As 2015 drifts into history, we need to stop and celebrate a unique and important anniversary. Ten years ago, thanks to an extraordinary, coordinated effort by our growers and wineries, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA was officially established and put on the map by the (take a deep breath here) Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. We became one of 230 AVAs in the country, and 18 in Oregon. More specifically, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA became one of six sub-AVAs within the broader Willamette Valley AVA that had been established in the early-1980s and was the first official delineation of this area as being a special place to grow and make fine wines.
WHAT IS AN AVA?
What’s in an AVA, and why are they needed? The official explanation is that American Viticultural Areas are delineated geographic areas with strict boundaries that define places of wine production that share common characteristics of climate, soil and/or geography. But as Brian O’Donnell, the owner/grower/winemaker of Belle Pente Vineyards & Winery puts it, an AVA is much, much more than a dry, official term. As the Oregon wine industry matured, he noted, “Winemakers…noticed distinct characteristics in the wines based on geology and geography that transcended vintage variation. Single vineyard wines from the same areas were similar, and the AVAs were a way of celebrating this and providing a platform to explain it to customers.”
In other words, grouping the hundreds of wineries that were operating a decade ago (there are many, many more now) by the geographic similarities of place and soil that made their wines somewhat alike was a great way to help consumers from far and wide discover something that our winemakers were already learning: A wine from the Yamhill-Carlton district typically looks, smells and tastes different than a wine from the Eola-Amity Hills, or even from nearby Ribbon Ridge or the Dundee Hills.
BEGINNINGS OF AN IDEA THAT WOULD CHANGE EVERYTHING
It was Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars who was the driving force behind not only noting the marked differences in wine profiles from the different areas of the valley, but in rallying the community of growers, owners and winemakers to draw boundaries and petition the government for sub-AVA status. “The conversation started around 1993,” he recently recalled, “between me, Dick Shea, Doug Tunnell and John Thomas, among others.” The concept of separating the north-Willamette Valley into sub-AVAs was broached at that time with pioneers like David Adelsheim and Harry Peterson-Nedry, who had been instrumental in establishing the earlier AVA designates.
There was a general reluctance to make any changes at that time. “Oregon had been floated as one boat, and was a very collegial group,” said Wright. “If we drew lines, some would be in and some would be out, and there was a fear that it might cause divisiveness.”
As Dick Shea, owner of the Shea Vineyards property and winery noted, the idea made sense, but some feared that the industry wasn’t ready for it. “We could define the differences between areas that were defined by the fruit from those areas,” he said. “It would help consumers understand the wines and the region better. The only counter-argument at the time was it if it was premature and if there were too many unknowns.”
THE EXPRESSION OF TERROIR
For Ken Wright, defining AVAs and pointing out the differences in the wines they produced was a natural outgrowth of a winemaking style that to that point was fairly unique among valley producers. Wright had pioneered the production and bottling of single-vineyard Pinot Noir wines that he carefully selected from different vineyard sites throughout the valley. “The differences in regions were crystal clear to me, but not to everyone,” he said. “Most wines at the time were blends from different vineyards.” His idea of delineating regions was tabled, but then the industry as a whole turned a corner, and between 1995 and 2000, an enormous growth occurred in single-vineyard designated wines.
“It gave not only the public, but also the industry the opportunity to taste the regions and find threads of connection,” said Wright. “We found common traits of aroma, taste and texture. Besides helping educate the public, delineating the areas would help people coming into the market decide where they wanted to plant.”
Brian O’Donnell remembers when the idea began to gain traction and the community rallied to taste and discuss wine variations. “One of the first things that we did as the appellation was being established was hosting a big tasting at our place with about 30 local winemakers to taste through a range of Y/C wines to try to identify the underlying characteristics,” he said. “We did it in a very organized fashion with a checklist and intensity scale for flavor and aroma components, as well as textural.”
Kevin Chambers, who at the time owned the Resonance Vineyard that would be placed within the Y/C boundary, was also involved in the discussions as to where to draw lines, and how to differentiate the regions. “It was during a time when other things were going on,” he recalled. “The U.S. Geological Survey was in here, closely mapping the soils and naming parental materials very closely.”
As it turned out, Ken Wright’s hunch that the parent material of each region drove the qualities that made each region’s wine unique – the expression of terroir, as it were – was spot-on. So many interesting geologic things are present within the broad, 60-mile long Willamette Valley, creating all kinds of variations of soils, rainfall and parent materials. Yamhill-Carlton’s soils, for example, are marine sedimentary, collected from ocean movements millions of years ago, whereas nearby Dundee Hills are volcanic, as are the Eola Hills to the south. As longtime grower Dick Shea put it, vines growing in marine sedimentary soils are under more stress, ripen earlier, and typically produce spice and floral notes on the nose and palate, with redder fruits compared to the black and blue fruit qualities produced by other regions.
“An organic vocabulary was created for the region,” said Ken Wright. “The Dundee Hills as red-fruited. Eola as blue and black-fruited, and more structured. The marine sediments of Y/C and Ribbon Ridge have more floral and spice elements.”
AN UNPRECEDENTED COLLABORATION
It took several months of meetings and discussions, but the community worked together to hash out boundary lines for the fledgling AVAs and then submit them en masse to the TTB for formal certification. “It was a really collaborative process,” said Ken Wright. “In the end, we all waited until all of the applications were done, and then handed them in at once to the ATF. It was the only time in history that that had ever happened, that one region was so unified.” Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville and the Dundee Hills AVA received their certifications in 2005, closely followed by Ribbon Ridge, Chehalem and Eola-Amity Hills.
And now, history and marvelous hindsight show that it worked. “In the end, we did a pretty good job of delineating the AVAs,” said Chambers.
Dick Shea agreed. “People in the business have been pretty happy with the results,” said Shea. “You find broad commonalities [within the AVAs] for the consumer. That is to me the essence of it.”
And we got a marketing association out of it, not to mention a designated area that wine lovers the world over recognize as being the source for some pretty incredible fine wines. Here’s to the next decade for Oregon’s booming wine industry, and the secrets it holds for the next generation of wine lovers to discover.