WSET Diploma Unit 2: Grades and other Bits ‘n Bobs

50%?  That’s an F.

-My Dad whenever I told him that I’d halfway finished something

Growing up, I heard the above relatively frequently from my Dad.  Usually, it was regarding one of my household chores that I’d completed somewhat, but not fully.  Often, this was mowing the lawn.  It’s been 20-some years since I set foot in my childhood home, but in my mind the lawn was roughly equivalent to the 153 square blocks that constitute Central Park in New York.  In actuality, it was 1/4 an acre (I just Zillowed it).

Nonetheless, I could never seem to complete the mowing of our lawn in a single day.  I’d do the front, and maybe part of the back, before throwing in the towel and promising that I’d finish up the following day.  “I did half of it!” I’d tell my Dad . . . and then he’d come back at me with some variation of his zinger “Half?  That’s an F.”

The first time I said this to Hubs it was in response to him saying he’d done “half the laundry” – which really means just moving the wet stuff from the washer into the dryer. He replied “no it’s not, 50% is a C.”  We had a nice long debate over this until he came around to my way of thinking . . . but had he been British – he would’ve had a point.

British Grading System.  I recently started pursuing my Diploma through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).  When I found out their grading scale for exams, I was a bit surprised (more on that later).  Since the WSET is based in the UK, I did a little research on the country’s grading system as a whole.  Turns out – it is VERY different from the US.  (I promise I get to the wine portion of this entry shortly, but humor me for just a moment…)

As a rough guide, here’s how a Bachelor’s Degree in the UK would shake out: (and yes, I’m spelling it honoUrs because we’re talking about the Brits!)

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher
  • Second-class honours, upper division – typically 60 – 69%
  • Second-class honours, lower division – typically 50 – 59%
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49%
  • Without honours – awarded an ordinary degree, sometimes known as a “pass”.

I am gobsmacked by this.  Does this mean that a bloke with a 35% gets a Bachelor’s degree from University and graduates with the rest of his mates?  If so – that’s a bit barmy.  (“Use ‘gobsmacked’ in blog entry” is officially checked off the bucket list!)

Anyhoo – onto wine specifics:

WSET Grading Scale.  The WSET somewhat follows the general UK system – here’s their grade range:

  • 75% and Above – Pass with Distinction
  • 65% – 74.9% – Pass with Merit
  • 55% – 64.9% – Pass
  • 45% – 54.9% – Fail
  • Below 44.9% – Fail Unclassified (read: you REALLY fucked up here)

So essentially, I need to get a 55% to pass each of my Diploma exams.  I haven’t mentioned this to my Dad yet, but I know exactly what he’d say.

I had some difficulties finding information on overall pass rates for the various Diploma Units – but the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate hovering around 50%Other sources put it closer to 32%.  Unit 3 is likely the reason why there are only 9,441 individuals in the world who have the WSET Diploma certification. And likely why this Unit is the last one tackled by most candidates.  (FYI: Unit 3 covers “Light Wines of the World” – which essentially means all wines in the world except for Sparkling and Fortified Wines as these are covered in other Units.   From what I’ve heard, it’s recommended that Diploma students take the Oxford Companion to Wine and put it to memory – because basically everything in that 900+ page tome is fair game on the Unit 3 exam.)

Believe me, I’m not knocking the material – I’m already studying a ton and there is a LOT of information to digest and learn/memorize. And I’m only taking the “easy” Unit right now!

And since we’re having a chin wag about grading scales (I could just keep going with this British slang!), for the record here are how a couple other wine certification programs rank their exams:

  • The Wine Scholar Guild (who runs the French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Scholar, etc. programs): Passing grade is 75%. Candidates scoring 85-90 pass with Honors. Candidates scoring 91-100 pass with Highest Honors.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: 60%. It doesn’t appear that there are honors or merit – just pass/fail.

Ok, enough about obsessing about the grades before I get the collywobbles (last one, I promise!).  Here’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks:

Unit 2 – Where it All Begins.  Yes, the entire program starts at Unit 2 rather than Unit 1 – just accept this as fact and move on (I’ve done the research and don’t have an answer).  Unit 2 covers “Wine Production” – so, basically all things Viti and Vini (aka viticulture and vinification).  This actually makes sense as it gives candidates a good foundation for the rest of the Diploma Units (which include Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines & Global Wine Business). The Unit 2 exam is 100 multiple choice questions which I’ll have 90 minutes to complete.

There’s a study guide for Unit 2 provided by WSET and everything on the exam will come from this text.  So, I’m madly highlighting and outlining and trying to tackle a little bit each day.  WSET books

I’ve heard through the grapevine (pun seriously NOT intended but I decided to keep it in) that Unit 2 is used to “weed out” individuals who may not be ready to pursue the full Diploma.  Basically, if you can’t pass a multiple-choice exam where the answer is somewhere in front of you, you may want to rethink whether you’re ready to continue on to other Units (please don’t let me regret typing that last sentence).

My Unit 2 Class – Neptune School of Wine. My in-class sessions for Unit 2 were held on 3 consecutive Saturdays (approximately 6 hours per day).  Other WSET providers have different schedules – some meet for 10 weeks for 2.5 hours each session (International Wine Center in NYC) or there’s a (super) intensive weekend where you go all day Saturday and Sunday (Napa Valley Wine Academy).  I think my classes hit the goldilocks spot for me and was just right.  Now I’ve got 5+ weeks to self study before my exam on June 30th.

There were a total of 3 students (aka candidates in WSET lingo) in my Unit 2 class.  All ladies. 🙂  This was quite a change from my WSET Level 3 class where there were around 20 of us – and split fairly evenly between guys and gals.  With 3 students, there’s no hiding in the back of class (which is where I normally plant myself).  And there’s no ability to abstain from participating (which is also what I normally do).  So I was front and center – and I never thought I’d say this but . . .  it was kinda awesome.

Our instructor, Peter Neptune MS, is a wealth of knowledge and experience.  These classes were essentially getting one-on-one tutorials from a Master Sommelier – something that most wine enthusiasts would pay a shit-ton of money for.  In my previous wine classes, I didn’t often speak up for fear of sounding stupid or being wrong.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to sound like the the jackass who “corrected” my FWS instructor as to the distance between two areas in Burgundy when she said it was 13km (he annoyingly chimed in “ahhhh, I think it’s more like 12km.”)  Seriously – don’t be that guy.  Nobody likes that guy.

That All Sounds Fine & Dandy – But Did You Get to Drink Wine in Class? Even though there isn’t a tasting component to Unit 2, we did go through a fair amount of tastings in class to get a better grasp of the WSET method of writing tasting notes (aka the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine in WSET lingo).  The examiners want their notes done in a specific manner and the best way to do this is practice, practice, practice! 🙂

I enlist Hubs to blind pour me wine a couple of times a week.  However, I usually know which wines he’s pouring – just not the order.  Which is not the same as true blind tasting where you have NO idea what’s in the glass in front of you.  Going through this with Peter in class was eye-opening – and the results not completely surprising to me:

– I’m much stronger at French wines then Italian wines.

– I need to work on picking up oak aromas – in wines besides the typical California Chardonnay where it all but hits you upside the head.

– Expand my palate – move beyond Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Try to get my hands on some aged wines.

– Stop second guessing myself and trust my gut (and my nose, and my taste buds).

Thankfully, WSET is more concerned with you identifying characteristics of the wine (aromas, structure, quality) then they are with you identifying the actual wine itself.  I think you only get 1 point for correctly identifying the wine.  Although, of course, many people – including myself – often focus on this.

I feel fortunate to have been in such a small class because it really boosted my confidence and made me realize that I know more than I think I do.  But – there’s still a lot more that I don’t know. 🙂  So, back to the books and I’ll post an update on my WSET journey after my Unit 2 exam!  Keep your fingers crossed for me!  Cheerio!





What About Bob (Betz)?

When I first sat down to write about Bob Betz, one of the most revered winemakers in Washington state, I knew early on that I would end up writing a lengthy tome about this Pacific Northwest icon. So, in the interest of brevity (somewhat), I’ll narrow it down and give you what I believe to be the 10 Things You Should Know About Bob Betz.

1. He is officially – and unofficially – a Master of Wine. Bob Betz is one of 370 individuals in the world who holds a Master of Wine (MW) degree. Many in the wine industry (myself included) believe that the MW designation is the most respected title in the world of wine. Bob achieved this in 1998 and received two additional awards upon successfully completing the program: the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam, and the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall score in all theory exams.

2. He helped put Washington wine on the world wine map . . . In 1975 – when there were only eight wineries in Washington (there are now over 900!) – Bob was hired at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He was employed at the winery for 28 years, working in nearly every division of the company, before retiring in 2003 as Vice President of Winemaking Research.  Chateau Ste. Michelle is now the second-largest premium American wine brand sold in the United States, trailing only California’s Kendall Jackson.

3. and conversely helped bring the world of wine to Washington. One of Bob’s many roles while at Chateau Ste. Michelle was Managing Director of Col Solare. Established in 1995, Col Solare is a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori created to “produce a Washington wine with an Italian soul”. While Chateau Ste. Michelle recently turned 50 – a big achievement in the Washington wine world – the Antinori family has been making wine for over 625 years!

Col Solare
View from Col Solare on Red Mountain, Washington

One of the most coveted items at the Auction of Washington Wines – the annual charitable gala recognizing the best and brightest in the industry – is a trip to Italy with Bob and his wife Cathy.  If you guessed that experiencing the Antinori family’s iconic estates firsthand with a Master is on my bucket list, you would be right!

4. There were a few paths not chosen in his life . . . Bob has a degree in Zoology from the University of Washington. He was also accepted into medical school in 1980, but (thankfully!) had already been bitten by the wine bug by this time and opted to stay on that course. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he has said that he hopes he’s helped make people “healthy in a different way”. 😉

5. before he forged his own. Betz Family Winery – established in 1997 by Bob and Cathy – was the product of a worldwide expedition that began decades earlier.  In the early 1970’s the two spent a year in Europe visiting the wineries, estates and  vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria learning the European “culture of wine” . The Betz’s first production yielded 150 cases. Today, the winery produces around 5,250 cases per year.  Over the years with Bob at the helm, Betz Family Winery amassed several awards, to name just a few:

• Betz Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was named Washington’s Number One Wine of the Year by the Seattle Times wine critic, Paul Gregutt
• Bob was named Sunset Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2007
• 2010 Pere de Famille was ranked #6 in the World in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Cellar Selections

Additionally, Betz Family Wines have received consistent 90+ Points from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. Betz lineup

6. Bob is particular about where his fruit comes from . . .  Betz Family Winery gets its grapes from the same rows in the same vineyards every year from some of Washington’s top wine growers. Bob believes there’s a huge, fundamental difference between grape growers and wine growers. He says that a grape grower “looks at the grape as the end point in their work.” On the other hand, a wine grower “looks at the grape as a transitional point between the land and the table.”

Some of the wine growers/vineyards Bob works with include: Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in the Yakima Valley; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; and Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

7. which results in an understated style of winemaking. Bob is big on keeping tannins in check.  Instead of pumping the juice from the grapes like many other Washington wineries, he uses gravity.  He designed a small funnel on top of the fermenter and gravity drops the juice into it. His winery also uses the punch down method during fermentation rather than pump over – a key differentiator that comes across in the bottle.  Additionally, Bob uses mostly French oak barrels for aging (he found the American barrels “too coarse”) and less new oak than he used to in order to diminish the “woody impression” in his wines. His prefers to age his Rhône blends in entirely neutral barrels.

8. He’s leaving his legacy in good hands. When they decided it was time to find a new owner/caretaker for their winery – Bob & Cathy had suitors from around the world for Betz Family Winery. In the final bidding process, they had narrowed it down to two major Napa Valley wineries and one couple. They went with the couple. 🙂 In 2011, Bob & Cathy sold Betz Family Winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel.  The Griessels are incredibly warm and friendly people – much like Bob & Cathy.  And while they are committed to keeping the Betz heritage alive, they are also taking the winery on some exciting new directions – like a Chenin Blanc from their native South Africa!

Bob remained on as head winemaker until 2016 when he passed that torch to Louis Skinner. He remains involved in his namesake winery as Consulting Winemaker and is still a familiar friendly face at the winery’s semi-annual wine club release events!

9. Bob remains a Washington wine icon and dynamo. Last year, Bob returned to Col Solare as Consulting Winemaker.  He’s also a frequent panelist at Washington wine seminars – most recently “Blind Tasting Bootcamp with the Masters” at this year’s Taste Washington. And he’s on the Board of the Auction of Washington Wines – the fifth largest charity wine auction in the United States.

10. If this wine thing doesn’t work out for him – he has a future in Hollywood. Bob makes an appearance in “Somm: Into the Bottle”, the follow-up documentary to the well known 2012 movie “Somm”. At about the 42 minute mark, he discusses the wide range of grapes grown in Washington – from Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling.  He asserts that we (I might live in SoCal now, but I can still say “we”!) have challenged the notion that certain varieties have to be grown in only certain places.

I lied. There’s one more thing I think that everyone should know about Bob Betz. I believe it was wine writer Andy Perdue who referred to Bob as “a true gentleman of the wine industry” and I couldn’t agree more. I have never heard a negative or unkind word said about him.  He is incredibly well respected, likable and eager to help others as they forge their own path.  In what can be a competitive industry with bottom line results, he stands out as a winemaker – scratch that, as a person – to aspire to.


Bob pic
Photo credit: Great Northwest Wine



Paso Robles

Walking into a wine store and asking for a bottle of wine from Paso Robles is kinda like walking into Nordstrom and asking for a pair of shoes.  You need to give just a little bit more detail as to what you’re looking for, because chances are – they’ve got it.

Nordstrom shoes
Nordstrom shoe department: Not 612K acres, but still HUGE!!

At just over 612,000 acres, the Paso Robles AVA is California’s largest appellation geographically.  Over 40 different grape varieties are grown within the AVA.  However, Cabernet Sauvignon from the west side is going produce a very different wine than Cabernet Sauvignon from the east.  And these will both differ from a wine produced from somewhere in the middle.

These variations are practically unavoidable in an AVA of this size.  Smaller, better defined appellations produce wines of more consistency due to similarities in the area’s soil (Red Mountain), climate (Ancient Lakes), etc.  But Paso Robles has its Salon shoes mixed up with its BP shoes – so it’s challenging to know what you’re going to get just by choosing a wine with “Paso Robles AVA” on the label.

There are three primary reasons for the range of different wines produced in the Paso Robles AVA:

  • Climate: the western boundary of Paso Robles is only six miles from the Pacific Ocean which results in a cooling effect on these vineyards, as well as wetter weather (over 30 inches of rain annually!) Compare this to the eastern side of the AVA where the climate is much more arid and dry with rainfall at only about 10 inches per year.
  • Elevation: the west side of the AVA reaches up to 2,400 feet in elevation whereas the east side tops out at around 700 feet. Vineyards at higher altitudes have cooler temperatures than those on flatter areas so they are better able to preserve acidity in the grapes.
  • Soils: there are over 30 different soil series throughout the Paso Robles AVA.  Limestone and calcareous soils are more prevalent in the western portion, while sandier and more fertile soil is found to the east.
  • ⇒  Time for some dorking out on dirt: Calcareous soils are well draining and often contain lime –  which produces higher pH levels. The high pH reduces the vine’s vigor, allowing for flavor concentration and retention of acidity in wine.  Additionally, some of the most well-known wine regions in the world possess calcareous soils (Champagne, Burgundy, Southern Rhône).

Overall, Paso Robles AVA is a very warm growing region with daytime summer temperatures often reaching over 100°F!  If this heat isn’t managed in the vineyard, it can result in fat, overripe grapes and boring, flabby wine.  Climate, elevation and soil type all play important roles in preserving acidity in the grapes – particularly those on the west side of the AVA.  But this doesn’t mean that those grapes on the eastside are screwed!  Thanks to the region’s overall diurnal shift – where nighttime temperatures can drop by 40-50°F – even grapes on the warmer, drier eastern side of Paso Robles are able to maintain acidity and produce refreshing, delicious wines.

Paso Robles map

In an effort to assist consumers make a more informed choice as to wines from Paso Robles AVA, the area was recently divided into 11 sub-AVAs.  (And if you know my obsession with sub-AVAs, you know this has me positively giddy!)  The goal is to allow these smaller areas to develop their own identities and give consumers additional knowledge as to what’s in that bottle of wine they’re eyeing to purchase.  Time will tell if 11 sub-AVAs was overkill . . .

So back to my Nordstrom analogy – give the salesperson a better idea of what you’re looking for.  A timeless classic like Tory Burch ballerina shoes?  Try a Cabernet Sauvignon from Eberle Winery (founder Gary Eberle is known as the “Godfather of Paso”).  If you’re more of an ass-kicking Dr. Martens boot person – a big bold Zinfandel or Petite Sirah from Turley might fit you better.  Or if you like to be a little different and sport a pair of futuristic sneakers, then Rhône Ranger Tablas Creek is probably up your alley.

And if you’re looking for Christian Louboutins- try anything from Saxum.

Until I have time to delve into the 11 sub-AVAs – here’s the outline on Paso Robles.

Becoming a Certified Sherry Wine Specialist

“Isn’t that the shit you use for cooking?”

-Hubs on Sherry (did I mention he’s a beer guy?)

As if there weren’t already enough post-nominals in the wine world (WSET, CMS, FWS, etc.), last week I learned about one more: Certified Sherry Wine Specialist – CSWS.

The CSWS course is a 2.5 hour seminar sponsored by The House of Lustau – one of the most revered Sherry producers in the world.  The course has recently been making industry rounds in California from the Napa Valley Wine Academy to Neptune Wine School (where I’ll be taking my upcoming WSET Diploma classes!).

There’s quite a lot of information covered in this brief 150 minutes including the history of Sherry, its grapes and growing environment, and the famous (and fascinating) solera system shown below.


In addition to a broad overview, class participants taste 6 different styles of Sherry – 2 Finos, a Manzanilla, an Amontillado, an Oloroso and a Pedro Ximénez.  This alone was worth the price of admission in my mind (a very reasonable $40).  It’s one thing to read about how Manzanilla Sherry has a briny/salty edge to it or that Pedro Ximénez is SO lusciously sweet, often tasting of dried fruit and coffee.  For me, the knowledge really sinks in when I can smell and taste these things for myself.  I’m no longer just memorizing facts, I’m having my own experiences – which are a helluva lot easier to recall if I need to for an exam!  Speaking of which…..the 2 hour seminar concludes with a 28 question exam (most of it multiple choice) and those achieving a score of 20 or higher will receive a CSWS certification.


Although it’s advertised as an intermediate level course – I wouldn’t let this scare off any wine newbies out there.  Compared to some of the other wine classes I’ve attended, I found the CSWS to be completely welcoming (read: nonthreatening).  Nobody is put on the spot unless you want to be. 🙂  Our seminar was led by Lucas Payà who, along with being incredibly knowledgeable and patient with questions, also had a gorgeous accent that I could listen to all day.

I’d highly recommend this seminar to anyone interested in learning more about Sherry – no matter what your current wine knowledge level.  And for those other wine bloggers out there – the CSWS course is going to be offered at The Wine Bloggers Conference in October (and is a total steal at $15!)

Here’s my outline on Sherry which will provide you with a great overview, but just isn’t the same as tasting an amazing Pedro Ximénez!!



Rosé Roundup – Round 1

Many people associate Rosé wine with warm weather and plentiful sunshine.  Which means, for the most part, summertime.  I used to be one of these “many people.”  However, now that I’m living in SoCal – where temps have already reached close to triple digits and it’s only April! – I’m thinking that Rosé will be a go-to wine for me year-round now.  This definitely goes in the “pro” column for our move!

The 2017s are just starting to hit the store shelves and I’ve already scooped up several. Over the next several months, I’m going to do a series of “Rosé Roundups” in an effort to find my favorites. 🙂  And I’m going to do my best to branch out of my comfort zone of France and Washington State Rosés.

Here’s my first set of Rosés this season:

Margerum Wine Company 2017 ‘Roseraie’ Grenache Rosé, Santa Barbara County, CA.  (12.5% abv.)


This wine is all about sour cherries on the nose and palate – almost in a Sour Patch Kid candy kind of way.  There’s some under ripe raspberries in here too.  The back label says that a “touch of red Grenache from barrel” is added at bottling to add tannins and complexity.  I haven’t seen too many Rosés made this way – probably because it isn’t allowed in Europe (except for Rosé Champagne).  Here’s more information on various Rose Production Methods.

It is interesting to note that unlike prior vintages, the producer’s name (Margerum Wine Company) appears nowhere on the front label. And there’s no information about this particular Rosé on their website (however, there is info about another one they produce, Riviera Rosé, which sounds quite delicious!) Makes me wonder why Roseraie is absent. Are they not as “proud” of this one? Is it from less prestigious grapes? (I definitely believe so). Was it produced solely for Whole Foods (where I purchased it for $20)?

Whatever its mysterious existence might be, I’d put this wine in the “porch pounder” category.  It’s not very complex or interesting, but definitely goes down easily.

AIX 2017 Rosé, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, FR.  (13% abv)


This Rosé was more herbal and mineral driven compared to the Roseraie above.  Lots of yummy smelling rose aromatics as well.  Tasted like I was munching on dried lavender and herbs, with a slightly spicy finish.  AIX is a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah.

The region of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence produces almost 2 million cases of wine a year.  And this particular wine is widely available (I found mine at Whole Food for $18).  AIX had a bit more going on for it than the Roseraie, and would be killer with summer salads.


San Agustin Vineyards 2014 ‘Rosé D’Luna’, San Diego County, CA.  (13% abv)

San AgustinWhen I purchased this at a local wine store, I didn’t notice that it was from 2014.  It’s a bit odd to have a 3+ year old Rosé on the shelves that isn’t from one of the more age-worthy wine regions like Tavel or Bandol.  In general, most Rosés are not meant to age and should ideally be consumed within a year of their vintage date. Or, if you’re me, within a few hours of bringing the bottle home. 🙂  However, it appears that 2014 is actually this producer’s latest Rosé release.  Which is also a bit odd.  What the heck has it been doing for 3 years?

This Rosé is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia Bianca.  If you’re unfamiliar with the latter, it’s primarily grown in the Mediterranean area and usually produces sweet wines that are higher in alcohol.  I’m not a huge fan of off dry Rosés, and unfortunately this one was no different.  Hubs said he wished he didn’t see it before he tasted it because he was immediately turned off by it’s almost neon orange color (which is ironic since he’s a huge 80s fan).

Rose MilkOverall, this smelled and tasted like my Grandma’s Rose Milk lotion (anyone else remember this stuff?)  And yes, I did eat some of this as a child after sneaking into her bathroom because I thought something that smelled like this would taste good.  Turns out, not so much. I tried this wine over the course of 3 days hoping that my opinion might change . . . it didn’t.

Savage Grace 2017 Cabernet Franc Rose, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley, WA.  (11.9% abv)

Ok, NOW we’re talking!  This was hands down my favorite Rosé of this first roundup .  Not a huge surprise since Savage Grace is one of my go-to Washington wineries.  I love his single varietal, single vineyard wines because you get a genuine expression of the grape and the land.  His 2017 Cabernet Franc Rosé was pink grapefruits, tart strawberries and raspberries and minerality.  I could drink this all day – with food or without. Savage Grace

I got my bottle from my good friend, Stacy.  But it’s available online here . . . and I might just have to order some more!

I’ve started a Rosé outline and will add to it as the season goes on.

What’s your favorite Rosé?  Let me know of any you think I should try! 🙂

Ribbon Ridge AVA (& My Weird Obsession with sub-AVAs)

We all have our own personal interests that may seem just a tad bit odd to the outside world.  Whether its Scandanavian house music from 1988, collecting vintage Scooby Doo posters, or memorizing every line of Bull Durham (Hubs!).  These interests are what make us unique and I admit to very much having one of my own:  sub-AVAs.  This shouldn’t come as a complete shocker as two of my very first blog posts/outlines were on the teeny tiny sub-AVAs of Ancient Lakes AVA and Stags Leap District, and my most recent outline details Oregon’s smallest AVA – Ribbon Ridge. I’m curious what exactly makes these sub-AVAs distinguishable from the larger (and more well-known) AVAs in which they’re contained: namely, Columbia Valley, Napa Valley and Willamette Valley.

AVA bottle
At least 95% of this delicious Pinot came from the Ribbon Ridge AVA

If you found your way to this blog, then you probably already know that “AVA” stands for American Viticultural Area.  These are geographic designations that establish boundaries of a specific grape growing region. Unlike a state or a county where boundaries are usually historically and/or politically based, an AVA’s boundaries are formed for the purpose of encompassing an area that shares a similar climate, soil type or geographical features.  In general, for a wine to be labeled with an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes must be from that area.  Oregon takes this a step further and requires that 95% of the grapes be from an AVA in order for the AVA’s name to appear on the label.

A sub-AVA (sometimes called a “nested AVA”, or as Hubs asked me “are these kinda like Russian nesting dolls?”) is a smaller AVA that is wholly contained within a larger one.  To form a sub-AVA, it must be shown that this smaller area is “sufficiently distinct” from its larger, encompassing AVA.

Sub AVA chart

Ribbon Ridge is a sub-AVA of both the Chehalem Mountains AVA and the Willamette Valley AVA.  It was granted its own AVA status because, among other reasons, it has a different soil type than these larger AVAs and it also possesses a different climate due to its higher elevation as an “island-like ridge” in the middle of the Willamette Valley.

Wineries in sub-AVAs like Ribbon Ridge have the option of “defaulting” to any larger AVAs that encompass them.  So if a Ribbon Ridge winery wished to label their wine Chehalem Mountains AVA or the more recognizable Willamette Valley AVA instead of Ribbon Ridge AVA, they could do so.

As of December 2017, there were 240 AVAs in the United States – 139 in California alone! An up-to-date list can be found here.

Rules confusing enough so far? We haven’t even started talking about the government’s involvement in all this . . .

To become recognized as an official AVA, a detailed application must be submitted for approval to the TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).  If you’re curious about what all this entails – here’s more informationWarning: this is some seriously boring shit.  Back in my lawyering days, I dealt with the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) a lot.  You’d think these would be right up my alley since they’re set up in outline format (!!) but somehow, the government has managed to butcher even outlines on wine-related subjects.

Actual footage of the AVA approval process

Moving on . . . once an AVA is established, grape growers within that AVA may cultivate whatever grape varieties they want, decide on farming methods, and produce wine with their choice minimum alcohol % and grape blend.  They also make their own decisions on how long to age their wines before release to the public and whether to age in oak or not.  This is very different from European appellation systems where all (or most of) these winemaking decisions are strictly regulated. Essentially, the AVA system regulates the “where” of wine and the European appellation regulates the “where” and the “how” (and sometimes the “when” too!)

Let’s compare Chablis AOC in France (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) with  Red Mountain AVA  in Washington:

France:  In order for a wine to be labeled “Chablis AOC” the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Chablis. The wine must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and have a minimum 10% abv (alcohol by volume).  Additionally, yields are limited to under 60 hectoliters/hectare.

United States: In order for a wine to be labeled “Red Mountain AVA”, the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Red Mountain AVA.  And . . . well, that’s it. No restrictions on varieties, yields or alcohol levels here. Winemakers have complete freedom on viticulture and winemaking decisions and can grow as diverse of varieties as they choose.

While freedom of choice and diversity of ideas are ideal foundations upon which to build a republic, perhaps not so much in wine production as it can lead to a hodgepodge of wines with no common characteristics. According to the TTB, the establishment of an AVA allows “vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.”  In other words, the basic premise behind an AVA is that wines from this specific area will share certain, hopefully discernable, characteristics. However, with such freedom given to winemakers, this is often difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish.

I thought I’d try this out for myself by tasting two 2015 Ribbon Ridge AVA Pinot Noirs to see if I could identify any common characteristics:

Archery Summit 2015 ‘Looney Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (14.5% abv)

  • Color: Medium- ruby, bright & clear
  • Aromas: Bright red fruits – cherries, raspberries & red plum.  Red licorice.  Spice and cedar.  Roses.
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins.  Ripe red fruits are present here too, along with some tea leaves.
  • My Thoughts: Very elegant, red fruit driven Pinot Noir.
  • Technical Bits: Looney Vineyard is Archery Summit’s only vineyard in Ribbon Ridge.  The winery’s website describes wines from Looney Vineyard having “an appealing precocious quality that can be seen in the distinctive sense of blue fruit they deliver to the palate. Fresh plums and red currant flavors combine with notes of citrus—particularly blood orange—and baking spices to deliver a juicy wine with great density and vigor.”


Gramercy Cellars 2015 ‘Le Pre du Col Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (12.9% abv)

  • Color: Medium ruby, slightly hazier
  • Aromas: Funky earth & farmyard.  Dirty cherries.  Fall leaves.  There’s a definite stemminess here (no surprise, as a Gramercy mantra is “stems rule”!).
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins.  Lots of earthy/stemmy fruits along with cranberries and herbal tea.
  • My Thoughts: This is a funky-ass Pinot and I love it.
  • Technical Bits: This wine was fermented on 75% stems – which explains the more earthy/funky characteristics when compared to the Archery Summit.  Aged in large neutral barrels – might be why there’s a lack of oak/baking spices on the nose or palate.

Although these two Pinots had similar structural profiles, their aromas and flavors were quite distinguishable.  This probably is due to different winemaking decisions – whole cluster fermentation by Gramercy, partial new oak aging by Archery Summit.  So as far as “common characteristics” go, besides these both falling into my “yummy!” category, they’re very different wines.  Would I have guessed they’re from the same teeny-tiny sub-AVA of Willamette Valley?  Probably not.

So . . . what’s the point of having these small AVAs?  Do they have any real meaning in the marketplace? Even though I couldn’t discern many commonalities between the two Ribbon Ridge Pinots (admittedly a tiny sample size), I did enjoy them – and several others from this sub-AVA that I’ve had in the past.  So would I be likely to purchase another Pinot from this area?   Definitely.  So maybe that’s enough to justify sub-AVAs.

Tom Warks of Fermentation Wine Blog fame has a great post about how Napa Valley sub-AVAs are basically meaningless.  He sums it up beautifully:

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the most experienced Napa Valley palates couldn’t successfully and consistently identify the AVAs from which a selection of different Napa Valley Cabernets originate. And if they can’t do this, what are the odds that Jimmy Bigcellar from Dallas can identify the AVA of different Napa Valley Cabernets?

Full disclosure to Mr. Warks:  I’m totally stealing “Jimmy Bigcellar” in future posts!

I’d love to hear some readers thoughts on sub-AVAs.  Do you pay much attention to them when purchasing wine?  Do you have a favorite?  If so, why?  And is anyone else out there a Ribbon Ridge Pinot fan?  Perhaps you prefer Scandanavian house music? 🙂

Here’s the outline on Ribbon Ridge.