Wine Area Proposed in L.A. County

TTB comment period still open for Sierra Pelona Valley American Viticultural Area

by Jane Firstenfeld
Agua Dulce Vineyard
Agua Dulce Vineyard is the only bonded winery in the proposed Sierra Pelona Valley AVA, and cultivates 90 of its 96 acres of vineyards.
Agua Dulce, Calif. -- Los Angeles County may soon have its third American Viticultural Area, if the proposed Sierra Pelona Valley appellation is approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Only eight comments -- all of them favorable -- have been received since the TTB posted its notice July 20, making approval seem likely. Two neighboring growing areas also are hoping to receive AVA status in the near future.

Located near the Leona Valley AVA in the northeastern part of the county, south of the Sierra Pelona ("Bald Mountain Range") and north of California State Highway 14 between Santa Clarita and Palmdale, the proposed AVA would encompass 9.7 square miles. Currently, 96 acres are planted to winegrapes, according to the petition filed by Ralph Jens Carter, a Sonoma-based consultant. It's a long way from L.A.'s first appellation, 957-acre Malibu-Newton Canyon, which was established in 1996.

Agua Dulce Vineyards is the only winery within the proposed AVA. Founded in 1999 by Don and Cathy MacAdam, Agua Dulce farms 90 acres of winegrapes. Cathy MacAdam told Wines & Vines she is anxious to have the AVA established so that Agua Dulce can label its wines "estate bottled." Tom Hogue, a TTB spokesperson, confirmed that AVA status is a requirement for "estate bottled" wines.

According to Cynde Donato, co-owner of Antelope Valley Winery in Lancaster, and treasurer of the Antelope Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA), at least some of the remaining 6 acres are farmed by Juan Alonso, a prominent local restaurateur and AVWA member.

Agua Dulce currently produces about 18,000 cases of wine annually under its Aneas and Angeles Crest labels, retailing from $26 to $139 per bottle. MacAdam said that if or when the new AVA is approved, the winery would continue to "proudly" label its wines as products of Los Angeles County.

According to the petition, the Sierra Pelona Valley has distinctive topography, with alluvial soil to a depth of 60 inches at elevations ranging from 2,400 to 3,400 feet. It receives between 9 and 12 inches of precipitation annually, mostly in the winter. During the growing season, temperatures can vary by 40ºF to 50ºF, with daytime temperatures reaching 102ºF. Air drainage from the Sierra Pelona range reduces the potential for frost in the spring, and air movement across the foothill slopes limits the threat of leaf fungus and the need for spraying pesticides. Wind direction is "frequently shifted and redirected by hills, knolls and valleys," Agua Dulce's Don MacAdam noted in the petition.

Patty Bob Souza Family Vineyards
Patty and Bob Souza at Souza Family Vineyard hope that Tehachapi will soon have an AVA of its own.
One of the commenters at the TTB site confirmed the idiosyncratic wind patterns. Bob Souza, owner of Souza Family Vineyard in nearby Tehachapi, Calif., wrote, "As a pilot who has flown into the area around Agua Dulce airport in very swirling wind conditions…I very much support the application for AVA for Sierra Pelona."

Souza explained that grapegrowers and wineries in Leona Valley, Sierra Pelona Valley, Antelope Valley and Tehachapi all are part of the AVWA, and help to market each other. He said that Tehachapi actually had applied to the TTB for AVA status several years ago, and were on the fast track to approval, when the bureau changed its minimum vineyard-acreage requirements for an AVA from "zero to 88 acres." Since his area has less than half that, the petition remains on the shelf. He planted an additional acre last year, bringing his holdings to 6 acres, and his neighbors are also planting at a rapid pace. "Once they get the sticks in the ground," Souza said, Tehachapi will be ready to go. 

Cyndee Donato commented on the TTB site, "The establishment of the Sierra Pelona Valley viticultural area…is extremely positive for our region. The unique conditions of this area differ from the Santa Clarita area as well as the Antelope Valley area. The wines coming out of this region are different from those we are producing in the Antelope Valley and this area should be recognized as an AVA. This will have a positive impact on the Sierra Pelona area as well as all surrounding areas."

Donato told Wines & Vines that Antelope Valley may be the next to apply for AVA status. "We're about two months behind Sierra Pelona," she said. She expects the Antelope Valley application to be ready for review by the end of this year.

To read the proposal and comments visit regulations.gov/search/Regs/home.html#docketDetail?R=TTB-2009-0004. The TTB is accepting written comments until Sept. 18 at ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml.
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