The TTB Extends Comment Period on the Proposed Expansion of the Sta Rita Hills
Late last week the TTB announced it was extending the comment period for Notice No. 145, Proposed Expansion of the Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Area until December 5, 2014. The extension allows more time for individuals to compose and submit responses to the possible expansion either for or against the proposal.
The TTB granting the extension is unsurprising since the comment period previously coincided exactly with harvest through the region, which would make interested parties ability to submit commentary more difficult.
The proposal for expansion comes as a result of a petition submitted by Patrick Shabram on behalf of John Sebastiano Vineyard, and Pence Ranch in March, 2013. If approved, the expansion would extend the current Sta Rita Hills AVA to the East by an additional 2,296 acres. The Sta Rita Hills Winegrower’s Alliance has come out as unanimously opposed to the proposed expansion.
In response to such proposals, the TTB opens a comment period in order to gather information and perspective from interested parties. Comments are needed in order to legitimate or refute information relevant to possible expansions. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at (1) how the TTB process works in such matters, and (2) what counts as a useful or effective comment within the TTB process.
TTB Basics: Understanding the Purpose of the AVA
The TTB serves as a regulatory board for the United States Government, within the United States Treasury. As such, the TTB operates to regulate legal strictures around alcohol and tobacco. One of the matters that the TTB supervises is the establishment, or expansion of American Viticulture Areas (AVAs).
The purpose of the AVA, for the TTB, rests in informing consumers the origin of the wine. Towards this end, the U.S. AVA system takes into account factors that would impact viticulture, but not the wines themselves. This is unique compared to many European models for wine appellations. Many appellation systems outside the United States, Europe being a prime example, also regulate stylistic choices, and/or varieties grown.
U.S. AVAs, however, are defined based on the unique geographical conditions of a region that affect viticulture, and then classify that growing region in relation to an appropriate geographical name. In other words, an AVA is meant to articulate growing conditions unique to a specific place, and to name it in a way consistent to the place. That is, if there are multiple areas with the same name, the TTB will ask the people that submitted the proposal to generate a new title that can be distinctly identified from the other areas that have similar monikers, while still unique to the area being named.
As a goofy example, the Simpsons would have a hard time creating a grape growing region named “Springfield” since there are so many other areas with the same name. They’d have to create a name for the region that could not be mistaken for any of the other Springfields. For example, within TTB practices it would be unsurprising for them to use a name such as “Springfield of the Simpsons.” (What on earth would wines from there be like?)
Another current example relevant to the overarching region of Santa Barbara County can be found in the Happy Canyon proposal, a sub-AVA approved within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Because there are regions elsewhere also known as Happy Canyon, the TTB asked for the proposed title to be modified in a way that would clearly show it to be unique to Santa Barbara County. The approved sub-AVA name, then, became Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
TTB Process: The Purpose of the Comment Period
Importantly, the TTB serves as a regulatory board, not an investigative one. What that means, is that when the TTB receives a proposal for the establishment or the expansion of an AVA it does not investigate the accuracy of the data submitted. That is, it does not go out and do additional data gathering, nor does it do additional research of the region.
The TTB assumes the information submitted in a proposal is in essence accurate. What it will consider is whether or not the data submitted offers sufficient evidence to approve the proposed AVA, or expansion.
Because the TTB is not an investigatory board, when considering new proposals it opens a comment period to allow interested parties to submit additional data, and insight that might give valuable perspective on the proposal itself, and whether or not the evidence submitted is sufficient to approve the proposal.
In other words, the comment period is an important aspect of legitimating, or negating the worth of a proposed AVA, or its expansion.
What Counts as a Useful or Effective Comment?
The comment period is designed simply to allow supporting, or negating information and perspective in relation to a particular proposal. Comments submitted that speak to anything outside the specific proposal are effectively irrelevant to the process, and will not be considered in relation to the proposal. In other words, critiques of the TTB itself, or the AVA system, or other AVAs, etc, are irrelevant to the comment period of a specific proposal, and need to be submitted elsewhere.
Useful or effective comments, then, directly address the evidence within a particular proposal, and the question of whether or not such evidence sufficiently fulfills the requirements for establishing or expanding an AVA.
What are those TTB requirements?
The TTB American Viticulture Area (AVA) Manual states exactly what is required to submit a complete proposal for AVA expansion. The requirements for expansion closely resemble the requirements for a new AVA.
Here is the list of requirements as stated within the TTB AVA Manual itself (pg 5-6 w further explanation in sections VIII and XI).
- For an expansion of the boundary, substantive evidence for how the name of the existing AVA also applies to the expansion area;
- For a petition to modify a boundary to expand an existing AVA, substantive evidence that demonstrates how the area affected by the proposed change has distinguishing features affecting viticulture that are the same as those of the existing AVA;
- For a petition to modify a boundary to reduce the size of an existing AVA, substantive evidence that demonstrates how the area affected by the proposed change does not have distinguishing features affecting viticulture that are the same as those of the existing AVA;
- A detailed explanation of how the boundary of the existing AVA was incorrectly or incompletely defined, or is no longer accurate due to new evidence or changed circumstances, with reference to the name evidence and distinguishing features for both the existing AVA as well as the area affected by the proposed boundary change;
- Appropriate USGS maps with the proposed change boundary clearly shown on them; and
- A detailed narrative description of the entire proposed new boundary line using USGS map markings.
For a proposal to be considered complete by the TTB, each of these elements must be addressed within the proposal. That is, they are required. The current comment period for the proposed expansion of the Sta Rita Hills AVA is meant to allow interested parties the chance to address the question of whether or not the way those elements have been addressed is sufficient to approving the expansion. In other words, the application itself is complete. The question at hand is whether or not it sufficiently argues for its request to expand the AVA.
How to Write a Useful or Effective Comment
What counts as relevant information within a comment? Effective comments contain evidence that supports or negates (one or the other) any of the requirements. Evidence can include, but is not limited to: weather data, soil information, vegetation changes, geographical features. Evidence can be presented through expert opinion and analysis of data information, and also through anecdotal testimony. In either case though, the comment should directly address the elements relevant to the petition itself.
Both experts and non-experts are invited to comment to the TTB during a proposal comment period. In either case, what is important is that one testifies to things within his or her experience in relation to the requirements of the petition.
For those that are interested in submitting a comment to the TTB in relation to either legitimating, or negating the proposed expansion of the Sta Rita Hills, then, there are three key questions that should be addressed, each of which addresses at least one of the requirements listed above.
As shown in the TTB AVA Manual, any proposal must show that:
(1) The area proposed for expansion can be appropriately understood in name as part of the region that the original AVA name denotes.
In this case, it must be appropriate to call the additional 2,296 acres of the proposed expansion part of the area “the Sta Rita Hills.” To put that another way, it should be apparent that “Sta Rita Hills” is still the right name for the proposed expansion area.
(2) The area within the expansion is the same as the area within the current Sta Rita Hills.
That is, the distinguishing features affecting viticulture within the already established Sta Rita Hills AVA must be the same as those within the proposed expansion area.
In other words, any commentator that wishes to support the proposed expansion can submit information, or testimonial providing evidence for the similarity of the 2,296 acres being like the region already established as the current AVA.
Any commentator that wishes to negate the proposed expansion can submit information, or testimonial providing evidence that shows the differences of the 2,296 acres from the region within the established AVA. Again, similarities or differences can rest in weather, climate, temperature, soil, and vegetation, as well as overall geographical features.
(3) The area within the expansion area is uniquely distinct from its immediate surrounding areas.
This requirement demands a little more explanation.
The area proposed for expansion should be distinct not just only from distant regions, but from those areas immediately outside the proposed expansion boundaries. In other words, where the boundary is drawn should not be arbitrary, or even approximate but instead definitive of the unique geography of the growing area.
Comments submitted should either support or negate the differences of the area immediately within the proposed expansion area, to those immediately outside the proposed expansion area.
The Sta Rita Hills-AVA, however, is a sub-AVA. That makes this requirement a little more subtle. That is, the Sta Rita Hills are considered distinctive enough to merit being their own sub-AVA, while still generally congruent with the overall conditions of the Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.
Similarly, the other two sub-AVAs currently within Santa Ynez Valley — Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara — are both considered to be distinctive enough to merit their own sub-AVA statuses, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.
In the case of the Sta Rita Hills expansion, then, the proposal must show that it is distinct not just from the other sub-AVAs within the Santa Ynez Valley, such as Ballard Canyon, or Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara have already been proven to be appropriately distinctive enough from their immediate surrounding areas to merit their own sub-AVA statuses. Similarly, the Sta Rita Hills has already proven to be distinctive enough from the other areas of the Santa Ynez Valley, and thus carries sub-AVA status.
The result of this is that because Ballard Canyon, for example, is an already established sub-AVA, it has already been shown via that sub-AVA proposal and approval that Ballard Canyon is distinct not only from Sta Rita Hills, but also the areas immediately East of the Sta Rita Hills, such as Buellton Flats. That is, Ballard Canyon is already shown to be distinct from not only Sta Rita Hills, but also the proposed expansion area.
It would not be uniquely insightful, then, for the current expansion proposal to simply show that the proposed expansion area is distinct from Ballard Canyon. Instead, it must show that it is distinct from the rest of the area known as Buellton Flats, and from weather in places like the town of Buellton. Otherwise, the currently proposed expansion boundaries would seem to be arbitrary.
What the expansion proposal must show, then, is that the proposed expansion boundaries are not arbitrary, nor even approximate of a distinctive zone that is the Sta Rita Hills. Instead, the expansion proposal must show that it is uniquely different from the portions of the Santa Ynez Valley immediately outside the proposed new boundaries.
The comment period is an opportunity for interested parties to provide evidence approving or negating the strength of the submitted proposal for expansion around each of these three questions — appropriate name, similarity to the established Sta Rita Hills, and distinctiveness from immediate surrounding areas.
Studying the Issue and Submitting Commentary
If you are interested in submitting a comment in response to the Sta Rita Hills expansion proposal, you now have until December 5, 2014.
If you submitted a comment during the previous comment period opened when the proposal was first submitted in March, 2013, you must submit a new comment within the current comment period for it to count within the current comment period.
In commenting, provide evidence from your experience on any or all of the three pertinent questions of name, similarity, and difference. You can also consider reading the petition submitted requesting the expansion, in order to provide clarification of its strengths or weaknesses in relation to these question.
To read more on the TTB requirements, take a look at the TTB AVA Manual: http://www.ttb.gov/wine/p51204_ava_manual.pdf
For the original proposal of expansion submitted March 2013 by Patrick Shabram: http://www.ttb.gov/foia/petition-establish-expand-sta-rita-hills-american-viticultural.pdf
For the original 1998 Santa Rita Hills proposal (the name was changed to Sta Rita Hills in 2006 due to name similarity with a winery in Chile): http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=TTB-2014-0007-0006
To read the evidence as submitted in the proposed expansion: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-08-07/pdf/2014-18705.pdf
For the notice of expansion of the comment period until Dec 5, 2014: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-09-03/pdf/2014-20929.pdf
For more on the argument both for and against expansion of the AVA as understood by representatives of each side: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/08/06/an-in-depth-look-at-the-proposed-sta-rita-hills-ava-expansion/
To see current comments on the proposed expansion: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=TTB-2014-0007
For relevant notices of proposed rulemaking, including links on the original proposal for expansion, to current comments, and how to comment: http://www.ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml
To submit your own comment: http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=TTB-2014-0007-0001
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