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Reflections on The Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA Proposition

I came across an article detailing the proposition in the Atlanta Business Chronicle within hours of digesting a piece on the effects of Italy’s appellation system upon Italian wine and the wine market. I mention this by way of disclaimer for this piece lent an interesting voice to the petition for Georgia’s first American Viticultural Area (or, AVA).

This piece was originally published in September of 2009 from the Journal of Wine Research. It’s entitled, “Winemakers and Wineries in The Evolution of The Italian Wine Industry: 1997-2006”. It mused on matters of quality, the systems and actors that formulate a winery’s or wine region’s reputation, and the impact that the Italian appellation system has had on wine. Charting the evolution of Italy’s winemaking through time is an interesting exercise mainly because her appellation system was designed long before wine sold on a mass-market scale. A quantifiable tension surfaces on this timeline as the rules and regulations, which once raised the standard of high quality wines and elevated the economies of those wine-producing areas, now impedes Italy as her wine competes with the engrossing international market. In other words, as South Africa or Australia began showcasing high-quality wine with untamable creativity obviously unhindered by the same rule set, these new markets began painting Italian wine as your mother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe—good, but never changing. Italy boasts an extensive array of grape varieties, which complement most every event, palate, and dish. Moreover, with the distinguished mark of its quality reflected on the label, the risk and anxiety of buying bad wine for others vastly subsides. It is a positive aspect of the appellation system that remains as true today as the day it took effect in 1963. “No country produces a collection of wines as Italy does, due in part to its wildly varied topography and weather systems it jams two major mountain ranges, coastlines from five different seas, arid plateaus, lush riverbeds, and high altitude lakes into an area that’s less than half the size of Texas and only three-fourths the size of California. It’s ancient territory spans twenty regions, all of which grow grapes and make wine.”

The certainty involved with buying wine according to the standard of quality imposed by the regulations of an appellation is an idea that the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) emphasizes with the American Viticultural Area system. “The more knowledge you have about a wine’s origin by region and by grape the easier it is to buy even unknown brands with confidence.” It is as much a marketing tool for the wine producer and consumer to use as it is a symbol of distinction and pride. “These designations allow 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” (Proposed Rules. “Proposed Establishment of the Upper Hiwassee Highlands Viticultural Area.” TBB. Vol 78, No. 134. 12, July 2013)

My earlier disclaimer becomes particularly relevant as I meditate on both Italy’s experience with an appellation system and the future of Georgia’s wine within—potentially—the American appellation system. In a controlled experiment, we would go back in time, divide Italy into two groups of wine producers, regulate one group in accordance with the appellation system, leave the other group to its own devices, and chart the successes of the groups over time. Would Italian wines enjoy the same quality and esteem today if there had never been an appellation system in place? What about the craft of winemaking… how different would that look today if there were no prevailing rules? Is it necessary to establish an infrastructure and system of governance, at first? Does the system need to change with the times or live out its life on the shelves of nostalgic cellars? Is there a debt of skills or values from a people who lost years of freedom in their wineries and vineyards to the name of profit and legacy?

In the end, what is the ideal setting to grow a new wine region?

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