J. Lohr CEO Steve Lohr explains the challenges and payoffs of waiting seven years

On Oct. 7, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved 11 new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within California’s existing Paso Robles viticultural area. At 614,000 acres, Paso Robles was previously California’s largest un-subdivided AVA. The new districts include: Adelaida, Creston, El Pomar, Paso Robles Estrella, Paso Robles Geneseo, Paso Robles Highlands, Paso Robles Willow Creek, San Juan Creek, San Miguel, Santa Margarita Ranch, and Templeton Gap.

Speaking at the Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles on Nov. 8, Steve Lohr, chairman and CEO of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines and former chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, explained the challenges of the TTB application process. From the time of submission, it took seven years for Paso’s petition to gain approval.

While there was talk of sub-dividing the region in the early 2000s, Lohr said local growers and vintners decided to hold off until further research could be done. “We didn’t want to push it,” he said. “We decided, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.’”

In 2006, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance formed an independent committee of 59 growers and vintners, which met at J. Lohr during an 18-month period to hash things out. The group also enlisted lawyer Richard Mendelson of Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, who had helped sub-divide the Napa Valley, and geographer Deborah Elliott-Fisk of UC Davis.

“The most important part was the collective experience of these 59 growers and vintners who had spent 10, 20, 30-plus years with our soils,” Lohr said. In addition to holding meetings, the committee visited vineyard sites and tasted wines from the proposed AVAs to make sure their character matched what was being described in Paso’s petition.

“It was all about the science,” Lohr said. “Sometimes people would say, ‘I really think I ought to be in this district,” but then we went out and visited the farm, and in some cases we dug backhoe pits,” to show them why they belonged in another AVA.

A year and a half later, the group submitted its 1,000-page petition to the TTB.

“We didn’t want to make the same mistake that many other appellations have made, and that was to do it piecemeal,” Lohr said. “We didn’t want to submit one sub-appellation here and another one there.”

Creating the petition turned out to be the easy part of the process. Soon after it was submitted, the U.S. economy tanked, and the TTB had more important business to attend to. The Paso petition was shelved.

“Then the TTB got to questioning if it even made sense to have sub-AVAs,” Lohr said. “After all, if you have an AVA, it’s been federally determined that this is a unique winegrowing area. So how can you make unique more unique?” Another year and a half passed while the TTB mulled over whether or not to continue granting sub-AVAs.

That agency eventually came to its senses about sub-AVAs, and all 11 AVAs were approved – seven years after the petition was filed. To prevent the Paso Robles AVA from being overshadowed by any of the sub-AVAs, the region opted for a conjunctive labeling policy, requiring producers to include Paso Robles on their labels in addition to any sub-AVAs.

Now the “fun part” will begin, Lohr said, referring to the task of educating trade and consumers about the different regions. “We have a great story to tell now,” he said. “We’re able to enrich and refine the stories we’ve been telling for years or decades.”