Vintners cry foul over legal inquiry

Some local winery owners are displeased by an inquiry of state agencies into wineries' land use.

Officials from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land Conservation and Development want to bring local law into alignment with state law on what activities are considered appropriate use of winery land.

At a recent presentation to the state Board of Agriculture, land-use coordinator Jim Johnson expressed his concern over what affects non-farming activities on winery land could have on neighboring farms. He said his fear is that a lack of unity between state and local governments could provide wineries in counties with relaxed interpretations of the land-use law an unfair advantage over those in areas with stricter interpretations.

The effort would seemingly restrict wineries' ability to host events such as weddings and concerts on their property as a means of generating revenue and bringing in new business.

That effort is not sitting well with many winery owners in Ashland.

Phil Kodak, owner of Ashland Vineyards and Winery, sees it as another effort to pinch winery owners' profits, one that he says could pinch them out of business altogether.

"This state has the most punitive laws when it comes to wineries," Kodak said. "I came here back in 1994, and if I had known how backward this state was I probably would have just moved to California instead."

Ashland Vineyards & Winery lies on a 120-acre parcel of land to the west of town. For a decade and a half, Kodak has grown his own grapes there, producing original brand wines from his hillside property.

For more than a decade, creating wine has been his passion. But Kodak said that, despite winning various state and regional awards for his merlots and cabernet sauvignons, he has lost nearly $2 million as a winery operator. "I have never made a profit," he said.

He said the state's tax system treats small wineries the same way it treats large agricultural operations, subjecting them to various fees and taxes.

Asking winery owners to cut back on promotional and income-generating events while continuing to squeeze their profits, Kodak said, is taking things a step too far.

"They have never changed the tax structure," he said. "And it's sad. I don't think there's a single winery in the state that can make a profit."

Kodak is not the only one upset by the deliberations.

"I think it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Robert Trottmann, general manager for Weisinger's of Ashland winery.

Weisinger's regularly holds the type of events state officials want to crack down on, including dinners, live music and special events as new wines are introduced. Should the state restrict his non-growing land use, Weisinger's would be faced with a severe drop-off in business, Trottmann said. "It would dramatically cut into my business. I'm just flabbergasted that anyone would think this is a good idea."

Kodak said that, if the state were to restrict what activities wineries could use to generate income, they should reverse laws preventing them from distributing their own product and let them recoup some of their losses.

Under Oregon law, wineries are not allowed to sell or distribute their wines. That makes them subject to additional retail fees from super markets — fees Kodak says have risen steadily in recent years.

With the money he's lost, the only viable option left, Kodak said, is to downsize.

"It's likely the only way wineries like mine can make it," he said.

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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