Oregon winery Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV) has filed a lawsuit seeking damages for the loss of nearly 13 tons of Pinot Noir grapes ruined by an herbicide drift incident in 2013. The company, owned by Jim Bernau, has accused the neighbor of one of the vineyards it leases of irresponsible spraying. Bernau hopes to send a message with the suit that famers need to be responsible with pesticide use in this growing wine region. The neighbor contends, however, that he is being unfairly blamed.
WVV has leased Elton Vineyard, a 60-acre site owned by Dick and Betty O’Brien in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills, since 2007. In May 2013, workers first noticed damaged and dying vines and called in Oregon’s Department of Agriculture to investigate the cause and incident. “[The vineyard] looked like someone took a blowtorch to the vines,” WVV owner Jim Bernau told Wine Spectator.
According to the lawsuit’s complaint, filed July 21 in Polk County Circuit Court, “The Department of Agriculture ultimately concluded that a herbicide drift had occurred, which was caused by the actions of Jeffrey Nichols, on behalf of Myron Nichols and Five Cent Farm, in March 2013.”
It goes on to state that, “Approximately 12.7 tons of high-end commercial Pinot Noir wine grapes were damaged and could not be harvested. This resulted in a total loss of 826 cases of wine, for a total economic loss of $413,780.” Bernau said several rows of vines died. WVV is seeking both the direct losses, plus two or three times that amount in additional damages, as allowed by Oregon law.
Nichols, president and an owner of Five Cent Farm, a grass seed grower, denies that his company had anything to do with the vineyard damage, and has speculated that weedkillers sprayed by nearby homeowners or someone else may have been at fault.
Bernau disagrees. “Their field is directly adjacent to our vineyard with only a tractor’s width between them,” said Bernau. “It’s laughable that he is arguing somebody else did it, especially when there were empty herbicide canisters lying in their field.”
State authorities refused to draw a conclusion. The Department of Agriculture’s 2013 report stated, “an herbicide application by Five Cent Farm, Inc. and Jeffrey Nichols may have been the source of residue detected on Elton Vineyard. However, since only one of several applied herbicides was detected on the vineyard, the department cannot be sure that Five Cent Farm’s applications here were violative.” The department levied no fines or citations on Five Cent Farm.
Bernau said Nichols' insurance company had made several offers to WVV, all of which “didn’t even cover the damages.” He also said he believed that it was important to take a stand on the issue of pesticide spraying.
“Pesticide drift incidents have become a problem in our industry,” said Bernau. “We have acres of other crops in the Willamette Valley that use herbicides that are deadly to grapes. The Oregon wine industry has even considered legislation to protect our industry.”
“I remain very concerned about the downstream effects,” said Bernau, citing possible impacts on people, wildlife and water sources that may not be apparent until years after the damage has been done. “If insurance companies crack down on their clients, then responsible farmers will take greater precautions with dangerous sprays.”