Turf Wars: Proposed Expansion of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA

In “The Law of Location: Reign of Terroir,” we explored the regulatory side of terroir. Now, a long-simmering battle in California wine country has started to boil, and terroir is at the heart of the dispute. This winter, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) will decide whether to expand the famed Sta. Rita Hills AVA, a 33,380-acre[1] appellation situated in picturesque Santa Barbara County, by about 2,300 acres. [Notice No. 145: Proposed Expansion of the Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Area]. The agency is accepting public comments on the proposed expansion through Friday, December 5, 2014.[2] This is a good opportunity to explore the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the process of establishing and modifying an AVA. The petition, filed by geographer Patrick L. Shabram on behalf of John Sebastiano Vineyards and Pence Ranch Vineyards, is available here.

About Sta. Rita Hills

Established on May 31, 2001, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA has developed a reputation for outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. The region’s first vineyard was planted in 1974. Today, the appellation contains approximately 2,100 hundred acres of Pinot Noir, 500 acres of Chardonnay, and 140 acres of other cool climate grape varieties.

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is a coastal region approximately 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The appellation’s most prominent topographic feature is the Santa Rita Hills, an east-to-west ridge located between the Santa Rita Valley and the Santa Ynez River. The AVA’s climate is influenced by the west-to-east movement of cool air over the Pacific Ocean across the hills and further inland. This marine influence results in a cool, damp climate characterized by nighttime and morning fog—a climate conducive to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cultivation.

About the Proposed Expansion Area

The proposed expansion area is adjacent to the original AVA, situated east of the AVA and west of Highway 101. It is home to three commercial vineyards, two of which (the Rio Vista Vineyard and the John Sebastiano Vineyard) are partially within the existing Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Both the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the proposed expansion area are located within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The expansion area is slightly further inland than the existing AVA, extending to the south-facing slopes of the Purisima Hills. According to data cited by Shabram, it has a soil composition consistent with that of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. A point of contention in this case is the extent to which it is influenced by the cool air mass that moves east from the Pacific.

Requirements for Expansion

AVA boundaries were never intended to be set in stone. TTB regulations allow modification of existing AVAs at any time as long as the person or entity seeking modification (the “petitioner”) provides legally sufficient justification for the change. The regulations provide: “If a petition seeks to change the boundary of an existing AVA, the petitioner must include with the petition all relevant evidence and other information specified for a new AVA petition.” [7 C.F.R. § 9.12(c)(1).] The information and documentation required for the establishment of a new AVA are:

  • Evidence regarding the name of the region
  • Evidence of the proposed boundary, including the basis for delimitation and identification of commonalities within the boundary
  • Evidence of distinguishing features (as we discussed in “The Law of Location: Reign of Terroir,” those features include climate, geology, soil, physical features, and elevation. [7 C.F.R. § 9.12(a)(3).]
  • Maps and a description of the proposed boundary

In addition, a petition for modification “must show how the name of the existing AVA also applies to the expansion area” [7 C.F.R. § 9.12(c)(1)(i)] and “must demonstrate that the area covered by the expansion has the same distinguishing features as those of the existing AVA and has different features from those of the area outside the proposed, new boundary” [7 C.F.R. § 9.12(c)(1)(ii)]. In short, it’s not easy to change an AVA, but it can be done when several measurable criteria are met.

Shabram's Arguments in Favor of Expansion

Shabram characterizes expansion of the existing Sta. Rita Hills AVA as a “correction” of its boundaries. His main arguments are that 1) according to new climatic data, cooler temperatures exist further inland than originally believed, and 2) “renowned” Pinot Noir has been produced at the two vineyards that straddle the current AVA boundary. Shabram also cites common soil types as evidence that the expansion area rightly belongs in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (see page 2 of the petition). He argues that if expanded, the AVA would “more accurately reflect the name ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and the geographic feature from which this name is taken.”

Shabram spared very few details in his petition. He included years of temperature data from seven weather stations within the proposed expansion area, along with temperature data from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. He also included detailed soil analyses and examined the original delimitation process. I highly recommend reading the petition and accompanying exhibits in their entirety (if you have the time) in order to understand Shabram’s arguments.

Arguments Against Expansion

As of today, the vast majority of public comments are in opposition to expansion. The principal argument advanced in the comments is that there is a significant difference between the climate of the original AVA and that of the proposed expansion area. Specifically, several commenters contend that there is a noticeable increase in temperature east of Highway 101, which is located two to four miles east of the AVA’s eastern boundary. According to opponents of expansion, the microclimate of the existing AVA is unique, and is expressed in the flavor profile of the wines produced there. If there is, in fact, a clear difference in microclimates, it could be fatal to Shabram’s petition. Several commenters also dispute the name of the proposed expansion area, stating that it is not referred to as “Santa Rita Hills,” but rather, “Buellton Flats.” This, if true, is another potentially fatal flaw for Shabram, John Sebastiano Vineyards, and Pence Ranch Vineyards.

Another argument submitted by opponents is dilution of the identity of the original AVA. They assert that the region and its wines are unique and should not bear the same label as the noticeably different terroir and wines of the proposed expansion area. This is an argument with economic implications.  The name “Sta. Rita Hills” has cachet because of its reputation for excellent wines. On the one hand, vineyards within the original AVA could suffer financial harm if the expansion is perceived to lower the standard for Sta. Rita Hills wines (notwithstanding the fact that portions of these vineyards are already within the original AVA). On the other, vineyards in the expansion area could benefit from the prestige of the Sta. Rita Hills name. Economic considerations are not included in the list of requirements for establishment or modification of an AVA.

Finally, some opponents have invoked a “slippery slope” scenario, arguing that if Shabram’s petition is granted, expansion will open the spigot for a steady stream of expansion petitions. They fear that AVA will eventually become so big as to become meaningless. This is another factor that is left out of the Section 9.12 analysis. Furthermore, in a comment posted on October 10, Shabram attached an analysis of AVA expansions showing that only 8 percent of AVAs have been expanded.

What does all of this mean?

The key takeaway from this case is probably that AVAs are “living” entities subject to change based on regulatory criteria. Unlike some countries, where appellation boundaries are de facto permanent and/or highly politicized, the U.S. (in writing, at least) allows greater flexibility coupled with some semblance of objectivity. People sometimes make mistakes or have limited data when they do things the first time. Climatic, topographic, and soil conditions can change. I have no idea whether this was the case here or whether the Sta. Rita Hills AVA should be expanded—that’s for TTB to determine—but it’s important for individuals who benefit from or otherwise deal with AVAs to understand that they are not inherently constant.

Further reading

  • Click here to see the full docket for the proposed Sta. Rita Hills expansion. You will see the petition and all exhibits.
  • To read the fascinating comments, click here.
  • Last week TTB announced the publication of the hearings that led to the AVA regulations at www.archive.org. Simply search for “viticultural hearings” to find the full text of the hearings and the exhibits that informed the development of the AVA regulations.

[1] According to the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, the area is 30,720 acres.  See http://www.staritahills.com/appellation/.

[2] The original deadline for comments was October 6, 2014. TTB has expanded the comment period through December 5.