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New York Eases Restrictions in Wake of Harsh Winter

Plus, California's Prop 65 leaves vintners on the hook for restaurant violations

Posted: August 21, 2014

• Back in March, Wine Spectator reported that a harsh winter in the northeast was icing buds and even whole vines in New York's Finger Lakes, Michigan and Ontario. Hearty cool-climate vinifera buds on vines like Riesling and Cabernet Franc can usually sleep undisturbed through winter at as low as –14° F, but there were cold snaps in parts of these regions that hit –29°. Some areas, and some varieties, saw 100 percent bud damage. It was impossible to know at the time just how badly this would affect the 2014 crop, since pruning regimens could have saved some vines and more serious trunk damage wouldn't be known until the spring thaw. As harvest in the Finger Lakes now looms, we have a better idea: It was bad. New York law is stricter than federal law when it comes to grape provenance for farm wineries, which is what most of the marquee names in the state are. Usually, 100 percent of farm winery grapes must be grown in state. But if more than 40 percent of a variety is destroyed by a natural disaster, wineries may be permitted to source grapes from out-of-state to keep production afloat. "There will be more demand than supply for New York grapes," said state agriculture commissioner Richard Ball in a statement. "We need to give New York's world-class farm wineries every tool possible to succeed this year." The varieties given the exemption, which has not been granted since 2005, are Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lemberger, Syrah, Gamay and some indigenous grapes, i.e., as far as New York viticulture goes, "all of them."

Will fine winemakers, experiencing high demand but loath to muddle the identity of the state's increasingly lauded terroirs, avail themselves of the relief valve? Scott Osborn of Fox Run Vineyards told Unfiltered it would depend on the extent of damage in individual vineyards and the pressures of distribution. "If you run out of product, you tend to lose shelf space to the person who has it. With restaurants, it is hard to get it back on the wine list" if you come up empty-handed one year. Fox Run is coming off strong back vintages, Osborn said, which would help him stretch his stock and stay local despite harsh damage to his vines. Others may not be in a position to do so, though: 2014 could produce a spate of unusual (perhaps even intriguing?) New York and California or Washington blends under the appellation America.

• File under California Laws That Make No Sense (along with women may not drive cars wearing housecoats and animals may not mate within 1,500 feet of a church): Alcohol producers in the Golden State will now be held responsible for the failure of restaurants and retailers to warn their customers that booze might give you cancer. California Proposition 65, a ballot initiative passed in 1986, requires businesses that sell certain products (one of which is alcohol) to post a sign warning that the product can increase the risk of cancer and birth defects. No other U.S. state has a similar law, and health labels already grace the bottles themselves. "It has to be a 10-inch-by-10-inch sign," Wendell Lee, vice president and general counsel for the Wine Institute, told Unfiltered. "Who can even print something that's 10 inches by 10 inches?"

It would appear that no one truly understood this 29-year-old law until 2012, when a fellow in Southern California identified by Lee as "an enterprising lawyer" noticed a couple of stores that failed to post the required warning. A lawsuit ensued, during which it came to light that Proposition 65 includes a loophole that leaves wineries, breweries and distilleries—not the retailers or restaurants themselves—legally responsible when a sign can't be seen in a retail shop or a restaurant. The Wine Institute reached a settlement with the enterpriser this summer. Now, it has asked its member wineries to pay up to the plaintiff and the court, as well as make an annual contribution, scaled based on the winery's volume of production, toward maintaining warning signs all over the state of California. (Wineries who opt not to contribute, Lee said, "will have to do it the old-fashioned way"—personally ensuring that every store or restaurant that carries their wine has the warning sign prominently displayed.) "I've been asked to pay $500 annually," said Adam Lee of Sonoma's Siduri Wines, who produces 50,000 gallons of wine per year. Like many of his peers, Lee is upset and surprised that the law exists in the first place: "To me it makes absolutely no sense that a winery would somehow be responsible for what a retailer or restaurant fails to do. If a place doesn't do their particular job, then legally they're the ones responsible for it." Wendell Lee said that repealing the law in the legislature would require a two-thirds vote.

Lawrence Newcombe
bay City , MI —  August 22, 2014 12:17pm ET
People of California !!! This is a simple test of the quality and efficiency of the legislature you have elected. If they can't fix this by November 1st it's time to fire and hire .

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