The Changeup: Awash with Questions

Exploring the Copper Cane AVA conundrum

By Michael Alberty

Meet the Elouan 2016 Missoulan Wash Oregon Reserve Pinot Noir ($48). Using grapes from the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), it is also made in Rutherford, California, which is causing quite a stir in the Oregon wine community. Oregon winegrowers are asking lots of questions about this wine. But, are they the right ones?

The Missoulan Wash is made by Copper Cane, a California- based company owned by Joseph “Joe” Wagner. Wagner is a fifth-generation California winemaker whose grandparents gave us Caymus Conundrum and a grandson with a Ric Flair-like gift for marketing. Copper Cane’s Elouan label features Oregon Pinot Noirs made in California, and their marketing strategy has made Wagner the least popular man in Oregon since Kobe Bryant.

The conflict between Copper Cane and the Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) began earlier this year when Willamette Valley Vineyards founder Jim Bernau became concerned Elouan’s labels and marketing materials were deceptive. Jim Gullo’s article in this issue explores in greater detail on this subject, but here’s the heart of the argument: Copper Cane makes wine in California using grapes they bought in Oregon. Because of that, state and federal regulations limit them to using the word “Oregon” to describe the origin of their grapes; they cannot even imply an AVA on its label or marketing materials. The OWA believes Copper Cane violated those regulations by referring to the Missoulan Wash as a “Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noir” on its website and using the phrase “hillside Willamette sites” on its back label. 

I spoke with Wagner and Copper Cane’s vice president of operations, Jim Blumling; they insisted the Missoulan Wash is made with 100 percent Willamette Valley Pinot Noir grapes. Wagner claims Copper Cane pays the same price per ton for Willamette Valley grapes as any top Willamette Valley producer and is intentionally being placed, for no legitimate reason, at a competitive disadvantage by not being able to tell consumers where his fruit is sourced. “The only difference,” Wagner says, “is we have our winemaking all down here under one roof so we can make sure everything is done in the style we want it to be.” 

Recently, I was discussing this issue on social media. Someone asked, “Provided it is accurate, who gets hurt if a winery gives consumers more information about where their grapes come from?”

I was at a loss for an answer. If Copper Cane is making the Missoulan Wash with fruit from within the Willamette AVA, why shouldn’t the winery be able to put the name of the Willamette Valley AVA on the label? Why do they have to use “Oregon” instead? Just saying “because it’s the rule” isn’t sufficient. I wanted to know why the rule exists and what it is protecting.

I asked several Willamette Valley winegrowers to justify the rule. Their answers fell into three categories: easier regulatory enforcement, wine quality and cultural practices.

The first argument contends that if the winery is operating within the Willamette Valley AVA, it will be easier for state regulatory agencies like the OLCC to monitor them and enforce regulations about labeling, advertising, etc. This reasoning raises a few questions.

First, is the OLCC known for being particularly diligent about visiting wineries to determine whether they are complying with labeling laws? Second, doesn’t the OLCC already have jurisdiction over any wine with the “Oregon” appellation on its label, regardless of where the wine was produced or bottled? Finally, if Wagner builds a facility in Newberg to make his wines, will everyone be content he is abiding by the rules or will other issues remain?   

This leads to the second justification: quality. It has been suggested that the farther away you are from where the grapes are picked, the greater the risk they’ll be damaged, which won’t be good for the wine. A May 2000 case before the European Court of Justice involving Spain and Belgium addressed this very issue, ruling the farther production traveled from the original appellation, the more likely the quality of the wine will suffer.

Some Oregon winegrowers feel a wine made with grapes driven from Newberg to Napa shouldn’t be allowed to bear the quality mark of the Willamette Valley name on its label. That may be a moot point because Wagner makes Pinots so big and rich, I have a hard time believing the Missoulan Wash would taste any different if it were made and bottled in Carlton or Cleveland.

Wagner defends his transportation process. “We use a ton of dry ice to cool the grapes down, and even if it’s in transit for eight or nine hours, we get them into our fermenters nice and cool to begin our cold soaks. We’ve never sacrificed quality. Whether it’s from the Rogue Valley, Umpqua Valley or Willamette Valley, we use the same process with that fruit, bringing the grapes here nice and chilled and turning them into some fantastic wines.”

The cultural practices argument maintains people making wine within close proximity exchange — or steal — the best techniques and ideas from one another. Over the years, David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyards, believes this process generated a “Willamette Valley style” that captured the attention of the wine world. If winemakers are plying their trade in another state, they can’t be influenced by the Willamette Valley’s culture and will likely make a wine out-of-step with the Willamette Valley’s approach and practices.

This argument requires more questions to be answered. First, is there currently just one Willamette Valley style? Second, would a critique of Wagner’s style of Pinot Noir apply to producers who are in the Willamette Valley making bigger, richer wines? Finally, if Wagner was making wine near Willamette Valley producers, do you think he would give up his preferred style of wine?

Many Oregon winemakers I’ve talked with over the past few weeks don’t care for Wagner’s style of Pinot Noir and don’t want Elouan associated with their state, much less their AVA. But is the big concern about Copper Cane playing by the rules? Or is the issue more about a large competitor coming into the marketplace to try and change the game with an alternative style that many local producers find “un-Oregon?”

Oregon winemakers need to ask themselves if legislative or regulatory actions will have any significant impact on what concerns them most about Elouan wines. Wagner will likely clean up all his labeling and marketing materials — the process has already started — to become compliant with state and federal regulations. This will allow him to keep making Elouan wines the same way he always has.

 This means the real battle for palates and minds will probably be fought where it has traditionally been waged: the marketplace. Wagner says, “I think Oregon is in a great discovery period right now for the American consumer, and it has a great story to tell.” The question is: who, Copper Cane or Oregon winemakers, will tell the story most effectively?

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