Public commenting on The Rocks District debate closes today

By on April 10, 2015
The Freewater very cobbly loam soil type dominates the proposed The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area in Oregon.

The Freewater very cobbly loam soil type dominates The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area in Oregon. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Public commenting ends tonight on the proposed rule by the federal government that would provide more label information for wine consumers and more flexibility for wineries that bottle wine using grapes grown in an adjacent state.

Great Northwest Wine has learned the Washington State Wine Commission and Oregon Wine Board each plan to post their comments today regarding Notice No. 147, the proposed rule inspired by the recent establishment of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area.

Through Thursday, 26 comments had been published on the government website. The list includes winemakers, consumers and government officials as the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Idaho Wine Commission executive director. There were 16 in favor of the proposed rule, while there were 10 opposed to varying degrees.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which regulates the wine industry for the Department of the Treasury, posted its notice of proposed rulemaking and opened public commenting on Feb. 9. Comments may be posted online, sent through U.S. Mail or delivered by hand/courier before 11:59 p.m. EDT.

Wineries in adjacent states could use AVA on label

Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineayrds.

Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards discovered the cobble-filled area near Milton-Freewater, Ore., that reminded him of an area of his native France. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

In broad terms, the proposed TTB rule would allow wineries in adjacent states to use the name of an American Viticultural Area on their label if that is where the grapes originate. For example, a winery in Oregon could reference “Napa Valley” on a bottle of wine that uses grapes from the country’s most famous AVA.

“This proposal would allow the use of American Viticultural Area (AVA) names as appellations of origin on labels of wines that have been fully finished within a State adjacent to the State in which the AVA is located,” the TTB wrote. “Current regulations require wines labeled with an AVA appellation of origin to be fully finished within the State in which the AVA is located. The proposal would be consistent with the current TTB requirements for use of a State name as an appellation of origin on wine labels. TTB is making this proposal in response to comments TTB received during the comment period for Notice No. 142, Proposed Establishment of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater Viticultural Area, which is located near the Oregon-Washington State line in northeastern Oregon (see Docket No. TTB-2014-0003).”

Because The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA is a single-state AVA in Oregon, TTB wine labeling regulations prevent that new AVA name to serve as an appellation of origin by any vintner who does not bottle its Rocks District wines in Oregon.

Walla Walla Valley winemakers in support of the rule change proposed by the federal government include Richard Funk of Saviah Cellars, who makes wine in Walla Walla but owns vines in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.

“From a producer’s perspective, this allows me and many other wineries on the Washington side of the Walla Walla valley to promote the new AVA,” Funk wrote. “From a consumer’s perspective, this just simply makes sense, this is the information they want to know. Finally, as a grower, if I choose to sell my grapes to a winery in Portland or a winery in Woodinville, I would like for them to be able to use the AVA on the label.”

Idaho Wine Commission supports rule change

Moya Dolsby has been serving as the executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission since 2008. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Moya Dolsby has been serving as the executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission since 2008. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Among those also supporting the proposed rule change is Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission.

“Due to a grape shortage Idaho is currently experiencing, several Idaho wineries are looking to Washington and Oregon to source their fruit. The ruling would allow wineries to specify the AVA their grapes are sourced from. This would not only give them a broader reach to consumers, but it would affectively ensure consumers are provided with adequate information as to the type of wine they are purchasing.”

Nicolas Quille, general manager of Pacific Rim Winemakers in West Richland, Wash., finishes wines made with grapes from the Willamette Valley and Umpqua Valley. At this point, however, those bottles must read “Oregon.”

“The change authorizing wineries that fully finish grapes from an AVA in an adjacent State to use such AVA on their labels will allow our company to clearly communicate the provenance of our grapes to our consumers,” Quille wrote Feb. 18. “It will also allow us to fairly compete at the same level as fellow wineries with operations in Oregon.”

Some Walla Walla Valley vintners seek restrictions

Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., also planted McClellan Estate Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley in 2003. The vineyard is L.I.V.E. and Salmon-Safe, and it produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., also planted McClellan Estate Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley in 2003. The vineyard is L.I.V.E. and Salmon-Safe, and it produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Longtime producer Casey McClellan, who makes wine in downtown Walla Walla at his Seven Hills Winery and grows grapes on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, favored the proposed rule. He’s served on both the Oregon Wine Board and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, and his comments were the first published back on Feb. 10.

However, he’d prefer a restriction.

“Wine made from grapes grown in an AVA that is wholly contained within one state may only be finished in an adjacent state if the labeled AVA is a sub-AVA of an AVA that is shared between the two states (the growing state and the finishing state),” he wrote.

2 Napa Valley groups critical of proposal

Two groups in the Napa Valley of California have posted comments rejecting the proposed rulemaking by the TTB that would permit vintners in Oregon to reference wines made with Napa Valley fruit on their label.

Two groups in the Napa Valley of California have posted comments rejecting the proposed rule by the federal government that would permit vintners in an adjacent state to reference wines made with Napa Valley fruit on their label. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Those fully opposed include the Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit with more than 500 members, as well as the Napa County Board of Supervisors, which posted its comment on April 7.

“The Napa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to oppose the proposed amendments embodied in TTB Notice No. 147. These amendments would allow wineries in neighboring states to evade California state laws essential to preserving the integrity of the Napa Valley name and preventing deceptive labeling,” the group said in a letter.

Walla Walla winemaker Jason Fox wrote that the proposed rule is “too broad,” adding, “simply saying ‘adjacent state’ opens up potential abuse of the spirit of the law.”

As it stands now, Tim Kennedy of Don Carlo Winery in the Walla Walla Valley, is one of the few vintners allowed to use The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater because both his vineyard and wines are finished in Milton-Freewater. He didn’t fully support the rule proposed.

“I think the solution is to allow Walla Walla AVA wineries in Washington State who own vineyards in “The Rocks District” in Oregon the use of the name on their label,” Kennedy wrote. “This will cause some policing issues for TTB; but narrows the scope of the change to the rules.”

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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