What Does "California" Mean on a Wine Label?

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When perusing wine labels on the shelf of your favorite wine shop, you'll often find that the label indicates "California" as the region where the wine is from. But, you may have asked yourself, what does that really mean? With all the California wine regions such as Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, is a "California" wine simply generic wine?

Well, sort of, but not really.

If a wine label indicates it is from "California" you can certainly bank on the fact that at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine were grown in California. They may have come from multiple big-name wine regions in California (a specific region can only appear on the label if 85% or more of the grapes came from that region) or they may have come from un-named regions that are not registered as an American Viticultural Area (AVA).

And, California grows a lot of wine grapes outside of registered AVAs.

Something approaching half the California wine grapes are grown in non-AVA regions.  The San Joaquin Valley, that vast agricultural region that runs from Grapevine north to Stockton, produces a tremendous amount of wine grapes, but wines made from these grapes can only carry "California" on their label.

But, realize, just because the grapes are grown in non-AVAs doesn't mean they are inferior. Quite the contrary. It's just that they don't have the unique characteristics that those regions are known for.

So, don't pass over a wine just because its label indicates it's from "California." You're sure to find good ones and usually at a great value. Cheers!


What is an AVA?

Last time we looked at all the useful information on a wine label, specifically U.S. wine labels.  Along with the type of wine, the vintage date and alcohol content, a wine label will usually tell you where the wine is from, geographically.

There are basically two categories for identifying where a wine is from; its appellation or its AVA.

An appellation is a geographical way of organizing where the grapes are grown. So, in the US, wine appellations generally are state or county names.  You'll find wine labels showing that they are from California, Oregon, or Washington. And, you'll find wines from Sonoma County, Monterey County or Santa Barbara County.  To be able to use a state's name or a county name on a wine label, at least 75% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have come from that location. The exception is in California, where if the label states "California" then 100% of the grapes must have come from within the state. 

Then there are geographical regions designated as American Viticultural Areas or AVAs.  This construct was started in the 1980's as a way to distinguish and protect very specific wine growing areas.   If a wine label states a specific AVA, then at least 85% of the grapes must have come from that region.  But, unlike many European wine growing regions, there are no restrictions on the type of grape that must be grown within each AVA.

In California, major AVAs include Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Rutherford, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek and Russian River, just to name a few of the more than 100 AVAs across the state. AVAs typically have very unique growing conditions such as the climate, the soil type, the elevation or other physical features. And, within many large AVAs there are smaller AVAs.  So, for example, within the Sonoma Valley AVA you will find the Sonoma Mountain and Los Carneros AVAs. Also, an AVA does not have to be located entirely within a county or state. Examples include the Walla Walla and Columbia Valley AVAs that reside in both southern Washington and stretch across into northern Oregon.

And finally, AVAs are not stagnant. In 2014, the Paso Robles AVA located in California was divided into 11 separate AVAs.   This allows the wineries within each of the 11 unique regions to truly show off their distinct  geographical characteristics and climates and develop wine making  identities for themselves.

So start paying attention to the appellations or AVAs of wines that you enjoy. You'll find that there truly are distinct differences between wines of different regions and common characteristics of wines within a region.  Cheers!