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California winery works with investigators on label controversy

Federal investigators have already checked records at winery, owner says.
George Plaven

Capital Press

Published on October 12, 2018 9:35AM

Last changed on October 12, 2018 10:21AM

A California winery has been targeted by Oregon winemakers over its references to “Willamette” on is wine labels.

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A California winery has been targeted by Oregon winemakers over its references to “Willamette” on is wine labels.

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The owner of a Napa Valley winery accused by Oregon winemakers of using deceptive labels says he is working with both state and federal investigators, while describing the controversy as a “charade.”

Copper Cane LLC, of Rutherford, Calif., buys grapes from about 50 growers in Oregon to make Pinot noir and rosé wines. Two brands in particular, “The Willametter Journal” and “Elouan,” have raised suspicion among Oregon winemakers that the labels and packaging falsely imply the wines originate in the state’s high-value American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs.

The dispute is now on the radar of Oregon congressional delegates, who sent a letter Oct. 9 to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requesting an investigation into Copper Cane’s labels.

But Joe Wagner, who owns and operates the winery, said the agency already visited and began combing through production records weeks ago.

“As far as we see it, we are still doing things the right way,” Wagner told the Capital Press.

A spokesman for the TTB said he cannot comment on any investigation, but said the agency is well aware of the issue.

The Oregon wine industry raised concerns over the labels, which they claim misrepresent their appellation of origin.

Under federal law, if a wine labels itself as coming from a particular viticultural area, such as the Willamette Valley AVA, then 85 percent of the grapes must be from that area. Oregon labeling laws are even stricter, requiring 95 percent.

To protect the integrity of wine regions, labels cannot make any false, ambiguous or misleading statements about the wine’s origin. That is where Oregon winemakers take issue with “The Willametter Journal,” a Pinot noir that mentions “the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range” on its label. Industry leaders feel that could wrongly imply the wine comes from the Willamette Valley AVA.

“Elouan” also prominently lists the Willamette Valley, Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley on its retail cases, all three of which are designated AVAs in Oregon.

Jana McKamey, vice president of government affairs with the Oregon Winegrowers Association, said the industry has long been at the forefront of protecting its wine regions and truth-in-labeling.

“The (industry’s) priority is to assist state and federal regulatory agencies in ensuring all wineries, wherever they are crushing grapes, comply with federal regulations and Oregon’s 41-year-old labeling rules that are designed to protect the integrity of Oregon’s esteemed winegrowing regions,” McKamey said in a statement.

In their joint letter to the TTB Administrator John Manfreda, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader stated that if any of Copper Cane’s labels are out of compliance the products should be removed from the market.

Wagner, the Copper Cane owner, said he is still awaiting a final decision from the TTB. The winery is also in regular contact with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which asked to review production, transfer and bottling records for seven wines, including “The Willametter Journal” and “Elouan” brands. A spokesman for OLCC said that review is currently in process.

Jim Blumling, vice president of operations for Copper Cane, said the winery is “willing and amenable to working through and coming up with a solution that works for everybody.” Wagner said he feels the Oregon wines are labeled correctly, and references to the Willamette Valley and “Territory of Oregon” are just a fun, fancy way of telling the wines’ story.

“You see this around the world,” Wagner said. “It is the story of the life of the wine.”

Wagner said he was surprised to hear some winemakers were upset, and called the issue a distraction led by a few people with an ax to grind.

“At the end of the day, I assume these guys are going to have some egg on their face,” he said.



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