Is Oregon Wine Afraid of Meiomi-zation?

After federal authorities objected, Joe Wagner agreed to change his labels for Elouan, but some Oregon vintners and politicians remain unsatisfied
Is Oregon Wine Afraid of Meiomi-zation?
Joe Wagner thinks strong Elouan sales help Oregon. Not everyone agrees. (Colin Price)
Dec 10, 2018

"As a result of his unlawful acts, Joe Wagner will no longer be able to sell his wine in Oregon. I am asking the federal government to do the same and stop Wagner from selling Elouan wine in the other 49 states." A ban on Joe Wagner's wines—in Oregon or nationwide—hasn't come to pass, but it's what Oregon state representative David Gomberg, whose district includes a small part of the Willamette Valley, is pushing for.

Gomberg was trumpeting, in a press release, a recent recommendation by Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) staff to revoke the license of Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, Wagner's company, to sell wine in Oregon after it found labeling violations. But the OLCC has not actually revoked Copper Cane's license, and Wagner has been working to settle the matter.

How did a dispute over appellations and marketing turn into a call to ban a wine brand? The answer may lie in competing visions of Oregon wine's future.

Rep. Gomberg and some Oregon vintners filed objections with the OLCC and federal authorities over Wagner's marketing of Elouan and another brand, Willametter Journal, a private label Copper Cane produces for Total Wine & More. Wagner buys grapes in Oregon, trucks them to California and produces the wine there. Federal rules mandate that he cannot use specific appellations on the wine—he can only label it Oregon.

Wagner did that on the front label, but he mentioned the appellations from which he bought his grapes—the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys—on his back labels and cases. He argued that this was harmless marketing.

The federal authorities disagreed. Last month, the TTB revoked approval for the labels. From now on, Wagner cannot use those appellations in any way. The wines may only carry the Oregon designation. (The TTB did not make Wagner recall the vintage of Elouan currently on the market, however.)

A vintner stepped out of line, the feds cracked down, and he has changed his labels as a result. Problem solved, right?

"Copper Cane claims they were simply engaged in 'fanciful' marketing. But the state of Oregon has determined that they crossed the line from fanciful to fraudulent, and that they cannot sell low-priced California counterfeits here and masquerade them as quality Oregon wines." That's Gomberg again.

He wants the current Elouan wines pulled from the market. He also points out that Elouan sells for a price higher than the average Oregon Pinot Noir, and argues that Wagner was able to charge more because he was improperly touting the appellations on his back labels. To financially penalize the company, he has asked the TTB to suspend Copper Cane's permit to sell any wine in the United States for one year, just as the OLCC is considering in Oregon.

On the legal front, Wagner told me that he and a colleague traveled to Oregon last week to meet with OLCC officials and discuss what action they can take to settle the matter without losing their license.

But the fight continues to grow uglier. Gomberg told me he has filed a complaint with the Oregon justice department asking it to investigate possible consumer fraud. Jim Bernau, the owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, has repeatedly raised the suggestion that Wagner is employing winemaking techniques that are legal in California but illegal in Oregon, including using a small amount of California grapes or additives that enhance color or texture. (Wagner denies he is doing either.)

Wagner has fired back, pointing out that Gomberg is a minority investor in Willamette Valley Vineyards. (Gomberg says he owns roughly $6,000 in shares and that financial interest played no role in this.)

Why are the Oregonians taking this so far?

The answer, I suspect, lies in Wagner's most famous creation: Meiomi. Wagner started the brand while still working for his dad at Caymus. He built it into a sales phenomenon and then sold it for more than $300 million in 2015 to Constellation.

Meiomi was successful for three reasons: First, at $20 a bottle, it was relatively affordable for a California Pinot Noir of its quality. Second, it was consistent, even as Wagner grew production. His team sourced quality grapes from multiple California appellations. The last factor was taste. Wagner used several techniques in the winery, including freezing his Pinot shortly after picking and blending in small amounts of other grapes, to create a riper, bolder style of Pinot.

That style was not for everyone. Many longtime Pinot enthusiasts were not fans. But for many American consumers, Meiomi was just what they wanted. It defined California Pinot Noir for them.

Elouan might as well be an Oregonian word for Meiomi. It's not the same—it definitely tastes of Oregon. But it's a plush, generous style of Pinot. Like Meiomi, Wagner sources it from multiple appellations, partially because Rogue and Umpqua produce riper fruit than Willamette and partially because their fruit is cheaper. And he prices it at around $20.

Are Gomberg and Bernau worried about protecting the reputation of Oregon's appellations? "There are a lot of Oregonians who have worked for decades to build that reputation," Gomberg says. Undoubtedly. But soon, those appellations won't appear on Elouan's labels.

Are they also concerned that Elouan says Oregon at all? Do they worry that this full-flavored, $20-a-bottle Pinot Noir is going to define Oregon wine? The Willamette Valley has built its reputation on being different from California, on producing lighter, more elegant Pinot Noir, the closest thing to red Burgundy in North America. (Some Burgundians have even invested in the region.)

"Most growers and vintners I speak to see Elouan introducing consumers to Oregon Pinot as a good thing," says Wagner. "But others may see us as a threat."

Gomberg says this is not about destroying Elouan. "I'm not trying to put [Wagner] out of business," he says. "I want him to follow the law. I want him to buy lots of Oregon grapes."

If that's true, maybe it's time to put the hostile words and legal threats aside. As long as Wagner abides by the rules, it's not Gomberg and Bernau's job to mandate what Oregon wine should taste like. That decision is up to every vintner who makes Oregon wine, and every wine consumer who votes with their wallet.

Legal and Legislative Issues Labeling Regulations United States Oregon Opinion

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