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Tiny agency gives Calif. wineries long-sought honor

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 1:57 p.m. ET

Several wine producers in California’s Napa Valley will their glasses to Washington this weekend after government officials brought an end to the six-year “Battle of Calistoga.”

At issue was the federal government’s appellation system, overseen by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a tiny agency within the Treasury Department. The agency has established more than 190 American Viticultural Areas since 1978. The Napa Valley has 14 AVAs, but Calistoga had yet to earn the distinction despite its local regard as one of the most viticulturally significant areas in the valley.

The TTB decided to grant Calistoga its own AVA last week. The formal notice will be published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

Master winemaker James P. “Bo” Barrett, who operates Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena, applied for the region’s AVA in 2003 as a way to kill some free time while recovering from a skiing accident.

“Everybody is very surprised that Calistoga was never federally recognized, because in the world of wine, Calistoga is recognized as a great area for wine,” Barrett said. The area is home to 36 smalller, loosely associated mostly mom-and-pop wineries that produce only a few thousand crates annually, he said.

Though Barrett and his colleagues are happy, TTB’s final decision could spell trouble for Calistoga Cellars, a nearby winery that uses the Calistoga name even though it’s located outside the region. The agency decided the winery has three years to either start using Calistoga-grown grapes or change its name. AVA rules require that 85 percent of a wine’s
grapes must come from the named area.

The winery refuses to use Calistoga grapes, arguing they’re too expensive for the mid-priced wine it produces. A company representative declined to comment, saying the company plans to thoroughly review the decision before making a decision about its future.

“It’s easy to get the grapes,” Barrett said. “The grapes are available and we’re going to welcome them into the Calistoga community.”

“[Calistoga Cellars] could benefit more than anyone else on this,” said Rex Stults, industry relations director for Napa Valley Vintners, which represents roughly 400 Napa wineries. “If they get 85 percent of their fruit from Calistoga, they’ll benefit from this strengthened name that Calistoga now has.”

Undeterred by Calistoga Cellars, Barrett worked the phones, hired D.C.-based consultantJim Smith of American Continental Group, convinced The Eye's colleague Steve Vogel to write about his efforts last March, and made three trips to Washington to meet with supportive lawmakers, including Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and George Radanovich (R-Calif.), co-chairmen of the Congressional Wine Caucus.

“This announcement is a testament to the decades of hard work Napa Valley grape growers and winemakers have put into making their wines the envy of the world. We should all raise a glass to the new Calistoga AVA,” said Thompson, whose district includes Calistoga.

Barrett learned the news last Thursday while working at his desk. He immediately ordered new bottling labels that mention the AVA distinction and planned to celebrate the good news with a “Calistoga-style hoe down” over the weekend.

“We’re completely stoked. It’s excellent news, we thought we’d get it done, and we did,” he said.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | December 4, 2009; 11:07 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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