by Fred McMillin
for March 8, 1999


Whatsa Sub-AVA?


The system of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) is in every sense of the word rudimentary. Any AVA may grow any grape variety using any training method to produce any crop level.

...Bob Thompson, Wine Atlas of California

In preparing this atlas I have become wiser and sadder about the inconsistencies and sheer irrationalities of the AVA system.

...James Halliday, Wine Atlas of California

The Rest of the Story

Obviously, the federal AVA system is not drawing rave reviews. Yet, the sub-AVAs are on a higher plateau. First, what are they? The federal Bureau of Alcohol,,Tobacco and Firearms (why not the Dept. Of Agriculture?) recognizes these areas as sources of wine grapes:

  • The entire United States.
  • Two or three contiguous states.
  • A single state.
  • Several adjacent counties in one state.
  • A single county.
  • Now we abandon political boundaries for AVAs. They usually are within a county, such as Alexander Valley AVA within Sonoma County. An AVA must have clinate and physical characteristics that distinguish it from the surrounding areas.
  • Last, here are the merits of a SUB-AVA It is a highly-distinctive district WITHIN an AVA. Critic Charles Sullivan points out that "in the minds of many consumers wines from...a certain area have particular merit, such as those from Howell Mountain"...good example of a Sub-AVA within the Napa Valley AVA.

Beringer Winery  
The Howell Mountain Sub-AVA

The principal town of Howell Mountain is Angwin, just north of St. Helena. The 200 or so acres of vineyards are about l,,800 feet high. Bob Thompson notes that while Zin, Cab and Chardonnay do well on the mountain, there are now "substantial plantings of Merlot in the red earth of the district."

One of the very best of those plantings is on the Bancroft Ranch...infertile, volcanic soil...cooler than the valley floor, so harvest time is later (longer growing season = richer flavors) ... Beringer Wynemaker Ed Sbragia feels it yields a near perfect Merlot, as do my tasters. They gave this wine a stratospheric EXCELLENT PLUS.

1995 Howell Mtn. Merlot, Bancroft Ranch
Beringer Winery, St. Helena, Napa Valley
Rating—Quite possibly the best Merlot tasted in the last 12 months.
Price—$50 range


The Howell Mountain town of Angwin was named about 1874 after a local resort proprietor Edwin Angwin. "Today it is settled almost exclusively by Seventh Day Adventist Teetotallers!" ...Bob Thompson.


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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