Wine should not be confusing. Most people simply want to enjoy a glass with friends or choose something tasty to complement their meal, not analyze the bottle as if they are training to become a Master Sommelier.

That being said, there is never any harm in arming yourself with a bit of basic knowledge to help guide you through the gauntlet of choices.

If you’re perusing the wine shop shelves and looking at American wines, you’ll find a lot of information on the label that can give you hints about the contents and aid in narrowing down your selection.

For example, every label shows a place where the grapes came from, a ‘place of origin.’ Known as an ‘American Viticultural Area’ (or AVA for short),this information is a key to understanding more about the quality and character of the wine.

So what exactly is an AVA? In simple terms, it’s a delineated, geographic area for growing wine grapes. To become an AVA , the petitioners who want their little corner of their vineyard world to be recognized need to go through a rather long and arduous process of proving why their region is special. It could be the soils, the climate, a special geographic formation such as a hillside slope or ancient riverbed. Whatever the reason, it must be something that sets the land apart from the area around it and, most importantly, influences the character of the grapes grown upon it.

An AVA can be tiny like Cole Ranch in Mendocino County, California at only 62 acres, or as vast as the largest AVA, the 26,000 acre Ohio River Valley. Often, an AVA will sit inside a larger region, like Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, which is surrounded by the Rogue Valley AVA.  There are currently over 200 of these specialized growing regions with more on the drawing board.

By law, wine labels have to tell us where the grapes came from. The more specific the location, the more we know about those grapes and the land on which the vineyards are planted. Here’s an example:

‘Robert Mondavi Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley’

From reading this label, we know that the grapes come from the Oakville AVA, which is in the famous Napa Valley AVA. Do a quick ‘Google’ search and we learn that this area is near the town of Oakville and the vineyards are planted on gravel soil in a small valley between the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges. Oakville is acclaimed for its Bordeaux varieties that have really good tannins and a distinctive herbaceous, minty note.

As you can see, just this little nugget of information on the label can tell you much about what lurks inside the bottle and can enhance your wine experience. Santé.