High desert area seeks special winemaking designation

WASHINGTON — Part of California's high desert could become one of the nation's largest designated winemaking regions.

In a newly public application, members of the Antelope Valley Winegrowers Association in Kern and Los Angeles counties request their own viticultural area. This is the same marketing distinction already claimed by the well-known likes of Napa, Sonoma and the Sierra Nevada foothills.

"We have been making wine and growing grapes in the Antelope Valley for 20 years," Cyndee Donato, treasurer of the area's winegrowers association, noted Thursday. "The recognition as a viticultural area provides validity to the region."

The association wants federal recognition of a 665-square-mile viticultural area to be called the "Antelope Valley of the California High Desert." If approved, the Antelope Valley designation could be applied to labels for locally produced wine.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the Treasury Department, opened the application for public comment Thursday.

Vintners consider the viticultural area designation a way to market their wines as something special. There are now about 189 recognized areas, including some with novel winemaking reputations including the Ozark Mountains, Mississippi Delta and Long Island.

The proposed Antelope Valley viticultural area, equivalent to 425,600 acres, would be roughly the size of an existing Lodi area. It would exceed such designated regions as Madera, Napa Valley and Livermore Valley.

"There are about 20 vineyards, but (they're) very spread out," explained Donato, who's also with the Lancaster-based Donato Family Vineyards. "We are still quite rural."

The greater Antelope Valley is geographically and atmospherically distinct, bordered by Edwards Air Force Base and portions of the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains. On average, 110 days a year exceed 90 degrees.

Currently, the Antelope Valley includes two bonded wineries and commercial vineyards spanning a total of about 128 acres.

Antelope Valley advocates, though, note that winemaking in the region dates back to the 1890s. Drought and Prohibition ended those early ventures, but the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct carrying water from Owens Valley revived farming.

Usually, viticultural area applications are routine though time consuming. Several years ago, for instance, the proposed 39,200-acre Tracy Hills region in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties received only one public comment. The area was approved.

Donato said she knows of no opposition to the Antelope Valley application, first filed about 18 months ago.

Sometimes, though, proposals excite surprising controversy. Several years ago, a proposal for a 14 million-acre California Coast area split the state's winemakers and ultimately failed.

The Antelope Valley is open for public comment through Nov. 1.