A Modest Proposal for American Viticultural Areas

Are there too many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)? Or not enough? Herewith a modest proposal for maximizing the benefits of American wine appellations.

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Whenever a  list of newly-approved  American Viticultural Areas is released I find myself shaking my head in disbelief. Bah humbug! You see, I’m a true dismal science Scrooge and so my first reaction is always to think about the economic value of the new designations and sub-designations.

Only a few American appellations have substantial economic value in the sense that a bottle of wine is worth more if the magic name appears than if it doesn’t.  Napa is a good example of an AVA that pays. 

Many if not most AVA designations add little monetary value and sometimes they might actually subtract value generally by confusing consumers who wonder what it all means and how one is different from another.

Not (Just) About Money

It took me a long time to get over my focus on money and to think about other factors. In many cases the goal of an AVA is simply identity — the desire to be something particular in a generic world. There might be a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) in that, too. I get that. We live in the Age of Identity in many respects. Why should wine be different?

Another result if not a goal can be solidarity, since having an AVA application approved is not an easy thing and requires wine growers to work together.  Once they’ve worked together to create an appellation, perhaps other opportunities to cooperate can be found, too. That’s not a trivial thing.

The role of AVAs in creating or strengthening identity and solidarity made me think of a little-known political-economy theory called the North Dakota Plan. The creator was the famous economist  John Kenneth Galbraith and the idea was this. The nation-state is a good thing in part because it gives its citizens sovereignty, which is important as we now realize from the way that it is highlighted in the current UK Brexit policy debates. More states would mean more sovereignty and more benefits. OK so far?

The North Dakota Plan

But sovereignty is troublesome because one state’s sovereign actions can sometimes threaten another state’s sovereignty and, in worst case scenarios conflict and even war break out. How can the world maximize the good of sovereignty while minimizing the bad of war?

The solution, Galbraith proposed back in 1978, tongue firmly in cheek, was the North Dakota Plan. Divide the world up into dozens of nation-states each about the size and shape of North Dakota. North Dakota is more or less a rectangle, if you haven’t looked at a map recently, so the new borders wouldn’t necessarily take into account geography or demographic patterns. They’d be completely arbitrary.

There would be lots of small states — so lots of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and sovereignty. But each country would be too small to have much of an army or navy, so conflict would be limited. Their focus would have to be more on how to live together, since their ability to meddle in other countries’ business would be limited.

I think I recall a variation on the theory where each country would be given one small nuclear device to deter enemies. The idea was that no one would ever use their nuke because, with it gone, they would be defenseless. Peace would reign supreme.

To the best of my knowledge no one ever took Galbraith’s modest proposal for a world of North Dakotas seriously, which is probably just as well. But it inspires me to propose my own satiric plan for American AVAs, which you can probably already guess,

North Dakota AVA System

Why not maximize the number of AVAs by covering the wine country map with hundreds and hundreds of them in arbitrary shapes and sizes.  I’d shape them like pieces in a jig-saw puzzles, but you can have squares or triangles if you prefer. Each one would have a name, of course, and an identity.  More AVAs, more identity, everyone is better off. What could go wrong? 

Each would face a challenge, too, which would require solidarity to solve.  With completely arbitrary borders — unlike the border lines today that are sometimes determined by a mixture of terroir and politics– geography could not be relied upon to make an AVA distinctive. The growers and winemakers within each block would have to work together to create a real identity — a common blend, style, or signature wine grape variety, for example. They’d have to work to make the AVA mean something because, otherwise, it would be just another meaningless, soon-forgotten shape on the map and name on the label.

The Thing About Modest Proposals

The thing about Modest Proposals is that they are not always what they seem. The most famous Modest Proposal — Jonathan Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish parents should eat their starving children — wasn’t intended to encourage murder or cannibalism. It was meant to shock readers into recognizing the harsh and heartless treatment of Ireland’s poor and the dire conditions they experienced. It worked, too, waking up English citizens to the reality of their government’s Ireland policies.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s North Dakota Plan probably reflected his experiences as a diplomat in the Kennedy administration (he was US Ambassador to India). He knew that big, powerful states were no guarantee of peace and prosperity — in fact, they were often just the opposite (think Cold War mutually-assured destruction). His North Dakota thought experiment flipped reality in search of a better solution to world problems.

No one would seriously consider my “North Dakota” plan for AVAs. It is ridiculous. But this is what American wine could more or less look like in 30  years if current trends persist. It won’t happen all at once, just a couple more AVAs here and there. But it will add right up all the same and then, well, there you are.

Maybe AVAs were the best way to establish identity back when there were only a few of them — remember that the very first AVA granted back in 1980 was not Napa (it came a few months later) but Augusta in Missouri. Maybe today, when the AVA count is in the hundreds, there are better paths to follow. If not, then the future could be a jig-saw puzzle world of wine.

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Wine jig-saw puzzles can be quite entertaining if done right. Check out the wine and spirits puzzles that Rebecca Gibb MW has created at Bamboozled Games!

Just to show that I am not a complete Scrooge, here’s a musical tribute to names, songs, and dreams. Enjoy.

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