how to choose an american wine

American Wine, How do they Rank?

Each country in the European Union produces wine and thus has created systems of regional specification, as well as quality designations within those regions with the intent of maintaining their perceived quality, reputation and to secure pricing. France ranks the quality of producers, villages, or vineyards to assist the market and particularly the export market, in making purchasing decisions. Italy created a system of not only regional specification, but also growing and wine-making techniques required to obtain their designations. So, what of the United States?


Growing up in the United States, it seems that most often beginners to wine make choices based on arbitrary criteria such as price, the packaging, or buzz words in the descriptions. However, as you move into the better wines, it is clear, that these criteria are not enough. So, what are the ways? As sellers of limited production wine, we taste thousands each year, meet with negociants, distributors, importers, winemakers and winery owners in order to understand the best producers, vineyards and regions for specific varietals. As you enjoy wine yourself, or purchase for others, take note of the regions those preferred wines come from. Use them as a reference point for the specific varietal and see how other producers from the same region suit your tastes.


France set the stage for wine regions to designate areas for both geographical prominence and varietal dominance. As the United States rises to the top of the list as a wine powerhouse, I would argue that there are many parallel ways that you can rank the wines of the United States. Let’s begin by taking a look at the major growing regions and their sub-appellations in terms of which varietals grow best where.


Varietals Know Best

Although wine is now produced in every single State in the Union, the West Coast dominates production, with California at the forefront. Within California there are well over one hundred AVAs alone, some of which are so large, or distinct within themselves, that they include a number of sub-AVAs to further differentiate. Overwhelming? They don’t have to be. We will start from the most well-known with the understanding that the joy of wine is in the discovery not only of what is known, but in the unknown.



Napa Valley remains probably the most well-known American AVA with Sonoma a close second. Napa Valley Stretches from the southern end near San Pablo Bay to the northern end of Calistoga. What starts as an opening to the Bay with its sea breezes turns into an enclosed area with little air flow in the north. On either side of the valley run mountains with the Mayacamas rising on the northwestern part and protecting the valley from the cooling Pacific Ocean maritime influence and the arid Vacas along the eastern, which protect the region from the incredible heat of the central valley. Thus, quite different micro-climates exist as well as different soil types.


Grapes Grown

Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, as well as Sauvignon Blanc thrive here. Napa Valley consists of 16 sub-appellations. Each sub-AVA claims their growing conditions are so unique as to require differentiation within the AVA. I love nothing more than to discover wines I love, only to realize the fact that they come from the same sub-appellation. Appellation or sub-appellation does not ensure grape growing or wine-making techniques, as they do in Italy. However, there is something to be said for where you come from. Most winemakers readily claim that incredible wine begins in the vineyard. Mother nature provides a unique set of conditions that each appellation and sub-appellation gets to work with.


As you see in the Champagne region of France, which ranks villages as Grand Cru and Premier Cru based on unique growing conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, one could argue that certain Sub-appellations within a region like the Napa Valley also deserve such differentiation.


Napa Valley Sub Appellations

South to North
Known For
Los Carneros
Sparkling wines, pinot noir and  chardonnay
Cabernet, merlot, syrah, pinot noir and chardonnay
Wild Horse Valley
Cabernet, pinot noir and chardonnay
Mount Veeder
Cabernet, merlot, zinfandel and chardonnay
Oak Knoll
Merlot, chardonnay, cabernet, sauvignon blanc and riesling
Cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot
Stags Leap District
Cabernet,merlot, sanglovese, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc
Cabernet, merlot, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel
Cabernet, cabernet franc, syrah, zinfandel and viognier
Spring Mountain
Cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay and zinfandel
Chiles Valley District
Cabernet, merlot and cabernet franc
Howell Mountain
Cabernet, merlot, zinfandel and viognier
Diamond Mountain
Cabernet and cabernet franc
Cabernet, zinfandel, syrah and petit syrah

AVAs, Quality Designation, Marketing Tool, or Both

Now, to visitors, Napa Valley remains ideal for not only growing grapes, but also for living and of course for tourism. Thus, more and more people visit, hotels are built, land is sold for homes and second homes, tertiary businesses arise to support the growing wine and tourism industry and… yes, land prices go up. Quality wine is not cheap to make. Choosing lower yields and quality over quantity, while at the same time using new or once used barrels, aging in barrel and in the bottle before sale, etc. all affect the price.

Varietals like Cabernet may grow well in many regions, but each region has its own set of variables that affect the cost. So, when searching for your varietals of choice, keep that in mind. The price to quality ratio reflects the producers’ reputations and the quality of the wine, but also the cost of making the wine in that particular appellation. Certain AVAs are definitely more expensive than others and Napa Valley is one of them.


AVAs may intend to assist the consumer make wise buying decisions, while at the same time educate the public as to why grapes grown in a particular region are unique. However, an AVA does not dictate how grapes are produced, or wine is made and thus it is but a piece of the puzzle. So, whether you pick a grape and enjoy it within appellations, or sub-appellations, or between appellations, or you choose to look at how a producer makes wine from various appellations, the AVA designation can be a very worthwhile tool to better understand your tastes and the tastes of those you work for. Napa Valley is but one incredible wine growing region to explore. There are other American AVAs that produce your favorite varietal at various price points and AVAs can help you reign in the scope of choices.


About Catherine Harbour

After a lifetime of international travel and luxury client service as a Yacht and Estate Chef worldwide, Catherine Harbour transitioned into a career as a Wine Advisor for the Wine Spectrum in Northern California...There she works as a concierge-style wine consultant for high net-worth individuals; shipping limited production and highly allocated wines to all 50 States and internationally. Situated in the heart of California Wine Country, Catherine enjoys exclusive access to not only the most highly sought after cult wines, but also their secondary labels, alternate projects and under-discovered treasures, Working diligently to increase her clients' quality of life, one glass at a time, Catherine focuses on their preferences for price and style, suggests food and wine pairings, assists in cellar management and wine education, as well as offers individualized gifting services to satisfy all of her clients' needs. When not visiting with winemakers, distributors and importers to taste her nearly 700 bottle inventory, you will find Catherine somewhere amongst the Redwood trees, grape vines and rolling hills of her Russian River Valley home.

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