Can Terroir Cross State Lines?

Joe Wagner is under attack for how he markets his Oregon wines because he makes them in California
Can Terroir Cross State Lines?
These grapes were grown, picked and vinified within Oregon's Willamette Valley. (Courtesy Ponzi Vineyards)
Oct 30, 2018

I have a Pinot Noir vine in my backyard in New Orleans. The only tangible thing it produces most years is a generous helping of mildew. This is not Pinot Noir terroir.

If I was to order a ton of Pinot Noir from a vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley, have it shipped here and vinify it in my office, could I label the resulting wine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? After all, that's where the grapes were grown.

The answer is no. Federal rules state that if you want to put an appellation like Willamette Valley or Russian River Valley or Santa Lucia Highlands on your label, you can't just buy grapes and fly them cross-country. You need to make and age the wine in the same state. The only geographical indicator I could put on my Oregon-sourced Pinot label is "America."

Joe Wagner has things a bit easier because he lives in California. Wagner's Copper Cane Wines & Provisions produces two wine brands from Oregon, Elouan and Willametter Journal. Federal rules say that you can label your wine with a state name if you make the wine in an adjacent state. So Joe can truck grapes from Oregon to his winery in Napa Valley, make the wine there and label the wine "Oregon." What he can't do is use a specific appellation, such as Willamette Valley or Rogue Valley. (Confused yet? Have some wine.)

Wagner is in a fight with Oregon winemakers and politicians because he put the sources of his Oregon grapes for his Elouan brand—Willamette Valley, Rogue Valley and Umqua Valley—in the wine description on the cases he shipped the wine in. And for his other Oregon brand, sourced from Willamette grapes, he labeled the wine Oregon but named it Willametter Journal. Hint, hint.

Did he go too far? That is for Oregon and federal authorities to decide. (You should read my colleague Augustus Weed's report on the fight.) Personally, I think Wagner got a little too cute with the rules, but I understand why. He has been a phenomenal success in this business not just by being a good vintner, but by knowing what consumers want and employing savvy marketing. (He helped create a small wine brand called Meiomi, which he sold to Constellation for approximately $300 million.) His salesmanship probably went too far here. He wants his brands to tell a story, and it was probably killing him that he couldn't detail where he sourced his grapes from.

But let's talk about a larger issue here: Does it make sense that you can grow grapes in a particular appellation, but not use that appellation on your label if you made the wine in another state?

After all, appellations are supposed to be about where grapes are grown—the geographical boundaries, the particular soils, the microclimate. That's what makes wine special—that it can seemingly speak of place. Does it matter where the grapes were turned into wine?

My colleague Robert Taylor smartly brought up the issue of ambient yeast. Do you get Oregon yeast fermenting your wine if you take the grapes to California? Good question. However, I doubt it's what the TTB had in mind when they created these regulations. The rules seem a bit like protectionism for local vintners. Oregon wineries, both big and small, have been given an advantage over wineries in other states, big and small, who might want to buy Oregon fruit.

But what if there is a human element to terroir? After all, would Burgundy be the same if the wines hadn't been made by the local people for centuries? Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the same grape, and the appellations are a short drive from one another, but the wines' character has been shaped by the two regions' different histories. Land can shape grapes; it can also shape people.

Oregon's short wine history has been written by people who lived there and made wine there with a specific vision. As the wines become more popular, we've seen newcomers invest in the region, from places as far off as Burgundy and even—gasp—California. Sure, newcomers can buy grapes and rent space in a contract winery to make their wine. But they need to ground themselves, even part-time, in Oregon's soils. They need to be part of the community. And perhaps that is part of terroir.

What do you think? Does terroir have a human element?

Legal and Legislative Issues Labeling Regulations United States Oregon Opinion

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