The AVA Labeling Controversy Heats Up
Calistoga is a Major Battleground
For centuries, wine has been associated with regions because it is such a distinguishing factor of character and quality. Very few would argue that the location grapes are grown does not make a difference (except maybe Fred Franzia). The issue of labeling wine with a specific region has become a little contentious in California lately, and Calistoga is a major battleground.
In 2005, Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena petitioned the Federal Government to create a Calistoga AVA in Northern Napa Valley. Based on the TTB’s criteria for AVA creation, he had a perfectly legitimate case. Calistoga certainly has a history of producing distinctive wines based on soil, climate, and other physical factors.
But Barrett’s proposal stirred up quite a controversy, namely with Calistoga Cellars. This winery has built an established brand name around the region, but does not use the required 85% of Calistoga grapes in their wines. Calistoga Cellars vehemently opposes the creation of the Calistoga AVA, because if it goes through, they will have to either change their brand name or start using the required amount of Calistoga grapes.
The Federal Government responded to this dilemma by suggesting considerable changes to the current wine labeling laws. More broadly, they fundamentally called into question the significance that place of origin has on resulting wines. This has reignited the ongoing battles between brand-centric and terroir-centric wineries.
Barrett admirably wants to preserve the accurate portrayal of geography on wine labels. Local terroir gives artisanal wines their character, and this should be protected. Barrett has some powerful allies, including the Napa Valley Vintners.
> According to Richard Mendelson, attorney for the Napa Valley Vinters, “When consumers buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant, order off the list and see Calistoga Cellars, they’re going to think it’s from Calistoga.” This is a valid point and pretty much sums up why regional names should be protected.
At the same time, it is also understandable that Calistoga Cellars will not relinquish their name brand or alter the makeup of their wines without a fight. But because so many wines are marketed largely on their region of origin, it is misleading to the customer to falsely claim an association with a region that does not exist.
A possible solution might be for the federal government to disallow the use of any region on a wine label that does not meet the required 85% of grapes to be labeled as such, but fairly compensate existing wineries that will be affected. In the future, they should prohibit any winery naming themselves after a region unless they meet the AVA’s requirements.
But this would not account for wineries that are named after future AVA’s that do not yet exist, so a remedy would need to be devised for these situations as well. America does not have an exceptionally long history of wine production, and in many cases, the distinctions between regions are just starting to crystallize. This is clearly a difficult issue and will likely require considerable mediation and litigation to be resolved.