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

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.

Bistate Divide Phelps Cree Vineyards & Vines at Horsepower Vineyards
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.”

Yet, in other ways, bistate AVAs fail a clarity test, and both wineries and consumers pay the price. On the negative side, Morus believes that bistate appellations can be a challenge to both print media and retailers.

“In what section—Oregon or Washington—do you put a wine grown in Washington yet made four miles away in Oregon?” says Morus.

Is a Pinot Noir that uses grapes from both sides of the river an Oregon wine or a Washington wine? Or must there be a special shelf for Columbia Gorge wines and other shared appellations?

James Mantone, cofounder and winemaker of Syncline Winerey, headquartered on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge, also notes that further confusion arises from the fact that the Columbia Gorge AVA butts up to another bistate AVA, the Columbia Valley.

“It is a little frustrating to be sitting right on the edge of two nonoverlapping AVAs,” says Mantone. “In this case, you could have an Oregon Columbia Valley vineyard that is within sight of a Washington Columbia Gorge vineyard. If you were to blend them, the wine would have to be labeled American [wine, and not Columbia Gorge AVA], even though they are within sight of each other.”

Farther east, the third shared AVA, the Walla Walla Valley, holds even more questions. When first certified in 1984, it included just three commercial wineries: Leonetti Cellar, established in 1977; Woodward Canyon, established in 1981; and L’Ecole No. 41, established in 1983. There was a small vineyard on the Oregon side, but no wineries.

At the time, and for many years after, Walla Walla was widely considered a Washington appellation. This was particularly important from a marketing point of view, as these years saw the formation of the Washington State Wine Commission, which spearheaded efforts to introduce Walla Walla and its distinctive wines to the media and the trade.

Bistate Divide Aerial views of Seven Hills Vineyard
Aerial view of Seven Hills Vineyard / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Between The Rocks and a Hard Place

Since certification of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, the Oregon side of the appellation has developed and become increasingly influential. Massive developments such as the 2,700-acre SeVein property, of which 1,800 acres are considered plantable, and the continued expansion of the Seven Hills Vineyard led more and more Washington wineries to bottle Oregon fruit. The latest statistics from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance claim that 43% of the AVA’s vineyards are now on the Oregon side, including 11% in a nested AVA entirely in Oregon—The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.

Although fewer than 10% of Walla Walla’s 120-plus wineries and tasting rooms are in Oregon, they include some of the appellation’s renowned labels, including Cayuse and Delmas, which are often identified as Washington wineries producing Washington wines.

And because The Rocks District is entirely on the Oregon side, further complications arise.

“Anyone anywhere in a state can make a ‘fully finished’ wine and use the AVA name on the bottle if at least part of the AVA lies in the state,” says Dr. Kevin Pogue of Whitman College, who authored The Rocks District AVA petition and several others. “So a winery in Ashland [Oregon, approximately 400 miles away] can make a wine from grapes grown in Washington’s Columbia Valley and label it Columbia Valley. But if the grapes come from a [Washington-only] AVA, they can’t use that name on the label.

I think it’s pretty strange that you can do that but can’t bring Rocks District grapes eight miles north to a winery just across the border in Washington and use Rocks District on the label.” Thanks to the reputation of Cayuse and its associated labels—No Girls, Horsepower—the unique flavors of Rocks District terroir, often cited as “good funk,” have led to significant buzz among collectors and other enthusiasts. Yet, a number of Washington wineries that own Rocks District vineyards cannot use the AVA on their labels. In fact, none of the Cayuse wines use it, though legally they could.

Bistate Divide Syncline Winery & Cayuse Harvest
From left, Syncline Winery; Harvest at Cayuse Vineyards / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Saviah Cellars and Sleight of Hand are side-by-side Walla Walla wineries less than a mile from the Oregon border. Both own vineyards in The Rocks District and cannot use the AVA on their labels. Sleight of Hand founder and winemaker Trey Busch sees no impact on sales.

“Go to St. Louis and say, ‘This is from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA’—the vast majority of consumers have no clue what or where that is,” says Busch. “Walla Walla at least has some name recognition. The farther away from Washington or Oregon you get the less they know about our wines or our region.”

Rich Funk, owner and winemaker at Saviah, more or less concurs, noting that “it would be nice” to use The Rocks District designation, but “it has not impacted our ability to market or sell the wines made from our vineyards located there.”

But for Willamette Valley Vineyards Winery Director Christine Collier Clair, it’s a different sort of challenge. The publicly traded group is building a winery and developing a substantial vineyard within the boundaries of The Rocks District AVA but had to move production of their recently acquired Maison Bleue brand from Walla Walla to Milton-Freewater to use the designation on those wines.

“We see the issue of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater being wholly located in Oregon as a challenge for name recognition and exposure to this appellation for trade and consumers,” says Clair. “On one hand, it is going to bring more investment to the Oregon side near the vineyards, but on the other, nearby producers in Walla Walla won’t be able to label with the source if they bottle in Washington. As we moved the sourcing [of Maison Bleue grapes] to be nearly entirely from The Rocks District, we wanted to be able to tell that story.”

Bistatr Divide Aerial views over SeVein,
Aerial views over SeVein Vineyards, Oregon side of Walla Walla AVA / Photo by Andrea Johnson

The Logistics of Location

Trying to find a workable solution apart from moving production is not an easy challenge, as Dr. Pogue explains.

“The TTB made a feeble effort at solving the problem by throwing out a proposal that wines made in adjoining states could display the AVA labels of their neighbors,” he says. “If that rule had passed, a winery in Tucson could have made a Napa Valley labeled wine from fruit grown in Napa and then shipped to Tucson. Obviously, that proposal never gained any traction whatsoever, and was rejected.”

Another idea was to permit the sub-appellations of bistate AVAs to be used by wineries in both states. But given the vastness of the Columbia Valley, which includes almost every other Washington AVA within its boundaries, Oregon wineries working with Washington fruit could then use coveted appellations such as Red Mountain on their wines, which could raise concern from Washington-based producers.

“When the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA was created, it required some serious reworking of existing boundaries to keep everyone happy,” says Dr. Pogue. “Since the TTB no longer allows the boundaries of new AVAs to overlap the boundaries of existing AVAs, and thus be partly within and partly outside, a big chunk of the Columbia Valley AVA had to be carved out, deleted, and the boundary redrawn. The other solution would have been to extend the boundary of the Columbia Valley AVA into Idaho to encompass the area of the Lewis-Clark Valley. That idea was immediately rejected by the WA wine industry.”

Delmas Winery Owner Steve Robertson worked with Dr. Pogue on The Rocks District petition and founded The Rocks District Winegrowers, which now boasts 33 members. Robertson believes that labeling issues over The Rocks District will fade over time regardless of further action by the TTB.

“These wines aren’t typically found on store shelves, and very few find their way out of the Northwest,” says Robertson. “There is simply not a lot of Rocks District fruit available to contract, or cases produced by the estates. A ‘fine wine’ demand equation is the result, driven by scarcity and high quality.”

On that point there is absolute agreement. And perhaps that is the key—the unique terroir of each appellation must present as the defining factor for a wine, regardless of any other boundary identifier the label bears.

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