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California Wineries' Battle Over Coastal AVA Draws Near an End

Tim Fish
Posted: April 23, 2001

The long-running battle over the proposed California Coast appellation may be over just as it was heating up.

"It's not going to happen," said a source who has been prominent in pushing to have "California Coast" designated as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). While supporters are not expected to formally withdraw the proposal, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes no more time or money will be spent promoting it.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates wine labels and official wine appellations, is accepting public comment on the proposal until Wednesday, but the source said it's a moot point. "The power has lined up against it."

The California Coast AVA -- proposed by Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi Winery and 14 other wineries and growers -- would cover 14 million acres of land extending from Mendocino County to the Mexican border. While supporters say the idea behind it is to distinguish wines made from grapes grown in the cooler coastal regions from other wines that carry the broad California designation, many in the wine industry believe it's just a marketing ploy that will only benefit a few companies.

That opposition has mounted since February, with a group of vintners, growers and trade groups leading an active public relations campaign via an organization dubbed the Coalition for Wine Consumer Protection. The opponents include the Wine Institute trade group, the Napa Valley Vintners Association, leading grower associations and wineries such as Niebaum-Coppola, Ridge, Dalla Valle, Kenwood and Jordan.

The Wine Institute alone has contributed about $130,000 to research the issue and gather arguments against it. It also successfully petitioned the ATF to extend the public comment deadline by three months.

The idea of a California Coast AVA was first proposed in 1997, and it has gone through several drafts since then. Combining the North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast appellations, the California Coast would encompass 68 existing AVAs, spanning 22,000 square miles. It would be the country's second-largest AVA, second only to the 30,000-square-mile Ohio River Valley.

"This is a meaningless AVA," said Dennis Groth, president of Groth Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley. An AVA, he argued, should be about defining a distinct grapegrowing region. "This is going the wrong way. This is just a marketing ploy."

Gary Heck, owner of Sonoma County's Korbel, Kenwood and Valley of the Moon wineries is also vocal in his opposition. "When you form an AVA, it's supposed to be soil, climate, everything is alike. Are you going to tell me that something on the Mexican border is the same as Mendocino? It's ridiculous."

Yet some proponents resist throwing in the towel. Pete Downs, vice president of government affairs for Kendall-Jackson, said the opposition is looking at the AVA the wrong way. "They're thinking north to south. This is really about the coast and the coast influences. You need to think from west to east rather than north to south."

Herb Schmidt, Mondavi's vice president of public affairs, said the California Coast AVA is appropriate and would also end what he called the abuse of the term "Coastal" by some wineries. "A number of producers have been using the word coastal as a brand name without having any grapes from the North Coast or Central Coast," Schmidt said. "That leads to confusion."

Many on both sides agree that unregulated use of the terms "Coast" or "Coastal" is a problem. The Chalone Wine Group has suggested that, instead of establishing a Coastal AVA, the ATF could establish a firm definition of the terms and regulate their use on wine labels.

The ATF is not expected to rule on the California Coast AVA proposal until later this year.

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Read past news about the proposed California Coast AVA:

  • Oct. 9, 2000
    ATF Reconsiders Establishing New California Coast Appellation

  • Jan. 13, 1999
    California Coastal Appellation Rejected by ATF

  • May 19, 1997
    ATF Considers New California Coast Appellation
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