Willamette Valley wine grapes

Wine grapes ripen in a vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

SALEM — A new trade group representing the Oregon wine industry is calling for statewide unity following a highly contentious and divisive legislative session earlier this year.

The Oregon Wine Council formed Oct. 24 with a 13-member board of directors including winemakers and vintners from the Willamette Valley to Southern Oregon. Members say their interests have not been represented by the Oregon Winegrowers Association, the industry’s main lobbying and advocacy organization.

Ken Johnston, co-chairman of the wine council board and chief operating officer of Winemakers Investment Properties LLC in Salem, said the group aims to serve the industry better as a whole.

“What we intend to bring is more voices to the table,” Johnston said. “We have to do a better job in the industry of making sure all voices are heard and represented.”

While Oregon’s wine industry continues to grow in sales and production, cracks began to emerge during the 2019 Legislature over a series of controversial bills.

Senate Bill 111, backed by the Oregon Winegrowers Association, was particularly seen as anti-competitive by some winegrowers. It called for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to convene an advisory committee that would review enforcement measures for the state’s wine labeling standards, and increased maximum fines for violations from $5,000 to $25,000.

Supporters of SB 111 claimed it was needed to protect the brand and integrity of Oregon wines. But opponents claimed the bill would have shrunk markets for Oregon grapes.

Oregon already has some of the highest wine labeling standards in the country. If a bottle is labeled as being of a certain variety from a certain region — such as world-renowned Willamette Valley Pinot noir — then the grapes must be at least 90% that variety, and 95% from that region.

Last year, a California-based winery was accused of deceptively labeling wines made from Oregon grapes without following those higher standards, prompting the introduction of SB 111.

Jason Atkinson, a former Oregon state senator from Ashland, helped organize an industry coalition that fought to defeat SB 111 over concerns that out-of-state customers would no longer buy their grapes. The same group went on to form the backbone of the Oregon Wine Council.

Atkinson said members of the council feel the Oregon Winegrowers Association does not support them in policy.

“We created the Oregon Wine Council really as a substantial counterbalance, and as a way to bring the industry together,” Atkinson said. “We’re tired of playing defense.”

Johnston, the council’s co-chair, said they will hold a retreat Nov. 21 in Eugene to begin discussing policy and finalize a membership roster. In the meantime, he said the group is calling for no new wine-specific legislation heading into the 2020 short legislative session.

“We just don’t think the time is right,” Johnston said. “We have to find policy solutions that are good for everyone, not just one region. We’re all in this together.”

Jana McKamey, vice president of government affairs for the Oregon Winegrowers Association, said members of the council have reached out to them, and they are taking the request into consideration.

“Similar to the (council), we are committed to the industry being based on collaboration,” McKamey said. “I think we share that same goal of trying to foster dialogue to see if we can uncover what these different challenges are and try to uncover solutions.”

Sam Tannahill, co-founder of A to Z Wineworks in Newberg and a member of the wine council board, said the success of his winery is founded upon the success of growers statewide.

A to Z Wineworks is one of the state’s largest wineries, sourcing grapes from about 3,500 acres from the Columbia River Gorge to the California border. For those vineyards to stay in business, Tannahill said they need to be able to sell grapes outside Oregon, which is why SB 111 posed such a threat.

“In basic terms, we don’t have the infrastructure to crush all the grapes we grow here in Oregon, and there’s also not the demand,” Tannahill said, adding that in 2017 between 20% and 25% of the Oregon winegrape crop was sold out of state.

The Oregon wine industry also continues to expand. According to the latest Vineyard and Winery Report conducted by the University of Oregon Institute for Policy Research and Engagement, overall production jumped from 91,342 tons of winegrapes in 2017 to 100,133 tons in 2018. Growers also planted nearly 2,000 more acres of vineyards, up to 35,972.

About 56% of Oregon winegrapes still come from the northern Willamette Valley, though the fastest rate of new growth is in the Rogue and Umpqua valleys of Southern Oregon.

Tannahill said he sees the council as a catalyst for potential change in the rapidly growing industry.

“There is no one answer, and there are no easy answers,” Tannahill said. “What we want to do is to find consensus and move forward on a unified basis. If the divide in our industry continues, other states and other industries are going to take our place on (store) shelves.”

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