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Terroir and AVAs: What Makes Them Important to Winegrapes and Winemaking?

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more wine.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Dry Creek Wine Tasting - Shannyn, Dave, Carlos, & Bacon


Wine tasting is complicated, but I was offered the opportunity to work in food and wine in Sonoma County during the 1990s. My best friend taught me how to taste wine in our twenties, first learning about Botrytis (say that word three times fast; we’ll get to know it a bit later). She had taken viticulture and wine-tasting classes at Sonoma State University, and I audited a few at Santa Rosa Junior College back in the day. Most of my pals were either attending the California Culinary Academy, training for a career in cooking, or working in some of the most respected tasting rooms in the wine biz. It wasn’t enough to experience tasting wine in a restaurant; we made days of driving through majestic Sonoma wine roads, charcuterie in tow—a stop off for an end-of-day swim in the Russian River. The long days of summer, a heavy-duty wine thief, and Riedel red wine glass all bring back the earthen smell of a wine cellar.

Dry Creek Wine Tasting

Learning The Etiquette of Wine Tasting

On this particular day, a group of us were going beyond the bounds of Russian River Valley into Dry Creek Valley, just north of a quintessential wine-country town called Healdsburg. Where else could you walk into a business and, for free, try up 4-5 wines while discussing Terroir, AVA Region, and flavor profiles? What was Crush, again? I had all I could do to grasp these California kids reminiscing their wine country childhood memories, gleaning what I could while thinking I had missed all the cool kid stuff growing up a Yankee in New England. Back in their day, Mom and Dad rolled up to grab a quick taste from a glass wine thief in a 55-gallon French Oak barrel, talk wine shop, and grab some 1990s toasted oak chardonnays for their Tomales Bay Oyster backyard dinner party.

Napa Mustard

We jumped in my 1986 VW Rabbit, cranked open the moonroof, and headed out of town with Shannyn, Dave, and Carlos - wine-geeking out along the road. A few years later, that guy Dave would become the Sous Chef of Cafe Zin in that tiny town on Healdsburg Square. He built a fantastic career in cooking and leveled up with the fine art of wine. Shannyn went on to work in hotel hospitality, I ended up in financial technology, and our buddy Carlos in high-tech. Our first stop was Meeker Vineyards, down at the end of the roadway. We started in the back of the valley, intending to taste our way out and back home toward Petaluma. The owners, Charlie and Molly, installed a Native American (Sioux) Teepee tasting room and opened it in the 1980s or 1990s, somewhere in that time period.

Oak Wine Barrel

We spent a while at Meeker Vineyards, embracing the wine and owners' willingness to share their knowledge with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I think I bought 3 or 4 bottles that day, not to mention the pictures we took in and around the teepee, which ultimately became a short story written by Shannyn about the day we tasted wine with two cool cats who owned Meeker Vineyards. We were a nostalgic bunch, all in our twenties, drinking red wine amongst the grapevines of Napa & Sonoma and riding up the aerial gondola to the top of Sterling Vineyards to compare their chardonnay to the others in Sonoma’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). It wasn’t unusual at a time when you’d see a Mondavi or a Gallo family member driving around in a front loader or cruising into town in a pick-up truck for a brix-refractometer to check winegrape sugar quality just before Crush. Crush is where they harvest those wine grapes by hand in the idle of the night because they hold their sugars and flavor the best at peak chill in the vineyard.

Silverado Winery

Dry Creek Vineyards produces delicious reds, Old Vine Zinfandel, and Sangiovese. With my pals, we visited wineries offering peppery and fruity reds. We indulged Meeker Vineyards, next we stopped and tasted at Quivera Vineyards, St. Francis, Mazzocco, Pezzi King, and ended somewhere near Healdsburg Square. I learned how to taste and use the correct wine glasses for whites, reds, and dessert wines; especially Late Harvest Rieslings. A winegrape harvested at the first frost picked just after midnight with a chill and a light freeze from the cold air on the fruit. That process is called Botrytis, and I promised you I would circle back top explain the subtle notes of delicious, yet rotting fruit.

European Wine

What Is Terroir?

The French refer to terroir as a ‘sense of place,’ which ties it to where the winegrape was grown and how it was affected by the environment. Wine tasting is like putting together a puzzle that shouldn’t be simplified and always leave us curious. Scientists say that soil structure, climate, and geology play a role in how a wine tastes. A wine-growing region, or AVA, interconnects the environment and finish of each wine. For example, Gregory Jones shares that there are winegrape varieties better suited for calm and foggy climates that produce lower alcohol and subtler with a lighter body. Some with winegrape AVAs tend to be bolder, with warmer temperatures having higher alcohol levels. Those wines produce more legs and lusher fruit. When you drink a glass of wine, consider where it was grown, the weather in that region, the geology, bodies of water around the growing area, and elevation. All these aspects impact the finish and notes.

Gloria Ferrer

The History Of American Viticulture Areas

The American Viticulture Area or AVA is the wine classification pioneered by European wine countries. For example, France is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée (AOC/AOP). Spain is Denominación de Origen (DO) or Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP), and Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). A viticultural area or appellation is how a country maps out and categorizes its wines and wine-growing regions. Everything you need to know about the wine you drink is on the label. The winery brand, logo, the vineyard, and appellation (AVA) are listed on the label, front, and center.

Late Harvest Riesling

When shopping for a bottle of wine, maybe one you’ve had before but don't remember the winery or proprietary name. Perhaps you remember the AVA or Appellation, and from there, you begin your search. Go online, look up the AVA, and you might surprise yourself and come up with that wine you fondly remembered drinking months or a few years ago. Hopefully, you stumble across what you are looking for!

Shannyn & Dave

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