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.

12 Bottles & 1,000 Miles

In a few days I’ll be moving from my beloved Pacific Northwest to Southern California.  One of my biggest concerns of the move – besides how my 13 year old Lab will handle it – is how to get my wine down there safely.  I have about 15 or so cases, which in my mind isn’t a huge wine collection, although Hubs might disagree with me on this particular point.  (Sidenote: One somewhat uncomfortable part to the move thus far was having to disclose all of my wine hiding spots to Hubs – the two boxes behind my sweaters in the master closet, the one stashed under the extra dining room chairs, others that I won’t mention here so I can reuse these spots in our new digs.)

Thankfully, our moving company is going to handle transporting the majority of the bottles.  However, just in case (pun truly not intended), I’m setting aside a carefully curated case that will travel with us in the car.  We’ll take these 12 bottles of wine along with other precious and irreplaceable items (our Yellow Lab’s ashes, wedding photos, Hubs’s very first home run ball) and head south – funny that the things that mean the most to you in life have almost zero monetary value.

It was at this point in the move that I realized that I had some very difficult decisions to make:  What 12 wines would make the cut?  Which wines would I be the most distraught over losing?  The most expensive ones?  The oldest?  The wines purchased on our trip to France?  Those from my favorite wineries?  Those that elicit amazing memories?

After an extraordinary amount of consideration (and consternation) – I present to you in no particular order the dozen that made the I-can’t-live-without-them list and will be joining us on I-5 in a climate controlled environment…

Bottle #1:  L’Ecole No. 41 2012 Ferguson Vineyard Estate Red, Walla Walla Valley, Washington.  L’Ecole will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first “real” wine that I ordered when we were out to dinner with friends who handed me the wine list.  This was at least a decade ago and it was a bottle of their Recess Red – back when they had the fun crayon drawing of a schoolhouse. L'ecole L’Ecole’s Ferguson wines have received some serious accolades the past few years (like best Bordeaux blend in the WORLD from Decanter Magazine).

Bottle #2:  Jean Foillard 2015 ‘Cote du Py’ Morgon, Beaujolais, France.  I had the 2012 vintage of this wine in my French Wine Scholar class back in 2014 and it totally turned me onto cru Beaujolais.  This Morgon tasted like a dirty Pinot – and I absolutely loved it.  Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the 10 crus and what differentiates them from one another.  Plus, I’ve ordered some 2016’s of this wine and want to geek out on vintage comparisons.

Bottle #3:  Betz Family Winery 2014 ‘Heart of the Hill’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington.  This is me when I think of Bob Betz:  Betz heartsHe is truly one of the most genuine, likable and admired people in the Washington wine industry.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know his wines over the past few years – as well as stalking him at various wine events.  And even though I’m not usually a Cabernet Sauvignon lover – particularly one from Red Mountain – this wine was my favorite at the Betz Spring Release last year.

Bottle #4:  Pago de los Capellanes 2016 ‘O Luar do Sil’ Godello, Valdeorras, Spain. It may seem odd to bring an under $20 bottle of fairly easily replaceable Spanish white as one of my “delectable dozen” but I have a good reason for doing so (besides this being an incredibly tasty wine and Godello a likely upcoming outline).  We’re stopping for two nights en route to SoCal, and I’m fully expecting the hotels’ minibars to only offer an overpriced, mass produced California blend.  So as to avoid that Conundrum (pun totally intended), I’ve included this wine as one that I won’t feel guilty opening.  Which brings me to . . .

Bottle #5:  Savage Grace 2016 Underwood Mountain Vineyards Riesling, Columbia Gorge, Washington.  As mentioned above, we’re stopping for two nights.  So one “ok to open now” bottle isn’t going to be enough.  Hubs loves Rieslings and I love Savage Grace – so this bottle will be a win-win.  Savage GraceBesides, I firmly believe that the primary reason the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Picnic sold out was because their advertisement featured me and my galfriends with awesome winemaker, Michael Savage. 🙂

Bottle #6:  Zenato 2011 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, Veneto, Italy. I’ve been studying for the Italian Wine Scholar certification for several weeks now and making slow progress.  (Note to self: next time you’re planning a move after 18 years in one house, don’t sign up for a challenging wine certification). This is probably the wine I’m most looking forward to tasting out of the several Italians that I purchased earlier this year.  And I’m saving it until I’m almost finished with my certification . . . which at this rate, will be around Thanksgiving.

Bottle #7:   Quilceda Creek 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington. This wine got 95+ points from all the major wine critics and is worth the most $$ of any bottle in my collection.  That’s a strange sentence to write as I’m not at all a points pusher nor do the most expensive wines typically grab my attention.  However, this is from an iconic Washington winery and my departure from the Pacific Northwest deserves at least one status bottle.  All that being said – I have no idea how I will personally feel about this wine as my palate tends to differ from some of the critics and, unlike shoes, I don’t always end up preferring the most expensive wine.

Bottle #8:  Guy Bernard 2013 ‘Cote Rozier’ Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley, France. Hubs and I purchased this bottle from the amazing Vincent on one of the most memorable days of my life. We hired him as our personal tour guide in the Northern Rhone and Guy Bernard was our last stop of the day.  Their facility/tasting room was a very unassuming place, charmingly cluttered and their wines were some of the best I’ve ever tasted.  And when Vincent took us in the back for some barrel thieving, I was hooked.

Bottle #9: Remi Niero 2014 ‘Chery’ Condrieu, Rhone Valley, France. This was another winery we visited with Vincent. He grew up in Condrieu and drove Hubs and me through its streets like a Formula 1 driver pushing his Peugeot to the limit. Vincent was also on a first name basis with the local winemakers including Remi Niero, who produces some damn delicious Viognier. If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in this beautiful wine region, I cannot recommend Vincent highly enough. He made our day so memorable and I’d go back just so he could take us out for another spin around his hometown. You can read more info about Vincent here.




Bottle #10:   Kevin White Winery 2013 ‘DuBrul Vineyard’ Red Wine, Yakima Valley, Washington. I have such fond memories of this wine!  I purchased a case at the Auction of Washington Wines barrel auction a couple years ago.   And, of course, after a few hours of tasting my competitive streak came out so I had to be the top bid and “win” the autographed barrel top.  Kevin WhiteKevin White remains one of my favorite Washington wineries for producing wines that taste like they should cost at least twice as much.

Bottle #11: Archery Summit 2013 ‘Looney Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Oregon. I first visited this winery with my mom-in-law in 2010, thus beginning my love for Oregon Pinot Noir.  Besides being an absolutely gorgeous tasting room, Archery Summit produces unique, terroir driven wines from their six distinct vineyards.  Looney Vineyard is consistently my favorite, and I’ll be writing more about it in my upcoming Ribbon Ridge AVA post.

Bottle #12:  Gramercy Cellars 2015 ‘L’Idiot du Village’ Mourvèdre, Columbia Valley, Washington.  I could have filled my entire case with Gramercy wines.  So selecting just one was like picking a favorite dog – which Hubs might be able to do, but I cannot.  Greg Harrington is just the bees knees.  He’s an incredible winemaker and is always coming out with something different – Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Picpoul(!). And while his Syrahs are among the best I’ve had, his Mourvèdre is one of my favorite wines.  Ever.  I credit him for turning me onto this varietal, and giving me a borderline obsession with it.  I also credit him with teaching me the proper method for opening a bottle of wine so as to pass the certified sommelier exam (minus the screwy face). 😉  Gramercy

Greg – if you happen to read this,  and plan on opening a tasting room in Southern California, please let me know and I’ll get you my resume ASAP to apply to be your tasting room manager.  And if you’re planning on opening a spot in Woodinville . . .  well, I just might hightail it back to the Pacific Northwest.

So there you have it, the delectable dozen that made the cut!   Although my next blog post will be from my newly adopted home in California – I will always remain a PNW wine girl at heart!!