Can the Legislature kill Oregon's wine industry?

Do you want to see headlines like this: "Medford to host wine tourism event in November" — or like this: "Fruit Growers League disbands after 96 years"?

The wine industry is one of the few economic bright spots in Oregon's economic picture. With a little encouragement that can continue. But there's a black cloud on the horizon. Oregon's Legislature is in session and is considering House Bill 3280, an esoteric land-use bill of the type that usually flies under the radar. The kind that often creates damage we never can quite trace back to its cause.

I won't describe the long history of that bill, but if passed as it stands it's clearly detrimental to the wine industry. It might not kill the industry outright, but then some of us can remember when the pear industry was healthy and growing, an economic powerhouse here in Jackson County. Orchards were common sights. Now we have fallow land that isn't contributing much to our tax base or creating jobs for our residents. Could some of the blame fall on land-use laws like HB 3280?

Is Salem again failing Oregon businesses?

We're rightly proud of our wine industry in Oregon, but compare it to our neighbor state, Washington. Both states began at roughly the same place a decade ago but today the economic impact of wine in Washington is $3 billion to Oregon's $2 billion. What's different?

A small-winery focus for one. Small wineries, those producing less than 5,000 cases a year, are especially dependent on tourism and tasting room sales because they don't have the access to wholesale and distribution that their larger cousins do. Since 2000, Washington has added 374 new wineries while adding just 3,000 acres of new vineyards — barely over 8 acres of vineyard per winery — truly small, family-operated wineries. Are these wineries with their focus on bringing tourists into their tasting rooms making the billion-dollar difference?

In a word, yes. These wineries singularly and jointly are bringing more tourists into their wineries and contributing more than their individual sizes might imply to the growth of Washington's wine business. They have tasting rooms, they serve food and they sell wine accessories. They hold events, provide picnic grounds and host weddings — the very things Oregon's short-sighted HB 3280 wants to prevent small wineries, and even larger wineries, from doing!

So what should be changed in HB 3280 to help Oregon keep up with Washington?

First, stop the business restrictions. We all know what we expect when we visit wineries, but HB 3280 wants to change that. Wineries need to be able to attract tourists with the "wine country experience" tourists are looking for. The argument that wineries need to be controlled or Oregon will lose a "rural feel" couldn't be more wrong. Wineries rely on that country feel as part of what brings tourists to them. Wineries have proven time after time that they bring country charm to their guests rather than destroying it.

Second, make it easier for wineries to obtain conditional use permits. This is a place where the Legislature fails to understand the difference between farming wine grapes and alfalfa. Wine grapes grow best on marginal lands, but Oregon land-use regulators want vineyards and wineries located on the richest EFU-zoned lands. "Conditional use" is intended to allow a business to exist where it might not otherwise be allowed, but rather than opening a door to the special circumstances of growing wine grapes, it has become a restrictive nightmare of county-by-county zoning differences that effectively stops wineries from finding and locating on what can be the best lands for making wine.

Today the average vineyard size in the Rogue Valley is just over 2 acres and doesn't have a winery on it. Land-use regulations can effectively prevent these really family owned farms from evolving into wineries. We had some of this in the pear industry once, but without the upward path potential most small pear growers had to abandon their orchards. We lost agricultural lands rather than preserved them and we wound up with the backlash of Measure 37. Shall we repeat that mistake with vineyards?

So lets learn both from our past and from the successes of wine-producing states that are similar to us. Tell our state legislators to pass a land-use law that works to keep our emerging wine/tourism industry growing and gives our small family owned farms a way to remain in the agricultural base. We can have agriculture without being struck with urban blight — and rural wineries are the solution, not the problem.

Duane Bowman is the owner of Cricket Hill Winery in the Applegate Valley.

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