Defending Oregon’s Sub-AVAs

Editor’s Note: After reading a guest column about American Viticultural Areas by A to Z Wineworks co-owner Bill Hatcher in the May issue of the the OWP, several winery owners intimately involved in the AVA process felt compelled to respond.

The following are comments from Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard, Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard and Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Winery.

Each of them, including Hatcher, presents his position on the subject in forceful terms supported by thoughtful, well-articulated arguments.

OWP encourages readers to carefully evaluate all in order to arrive at an informed opinion. We also ask you to keep in mind that these prominent members of the Oregon wine industry share the common goal of bringing about its overall betterment. 

David Adelsheim, Adelsheim Vineyard

When the idea of creating small AVAs in the north Willamette Valley was first brought up, I opposed it. I was afraid that they would pull whatever collaborative energy was available away from selling the AVA we already shared: the Willamette Valley.

In retrospect, I was worrying about that problem too late. The number of people growing grapes and making wine in the Willamette Valley—and the size of the AVA—already made it difficult to act collaboratively. Getting everyone together had become impossible.

The process of creating the Chehalem Mountains AVA in 2001 and 2002 reminded me of the beginning of the wine industry in the Willamette Valley in the early 1970s. We called a meeting at the Ponzi home and 50-plus people attended. Most were growers or small winery owners who were not active in other collaborative marketing efforts. Many I met for the first time at that meeting.

From the beginning, we knew that the Chehalem Mountains would be a large AVA, one with three major soil types and great variations in elevation and exposure. It was too large and complex to produce a single type of wine, but the place had a historic name going back to the 1840s; it could be a great geographic AVA. It turned out there were over 100 vineyards within the boundary of the AVA and 30 wineries. We figured it would help those consumers who wondered where the grapes were being grown to have a name for that place.

What we could not have anticipated was that some people would want all the wines from our large AVA to taste the same, as if this were some tiny Burgundian Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. We may yet get there. We already have one AVA within the Chehalem Mountains—Ribbon Ridge—a “sub-sub-AVA,” if you will. Eventually there may be four or five more. These may finally be small enough to get close to the goal of having all the wines from them being very close in their taste profile.

There are others who complain—OK, Bill Hatcher—that we should all put only “Oregon” on our labels because a hypothetical wine consumer in New Jersey doesn’t even know where the Willamette Valley is, much less the Chehalem Mountains. This misses the point that wineries have an obligation to educate as well as to sell. If we don’t lead our customers to new levels of understanding about our wines, who will?

At our winery, we sell certain wines—particularly those we produce in larger quantities—using Willamette Valley as the appellation of origin on our labels. These are the wines we sell to distributors around the country. The distributors then sell our wines to wine shops and restaurants and finally the bottles are sold to consumers. It’s pretty hard to provide much in the way of education through those three tiers. But I suspect that most people who buy our wines know where the Willamette Valley is—or at least they pretend to.

Many of the wines we make in very small quantities—our single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and as our single-vineyard white wines—bear “Chehalem Mountains” (or “Eola-Amity Hills” or “Dundee Hills”) as their indication of origin. These wines are usually sold directly to consumers—from our tasting room or via the Internet—and with this direct contact, a lot more education is possible. And our customers love having information about soils, sites, clones and vintages. Giving them the information they desire is one of the reasons they are loyal to our wines.

Ken Wright, Ken Wright Cellars

The process of creating the new AVAs began in 1995 and took more than a decade to be fully realized. It was methodical. It was thoughtful. It was incredibly inclusive. Each area searched high and low to identify every grower they could find before democratically determining the boundaries and name of their region. It was an amazingly collaborative and patient effort by our industry; for me, unparalleled. No other region of the United States to date has shown this level of cooperation. It worked because the core values of the group were true to the quest of identifying  our unique growing areas, not to come up with a new marketing scheme for Pinot Noir, as Bill’s article alluded to.

Rewards continue to be reaped. As an example, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA group continues to meet on well more than a quarterly basis with annual meetings, seminars, vineyard visits and tastings organized for the trade and public. Those events have been very well attended, and the reception by the trade and public has been overwhelmingly positive.

Rather than the industry-divided viewpoint voiced in Bill’s article, the development of the new Willamette Valley AVAs has created more collegiality among growers than we have ever seen before. The only divisiveness I am seeing is in the negativity created by this article. Since Bill was not a stakeholder (grower) during this process, he was not included. It is not unusual to see people react with animus if they feel excluded, no matter that it was unintentional.

Let’s talk about what should be the core issue.  Do these new areas have distinct differences in traits? If so, why? The uptake of minerals provides definitive traits that we find in aroma and flavor. 

When a region shares the same parent material (mother rock) that area will share a similar mineral makeup and therefore similar aromatic and flavor profiles. It isn’t hocus pocus; it’s basic plant physiology. The new AVAs are well lined with boundaries that respect the beginnings and ends of homogeneous mother rock. The Chehalem Mountains boundary spans several types of parent material, but the growers in that region are well aware of this and can speak intelligently to the differences within the AVA. At some point they will likely further define the region to recognize the parent material precisely. 

Since Bill is blending all 70 of his Pinot Noir sources, he doesn’t benefit from the excitement the public and trade have shown for site-specific bottlings. I do hope he continues with his model of offering good value wine that often introduces Oregon to the consumer. More often than not, that consumer grows in his or her awareness of our region and eventually graduates to my door.

Ted Casteel, Bethel Heights Vineyard

For many years I opposed the impulse to “Balkanize” the Willamette Valley into sub-AVAs. I worried that it would lead to undermining the strong spirit of cooperation and common cause that has characterized our industry from the beginning. When that development became inevitable, I decided to join the effort to help ensure that it be done in a way that preserved that spirit of collaboration. 

We formed an organizing committee made up of representatives of all the regions to go forward together to the TTB with our petitions and to support one another’s efforts to make the joint effort a success. There were some bumps along the road for some of us, but, in the end, it became, in my mind, one of the great collaborative success stories in the history of our industry. And it has not undermined the spirit of working together as an industry to accomplish remarkable things, as I feared it might. 

My revised perspective on the AVAs goes something like this:

When Bethel Heights was founded by my family three decades ago, there were only a few hundred producing acres in Oregon. There were only 16 functioning wineries. Our whole industry fit comfortably in the Tigard Fire House, where the meetings were held. Now, the acres are 16,000-plus, the wineries number in the hundreds, and the ways we associate have evolved and accommodated to this exponential growth. 

We are like a village that has grown into a small city. It is not surprising that neighborhoods have developed. It is natural and healthy. In our AVA, there are now monthly meetings that are well-attended by growers and wineries. They have agendas, plans moving forward, new leaders are emerging, and most fundamentally, people are finding one another, networking, etc. And, far from confusing our visitors from afar, the new signage, local maps and other tools are making the Willamette Valley a much less daunting place to visit. 

Furthermore, I have not seen our industry-wide institutions being undermined by these developments. Quite the contrary. The Willamette Valley Wineries Association, IPNC, OPC, the Steamboat conference, the LIVE program, the Willamette Valley Tech Group, the Collusion Group, the Salem Growers Group, to name just a few, all remain vital loci of collaboration and collective action.

A couple of months ago I was asked to participate in a filmed conversation with seven other industry members about the history, character, culture and accomplishments of our industry, which will be used at OPC this year. We were a diverse group—men, women, young, old (me), California émigrés, second-generationers. We came from all over the Valley. For two hours we talked. It was a delightful time. As I was driving back to the vineyard afterward, I had two observations. First, the culture of collaboration has obviously been imprinted into the DNA of the Oregon wine industry; and second, that scores of other members of this extended family could have been chosen to participate, and the outcome would have been just as authentic.

Harry Peterson-Nedry, Chehalem Winery

Oh, Bill, I do love your command of the language and your occasional counterpoints to my view of the world.  The question you pose about AVA pertinence is, as always, valuable, if perhaps contrarian, and missing a few points, which I’d like to add.

I understand and agree with many of your points, but not your main premise that AVA differentiation hurts the Oregon industry in the marketplace. I agree that Oregon is the most important appellation, and that we all need to educate the market on where and what we are, first. That job will never be complete.  However, once consumers have an appreciation of Oregon as a whole, I contend it is meaningful to give them more information about what makes specific wines unique. And almost always, uniqueness comes from where wines are grown and not about who makes them, or how fancy your winery is, or how big your PR budget might be. Defining place is critical to continued consumer education, necessary to build the market for Oregon wines.

Realistically, all AVAs are sub-AVAs. The usefulness of further resolution from American or Oregon or Willamette Valley levels—of  “where” wines are specifically grown—depends on the consumer’s level of understanding.

To use a baseball metaphor: If consumers don’t get a base hit, knowing where second base, third base and home plate are don’t matter much. To me, our customers seem to be on base already and need more information as to what the terrain ahead looks like.

Perhaps, I tend to give our public more credit than you do, Bill, because of our differing size and consumer base. I understand, you are selling a prodigious amount of wine and need to find new customers, so have to sell the Oregon brand. As the founder of a smaller winery, I find the need to share the uniqueness of site and region that first excited me as a winemaker—and still does—with our customers. They can benefit from knowing how geography and geology, including climate, soils, elevations and the like, influence our wines.

As you know, Bill, I make wines from four estate vineyards in three different AVAs. It is intriguing and freeing to consumers to be able to choose differently styled wines, especially when the styling is done by Mother Nature, with winemaking as a constant.  AVAs help them choose not only within Chehalem’s portfolio of wines, but from other wineries as well, with some assurance that wines from a specific AVA will have a family resemblance.

The AVAs of the Willamette Valley are not perfect, but they are a good first cut, made largely with technical rather than marketing rationale, one that the entire industry at the time had a significant involvement in creating. We didn’t create them capriciously. We knew the risks in looking at pieces of this wonderful valley rather than as a whole. 

But, we also understood how much growth had already occurred, the rush that was still to occur and how much of a disservice to consumers having to embrace several hundred brands would be. We are no longer 34 wineries, as when I bought my first vineyard land.  When we at last agreed to undertake AVAs in 2001, there were 156 winery brands, which had blossomed to 350 by the time the final approvals were received in 2006. Knowing more than “Oregon” is necessary for our core consumers.

And, Bill, I don’t think AVAs hurt the famous collaborative spirit of Oregonian winemakers. Much the contrary, the camaraderie and meeting-in-the-firehouse benefits of a small industry that stimulated us in the old days are lost without a manageable family size. AVAs serve to redefine families and work groups. Inter-AVA competition is a myth. Especially for many of us who bridge the AVAs, you included. We need to embrace the future while preserving the beautiful qualities we both value. And AVAs help. 

Another glass of wine, Bill? Ribbon Ridge or Vosne-Romanee? 

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