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Oregon lawmakers push for federal wine-label probe

Portland Business Journal

Oregon lawmakers at the federal level have jumped into the Copper Cane wine labeling controversy.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, are demanding a federal investigation of the California winery, accused by the Oregon industry and regulators of misrepresenting the origins of its Oregon wines.

State legislators, led by Central Coast Rep. David Gomberg, have already been pressing for state probes.

In a letter Tuesday, the politicians urged the administrator of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — TTB, as it’s known — to follow through on questions raised by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, and to go further:

“We echo the OLCC’s request and ask that you conduct a field audit of Copper Cane wines to ensure product integrity. We also request an expeditious investigation of the labeling practices of Copper Cane to ensure that the company is in compliance with all federal regulations. If Copper Cane wines or labels are found to be out of compliance, any offending products should be removed from the market immediately.”

The claim against Copper Cane is that the labels and packaging for some of its Oregon brands misleadingly suggest they’re from particular Oregon growing regions, called American Viticultural Areas.

Such wines can fetch higher prices than wines that carry the wider “Oregon” appellation. But under Oregon law, a wine needs to contain 95 percent grapes from a particular AVA to use the name on the label. The Oregonians say Copper Cane’s wines don’t meet the standard.

The Napa Valley-based winery says allusions to growing regions such as the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys on its "Oregon"-labeled wines are "romance copy" meant to connote a general sense of place. It says it will work with the TTB to make adjustments if the agency thinks that's necessary.

Copper Cane also says the wines it makes in California using Oregon grapes meet all federal and state sourcing and production requirements.

The OLCC asked the TTB to probe the matter in a Sept. 6 letter. OLCC spokesman Matt Van Sickle said Wednesday that “we are not aware of what movement they’ve made on the question.”

The OLCC did, however, get a response from Copper Cane to an Aug. 30 request it made to the winery for “production, transfer in bond and bottling” records for several of its Oregon wines.

Van Sickle said the commission is reviewing those records.                         

Copper Cane is also involved in a fight with the Oregon industry over canceled Rogue Valley grape contracts. The winery says the grapes suffer from "smoke taint," a claim Oregon growers dispute.

And just last week, Copper Cane was sued by an Umpqua Valley grower in a dispute stemming back to the 2016 grape harvest.