If a winery in the famed Willamette Valley uses grapes grown in the Umpqua Valley to produce bottles of, say, Pinot Noir, is it still a Willamette Valley wine. And if so, how much of the Umpqua Valley fruit can go into the wine for it to still be able to carry the coveted Willamatte Valley name on its label?
Those questions — which at their core have the potential to pit Douglas County vineyards with wineries up north — are at the heart of a growing dispute in the state’s wine industry. That dispute is creating headlines as wineries unhappy with the established Oregon Winegrowers Association announced they have formed a second trade group, the Oregon Wine Council.
At a time of explosive growth in the Oregon wine industry — in the last decade the state has gone from 275 wineries to just under 800, and the industry now accounts for more than $600 million in annual sales — some jockeying for position among stakeholders is understandable.
Members of the new group say they want to represent the interests of the wine industry statewide, including Douglas County, and not just in the Willamette Valley.
“We formed the OWC because a majority of large, taxpaying wine growers as well as many small producers around the state don’t have a say in how their tax money is spent,” Sam Tannahill, OWC board member and founder of A to Z Wineworks in Newberg, said in a press release. “We haven’t been represented. Our goal with the OWC is to change that.”
The split reflects a fundamental difference in the wine growing regions of the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon. The Willamette Valley is home to more than 500 wineries and is recognized as one of the top Pinot noir producing areas in the world.
Southern Oregon, including Douglas County, has more vineyards than wineries, and growers want to be able to sell their grapes widely.
OWA lists several hundred wine growing members, including a number of familiar names from Douglas County: Abacela Winery, Trella Vineyards, Bradley Vineyards, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, Triple Oak Vineyard, Foon Estate Vineyard, Delfino Vineyards & Winery, Spangler Vineyards & Winery LLC and Ferraro Family Vineyards.
The nascent OWC hasn’t listed its membership or board of directors yet.
Members of the older organization said it’s already a statewide organization for growers and producers.
“The argument that somehow the OWA is a group of selfish people from one area of the state is patently false,” said board member Justin King, the national sales manager for King Estate Winery in Eugene. “We have reps from all over the state, from southern Oregon, more than a few, in fact.”
A bill in the Legislature contributed to the split. The measure sought to more strictly enforce standards for labeling wines as from a certain region. That would have a direct impact on Douglas County vineyards, many of whom send their grapes to other wineries for production.
Standards say a certain percentage of grapes have to come from a region referenced on a label. For example, a winery buying some grapes from Umpqua Valley but labeling its wines from the Willamette Valley could include no more than 5% of that Umpqua Valley fruit in its wine. The standards already exist but enforcement by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission would have been ramped up the legislation, which did not pass.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.