Wine Ink: Their own private Idaho — the Lewis-Clark American Viticultural Area
Where does your wine come from? Well, when you buy an American wine, the answer is almost always on the label.
Say you buy a wine from California. Right there on the label, it will say where the grapes in that wine were sourced. If they came from a number of vineyards in different parts of the state, the label will simply say “California.” If most of the grapes in the bottle were grown within a specific county or region, such as Sonoma County, it will be designated as “Sonoma.”
Further, if they came from a single place in Sonoma County, like the Russian River Valley, the label will highlight “Russian River.” And finally, if they came from a single vineyard in the Russian River Valley, in Sonoma County in California, it should say the name of that vineyard.
Got all that? If you do, good. Because by being aware of that information you can pinpoint exactly where your wine originated. And in wine, the place of its origin is an important thing.
According to Wines and Vines, an industry publication that maintains a database of such statistics, there are, as of March 2016, 8,795 wineries in America. In order to organize where these wineries are located, and where they source their grapes, there is a system that breaks each wine region down into American Viticultural Areas or AVAs.
These are also called “appellations.” They are designated and administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, which is responsible for keeping track of the nation’s wineries.
AVAs, or appellations, are places in America that have specific geographic or geologic features that make them unique for growing grapes for wine. The designation of a place as an AVA helps give consumers a better understanding of what they can expect from the wines that originate from those areas.
To use the name of a specific AVA on the wine label, 85 percent of the wine in the bottle must have come from grapes grown within the geographical AVA boundaries. AVAs also help winemakers in the designated regions establish marketing platforms to take advantage of the unique nature of the regions.
These are an important part of the system of American wine, as AVAs clearly define the characteristics of a region. The kind of soils that dominate that region, weather patterns and altitudes of the region, all have an impact on what grapes will grow best in that appellation and what kinds of traits might be expected from vineyards in that AVA.
THE LEWIS-CLARK VALLEY
I raise the point because, this month, word came that the TTB designated that a chunk of land that spans the border between Idaho and Washington be granted status as The Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area.
This is a big move in providing legitimacy to the growers and winemakers of Idaho; TTB allows them to label their wines as being from an area that has been deemed to be unique and significant in America for growing wine.
The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA encompasses 479 miles, with two-thirds of that area in Idaho and one-third in Washington. Highway 12, which runs through Lewiston, Idaho, is the main artery through the serpentine region.
The AVA encompasses the backbone of the Bitterroot Mountains and is hilly and rocky, with much of it foreboding. But 16 wineries currently source grapes from the appellation and there are 80 acres of vines planted on the Idaho side.
While the names of the wineries are a little obscure at this point, production is very limited. Wines from Basalt Cellars on the Washington side of the AVA and Idaho’s Colter’s Creek are gaining fans.
The varieties of grapes are similar to those found in the neighboring Washington wine regions with a focus on red grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, and amongst white grapes, riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay.
This is the third AVA in Idaho and the 14th in the state of Washington.
SO WHO CARES?
The winemakers of the region obviously care about the designation as it legitimizes their efforts. But beyond that, the designation of a new AVA is good for the industry in general.
It gives wine drinkers a context for considering new areas that could be exceptional for creating great wines in the future. As the wines of Washington have improved over the past 20 years, it is likely that opportunity exists for there to be outstanding wines produced in Idaho as well over the next 20 years.
Grapes don’t recognize borders. They just recognize nurturing soils, sunny days and cool nights.
Bravo to the grapes and the winemakers of The Lewis-Clark American Viticultural Area.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass, Colorado, with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.