by Enrico Villamaino
Even for those uninitiated in all things wine, the name Napa Valley has resonance. Everyone has heard of it, but what exactly does it mean?
The Napa Valley is actually an American Viticultural Area (AVA), a federally-designated wine grape-growing region in the United States providing an official appellation for the benefit of wineries. These regions are distinguished by their soil, climate and often their proximity to a body of water. Napa Valley was actually the second AVA to be recognized by the federal government. Only one AVA has bragging rights for its seniority over its famous West Coast counterpart – the Augusta AVA.
Located in and around Augusta, MO, the Augusta AVA features unique wines that are the legacy of geologic events occurring thousands of years in the past.
“The Augusta AVA is one of the smallest in the country,” explained Tony Kooyumjian, owner of the Augusta Winery. “It’s only about 15 square miles. Napa is huge – it actually has subdivisions larger than our whole AVA.”
The August area sits now on what was 10,000 years ago the terminal moraine of a continental glacier. A terminal moraine is a mass of rocks, sediment and minerals deposited by a glacier at its endpoint. Kooyumjian pointed out, “Geologically speaking, the Augusta AVA is bordered by the Osage Ridge, which forms a crescent-shaped boundary to the north, and the Missouri River to the south. The ridge protects us from cold northwestern winds and the river helps to keep the area more temperate. As a result, we have a wealth of mineral-rich, well-drained soil that really affects the quality of our wines.” Specifically, he pointed out, “our wines are more aromatic, have a much richer, deeper flavor and their finish is longer than most others.”
This has made the Augusta region a choice spot for winemaking since the 1820s. The local wine industry thrived there for years, but was shut down in the early twentieth century due to Prohibition. “It killed the wineries here,” Kooyumjian lamented. “When Prohibition was repealed, very few of them reopened.”
Until the late 1970s, American-made wines didn’t have any systematic way of identifying the regions from which they came. Wines were often described as being from a certain county or state. “Often, these arbitrary ways of labeling where wines originated didn’t really mean anything. There was a desire to emulate the European, especially the French, method of delineating wine regions based on something more sensible than capricious municipal, county and state boundaries,” Kooyumjian explained.
“The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was charged with forming some sort of system to delineate the wine regions across the country. The Augusta AVA was the very first one recognized.”
The AVA system was approved in 1978, and Augusta was approved on June 20, 1978, a full eight months ahead of Napa Valley. One other interesting note about the Augusta AVA is that the Norton grape, America’s oldest native grape, is widely grown there.
Born and raised in California wine country, Kooyumjian relocated to the Augusta area in the 1960s and, sensing opportunity, opened his winery in 1988. He is a third generation winemaker. “We’re a good size. We are a family-owned business, and our output is just over 40,000 cases of wine per year.” His wines have earned lots of awards from around the world, including several “Best in Show” in California contests, “Best Imported White Wine to Germany” and four Missouri Governor Cup Awards. He is also a member of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board and chair of the Wine and Grape Research Committee.
Today, there are nearly a dozen vineyards and wineries located within the August AVA, as well as a brewery. In the area, winemaking, history and tradition outweigh trends and fads. The vintners here continue to make their indigenous Norton and Cynthiana varietals their trademarks and tend to prefer hybrids like Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc over the more well-known Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
For more information about Kooyumjian and the Augusta Winery, visit AugustaWinery.com .