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.

Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir (Burgundy vs. Sonoma)

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right?  But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

-Robin Williams to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

I read a lot about wine – I mean, a lot. But learning about wine only by reading books reminds me of Robin Williams’s beautiful lakeside soliloquy in which he implores (a young) Matt Damon to go out and actually experience the world. And so it goes with wine – one of the best (and definitely most fun) ways to learn about wine is to taste it. However, this is a little different from drinking wine . . .

Tasting Notebook
Old Reliable: Tasting Notebook

To me, tasting wine means that I’m taking the time to actually evaluate it and assess all of its unique characteristics.  On the other hand, drinking wine means I’m just kicking back and enjoying it.  The differences between the two  are actually quite stark.  And while I do a good degree of both, when I’m really trying to expand my wine knowledge I sit down with my trusty tasting notebook and put pen to paper to capture my thoughts.

WSET Grid 1
WSET Level 3 Tasting Notes

Since I’ve been on the WSET path for the past year or so, my tasting notes generally follow their prescribed format – which I freely admit falls on the clinical side of evaluation. And while I completely agree with their premise that consistent and objective tasting notes are ideal for learning about wine, I’m never going to truly remember a wine based on notes like “medium+ acidity” or “clear, pale lemon.” For that reason I also like to add my own thoughts on the wine . . . where was I, what did it remind me of, what was I eating with it, etc.

When doing tastings at home, I often enlist Hubs to be my personal wine steward and set me up with a blind tasting. This way, I don’t have any preconceived notions about what I’m tasting and can just do some “mindful drinking” of what’s in the glass in front of me.  Ideally, I taste a couple of wines side by side because it’s much easier for me to pick up differences (or similarities) when comparing wines as opposed to just tasting one wine in a vacuum.  As an added bonus, I then have the benefit of having TWO bottles to choose from after I’m done with my tasting.  🙂  I should also add that while my tasting “goal” is not necessarily to accurately identify each of the wines tasted blindly, the truth is I always smile when I do get them right (I imagine that’s the same for everyone!).

Recently I did such a tasting with two distinct Pinot Noirs (Old World vs. New World) when deciding which would pair best with my mom-in-law’s delicious Coq a Vin that she was preparing for a family dinner.  Sitting in my in-laws sunny, lush Southern California backyard I was joined by my father-in-law, “T-Bone”, for the tasting.  Yes, my 75 year-old father-in-law’s nickname is “T-Bone”…and yes, he’s as awesome and quirky as you might imagine (he once informed me that he stopped drinking Merlot because it is “too purple”).

Domaine Gille 2012 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru ‘Les Cailles’, Bourgogne. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, tending towards garnet
  • Aromas: Roses that are just starting to wilt, cranberries, earthy cherries, fall leaves
  • Palate: Medium- body, medium+ acidity, medium- tannins.  Additional flavors of tea, spice and an almost cedar-like note.
  • My Thoughts: Very delicate wine – honestly, borderline too thin right now. I’m sure I opened this too early and it would’ve benefited from at least a few more years of age.  I guessed this was the Burgundy due to the color and dominate flavors of earth & spice with the fruit taking a backseat.  I liked this wine, but probably would’ve loved it in a few years.  And interestingly, out of the two Pinots, this was T-Bone’s favorite!  (Sidenote: One of my 2018 goals is to introduce my in-laws to new wines since they gravitate almost exclusively towards California Cabernets and Chardonnays).
  • Technical Bits: Domaine Gille has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1500s.  Their vines currently range from 45-80 years of age.  Soil is stony limestone.  All grapes are hand harvested.  Natural fermentation.  Aged for 18 months in oak (1/3 new).

Hanzell 2014 ‘Sebella’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California. (13.7% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, bright
  • Aromas: Fresh flowers, slightly sweet fruits – raspberries, red plum, hints of Dr. Pepper
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium (close to medium+) tannins.  I’m picking up sweet cherries and some black pepper here too.
  • My Thoughts: This wine was brighter and more ruby colored, possibly indicating a younger wine. A definite sweetness here that the other wine didn’t have. With all the fresh, ripe fruit oozing out of the glass, I was confident this was the California Pinot.  And while I don’t usually go for wines with this degree of sweet fruit, this wine just smelled yummy . . . tasted it too.
  • Technical Bits: Hanzell Vineyards was founded in 1957 by James D. Zellerbach after he’d spent extensive time in Burgundy.  Focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in French oak (25% new).

The end result was that we drank both bottles with dinner so the pairing turned out to not be of much consequence – both were delicious!  And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the Sonoma Pinot and T-Bone’s of the Burgundy. 🙂