Today I listened to the latest podcast from the guys at Graperadio. The theme? Trying to taste the uniqueness of the six sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of Oregon's Willamette Valley. For the unintiatied, that's Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Eola-Amity Hills, Yamhill-Carlton District, and McMinnville.
The episode wasn't my favorite. It's hard to taste wine on the "radio" and make it as compelling for the listener as some of their interviews. But I'm geeky enough to have enjoyed it, and it made me think of a provocative article in the May issue of the Oregon Wine Press by A-Z co-owner Bill Hatcher questioning the basis for these sub-AVAs. Visiting the OWP website tonight, I see that four prominent local vintners have posted rebuttals to Bill's article.
Bill essentially says that Oregon is a niche brand among wine drinkers across the US, but a strong one to those passionate about what our state produces. Yet most of them couldn't tell you where Oregon even is, much less where Yamhill-Carlton is compared to the Dundee Hills, or why wines from the two areas would even taste distinct for anyone to care. The AVAs aren't helping. We should instead promote "Oregon" on every wine label and not worry about essentially meaningless sub-AVAs, at least at this point. Obviously, others disagree strongly.
The Graperadio piece exemplifies both sides of the argument well. In pairings of pinot noir bottlings from each AVA, Jay, Rusty, and Eric try to pinpoint (pun intended Jay) the essence of each area. The Dundee Hills signature of red fruit and bright acidity comes through clearly. Mostly, however, they find it difficult.
Perhaps the ripe 2006 vintage that they largely tasted from obscures the subtlties of each AVA. Or perhaps Bill Hatcher is right. The overly large AVAs with varying soil types and exposures simply don't bring anything specific or consistent enough to the profile of the AVA's wines to do the consumer much good. You just can't taste the difference.
Then I read the rebuttals and I can't help but think David Adelsheim, Ken Wright, Ted Casteel, and Harry Peterson-Nedry make terrific counter-arguments that admit the current limitations of our AVAs but emphasize their role on the path to greater meaning.
Adelsheim makes the point that wineries are in the business of educating consumers they sell to, and that in time we'll have more and more meaningful "sub-sub-AVAs" like Ribbon Ridge. Places limited in geographical area with fairly common soils that might have the best chance to reflect meaningful commonalities among producers in the area.
Wright speaks to the deep, involved process that led to the creation of the AVAs. It wasn't slam bang marketing. It was meaningful collaboration largely focused on common "mother rock" in each area. There may be enough exceptions to dispute that, but if Hatcher's argument is correct that the market may be confused by the various AVAs, it's hard to argue at the same time that the AVA initiative is all about marketing. Clearly there's honest passion for the uniqueness of our viticultural areas behind the AVA movement.
Casteel makes the interesting point that the AVAs are akin to "neighborhoods" that naturally develop as the original, tight knit industry has grown. Everyone doesn't fit in the Tigard fire deparment for industry meetings anymore. It's right and good to sub-divide into regions that can provide the local scale for an industry that no longer fits into one house.
Finally, Peterson-Nedry emphasizes a point the others touch upon. Hatcher's business with A-Z is big by local standards. He needs to find lots of customers in a highly competitive, almost commodity driven price range. His concerns are not the same as a smaller, more premium wine focused enterprise. Peterson-Nedry gives a baseball example. Hatcher is looking for people to get on base with Oregon wine. But many others are after customers who are already one base, looking to advance beyond the entry level of brand Oregon to something more meaningful and specific to them.
In the end, it's clear our AVAs have a long way to go to show real distinctness in their wines. And it's true. Do people in Illinois really know (or care, yet) about McMinnville vs. Ribbon Ridge? Yet I think the industry is right to be forward looking. If you're reading here, you're probably a wine lover. Do you know Oltrepo Pavese from Valtellina? Perhaps, and I applaud that. Perhaps not, but it's not because there isn't something to learn and appreciate about those distinct districts in northwestern Italy. I guess it might just depend on how much wine you have to move.