With little in the way of recent developments in the area of wine law, now seems an opportune time to discuss some of the basics. We’ll start with the laws governing appellations of origin of wine, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) as they are known in the United States.

In 1935, congress adopted the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act) to protect consumers by ensuring they get accurate information on wine labels. While the place of production has routinely been included on wine labels for centuries elsewhere, in the post-prohibition recovery era, many U.S. wines did not state an appellation, and those that did use geographic designations typically relied on states or counties with mapped boundaries.

Gradually, however, wines began to use terms like “North Coast” and “California Mountain”, which had no connection to mapped geographic regions. In 1978 that the TTB adopted a regulatory system to ensure customers were not being misled by the geographic information emerging on labels. Section 4.25(e)(1)(i) of the TTB regulations (27 CFR 4.25(e)(1)(i)) defines a viticultural area for American wine as a delimited grape-growing region distinguishable by geographical features, the boundaries of which have been recognized and defined in part 9 of the regulations (27 CFR part 9). The designation of an AVA does not impose any quality controls, as appellation of origin designations do in many parts of Europe, they simply allow a winemaker to designate the wine’s geographic origin on their labels.

Thus the rules set by the TTB in 1978 set up a procedure for establishing an AVA. Any interested party may file a petition, containing the following information (See 27 C.F.R. section 9.3(b)): evidence that the name of the viticultural area is in fact used to refer to the proposed area, either locally and/or nationally; evidence relating to the geographic features, such as climate, soil, and topography, which distinguish the proposed area; specific boundaries of the area based on features found on the topographic maps of the U.S.G.S.; and historic or current evidence in support of the boundaries proposed.

The TTB then commences a public rulemaking process, which requires public notice of the proposed rule, a period for public comment, publication of information for public review so that public commentary is meaningful, and review and response by the agency to significant comment when it issues its final rule. The proposed and final rules are published in the Federal Register (see, e.g., the Final Rule establishing the Calistoga Viticultural Area, or the accumulated comments on the Coombsville Viticultural Area). As of November 28, 2011, there are 200 approved AVAs (see the TTB list).

Many of the 200 AVAs overlap or fall within larger general AVAs. These are known as sub-appellations or nested AVAs.  Last year, the TTB rejected a proposal to prohibit the creation of nested AVAs moving forward. Instead, the rules require that a petitioner must state, in the petition itself, why the proposed AVA is “sufficiently distinct” from the existing one and must explain why the “establishment of the [new] AVA is acceptable.”

Other changes to the regulations last year affect the process for amending boundaries of AVAs.  The 2011 revisions impose more scrutiny of amendment proposals, by requiring detailed evidence of the distinguishing features of expansion area that justify inclusion in the existing AVA, and that those features are not found in surrounding, excluded areas. Names can also be amended if, over time, a region comes to be known by a different name (ex: Temecula AVA became Temecula Valley AVA).

The TTB protects the integrity of AVAs through the label review process (see 27 C.F.R. section 4.50, 4.39(a)(1)). If an applicant can’t justify use of AVA on label, the TTB rejects or revokes its COLA, which prevents the sale of wine under that label in the U.S. If the winemaker sells without approval of their COLA the wine can be seized, and the winery’s federal operating permit can be suspended or revoked.

More information on AVAs and links to proposed rules creating new AVAs can be found on the TTB website.


1 Comment so far

  1. moscato on February 18, 2012 5:16 am

    I was looking for this. Thanks a lot.

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