illustrations by Melody Klaffke
San Diego County is home to three American Viticultural Areas (or more commonly AVAs) ; South Coast, Ramona Valley and San Pasqual Valley. And, a fourth AVA is in the works.
“When you say you’re from San Diego County, that could be anywhere… it’s important for the fruit, the winemakers who are here farming in the Highland Valley area to have a distinct AVA. We’re growing up as a region,” said Lynn LaChapelle, co-owner of Domaine Artefact Vineyard and Winery.
Lynn is a part of a group of wineries in the Highland Valley area that are looking to differentiate their wine region from the rest– and are applying to become an AVA.
“People who come to Highland Valley ask us if we’re Ramona, we’re like ‘no, we’re not Ramona’…we get people asking us what AVA we’re in. We would like to be able to identify ourselves as an AVA,” said LaChapelle.
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is the same agency in charge of the AVA submittal process, an AVA is “a specific type of appellation of origin used on wine labels.”
“The primary purpose of an AVA is to eliminate confusion among consumers about the source of grapes that go into the wine that they are drinking and to give it better designation so they can distinguish between two different wines that come from California. There’s very different grapes grown in Napa versus Riverside County. By having these AVAs, it gives the consumers some indication of the source of the wine,” said Ray Schnorr, co-owner of the Highland Valley Vineyards.
But, to become an AVA is no easy task. In fact, the Highland Valley Wine Country Alliance has been working on the process for years. The pandemic stalled the momentum but the group is planning to get back to the AVA petition soon.
The petition requires that applicants differentiate themselves from other wine regions, based on factors such as the region’s winemaking history, geography and climate.
The Highland Valley area is well over 100 years old, according to Schnorr. The winemakers also argue that the climate and soil are different from their neighbors several hundred feet below in elevation in the San Pasqual Valley and their neighbors to the east in the Ramona Valley.
“I think our mean temperature is cooler than the Ramona AVA because we are a little farther west. We get the cold air drainage coming from the Ramona Highlands through the Highland Valley area. We get pretty distinct nighttime cooling which is unique. We also get the marine influence from the west coming through the Del Dios area–which creates this foggy area,” said LaChapelle.
With an AVA designation comes the natural tendency for consumers to automatically associate a region with a certain grape but, in the Highland Valley area, winemakers are producing several different types of grapes which some winemakers say could be a challenge.
“If you had a group of 10 winemakers from the area and you asked them to write down what they think the best grape is to grow in this AVA, you’re probably going to get 10 answers. It’s going to be the grape they have the most acreage planted–that’s the way it is,” said Roberto Espinosa of Espinosa Vineyards and Winery.
From the marketing side, with an AVA stamp of approval on wine bottles, the AVA designation could provide a greater distinction for the region. But, will the consumers notice?
“For sophisticated wine buyers, for sure. I think it enlists a bit of pride in San Diego consumers of fine wines to know that these designations are coming about because growers, and vintners who buy the grapes from them, are promoting this excellence with wines that are designated by the AVA,” said Schnorr.
“The most important thing for me to put on my label is San Diego County. That’s because I have a broader client base,” said Espinosa. “If you say ‘Highland Valley’, I know it, my neighbors know it, people that visit the wineries up here maybe know it but if you tell someone in downtown San Diego, ‘Hey, this is a Highland Valley wine’–if they haven’t been up here, I don’t think it means anything,” he added.
With more 141 AVAs in California, according to the TTB, Highland Valley could soon be added on that list, adding a new distinction to the San Diego County wine region.
“The soul of the valley – we’re still trying to find that. What’s the grape, what’s the model. What I think is really cool is everyone is growing a bunch of different grapes and maybe it’s my kids or maybe even my grandkids that figure it out. That’s something left to be seen,” said Espinosa.