Grape growers and winemakers in the Umpqua Valley are split on how to react to a recent trade dispute involving the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and California winemaker Copper Cane.
The dispute involves federal labeling regulations and could affect the entire Oregon wine industry.
Copper Cane was accused of mislabeling in September for buying grapes in Oregon, producing wine with them in California and labeling the Elouan and Willametter Journal wines as coming from specific American Viticultural Areas.
Although the Umpqua Valley only grows nine percent of the wine produced in Oregon, Cody Parker from Melrose Vineyards near Roseburg said Copper Cane effectively expanded the name of the viticultural areas.
“We need as much wine and fruit to leave the area as possible and to promote the area,” Parker said. “Which no other brand has done that for the Umpqua Valley on a national level as Copper Cane.”
Parker sells some of his fruit to Copper Cane and is concerned the company might abandon Oregon if the OLCC puts up too much of a fight. However, Copper Cane owner Joe Wagner told The Oregonian he just wanted to advertise where the grapes were grown and is working to meet state and federal requests.
The OLCC told Wagner that only wines “finished” in Oregon can claim specific wine regions, which is similar to how Champagne is only grown and produced in the region in France of the same name. The OLCC is seeking to revoke Copper Cane’s ability to sell in Oregon.
“Copper Cane is buying fruit and supporting a large amount of acreage,” Parker said. “We’re all part of the Oregon wine industry to varying degrees. When our wine can’t be marketed within our own state ... it ultimately affects all of our business.”
According to the Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report published by the Oregon Wine Board, Oregon-grown grapes produced 3.6 million cases of wine. The Elouan label from Copper Cane, which makes five types of wine, sold 120,000 cases. Th wine is advertised as coming from the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys.
Terry Brandborg owns Brandborg Vineyard and Winery in Elkton. He said that meeting state and federal labeling regulations was necessary for all companies and not meeting those could lead to false advertising.
“If it’s properly labeled as Oregon, every time you see ‘Oregon’ on a shelf I think it makes a little recognition in the consumer’s consciousness,” Brandborg said. “If they enjoy the wine, they will go look for Oregon again. But when it’s false advertising and false labeling, I don’t think it serves the purpose of brand ‘Oregon.’”
In a letter to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, state politicians argued that Copper Cane “has the appearance of willfully causing confusion as to the geographic origin of the wine and is a misuse of Oregon geographic terms.”
The bureau has since asked Copper Cane to remove all of the previously approved labels and make new ones that do not point to specific American Viticultural Areas, but the state as a whole. The company has voluntarily complied and already submitted new labels to the bureau, according to an AP report.
Charles Becker owns the small Becker Vineyard and said he didn’t see it affecting his business, but that it could be good for Oregon wine.
“It’s nice that the feds leveled the playing field because what they were doing was not right,” Becker said. “I don’t think the general consumer is even going to think about it. It’s certainly not going to diminish our ranking, that’s for sure.”