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What is an American Viticultural Area (AVA)?

If you're a wine nut or even vaguely interested in wine, you've probably heard of an AVA. But do you know what it actually is?

To start, an AVA stands for American Viticultural Area - "a designated wine grape growing region in the United States that is distinguishable by its geography". Now, this can mean a number of things. It could be divided because of terrain, county lines or Federally recognized regions selected for specific attributes. They also range in size from the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA at 29,900 square miles across four states, to the Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino County, California, at just 189 acres.

Not only does being a part of an AVA have its perks for wine growers, it also is helpful for consumers to see which areas the grapes came from when choosing a wine. This is where the concept of terroir comes into play because certain grapes may grow better in certain areas - a notion that foreign countries, such as France, take very seriously. For example, Pinot Noir prefers cool mornings and hot afternoons which fits nicely with the Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon, whereas the Sta. Rita Hills AVA is known for growing excellent Chardonnay.

Related: How To Read French Wine Labels

How are AVAs Designated?

On the other hand, there are challenges that come with designating AVAs. In order for an American Viticulture Area to be approved and established, there must be significant evidence that the attributes and microclimate are consistent within the area. Sometimes there are vineyards within an existing AVA that wish to be a part of another AVA, which depending on the AVA's stature, could mean more positive views on their vineyard's grapes and/or finished wines due to the fact that they could label it under a certain AVA which is more prestigious or well-known. Not only that, but there are also some who think their region is unique enough to create a new AVA. Both scenarios, as you can imagine, are tough to change.

There are also obstacles for winemakers. In order to put their AVA on the label, or even reference a specific state in the country, requirements need to be met. For example, in many cases, in order to list a specific AVA on the label, at least 75% of the grapes need to have been grown in that AVA. Some states have different requirements and there are even more complicated instances with international wines.

Map of California

How many AVAs are there in California?

As of January 2016, there were 232 established AVAs in the United States, 137 of which are in California and the number keeps growing. This large number is a testament to the variety of microclimates in the state. California’s largest AVA is the Central Coast AVA, and its smallest is Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino County.

What was the first AVA recognized in the United States?

The Augusta AVA, surrounding the area around the town of August, Missouri, was the first recognized AVA in the United States. It gained the status on June 20, 1980.

AVAs may not hold as much importance in the US as they do abroad, but please feel free to read more about various AVAs and wine growing regions in the US as well as internationally on our Regions page and browse our selection of wines from those regions!