Wine Law & Official Classifications

The AVA System

In the late 1970s the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) finalized the system of legal wine appellations called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The new AVA appellations would be largely based on geographical features. State and county names previously used as appellations were grandfathered into the new federal regulations and could still be used as places of origin in lieu of an AVA.

Augusta, Missouri was the first AVA approved on June 20, 1980. Napa Valley was the second AVA, approved on February 27, 1981. As of January 2020, there are 147 AVAs in the state of California and 248 throughout the U.S. in 33 states.

AVAs range in size from Cole Valley in California’s Mendocino County at just 60 acres (24 ha) to the Upper Mississippi Valley that covers more than 29,900 square miles (48,119 square kms) across the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

An AVA may also be located, or “nested” within one or more larger AVAs. For example, the Oakville AVA is located within the larger Napa Valley AVA. A producer in the Oakville AVA may legally choose to label their wine with either appellation. Most wineries choose to list the most specific AVA allowed.

As of 2002, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, legally named the Tax and Trade Bureau (frequently shortened to the TTB) oversees the AVA approval process and all alcohol beverage law. Anyone may petition the TTB to establish a new AVA. Requirements for petitioning for a new appellation include:

  • Evidence that the area within the proposed AVA boundary is locally or nationally known by the AVA name included in the petition.
  • An explanation of the basis for defining the boundary of the proposed AVA.
  • A description of the features of the proposed AVA affecting grape growing, including climate, geology, soils, and elevation, that make the proposed AVA unique and distinguish it from areas outside the proposed AVA boundaries.
  • A United States Geological Survey (USGS) map showing the location and boundaries of the proposed AVA.
  • An explanation of why the proposed AVA is unique and different from an existing or adjacent AVA to warrant separate recognition.
  • If the proposed AVA is within or overlaps an existing AVA, an explanation of why the proposed AVA is distinct, and warrants separate recognition from the already existing AVA.
  • A detailed description of the proposed AVA boundary based on USGS map markings.

Once again, AVAs are primarily based on geographical and physical boundaries. Unlike the wine laws of various European countries, there are no additional requirements for wineries to follow in regards to specific permitted grape varieties, yields, viticultural practices, or winemaking. However, there are laws governing the language used on wine labels concerning the origin of grapes used to produce a given wine, the percentage of grapes required for a varietal wine, vintage dating and more.

Label Laws

Origin of grape variety(s): If a specific AVA is listed on a label, a minimum of 85% of the grapes used must come from the stated appellation. If a label lists a county, state, or other country, the minimum is 75%. However, California, Washington, and Oregon are exceptions: Wines labeled with California or Oregon as the appellation must be produced entirely from grapes grown in these respective states. Wines labeled with Washington as the appellation must be made from 95% grapes grown in the state.

Minimum grape variety percentage: If a county, state, or country is listed as the appellation, 75% of the grapes used to produce the wine must come from the stated appellation. If “U.S. Wine” or “American Wine” is listed on the label, a minimum of 75% of the grapes used to produce the wine must come from within the U.S. and the wine must be made in this country. Otherwise, if a more specific AVA is listed, 85% of the grapes must come from the stated appellation. If a single vineyard is listed on the label, 95% of the grapes must come from that vineyard.

Vintage laws: All vintage-dated wines, regardless of origin, must list a smaller appellation than a country. If a vintage-dated wine lists a specific AVA, 95% of the grapes must come from the stated year. For wines labeled with a state or county, the minimum is 85%.

Varietal laws: All wines listing a varietal designation must be made from a minimum of 75% of the stated grape variety. However, wines made from a Vitis labrusca grape, such as Concord, only have to be made from a minimum of 51% of the stated grape. Finally, if a wine is to be sold on the international market it must be made from a minimum of 85% of the stated variety.

Alcohol content laws: The alcohol content must be stated on the label. A leeway of plus- or minus-1.5% is allowed. Wines with an alcohol content between seven and 14% have the option of listing “table wine” or “light wine.” 

Health and sulfites warnings: Every bottle of wine must list a government health warning, as well as “Contains Sulfites,” if the wine contains more than 10 parts per million sulfites.

Producer address and name information: Every bottle of wine must list the name and address of the bottler.

Wine Source Label Laws

Estate Bottled: If a wine is labeled as “Estate Bottled,” it must be produced entirely from grapes either grown on land owned or controlled by the winery. The winery and all vineyards used in the production of an estate-bottled wine must also be located within the same AVA.

Grown, produced and bottled by: Similar to estate bottled. Here the winery grew the grapes on vineyards it either owns or leases with control over the farming.

Estate Grown: The winery and its vineyards are within an established AVA.

Produced and Bottled by: A minimum of 75% of the wine in the bottle must be made by the producer listed.

Made and Bottled by: A minimum of 10% of the wine is made by the winery or company listed. 

Produced and Bottled by: At least 75% of the grapes were fermented in the winery’s facility. Some purchased wine can legally be blended in. 

Vinted by or Cellared by: These two terms indicate that the finished wine was purchased in bulk and then given some sort of cellar treatment before bottling.

Other Label Terms

Reserve: Used to denote a winery’s best wine, typically made in limited quantities. However, there are no legal requirements pertaining to the term’s usage.

Limited Reserve: Another term often used on wine labels to denote a limited or best selection. Again, there are no legal requirements for using the term in the U.S.

Organic: Wine made from organically grown grapes.

Old Vines: A label designation signifying the wine was made from an older vineyard source. Like the previous two terms, there are no legal requirements for using the term. However, in regards to Zinfandel, it’s understood that the phrase “Old Vines” is used for wines made from vineyards older than 50 years.

The Three-tier System

In 1933 the 18th Amendment that mandated a national Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment. One of the conditions for repeal, specifically Section 2 of the 21st Amendment, granted each state the right to set its own alcohol beverage laws, and also to decide how and when to repeal Prohibition. As a result, alcohol laws within the United States vary significantly from state to state.

One of the most important outcomes of the 21st Amendment was the creation of the “three-tier system”—the system for distribution and sales of all alcohol beverages in the U.S. The three tiers in the system comprise (1) importers or producers; (2) distributors/wholesalers; and (3) retailers/restaurants (commonly referred to as “on-premise accounts” i.e. restaurants, hotels, etc., and “off-premise accounts,” i.e. retail stores). The structure of the system stipulates that producers (wineries, breweries, distilleries, and importers) are restricted to selling their products exclusively to wholesale distributors, who then sell those products to  retailers and restaurants, who ultimately sell to consumers. By law, each so-called tier of alcohol beverage production, distribution, and sales must remain completely separate from the others. Thus, a producer cannot have ownership or a business interest in a distributor or a retailer.

To complicate matters, there are many variations to the three-tier model: Certain states chose to become their own alcohol beverage control jurisdictions. In these states, part of the distribution tier—and sometimes the retail tier—are controlled and operated by the state government, or agents designated by the state. Washington state is the only state with a privately operated retail and distribution system that does not require any form of the three-tier system.

Other states are classified as alcohol beverage control states, where the state government maintains a monopoly on the distribution tier of the system. Further, Utah and Pennsylvania monopolize both the distribution and retail tiers. Those states that only maintain a monopoly over distribution (Michigan) can still have a three-tier system in that producers can sell to a distributor who then sells to private retailers.

There are other variations to the model as well: For example, in some states a brewpub may simultaneously act as a producer and retailer, with no requirement to sell to a distributor. Other states legally allow an entity to sell direct to consumers, as in the case of a winery being able to sell to customers in their tasting room. However, more often than not producers will give exclusive rights to a distributor to sell their product in a local market to avoid the confusion of two competing distribution sources.

With so many different sets of alcohol beverage laws it is no surprise that entities--from single-owner wineries to large distributors serving multiple states--are constantly in court legislating to either relax or tighten various state laws, depending on their specific goals and self interest.