (The Ohio River Valley AVA comprises 26,000 square miles, and the Texas Hill Country AVA is 15,000 square miles) and some are tiny (Cole Ranch in Mendocino County is only 120 acres). Some are famous (for instance: Napa, Rutherford, Edna Valley and Russian River) and some not so well-known (North Fork of Long Island, Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan and Lake Wisconsin) but they all have one thing in common – someone (or a group of someones) has gone to a great deal of trouble to have their region designated as a unique AVA.
The process costs about $15,000 all told, and, as one might expect when dealing with a government agency (even a non-French one) there are a lot of hoops to jump through.
To qualify as an AVA, it must be demonstrated that a growing region has a unique geography and climate, a historical precedent and a local or national reputation for wine production. In other words, even though you may have some grapes in your backyard, a spare 15 grand and some time on your hands, you’re probably not going to get to be an AVA.
Some of the AVAs in our area include Cienega Valley, Paicines and the Santa Cruz Mountains, established in 1982, Santa Clara Valley, designated in 1989 and Mt. Harlan, named in 1990.
So what does all this mean, anyway? Well these are the basic rules:
1. Wines with an AVA indicated must have 85 percent of grapes from that AVA in the blend.
2. American wines labeled with a grape variety must be at least 75 percent that variety.
3. Individual vineyards within an appellation can be named on the label, provided that 95 percent of the grapes for the wine is sourced from that vineyard.
4. Wines with vintage years must have 95 percent of grapes from that year in the blend.
Well, there are those who would deceive, or maybe stretch the letter of the law a little. Recently there was a court battle regarding the use of the name “Napa” on wine labels – in the brand name of the wine – none of the grapes used in production were from that AVA. But you know what? There are people who cheat at solitaire, too.