Wine Importing and Marketing Services

For Some Pacific Northwest Winemakers, AVA Wine Labels Are A Challenge

Horsepower Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Milton-Freewater, Oregon / Photo by Andrea Johnson

The number of bonded wineries in the United States has increased exponentially over the last four decades. With that growth has come a dramatic rise in designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), or appellations of origin, followed by smaller sub-AVAs to differentiate diverse grape-growing regions within them. Geography, climate, geology, soil types, elevation and history impact how proposed boundaries are delineated and ultimately approved by the federal government. At the end of 2021, there were 260 AVAs in the U.S., including 142 in California, 22 in Oregon and 19 in Washington. A surprising number of them have very few wineries and are largely unknown to anyone living outside their boundaries.

The marketing value of many AVAs can be questioned, especially given the amount of time and expense required to shepherd new applications through the federal approval process. At the very least, an AVA should bring further clarity and a more specific identity to any wines that bear its name. Or so it would seem. This idea calls attention to certain quirks of the system that largely affect the Pacific Northwest. Though California is home to more than half of the country’s AVAs—many of which are sub-appellations nested within larger ones—they are all contained within the state’s borders. Move farther north, however, and no fewer than five AVAs cross state borders.

From left, Phelps Cree Vineyards; Vines at Horsepower Vineyards / Photo by Andrea Johnson

The Peculiar Case of the Pacific Northwest

Oregon and Washington share three AVAs: Columbia Valley, Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley.

Oregon and Idaho share Snake River Valley, and Idaho and Washington share Lewis-Clark Valley. There are compelling reasons for all of them to exist, and clearly in the eyes of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the wineries that back them, they are justified.

“The driving reason why a bistate AVA made sense was because it matters much less where you are north to south than it does west to east,” says Robert Morus, winegrower and president of Phelps Creek Vineyards on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge AVA. Morus also currently serves on the Oregon Wine Board.

“This [Columbia Gorge] AVA is by definition a transition zone and unique in that regard. Our unifying principle is the diversity of microclimates on the lee side of the Cascade Range along the Columbia River.” Morus also points out the marketing challenges with the old system that allowed wines sourced from different states to be labeled by percentages; for example, 40% Washington/60% Oregon.

“That didn’t really tell the story of assembling two or more sites maybe only three miles apart,” says Morus. “If you were one of the growers of beautiful Pinot Noir on the Washington side of the Gorge, you found your market acceptance a struggle.”