Two wines at the center of a dispute in Oregon — Elouan and The Willametter Journal — will remain on the market but their labels will change, according to California winemaker Joe Wagner, owner of Copper Cane winery.
“The brand isn’t going away,” said the Napa vintner, who has drawn the ire of the Willamette Valley wine establishment.
The Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ruled Friday the labels of the two wines will have to make it clear the beverages were made in California using mostly Oregon grapes.
A complaint filed with the TTB said the labels insinuated that Elouan and The Willametter Journal were Oregon wines.
“We voluntarily surrendered (nine) labels, many of which we never used or were outdated,” Wagner said in a Tuesday interview. “We worked with the TTB and went back and forth to correct the way, and what we wanted to message. We made those changes and resubmitted.”
In announcing the federal agency’s decision Monday, Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who chairs the House Economic Development and Trade Committee, made it clear the Oregon wine industry was jeopardized by the labels’ claims.
The Willametter name implies a connection to the Willamette Valley, and the front label includes the text “the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range,” but the wine doesn’t qualify for the Willamette Valley appellation.
Federal rules require wines that use an American Viticultural Area designation in their marketing must be fully finished in its home state, with the exception of cellar treatment and blending, which does not alter the class and type of the wine. The Elouan label mentions three Oregon AVAs — Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua — even though the wines are produced in California using grapes from Oregon.
“The verdict is in — Elouan and The Willametter wines are deceptively labeled,” Gomberg said. “This is consumer fraud, pure and simple, and I am glad the federal agency has caught it.”
Gomberg anticipates the Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon Liquor Control Commission will announce findings of their investigations this week.
“I am hopeful we’ll get a ruling this week, and people will be talking about it over a glass of Oregon wine during Thanksgiving dinner,” he said.
Despite the initial victory, Gomberg sees the ruling as somewhat hollow because the TTB is allowing wine already on shelves and warehouses to be used up rather than recalled.
“It’s good news on one hand, but it doesn’t fix the stuff that’s in the pipeline,” Gomberg said. “There’s more than 900,000 bottles out there. In the three years it takes to clear that stuff out, how much damage is that going to do to the Oregon industry?”
Wagner disputes Gomberg’s math, saying there are 3,000 cases, or 36,000 bottles with the labels in question, on the market.
“That (900,000 bottles) is the equivalent of our 2017 sales in calendar volume,” said Wagner, who added that the new labels certified by the TTB will begin going on bottles in early 2019.
“Our intention was to talk about where the fruit was sourced,” he said.
While Oregon wines are required to be made from 100 percent Oregon fruit, California requires only 75 percent of the fruit to be from the Golden State.
Gomberg claims Wagner misled federal wine label reviewers when the Elouan and Willametter labels were approved. As a result, he argued, there should be no “use-up” allowance.
Gomberg said Elouan and The Willametter Journal look and taste like they have an additive in them that is legal to use in California but not in Oregon wines.
Lodi pinots, mass produced in California, are often dyed with an additive called Mega Purple, concentrated from a grape variety called Rubired, Gomberg said.
“We suspect that Copper Cane is adding something to the vintage down there to make it darker and thicker,” he said.
Wagner dismisses that notion and said the underlying issued revolves around a trademark dispute with Willamette Valley Vineyards owner Jim Bernau.
Wagner said The Willametter Journal is an exclusive brand for retailer Total Wine.
“The allegations are quite disruptive,” Wagner said. “They’re looking for something to stick. I’m happy to bring them to the table and answer any questions.”
Copper Cane rejected $4 million worth of contracted grapes because of smoke taint following the region’s summer wildfires. Southern Oregon vintners, nonetheless, have done a “phenomenal job in the market place,” Wagner said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The long-term implications are still to come, but for now the agency’s decision brings some clarity, Southern Oregon winemakers said.
Rogue Valley winemaker Herb Quady said the agency’s decision is a good thing for wine drinkers, who may not be familiar with regional variations.
“Wine labeling laws are designed to protect the consumer and to communicate to them the type of wine that they will enjoy when they get home,” Quady said. “It seems pretty clear that Copper Cane has pushed the boundaries of acceptability in regards to accurately labeling their wines, especially with regard to The Willametter wine, and I’m glad that the TTB has stepped in to enforce the laws.”
Nonetheless, Quady sees the value of providing California wineries with fruit that can’t be replicated in hotter climates.
“After adjusting the labels in their new vintages, (I hope) they find success with their Oregon wines so they can continue to purchase fruit from Southern Oregon and invest in our industry,” Quady said.
Ross Allen, president of Rogue Valley Vintners, said with many of the association’s members still working out contracts with Copper Cane, the organization wouldn’t make a formal statement.
As co-owner and vineyard manager of 2Hawk Vineyard and Winery, Allen said he is happy to see the state taking action.
“I applaud Rep. Gomberg for his dedication and passion for helping to protect our AVAs and the award-winning wines produced here,” Allen said.
John Pratt of Celestina Vineyard off Dark Hollow Road and president of the Oregon Wine Growers Association welcomed the federal agency’s decision. In light of the many vineyard contracts Copper Cane has with Oregon growers, Pratt thinks the renowned Napa Valley vintner will simply rework marketing efforts.
“Oregon is a great place to grow pinot,” Pratt said. “I think Mr. Wagner will be able to find a more appropriate way to label his wine, and to use the excellent fruit grown in our state without violating labeling restrictions.”
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.