Southern California's high desert gets its own viticultural designation

McClatchy NewspapersMay 24, 2011 

WASHINGTON — California's newest and nearly largest winemaking area is a vast sweep of high desert spanning Kern and Los Angeles counties, in which relatively few grapes are currently grown.

But one can always dream.

On Tuesday, federal regulators established the Antelope Valley of the California High Desert Viticultural Area. The approval means a handful of high-desert winemakers can use the title on their labels, conveying a very sunny message.

"Almost every(one) comments on the fact that our area is different from other wine growing regions they have visited," Antelope Valley tasting room consultant Candace Doyle advised regulators. "They are curious about our hot summers, cold winters, altitude, and our high desert climate."

The new Antelope Valley viticultural area joins more than 100 other winemaking regions of California that have received similar recognition. The distinct character, though, goes beyond what Doyle described as the "full bodied and bold flavors of our wines."

Stretching 665 square miles, or 425,600 acres, Antelope Valley is larger than all but seven of California's designated viticultural areas. It's larger than the Santa Clara Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains or Mendocino. It's nearly twice as large as the famed Napa Valley.

Its winemaking vintage is more modest.

After some 19th century Antelope Valley vineyards died out, the area largely lay dormant wine-wise until an adventurous soul planted five acres of grapes on the valley's west side in 1981.

Currently, Antelope Valley boasts two bonded wineries. Wine grapes are planted on a mere 128 acres.

"We have experienced great success with every varietal we have planted," Frank Donato, of the Donato Family Vineyard, advised regulators.

All viticultural areas must offer unique characteristics, something that sets them apart. The Antelope Valley region receives less than nine inches of rain per year. Temperatures typically exceed 90 degrees at least 110 days a year. The growing season stretches out for up to 260 days a year.

The Antelope Valley's promotion, in turn, is part of a bigger picture. Simply put, viticultural areas are hot.

On Tuesday, at the same time as they approved the new Antelope Valley area, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau officials announced they also would be considering proposals for an 11,075-acre Coombsville area in Napa County and a 13,254-acres Naches Heights area in Yakima County, Wash.

Sometimes, as in an ultimately unsuccessful proposal for a large California Coast viticultural area, the proposals draw intense controversy.

More typically, regulators approve the viticultural area without hearing much resistance. Fifteen of the 16 public comments on the Antelope Valley application praised the proposal, while one questioned whether the area was too large and nondescript to merit special recognition.

"One could traverse the proposed Antelope Valley of the High Desert Viticulture Area and never realize they had ever left or returned," Temecula resident Natalie Hannum stated. "The proposed area is simply too vast and travelers would only know they are on the high desert."

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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