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A couple of weeks ago, MNB reported on what we called “an ongoing and pitched battle taking place in Oregon over the legitimacy of a wine brand that claims to be from the Willamette Valley, but is not. Now, federal regulators have ruled in favor of Oregon winemakers seeking to defend their terroir.

The wines in question were made and bottled by Copper Cane in Rutherford, California, with a label saying that the source of the grapes was “the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range.” The clear implication was that this was a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley, which it was at the very least questionable.

When this claim was questioned by Jim Bernau, founder and principal owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, Copper Cane owner Joe Wagner’s response was to file a petition “to rescind Willamette Valley Vineyard’s nearly 40-year-old trademark” and claim that Willamette was now “a winemaking region, and were no longer worthy of a trademark.”

Now, Wine Spectator reports that “Wagner can no longer reference specific Oregon appellations on his Oregon wine labels. That's according to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has pulled its earlier label approval for Wagner's Elouan and Willametter Journal Pinot Noirs. The wines, which are made with Oregon grapes but produced in California, have been mired in controversy over their use of Oregon's appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVA), on their labels and packaging.”

The move essentially reinforces federal labeling rules requiring “that a wine must be produced in Oregon in order for it to display one of Oregon's viticultural areas on the label. Wines produced in neighboring states may only use the broader Oregon designation.”

Bernau is quoted in the story as saying that “this is a big deal,” but the win isn’t as total as he would like. According to Wine Spectator, “Bernau also questions whether the Elouan and Willametter Journal wines were made using 100 percent Oregon grapes, which he says is still being investigated. State law requires that a wine be made entirely from Oregon grapes in order to say it is from Oregon. The state's winemaking regulations are also different from California's, and Bernau has vocally questioned whether Wagner is complying with Oregon rules.”

Wagner has said he will change the labels on future releases, but will not change how and where he makes his wines.
KC's View:
I’m glad that the case turned out this way, mostly because Oregon winemakers I know and like generally regard Wagner with something less than contempt.

I said it before and I’ll say it again. It seemed clear to me that Wagner is playing games, trying to diminish the importance of provenance, which is the same thing as lowering standards. He is promoting the lack of transparency, hoping that through smoke and noise accuracy will mean less ethically and commercially.

We have damn few enough standards these days, and I have a real problem with this. Always have. Labels matter. Words matter. Accuracy matters.

Full disclosure: In addition to having a number of friends who are Willamette Valley winemakers - including Jim Bernau - my love of Oregon and Pinot Noir means that I’ve invested a little bit of money in his Willamette Valley Vineyards. (I always wanted to be a vineyard owner, and this probably is as close as I’m ever going to get.) So, to be clear - I have a horse in this race. But … I’d feel this way even if I’d never been to Oregon, and anybody who has been reading MNB for any period of time won’t be surprised by my take on this.