TALENT — Oregon’s wine industry responded to the rejection of Rogue Valley grapes by a major California winery with a show of solidarity — and financial support — Thursday morning.
Supported by state legislators with a personal interest in the industry, some of the Willamette Valley’s best known wineries pledged their support to local pinot noir growers whose contracts with Napa Valley’s Copper Cane Winery were voided.
The California company said it dumped the contracts because of smoke taint, but local vintners say they suspect the company was looking to get out of the contract in order to purchase less-expensive grapes.
Northern Oregon grape growers, however, have jumped in and say the crop could be exceptional.
“This could be one of Oregon’s best vintage years — ever,” said Jim Bernau, CEO and founder of Salem-area Willamette Valley Vineyards.
Standing in the Bayless Vineyard off Wagner Creek Road, Bernau said northern wineries are purchasing as much as they can of the 2,000 tons of Southern Oregon fruit rejected by Copper Cane.
Bernau encouraged a gathering of vintners and media to taste the grapes.
“It’s delicious, and we just couldn’t let it hang out here on the vine,” Bernau said.
Bernau offered up 2002 Griffin Creek merlot and syrah vintages produced from local vineyards as anecdotal proof the smoke taint was overstated.
During the worst period of the Biscuit fire, Bernau toured vineyards with the Moore family.
“You couldn’t see down the vine rows, the smoke was so thick,” Bernau said. “We brought that fruit in, and that’s been 16 years. Even today, after all those years, it’s stunning. Klondike (fire) is a baby compared to the Biscuit.”
State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Lincoln City, is chairman of the Legislative Economic Development and Trade Committee and has ties to the industry stretching back decades. He said Copper Cane’s timing was devastating, not just for growers, but for tourism and small business.
“We’re all in this together, and we help each other in the face of adversity rather than take advantage of it,” Gomberg said. “Fire seasons are a tragedy, not an economic opportunity for somebody south of here. We know historically, and we know scientifically, these grapes are going to make great wine. So we came up today to pick these grapes and make great wine out of them.”
Bayliss Vineyard is one of many managed by Quail Run Vineyards, operated by the Moore family. Quail Run sells grapes to 39 wineries.
“We’ve had one cancellation,” said Michael Moore, who oversees Quail Run operations. “Everybody else is taking the grapes and thrilled with the quality, nobody has complained about smoke taint. We’ve tested for smoke taint from the lab and there is no problem.”
The combined guaiacol and 4 methylguaiacol — compounds associated with smoke taint — were 2.2 for pinot noir and 2.3 for chardonnay.
“When I tell winemakers the figures, all of them laugh at it,” Moore said. “There is no problem, it’s an economic opportunity, somebody taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Moore said he received calls from five wineries this week indicating they’d buy what they could.
“It’s going to at least keep us out of a much more severe crisis we’d be in if we weren’t able to sell the fruit and it all fell to the ground,” Moore said. “Having spent a whole year getting the fruit to this point, there is nothing more painful than the fruit just falling to the ground.”
The willingness of northern wineries to buy grapes — at the contract price — underscores the crop’s integrity, said John Pratt of Celestina Vineyard off Dark Hollow Road and president of the Oregon Wine Growers Association.
“We talk a lot about brand Oregon, and we talk about the solidarity of all the groups here,” Pratt said. “But what has happened in the last few days is not just talk, it’s absolutely proof of the fact that we as a statewide industry hang together. This has been very heartening to me, to see this has been very encouraging. These people have stepped up in a time of crisis and a time of terrible economic need.”
Traute Moore, who has been working in the industry for more than three decades, said she was amazed at the outpouring of support. But in light of the history of smoky Southern Oregon summers, she suggested there was more to the Copper Cane cancellation than meets the eye.
“I think it’s quite possible that there are other reasons behind refusing all these grapes, because we’ve had bad smoke in previous years, such as the Biscuit fire,” she said. “Plus we’ve had tests taken that show (the smoke taint) is very, very low — way, way below the sensory perception. They are claiming they taste smoke and ash. Maybe another neutral lab needs to make some decisions on this.”
The Oregon wine industry also has locked horns with Copper Cane and its owner, Joe Wagner, over misrepresentation of a California-produced wine labeled in a way as to represent it as an Oregon vintage. Gomberg filed a complaint with the Justice Department in August.
“This is about Oregon as a wine industry, about Oregonians sticking together,” said Justin King of the King Family Estate Winery near Eugene. “It’s about making sure as an industry that we stay strong, that we support each other, that we maintain our integrity and continue to work together to build upon what’s been built over the past 50 years.”
State Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, who owns vineyard land in the Rogue Valley, was among those picking grapes Thursday. He questioned the legality of Copper Cane’s rejection.
“If you’ve got a contract to buy grapes, it’s unfair to put the farmer into a position where all the sudden his market’s not there, and it may be a ploy to reduce the price of the grapes,” said DeBoer, who says he plans “extensive research” into the matter.
“Business is about morals,” DeBoer said. “I always use win/win negotiating. Let’s be honest, I don’t think smoke is the reason. The reports say (the grapes) are within tolerance.”