California Vintner Accused of Misleading Consumers with Packaging

According to laws governing the labeling of wine, labels are legally required to identify where the grapes used were grown. As such, a recent issue that has arisen is how to proceed if the area in which the grapes are cultivated and harvested differs from the state in which the winery is located.

California vintner, Joe Wagner and Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, now face scrutiny and a complaint as to its labeling practices. The case comes down to Wagner’s Oregon brand wine, Elouan, which is made with Oregon grapes but is vinified and bottled in Napa Valley, CA.

Misleading Labels

The different locations of the viticultral area and the winery have led Oregon lawmakers and winemakers to speak out claiming the wine’s labels and advertising mislead the consumer. The Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) and Oregon state representative David Gomberg feel that the vintner misuses Oregon’s name and American Viticultural Areas (AVA) on its labels and packaging, thereby exceeding the scope of state and federal labeling laws.

Elouan, the pinot noir wine at issue, blends grapes from 50 growers within the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue valleys in Oregon. These grapes are shipped to California, where they are made into wine. However, Oregon law makes clear that if a winery produces wines out of state then it can only use Oregon on the label and not a sub-appellation such as Umpqua.

Though there’s no mention of these sub-appellations on the wine bottle labels themselves (which only mention Oregon), the boxes in which they’re shipped list all three. Because of this, the OWA has sent a complaint to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), expressing its belief that these labels mislead consumers.

Federal vs. State Wine Regulations

According to federal regulations, 85 percent of grapes must originate from a specific AVA in order for it to be listed on the label. However, Oregon takes a stricter stance, increasing that number to 95 percent, as well as mandating that the wine must be entirely completed within the state.

Wagner doesn’t see it that way. He explained that the most important factor of a wine is where its grapes are grown – not where it’s finished being made. Since he is paying the same amount of money for the grapes as other vintners in those sub-areas, he should be allowed to make mention of where the grapes are grown.

This is not what Rep. Gomberg, who represents District 10 in Oregon (which includes part of Willamette Valley) takes issue with. Rather, his concern lies with the fact that the box in which the wine comes includes “Oregon Coast,” implying that it’s an AVA, but yet no such area exists.

Borrowing Prestige it Hasn’t Earned

The label on the wine states that it’s from the “Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range,” which it doesn’t qualify as, since it’s made out of state. The founder and winegrower at Willamette Valley Vineyards, Jim Bernau, likens the situation to taking grapes from Champagne in France, vinifying them in California, and still calling the wine Champagne.

Wagner contends that it was simply a case of attempting to create “romance copy” in order to explain the influence that Oregon’s coast had on the wine. However, part of the problem is the prestige, which comes from certain areas of grape growth, selling for higher prices.

Sexy Marketing or Misleading Copy?

The back label of the wine says that it’s sourced from the “territory of Oregon,” which may make it sound like that is an AVA, but Wagner defends the choice, explaining that since the label looks like a historic news story from when Oregon was in fact a territory, it was added to the label to evoke a feeling and paint a picture. “We have to be winemakers and growers, but we also have to be storytellers,” he said.

Looking to the Future

Though Copper Cane is currently working with the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau right now and to make changes, it is yet to be seen what exactly those changes will be. The OLCC has asked that the Bureau evaluate the company’s labels and certificates and ensure that it is compliant with all federal laws.


Posted in: Wine Law