Wine labels are legally required to identify where the grapes were grown. But can they name a viticultural area if the winery is located in a different state? That’s one of the issues being raised in a controversy facing California vintner Joe Wagner and Copper Cane Wines & Provisions. The dustup centers on two of Wagner’s Oregon brands, Elouan and Willametter Journal, which are made with Oregon grapes but vinified and bottled in California’s Napa Valley.
The wines have riled Oregon winemakers and lawmakers who feel that the labels and related advertising are misleading. The Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) and Oregon state representative David Gomberg allege that Copper Cane may have overstepped state and federal labeling laws by misusing Oregon’s appellations or American Viticultural Areas (AVA) on its labels and packaging.
Wagner, whose family owns Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley, made a big splash with his California Pinot Noir brand Meiomi, a regional blend from coastal vineyards in Monterey, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties. (He sold the brand to Constellation in 2015.) He takes a similar approach with his Elouan brand, blending grapes from 50 growers in Oregon's Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys.
At issue is whether Elouan can include references to those appellations since its grapes are trucked from Oregon to a Rutherford, Calif., facility for winemaking. Oregon law stipulates that if a winery produces wines out of the state it can only use the Oregon appellation, not one of its subappellations such as Willamette Valley.
While the Elouan Pinot Noir bottles are labeled with the Oregon appellation, the case boxes the wines are shipped in mention the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys. The OWA argues that this constitutes misleading advertising since the wine does not qualify to use any of those AVAs. The organization sent a complaint to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).
Oregon’s labeling rules are more stringent than the federal standards. Federal rules require 85 percent of the grapes to be from an AVA to qualify it to be listed on the label. But in order to qualify for one of Oregon’s viticultural areas, at least 95 percent of the grapes must come from the specific AVA, and the wine must be fully finished within the state.
Wagner contends that the company has done nothing wrong. “We have a difference of opinion, that’s all there is to it,” he told Wine Spectator. He says the company is aware of the regulations and is technically using the Oregon appellation for its wines. “The question is how firmly should those regulations be held to, from a marketing standpoint.” For Wagner the most important factor in a wine is where the grapes are grown, not how the wine is produced. He argues that if he is paying the same price for grapes as other producers in an AVA, he should be able to talk about where the grapes come from.
But critics don’t see it that way. On Sept. 24, Rep. Gomberg raised his concerns before the House Interim Committee on economic development and trade. Gomberg, who represents District 10 in Oregon, which includes part of Willamette Valley, also takes issue with the case markings for the Elouan Pinot Noir, which include “Oregon Coast” on the box. He argues that it implies that the “Oregon Coast” is an American Viticultural Area, when no such AVA exists.
Critics also say that the inclusion of the Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley AVAs in the marketing also creates the impression that they are nested within a larger Oregon Coast AVA. “Oregon wineries have spent the last 50 years building a valuable brand and it troubles me that someone is trying to take advantage of that branding to promote a product that is made someplace else,” Gomberg said.
“Oregon lawmakers are as furious as Oregon winemakers are,” said Jim Bernau, founder and winegrower at Willamette Valley Vineyards. Bernau compares it to taking grapes from the Champagne region of France and vinifying them in California, but still calling the wine Champagne.
Wagner denies that the company was trying to mislead consumers. “It was never our intention to make [Oregon coast] sound like an appellation,” he said. Instead, he says, he was using what he calls “romance copy” to highlight the coastal influence on the winegrowing regions.
The use of marketing language is also at the heart of the Willametter Journal label controversy. The front label states that the wine is from the “Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range,” which the Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) believes is misleading because the wine doesn’t qualify for the Willamette Valley AVA, since it’s produced out of state. “It may be misleading to consumers and fail to protect Willamette Valley winemakers who truly do grow and finish their wines there,” OWA CEO Tom Danowski told Wine Spectator via email.
The OWA also takes umbrage with language on the back label that says the wine is sourced from the “territory of Oregon,” which is not an official AVA. But Wagner contends that the wording isn’t meant to imply it’s a different appellation, it’s part of the wine’s theme of an old telegraph—the label looks like a historic news story from when Oregon was still a territory. “We have to be winemakers and growers, but we also have to be storytellers,” he said.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission is now weighing in on the debate. On Aug. 30, it sent a letter to Copper Cane requesting the production, transfer in bond and bottling records for seven of its wines by Sept. 28. It also contacted the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requesting that it evaluate the company’s certificates of label approval to ensure compliance with federal regulations and, “bring Copper Cane into compliance with those regulations if necessary.”
Jim Blumling, vice president of operations at Copper Cane, says the company is complying with the OLCC’s request. He also notes that company executives met with the OWA and other vintners in late August to try understand their points of view. “We were looking to work towards some solutions,” he said. (The company may have added to its troubles when it notified multiple Rogue Valley growers this week that it is cancelling 2018 grape contracts due to concerns over smoke taint from wildfires.)
The main concern for winemakers is protecting the reputation of their terroir—the combination of climate, geography and soils that make an appellation distinct. Pinot Noirs that carry the Willamette Valley AVA, or one of its subappellations, carry more prestige than wines with the broader Oregon appellation, and can command higher prices. “The geographic equity that has been created in the Willamette Valley AVA is essentially being taken and used when it has not been earned,” Bernau argued.
For now Copper Cane is working with the TTB for guidance on the matter. Blumling notes that the company is willing to make changes to protect the brands and satisfy the needs of consumers. “Once we get clear directions we would certainly make corrections that are agreed to,” he said.
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