If Missouri is the “Show Me” state, then Oregon must be the “We’ll Show You” state. Oregon’s wine laws are frequently different, and generally stiffer, than the rest of the country. A case in point is varietal labeling. Federal standards dictate that a wine labeled as a varietal must include at least 75% of the named varietal. But in Oregon, the law has been 90%.
Until recently, that has been perceived as a marketing advantage, ensuring that Oregon’s Pinot Noirs were at least 90% “pure.” The law allows a few exceptions—Bordeaux varietals may adhere to the 75% rule. But a growing number of winemakers, mostly from the south, are chafing under the old rules. Their concerns have prompted a petition from a task force of the Board of the Oregon Winegrowers’ Association (OWA) to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
The petition asks that 32 more grapes be added to the 75% list. The revised law would still require 90% for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and a handful of other Burgundian/Alsatian grapes. Petitioners claim that “current rules do not reflect today’s needs… [and] put wineries and vineyards at financial or creative disadvantage compared to those in other states.”
Earl Jones, founder of Abacela, makes the case that Tempranillo is often blended in Spain, and makes a better wine. Why then should his Tempranillo be constrained by the 90% rule? Same with Sangiovese in Italy, and so on. Lined up squarely on the opposite side are the winemakers from up north, who speak in terms of protecting varietal purity.
The larger problem, of which this is symptomatic, is that Oregon’s wine industry has grown well beyond the comfortable borders of Pinot Noir and a couple of white wines. The state now grows and makes dozens of different wines that could—perhaps should—be varietally labeled according to Federal law. Oregon rules that worked well 20 years ago don’t always fit the needs of wines being made today.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has agreed to review the petition. Stay tuned for more rancorous debate.