Does the American Wine Consumer actually purchase wine based on the American Viticultural Area designated on the label?

Mr. American Wine Consumer: “Look, honey, this chardonnay is from the Santa Maria Valley, so it must be good!”

Mrs. American Wine Consumer: “”I’ll say, sweetie, let’s get it!”

Mr. AWC: “Okey-dokey!”

Mrs. AWC: “By the way, where is the Santa Maria Valley?”

Mr. AWC: “Oh, you know, in, um, California.”

Not meaning to denigrate the knowledge of Mr. & Mrs. American Wine Consumer; I realize that a lot of people out there haunting the aisles of the nation’s retail stores have a lot of facts about wine in hand. I know that people who really love wine probably understand that there is or can be or ought to be differences between, for example, pinot noir wines made in Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands. On the other hand, I would say that most people just want a nice bottle of wine to take home for dinner and rely on experience or the advice of a trusted salesperson or brilliant blogger.

Wine producers, on another hand, are pretty obsessive about the exactitudes of geographical designations, and a great deal of time, effort and money and not a little blood has been spilled in the establishment of AVAs. Petitions for new AVAs appear before the TTB (the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) almost weekly. Being able to say on the label, for instance, that one’s wine is from the Napa Valley, because of the region’s historical and qualitative importance, is theoretically more desirable than a broad “California” designation, while a narrower or more specific AVA, like Oakville or Stags Leap within Napa Valley, is theoretically better than just Napa Valley. Carving out a new and distinct AVA can be an important step to legitimizing a winery and its products, at least in the mind of the producer.

This meditation was inspired by a post from September 12 on Tom Wark’s Fermentation called “Let Russian River Valley Take Over the World” that Looks like the Russian River Valleyparodies the TTB for entertaining the notion that the Russian River AVA should be enlarged to the south by 550 acres of vineyards. Who would want that done? Well, let’s see; the expansion would give 350 acres belonging to Gallo the right to a Russian River Valley designation on the label. Would the TTB grant such an expansion because the world’s second largest wine producer wanted it? Think of this: The last time the Russian River AVA was expanded, in 2005, it benefited Kendall-Jackson.

All the issues in this matter, with appropriate historical, geographical and climatic background, appeared in a story by Kevin McCallum in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat on September 11.

If the TTB grants the expansion of the Russian River Valley appellation — and there’s no reason to think that it won’t — the action will serve to emphasize, yet again, that the AVA system is, in some part, meaningless for producers and consumers. According to the AVA guidelines, “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origins of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.” How does that disingenuous expression of good intentions apply to, for example, the North Coast AVA, which encompasses three million acres in Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties? (AppellationAmerica.com lists 12 wineries in Solano.) And how does it benefit consumers that the 15,500-acre Dos Rios AVA in Mendocino, approved in November 2005, exists because of one winery, Vin de Tevis, that cultivates six acres of vines? I mean the TTB seems to pass AVAs out like candy — or to the highest bidder.

Of course, many of the AVAs make sense in terms of soil, climate, geography and traditional usage, but those that don’t merely focus our attention on the often ludicrous character of the enterprise and on the political nature of its sometimes dubious accomplishments.

While one might suppose that such issues are managed better in Europe, with its centuries-old heritage of vineyards, small growing and winemaking areas and a pervasive wine culture, one would, to some extent, be wrong.

Oh certainly the communes of Bordeaux and the tiny Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards of Burgundy seem irrefutable and secure in the AOC (appellation contrôlée) pantheon and the self-regard of Big Spenders. And it’s gratifying to see, as was recently announced, the addition of a 51st Grand Cru area in Alsace, the 175-acre Kaefferkopf of Ammerschwihr, based on a particular geologic formation, part granite and part limestone, that sets it apart from its neighbors; Kaefferkopf’s elevation to Grand Cru status is also based on a heritage of delimitation going back to 1932. Of course the French being the French and Alsace being Alsace, the percentage of grapes in blending — gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling — is prescribed by law. You won’t find that in the Russian River Valley.

On the other hand, the approval of the expansion of Champagne’s vineyard area earlier this year cannot be a harbinger of better quality. The squeeze is on in Champagne, demand is high and prices for grand marques and artisan products are rising, thanks especially to parts of the world — Russia and Asia — where people actually have money to spend. Better to let the situation sort itself out, however painful it might be, than to dilute the reputation of a hallowed region. (Yes, I know, it can be argued that the Grand Marque houses are diluting reputations themselves by overproduction and a certain mechanical aptitude.)

France is also home to one of my favorite bizarre designated wine regions, the Vin de Pays de Méditerranée, a vast area that Looks like the Mediterranean encompasses 10 departments in the lower Rhone Valley, Provence and the island of Corsica, which is, of course, not officially attached to the mainland of France. One appreciates the desire of local cooperatives to band together for solidarity and marketing purposes, but this Vin de Pays seems to be based primarily on a notion of all things romantic and salable conjured by the word “Mediterranean.”

My point is that consumers are far better off educating themselves in what kinds of wine they enjoy most than in depending on the potential quality of an AVA (or any country’s scheme of designation), whether a vast one or one that’s strictly limited. If you’re interested in pinot noir or sauvignon blanc, buy as many as you can afford from different regions and taste them blind, that is with labels concealed. If you consistently like the examples from one region, concentrate on that region, try other wines of the same genre, explore what’s offered in the style of wine that you like. Ask your friendly trusted retailer (or brilliant blogger) for advice in delving more deeply into what’s available. Trust your palate.

Images from appellationamerican.com and vin-de-mediteranee.org.