An AVA of One’s Own

There’s a lot of chatter these days about AVAs and sub-AVAs—American Viticultural Areas, that is, and the ever smaller boundaries into which they get drawn. More and more wine-growing regions—and even individual wineries—are advocating for official recognition of ever more precise AVAs as a way of marking out what they feel to be distinct wine-growing terroir. This valley versus that creek’s drainage; this hillside versus that plain. The conversation, hashing out if this is a good thing or not, generally follows two veins: whether the new AVAs are genuinely distinct enough to merit the label, and whether the new AVAs are simply producing too much wine-labeling information, to the degree that consumers are going to become only more confused. All this is fine and good: Labels ought to mean something, and there already is far too much variety and far too many wine labels for anyone to have any clue what on earth he should buy when he walks into a wine store.

But I’m a huge fan of proliferating AVAs, for an unrelated reason. People love to talk about terroir, and it’s an old saw that wine expresses place like nothing else we consume. And I think this is even more true than people realize, and also more important. No other product in the American marketplace conjures landscape the way wine can. No other officially recognized agricultural designation is so distinctly keyed to a deep understanding of the natural world, instead of to artificial commercial or governmental boundary lines. The effect is very much like the effect yearned for (and, to a small degree, achieved) by the überhippie Beatnik poet Gary Snyder, in his great campaign to get Americans to think of environmentalism in terms of watersheds. By getting you to recognize that you live and breathe and drink in the lower Hudson River watershed, for example—or, far more precisely, in the watershed of some small local creek—Snyder hoped to give all of us a way to feel connected to the earth, beyond the name of the town we’re from. The environmental angle was critical: Snyder wanted us to feel connected in large part so we’d start caring about poisons being dumped into the river upstream from us, resulting in the total death of our once-bountiful local oyster beds. But there’s another angle—the plain and simple fact that American life alienates us from place at every turn, by transforming every street in America into a carbon copy of every other street, and by encouraging constant mobility and rootlessness. This feels bad. And feeling like you know where you live—where you really live, in which watershed, among which birds and wildflowers, even if they only show up in the backyard of your urban apartment building—feels better. A lot better.

That’s the great unacknowledged gift, in my view, of proliferating AVAs: They represent a commercial American agriculture becoming obsessed with, and determined to inform the rest of us about, small, coherent segments of the natural world, defined entirely in natural terms.

The wines that got me thinking this way, incidentally, were from Ridge: Ridge labels tend to emphasize place names rather than varietals (although most are Zinfandel). This follows European tradition, of course—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône—and favors blending over varietal emphasis. But it also sings a quiet song we all benefit from hearing. This wine is a fine wine from Lytton Springs, it says. Or, this is a wonderful Paso Robles wine. And that, in turn, rings a quiet little note in our minds, conjuring a picture of hills and vineyards and oak trees, and a warm breeze, and a cooling coastal fog. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these Ridge wines are magnificent, and that at $24.99 a bottle the 2005 Ridge Vineyards “Dusi” Paso Robles is a ridiculously good deal.

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