January 22, 2019 – Ann Hougham of Mesa Del Sol came home with a Judge’s Choice win for Best Red Wine for her 2013 sangiovese from the Fungus Faceoff this past weekend, the annual mushroom-centric feast held at The River Inn this year to benefit the Big Sur Health Foundation. She couldn’t be more thrilled. “Bowled away!” was her comment. Well-deserved kudos!
Hougham also received word earlier this month that Mesa del Sol had been chosen to receive the 2018 Best of Greenfield Award in the Wines category by the Greenfield Award Program. Congratulations on that honor, too.
It certainly appears that the New Year is off to a fresh and shiny start for Hougham. Just before the ongoing government shutdown/letdown/paralysis commenced in December, she received news from the United States Alcohol and Tax and Trade Bureau, better known as the TTB, that they had finally approved of her petition to have her property officially included in the Arroyo Seco AVA. She’d been long awaiting this decision. You’re probably thinking, “What? Hasn’t Mesa del Sol always been in Arroyo Seco?” Well, yes, and no. It’s been quite the journey.
Hougham always thought her sweet piece of heaven on the banks of the Arroyo Seco River at the edge of the Ventana Wilderness, was part of the Arroyo Seco AVA. She put it on her wine labels and nobody questioned it. Everybody just accepted that she was in the AVA.
It wasn’t until she decided to join the Monterey Winegrowers Association in 2013, that she was told by then Executive Director, Rhonda Motil, that her vineyard was, according to the official AVA map, outside the Arroyo Seco boundary. She could therefore only use “Monterey County” as her declared AVA on her wine labels. Hougham recalls Motil saying to her, “Hey Ann, we’ll put you on the map, but you’re not in the AVA…the line goes right down your driveway!”
She decided to stay under the radar until she figured out what to do about this unfortunate discovery. Eventually, she was galvanized into take action, figuring she had the background to write a petition to the TTB. She called the TTB office in 2014 to make them aware of the situation and they told her that because she’d come to them voluntarily with the information, they would show leniency and allow her to keep her labeled wines as is, but that she was not to label any more wines “Arroyo Seco” until her petition had been approved.
The formal petition process was begun in 2015. By December of 2016, she was informed by her “awesome” caseworker, Karen Thornton, that her petition was sitting on the agency director’s desk, ready to be signed off and head to a 90-day public comment period. Then she was told that the incoming new administration would cause delay while positions were filled. Basically everyone was fired, then a regulatory freeze was put into place (no new regulations could be enacted without retiring two existing ones) grinding things to a halt.
In protest, Hougham wrote a letter to the TTB, copying the President on down, including the Secretary of the Treasury and Congressman Jimmy Panetta, to explain why a delay in action on the matter was negatively impacting her business. It said, in part: “The Arroyo Seco AVA is an up and coming region for wines of distinction. Wines made from grapes grown on my land have been garnering high honors. At this juncture I am not able to claim that the grapes grown on my land are in the Arroyo Seco AVA nor label wines as such.
“A blanket regulatory freeze that encompasses AVA publishing is not pertinent to our country’s problems. It is petitioned by industry, is not required and is voluntary. It makes me wonder how many other businesses are affected by this ‘Regulatory Freeze Pending Review.
“I have spoken out because this issue needs to be addressed. Not just for me but for many others. Our government has ground to a halt, freezing businesses from moving forward. I know there are bigger issues at hand however, please…..do this important piece of housekeeping and let’s move forward.”
Another year went by with other petitioners who were behind her in line gathering the troops to try and make things move forward, to no avail. Then, in November of 2018, Ann heard from TTB agent Thornton that one of the petitioners from New York had gotten his petition through. When Hougham asked why, she was told that the petitioner’s Congresswoman had gotten involved and was heavily lobbying the Dept. of Treasury to push it along. So, Ann got busy and called her Congressman, Jimmy Panetta, and a few days later received an email from his office that a Congressional Inquiry would be launched. She sent that email to every contact she knew in the Dept. of Treasury and the TTB, and lo and behold, 10 days later, her petition was approved.
Says Hougham, “It only took an ‘act of Congress’! Who knew you had to lobby to get anything done in Washington!”
And so, it came to pass, in mid-December of 2018, after over two years of waiting, she at last received the good news in the form of a letter from the TTB stating, “After careful review of the petition, TTB finds that the evidence provided by the petitioner sufficiently demonstrates that although the proposed expansion area shares some of the broader characteristics of the larger Monterey and Central Coast AVAs, it is also similar to the established Arroyo Seco AVA and should also be recognized as part of that AVA.”
The change became effective January 14, 2019.
In case you’re wondering, the Arroyo Seco appellation, which was granted federal AVA status in 1983, encompasses about 18,240 acres in the valley adjacent to the Arroyo Seco River. This latest ruling expands the AVA by approximately 90 acres, using geographical distinguishing features instead of the section line that is currently used as the demarcation line.
Explains Hougham, “You have to prove that the expansion area has ‘distinguishing features’ similar to the AVA and that the ‘name’ is also relevant. I’m on the Arroyo Seco River, on Arroyo Seco Road and in the historical Arroyo Seco region. Although I considered establishing my own AVA for a short time, in the end, all I really wanted to do was join the AVA that everyone from the Feds to the State to the local level assumed I was in since 1999!”
Hougham credits her caseworker at the TTB, Karen Thornton, for being highly supportive throughout the process. She even sent Ann a Christmas card congratulating her on the ruling. When Hougham emailed Thornton to thank her, she received the following out of office message: “Due to a lapse in Federal funding, TTB is closed until further notice. I will respond to your message when I return to the office once funding has been obtained.” Who knows when that might be.
Meanwhile, as the petition paperwork languished in the great halls of obstruction, life went on, and harvest 2018 came and went. Her winemaker of record, Ian Brand (named Winemaker of the Year for 2018 by the SF Chronicle), says the quality is outstanding. She also sells fruit to Megan Bell (Margins), Tyler Russell (Cordant, Paso Robles) and Michael Simons (Comanche Cellars).
As Hougham currently has no tasting room at her Mesa del Sol resort, she makes all her wines, sangiovese, zinfandel, syrah, Prima Rosso (blend), grenache, and dessert Zin available for tasting and purchase at Trio in downtown Carmel. Go check them out.
Mesa del Sol wines are also available at Zeph’s in Salinas, La Balena, Cypress Inn, Esalen and Deetjens.
Perhaps the best place to enjoy them, though, other than your back patio, is at the stunning Mesa del Sol resort itself, which is available as a vacation rental. This sweet retreat, set right on the Arroyo Seco River, features stunning roses, an onsite vegetable garden, vineyard, outdoor kitchens, swimming pool and pond, and is ideal for family retreats, weddings, business offsites, friends getaways, mini-reunions and birthday bashes. Check it out: mesadelsolvineyards.com
Grab a bottle and help Ann celebrate the fact that the government finally granted her permission to officially be in the same place she’s always been: the up and coming and now almost world famous Arroyo Seco AVA.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.