After six years of squabbling, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has approved the newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the Napa Valley, the Calistoga AVA. Beginning next month, vintners can put Calistoga AVA on the labels of wines that are in compliance with the new appellation's rules, namely that at least 85 percent of the grapes come from within the appellation.
The bureau also ruled that two wineries, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards, have three years to either begin using 85 percent Calistoga grapes or change their brand names.
The TTB ruling ends a battle that briefly derailed the entire AVA approval process. When the appellation was proposed, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards, which use mostly non-Calistoga grapes in their wines, objected to their brand names being effectively outlawed.
The purpose of AVAs is primarily to help consumers understand what they are getting for their money. While politics and winery lobbying play a role, when wineries apply for an AVA they must demonstrate that it has a unique, recognizable winemaking history, soil, climate and geography before it can be approved by the TTB for use on a wine label. The designations are useful to growers and producers as marketing tools, and ideally they give consumers an idea of what they might expect in the wine.
The 15th AVA to be approved within the greater Napa Valley appellation, Calistoga's qualifications as a unique winemaking area have never been in question. Winemaking began shortly after the town was founded in 1857, its position at the northern end of the Napa Valley ensures a unique climate, and its location at the foot of Mount St. Helena gives it a unique volcanic soil.
Trouble arose over the Calistoga petition when Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards complained in 2007 that establishing a Calistoga AVA would interfere with their continued ability to market their brands. Art Resnick, spokesperson for TTB, said at the time that, "the current regulations do not address conflicts between brand names and AVAs."
The firestorm was one factor in the TTB's decision to freeze the AVA approval process and consider new rules, hoping to avoid future fights between place names and brand names. The bureau proposed a compromise that would allow for a grandfather clause: The two brands could continue to use the name "Calistoga," but newer brands could not. The bureau also discussed requiring a disclaimer on their back labels explaining that their grapes had come from outside the Calistoga AVA.
Winemakers, vintners, and trade organizations up and down the West Coast raised an outcry. The Napa Valley Vintners, Wine Institute, Sonoma County Vintners, Oregon Winegrowers Association, California Association of Winegrape Growers and the Washington Wine Institute all expressed opposition to the grandfathering proposal, arguing that using the name Calistoga on wines that were not made from local grapes would mislead consumers, while trading on the hard work and quality reputation of longtime growers and vintners in the region.
The TTB's review was delayed again when the new presidential administration took office in January. Congressman Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who grew up in the Napa Valley and whose father, Charlie, was at one time the vineyard manager at Stony Hill Vineyard, pushed the TTB to take appropriate action on behalf of Calistoga vintners and growers. It appears his hard work paid off.
The owners of the two wineries now faced with a three-year window to change their grape sources or brand names have yet to comment on whether they will sue to block the decision. Some Calistoga wineries say they've already asked their printers for labels touting their new appellation.