Copper Cane Controversy

California winery inappropriate use of Oregon AVAs an industry concern

By Jim Gullo

Suffice it to say, in the history of Oregon’s congenial and, up until now, largely family-driven wine industry, no winemaker ever turned to another announcing, “I think I’ll try to steal your brand name. What are you going to do about it?”

In other words, Ponzi has never tried to use the name “Adelsheim” on its wine; neither has Sokol Blosser used “Drouhin.” That may sound obvious and ridiculous, but no brash, upstart Amity winemaker has ever attempted to buy a load of grapes from a Dundee vineyard, crush it in the Eola Hills and call the wine “Dundee’s finest Pinot Noir.” It just isn’t done. AVA (American Viticultural Area) rules, established 36 years ago, dictate respect among the close-knit Oregon winemaking community, and the very nature of the Oregon wine industry has precluded the misuse from happening.

Until earlier this year. In February 2018, Jim Bernau, founder and principal owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, was notified by his attorneys that a wine called the Willametter Journal had been approved by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Produced and bottled by Copper Cane in Rutherford, California, the wine’s fanciful label was made to resemble an old-time telegraph dispatch describing its source “from the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range.” In capital letters on the bottom of the label appeared the words “ESSENTIAL ARTICLE,” and the back label continued the old-time impression by claiming the grapes’ origins as the “Territory of Oregon.” On the COLA (Certificate of Label Approval/Exemption) application, the word “Willamette” appears in black, blending in with the rest of the copy.

But when the wine appeared on the store shelves of the Total Wine retail chain a few months later, the word “Willamette” on the label was printed in bright red, leaping off the page and suggesting the wine was a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from the broad Willamette Valley AVA. Ever since, Jim Bernau has been seeing bright red, devoting much of his time battling what he calls, “the greatest threat we have faced in the history of the Oregon wine industry.”

Why was it a threat? Because the Willametter Journal wasn’t some small, quirky label available from an Oregon winery’s tasting room to drop-in customers. Sold exclusively through Total Wine’s 176 nationwide outlets, it was projected to sell nearly 100,000 cases its first year, an astronomical number compared to the 3,000 to 5,000 total outputs of most Oregon wineries. This wine, the most prolific “Oregon” Pinot Noir, was not only NOT from an Oregon producer, it was questionable whether it was even made entirely from Oregon grapes, or made under Oregon rules. As Bernau examined the matter further, he discovered, to his great consternation, there was essentially nothing he could do about it. Until now.

Trademark Trouble

Bernau called Joe Wagner, the 36-year-old founder and winemaker of both the Willametter Journal and Elouan, another Copper Cane Pinot Noir brand claiming Oregon as the provenance of its fruit — and a huge seller by Oregon standards. Elouan’s 2017 Oregon Pinot Noir depicts the outline of an Oregon map on its label, highlighting the Rogue, Umpqua and Willamette valleys, and announcing all three areas are part of the Oregon Coast. “Purely Oregon, Always Coastal” reads its bewildering tagline. A few years earlier, using California coastal vineyards and similar branding, Wagner had grown the Meiomi Pinot Noir line into a national behemoth, subsequently selling it for $315 million to a major beverage conglomerate — all without the traditional winery holdings of vineyards, production facility or even tasting room. Both Copper Cane wines broadly suggested being sourced from official Oregon AVAs, which would carry restrictions on their grape sources and winemaking, without actually claiming the AVA sourcing. It was a big-business, big-marketing obfuscation — “a deliberate con,” as Bernau describes it — which nobody in Oregon would ever dare attempt.

Bernau informed Wagner the California company was infringing on his longstanding trademark for Willamette Valley Vineyards, which had grown into a publicly traded company with 16,500 owners. “He said that he takes intellectual property seriously. And he wanted to send me some wine,” recalls Bernau. “I said that we’re not going to change our posture, and he had to withdraw the wine or change the label.”

A few months passed, and when they spoke again in July, Bernau reiterated his position and Wagner promised to discuss the matter further, offering to send more wine. Two weeks later, Bernau was informed that Copper Cane had filed a petition to rescind Willamette Valley Vineyard’s nearly 40-year-old trademark — the petition is still under review. Wagner claimed the Willamette Valley, in general, and Willamette, in particular, were now generic terms describing a winemaking region, and were no longer worthy of a trademark.

“Oh yes, we did that,” says Wagner in a recent interview. “He got very aggressive with us, and the trademark challenge was our counter back to him. We’ve been facing an all-out attack on our brand and our company. Jim Bernau just wants to keep the Willamette Valley name to himself.” It would put him at an unfair disadvantage, Wagner adds, not to be allowed to name the regional source of his fruit on his bottles.

A Legislative Solution?

To his surprise, Bernau has found his only options include undergoing the lengthy and expensive legal process of defending his trademark, while challenging Copper Cane’s right to sell its Oregon wines. Bernau has mobilized the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) to demand winemaking records from Copper Cane — “All of the grapes for the Willametter Journal are sourced in the Willamette Valley,” insists Wagner) — asked the TTB to withdraw the wine’s COLA and tried hard to sway public opinion. Dave Gomberg, an Oregon legislator from the coast who’s been Bernau’s friend ever since the winemaker was a professional lobbyist and Gomberg helped clear the land for Willamette Valley Vineyards’ first vines, has challenged and ridiculed Copper Cane’s assertions of coastal provenance of its grapes.

The only relief in sight for Bernau and his brand may very well lie with the Oregon Legislature. He has begun the process of introducing a bill to ban the use of an AVA or sub-AVA name from any new wine brand or wine company after excluding long-standing exceptions like the Chehalem brand, Carlton Cellars, Eola Hills Wine Cellars and, of course, his own Willamette Valley Vineyards brand. “The future of Oregon wine depends on making new protections,” says Bernau.

A million-plus bottles of California-made Oregon Pinot Noir say otherwise. Stay tuned for an interesting battle over the use of the Willamette Valley name, and a reputation for fine Pinot Noir more than 50 years in the making.

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