American Canyon Trying to Capitalize on the Napa Valley

Recently, the American Canyon Tourism Improvement District Committee was presented with an idea to boost tourism: apply for the American Canyon to be a recognized federal AVA.

The American Canyon is an area in the southernmost part of Napa County.  It is south of the town of Napa and adjacent to the Carneros AVA.

If one has ever driven through the American Canyon, one would readily see that it looks more like neighboring Vallejo, a city with a typical East Bay and suburban character, than its neighbor to the other side, Napa, a city known internationally for wine, dining, and relaxation.

So, if American Canyon is to capitalize on Napa’s tourism, it probably needs a little more than just being recognized as an AVA.  However, there is no reason to think that gaining AVA status is not a good start.

Let’s take two other nearby AVA’s as a comparison: Carneros and the Oak Knoll District.  Carneros straddles the southern parts of both Napa County and Sonoma County.  Carneros is very well known for its cool-weather wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as for lesser amounts of Merlot and Syrah.  Carneros is also a big destination for tourism.

The reasons for this tourist traffic are probably numerous and hard to quantify, but for one, the main road that passes through Carneros is a convenient way for wine tasters to travel between southern Sonoma County and the Napa Valley.  The region itself is quiet and very pretty, where at some high points one can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  Several wineries have added luxurious tasting rooms and the Plumpjack Group added a very high-end restaurant and hotel property, The Carneros Inn.  Carneros certainly does not lack for tourist appeal.

Oak Knoll, by contrast, is hardly even known as an AVA, even by people in Napa.  Most people just think it is the part of the valley that is driven by and quickly forgotten as one approaches Yountville from the south.  It is not a region that is very well known for adding distinctive characteristics to its wines, as is a place like Carneros.

I don’t know the history, but I’m sure at some point the local growers and wineries in the Oak Knoll applied to make it an AVA, envisioning some sort of marketing benefit.  This would not be unlike the idea that is currently being tossed around for the American Canyon.

So, the lesson here is that American Canyon needs to strive to become more like Carneros than like another Oak Knoll.  These things happen slowly and organically, so doing this overnight would be impossible either way.  Nevertheless, the American Canyon folks should be thinking a few steps ahead as they try to take this multi-prong approach to making American Canyon part of the “Napa Valley” experience.

(This posting is not to be construed as legal advice. If any of the information in this posting relates to legal issues that you are facing, you should contact an attorney.)

© All rights reserved Kevin Guidry 2014.

This entry was posted in Federal Regulations, Regulatory/Administrative Law, Terroir, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to American Canyon Trying to Capitalize on the Napa Valley

  1. Terry Hall says:

    Wow Kevin, that was a pretty dismissive view of the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The recognition of an American Viticultural Area is based largely on its uniqueness of soils and geology, geography, climate and to a lesser degree its historical significance. The OKD is one of the oldest grape growing areas in Napa Valley founded on a Mexican land grant known as Oak Knoll around 1850.
    Its soils are alluvial from the runoff of the Dry Creek drainage—the largest alluvial fan in the valley and the only one to drain from north to south. Its run begins near Oakville Grade, drains the canyon of Dry Creek from two very different bedrocks, the Great Valley formation and the Franciscan formation. This alluvium, along with sections of volcanic intrusion, creates some of the most complex soils in the region. Unlike Carneros to the south which is largely ancient sea floor, the soils range from gravelly to loam.

    The climate is cooler than the upper valley, yet warmer than Carneros with its windswept fog from San Pablo Bay. The area has a very specific climate and has proven to be the sweet spot for both Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet as well as cooler climate varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winning Chardonnay from the Judgment of Paris tasting was sourced partly from the Oak Knoll District and these grapes have a long reputation for their elegant style. Last year’s top Cabernet of the year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine came from OKD. Critical accolades abound for the district’s wines.

    Most of the district is contained within the Napa Valley Ag Preserve so don’t look for restaurants and hotels to emerge anytime soon. OKD’s ag preservation keeps the urban footprint of the City of Napa in check, curtailing sprawl. High-quality grapes for the area’s top wineries are the priority. Producers from Opus One, Beringer, Merryvale, Rombauer, Duckhorn, Whitehall Lane, HdV and scores more grow or buy grapes from the mostly small, family-owned growers. Wineries in the district include Trefethen Family, Robert Biale, Blackbird, Matthiasson, Lewis, Laird, and Black Stallion among others.

    The vintners and growers worked for many years to have the area recognized as the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley after a lengthy challenge from an out-of-state winery named Oak Knoll. Here the 150-year history of the region played an important role in the eventual granting of the recognition. And so today, the OKD is a prestigious wine appellation. I cannot begin to understand why you think of it as a drive-by.

    And as for American Canyon, I made the proposal to the City to create the AVA in a presentation in December as a way for them to think more seriously about their role in agriculture, to create local ag pride, so as not to lose what they have. If they continue on the path as their neighbors to the south, they will be a nameless, faceless suburb. They have a great ag resource and a pro-development mindset that will be a sad loss realized too late if they don’t take action, take pride in agriculture sooner rather than later. I cannot understand why anyone would think that was a bad idea.

    • Kevin Guidry says:

      Mr. Hall, your points are well taken, and I realize that the short nature of a blog post did not allow adequate space for me to make my points fully. I will attempt to elaborate.

      My central point is about the interplay between marketing a wine region (which I believe your company is often hired to do) and the TTB’s process for awarding AVA status under federal law.

      I have seen time and time again that the TTB’s process is more of a “rubber stamp” process than anything else (my opinion, of course, but based on extensive research). Sure, there are C.F.R.’s out there that purport to provide the TTB a standard to evaluate new AVA’s based on “uniqueness of soils and geology, geography, climate and to a lesser degree, historical significance”; nevertheless, the TTB routinely awards AVA status to regions that simply do not rise to the level of adding actual terroir characteristics to the wines from said regions.

      There is no way to prove this empirically, but I will take the Oak Knoll District as an example: compile the last 10 years of Wine Spectator Top 100 wines from California. How many of those wines feature the AVA status Oak Knoll District?

      My point is that the TTB needs to either (1) change its criteria to add more regulations (similar to Europe), wherein consumers would be provided with meaningful information, (2) do a better job of applying the existing regulations (more on this to come), or (3) do away with an AVA system that provides little information to consumers.

      As to applying existing regulations, I have done an extensive case study on this, and when the TTB tentatively approves a new region for AVA status, the only people in the “public” who offer comment are usually the people who have an active or business interest in the region, such as yourself with the Oak Knoll District. The TTB simply does not do a rigorous study in applying its own so-called standards.

      At the end of the day, I don’t envy people that have to think of ways to market wine regions like the Oak Knoll District to consumers, outside of the utmost wine geeks. The same goes for a region like the American Canyon. I believe, however, that applying for AVA status is not the best way to do that.

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