Leaders in the Washington state and Oregon wine industries joined their colleagues in California’s Napa Valley on Friday by voicing opposition to the proposed rule that would permit adjacent states to use American Viticultural Area names on wine labels.
Opinions were published fast and furious as the deadline arrived for public commenting on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) proposed rule for Notice No. 147: Use of American Viticultural Area Names as Appellations of Origin on Wine Labels. Among the 15 comments published Friday and Saturday, just two were in support for the rule as proposed. That created a near split in opinion to the rule — 18 in favor with 22 in opposition.
“The Washington State Wine Commission opposes Notice No. 147,” Executive Director Steve Warner wrote in the opening of his letter to director Amy Greenberg and Karen Thornton of the TTB regulations and rulings division. “Collaboration with stakeholders in regard to this issue is vital.”
Oregon, Walla Walla Valley leaders collaborate on proposal
It was no coincidence that arguably the most important comment was the collaborative response posted Friday by the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. After all, it was the establishment of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA that prompted the TTB’s proposed rule.
Ellen Brittan, president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, and Corey Braunel, president of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, co-signed the letter suggesting the proposed AVA labeling rule to be limited to wineries in the states that share the AVA in which a sub-AVA is located.
“A wine may be labeled with a viticultural area appellation if:
(iv) In the case of American wine, it has been fully finished within the State, or one of the States, within which the labeled viticultural area is located, or in the case of a viticultural area wholly within the boundaries of a multistate appellation, one of the States within which the multistate appellation is located (except for cellar treatment pursuant to §4.22(c), and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type under §4.22(b)).”
The Rocks District restricts Walla Walla wineries
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA is entirely within the state of Oregon, yet it is a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which includes both Washington and Oregon. However, without any amendment to TTB regulations, only wineries in the state of origin — in this case, Oregon — could use The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater as the AVA on a bottle of wine produced with those grapes.
Friday’s joint proposal would allow Walla Walla wineries — as well as wineries elsewhere in Washington and Oregon — to list “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” on the label.
“OWA and WWVWA’s joint proposal reinforces the fact that states that share a multistate AVA have a strong incentive to protect and enhance the reputation of that multistate AVA including the reputation of any sub-AVAs within that multistate AVA,” the letter stated. “Such language would allow Oregon and Washington wineries to work together to enhance the reputation of existing and future sub-AVAs within the Columbia Valley AVA, Columbia Gorge AVA and Walla Walla Valley AVA, and Idaho and Oregon wineries to do the same for sub-AVAs within the Snake River Valley AVA.”
Clubb, Adelsheim support joint proposal
Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker for L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., wrote to the TTB on winery letterhead, “I encourage you to adopt the amended rules as proposed by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and the Oregon Winegrowers Association.”
Willamette Valley vintner David Adelsheim, responsible for three of the Oregon wine industry’s AVA and the establishment of state’s labeling regulations in 1977, also rejected the TTB proposed rule and supported the joint proposal.
“Wineries in Oregon would be put at a competitive disadvantage, since a Dundee Hills wine bottled in Oregon would need to contain 90% Pinot noir grapes, while one bottled in California would only need to contain 75%,” Adelsheim wrote. “The proposed rule also threatens the quality of wines produced using Oregon’s AVAs and, thus, the reputation of wines made in our state.”
Michigan council agrees with McClellan, joint proposal
The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council charted the commenting period from start to close, pointing to Walla Walla winemaker Casey McClellan’s suggestion posted on the opening day of public commenting.
“We are interested to read the suggestions posed in Comment #1 by Casey McClellan and Comment #27 by the Oregon Winegrowers Association & Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance that would allow use of the neighboring states AVA when the sub-appellation is located fully within a multi-state AVA,” submitted Linda Jones, program manager for Michigan’s state agency. “The Council supports this form of modification of the proposed amendment and can foresee situations where this provision might be applied to wine grape growing areas of our state (Lake Michigan Shore AVA) that might become part of a large multi-state AVA in the future.”
Through Saturday, there were 41 comments published to the TTB site.
Napa Valley group wants commenting period extended
In light of the deadline activity, the law firm representing Napa Valley Vintners wants public commenting to continue.
“We respectfully request that TTB extend the Notice No. 147 comment period for thirty days to provide NVV and other interested members of the public sufficient time to evaluate and respond to comments submitted near the end of the comment period,” wrote Richard Mendelson of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty in Napa, Calif. “Given the impact that the proposed amendments to TTB’s wine labeling regulations will have on the AVA system as a whole as well as the complexity of the issues raised in the comments and proposed amendments, additional time for public comment is warranted.”
Mendelson’s letter was posted Saturday — the day after the deadline of midnight April 10.
John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Sacramento, also posted his letter in opposition on Saturday.
“Notice No. 147 would upset state directed efforts, like conjunctive labeling, to promote regional brand equity,” Aguirre wrote.
Issue divides Milton-Freewater businesses
Comments attributed to residents and business owners in Milton-Freewater were nearly united in their opposition to the proposed rule.
“Let us survive, let us thrive, let us keep our unique little AVA,” wrote Shirley Cline, who is listed on the Milton-Freewater Area Chamber of Commerce website as owner of The Stitch Nitch. “We would be very happy to welcome Walla Walla winemakers to set up shop in Milton-Freewater. Empty store fronts on main street are awaiting new life as wine tasting rooms and quaint shops.”
Among the few to publish comments on Friday supportive of the TTB’s proposed rule was Leonard Brown, whose family operates Watermill Winery in Milton-Freewater as well as Blue Mountain Cider Co., and farms 105 acres of vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley — including 13 acres in the new AVA.
“Our family and myself strongly believe it is in the best interest to support the TTB proposal to amend 27 C.F. R 4.25 (e) (3) (iv),” Brown wrote. “This amendment will ultimately give the consumer the information they desire when making a purchase. It will also promote and define to the consumer the unique wines made from the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA.”
Ironically, Cayuse Vineyards vintner Christophe Baron, whose success inspired plantings in Milton-Freewater’s cobblestones and establishment of the new AVA, said he has no plans to use The Rocks District on the labels of his acclaimed wines, even though he is one of the few winery owners in a position to take advantage of it under current TTB rules because established both his winery and vineyards as part of the Oregon wine industry.