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Joe Wagner Ordered to Change His Oregon Wine Labels

Feds rule Copper Cane must remove references to Oregon appellations from its Elouan and Willametter Journal Pinot Noirs
Joe Wagner is changing Elouan's labels, starting with the 2018 vintage.
Photo by: Colin Price
Joe Wagner is changing Elouan's labels, starting with the 2018 vintage.

Augustus Weed
Posted: November 21, 2018

California vintner Joe Wagner can no longer reference specific Oregon appellations on his Oregon wine labels. That's according to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has pulled its earlier label approval for Wagner's Elouan and Willametter Journal Pinot Noirs. The wines, which are made with Oregon grapes but produced in California, have been mired in controversy over their use of Oregon's appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVA), on their labels and packaging.

The decision has not ended the war of words between the creator of Meiomi and the Oregon vintners who object to him making wines across state lines.

The TTB order is the latest chapter in a row between Wagner's company, Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, and Oregon winemakers and lawmakers. In September, the Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) and Oregon state representative David Gomberg alleged that Copper Cane was misusing Oregon's AVAs on its wine labels and marketing materials, a contention that Wagner denies. "We are not misleading consumers in any shape or form," Wagner told Wine Spectator. "We are making a statement as to where the grapes are grown."

"This is a big deal," said Jim Bernau, founder and winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards, who has been one of Wagner's most vocal critics, when asked about the TTB decision.

At issue was whether Wagner's Elouan Pinot Noir could include references to the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys on its back label and on its shipping boxes, since the wine is made in a facility in Rutherford, Calif. Oregon and federal labeling rules state that a wine must be produced in Oregon in order for it to display one of Oregon's viticultural areas on the label. Wines produced in neighboring states may only use the broader Oregon designation.

"[The TTB] reviewed the labels and requested that we omit the references for the appellations, although the grapes are sourced from those appellations," said Wagner. The labels for both wines will change starting with the 2018 vintage and will no longer include the appellations on the labels or on the case boxes the wines are shipped in. "We have complied with all of [the TTB's] requests."

Copper Cane will also remove the phrase "Oregon Coast" from the case markings for the Elouan Pinot Noir. It is changing the back label of the Willametter Journal, a wine made for retailer Total Wine & More, so that it no longer says the wine is sourced from the "territory of Oregon." But Wagner says neither of the wines will change in style. "We are continuing to make the wines as we are, and appellate them as Oregon as we have been," he said.

Critics see the order as a win. "What the TTB has done in acting against Copper Cane's labels is coming to the defense of the American Viticultural Area designations," said Willamette Valley Vineyards' Bernau. He credits the TTB with moving quickly to deal with the issues.

Gomberg, who represents District 10 in Oregon, which includes parts of the Willamette Valley, is pleased with the decision. But he is concerned that the TTB did not order Copper Cane to change the label for the 2017 Elouan Pinot Noir, which is already in the market. He says it could take three years for those wines to sell through. "I think they have taken the right position but they need to close the loophole that allows Copper Cane to sell multiple years of product," he argued.

"It's disappointing that they didn't require that the [2017 Elouan] should have been relabeled," said Bernau, arguing that the TTB's label reviewers were mislead. Bernau also questions whether the Elouan and Willametter Journal wines were made using 100 percent Oregon grapes, which he says is still being investigated. State law requires that a wine be made entirely from Oregon grapes in order to say it is from Oregon. The state's winemaking regulations are also different from California's, and Bernau has vocally questioned whether Wagner is complying with Oregon rules.

The TTB has ordered Copper Cane to voluntarily surrender seven labels, but did not mandate a change for the 2017 wines. "This is the determination we made based on the circumstances, and this is what we have done," said Tom Hogue, congressional liaison for the TTB.

It's not unusual for the TTB to receive complaints about labels. According to Hogue, some labels are occasionally approved that shouldn't have been issued. "In this case we determined that the labels shouldn't have been approved," he said. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) has yet to make its own ruling on the matter. It could potentially impact the sale of Wagner's 2017 wines in Oregon.

Many in the Oregon wine industry insist that this isn't an attack on out-of-state producers, pointing to the growing number of French and California wineries investing in the state. (Those producers make their wine in-state.) "We certainly aren't trying to put anyone out of business," said Tom Danowski, CEO of the OWA. "We just want everyone to follow the same rules."

Wagner doesn't plan to change how he makes his wines, preferring to oversee production at a single facility. But he acknowledges that his critics may not back down. "I don't think they will ever stop until we bring production up to Oregon," he said. "That's not something we are thinking of doing."

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