Can the Authenticity of Oregon Wine Be Mandated by Law?

More than any other winemaking region in America, Oregon’s Willamette Valley (my new home) appears to be as or more committed to the “authenticity” of its wine products than any other winemaking region in the country. The vintners here also seem to recognize that when it comes to wine, there are two different kinds of “authenticity”. The first is the objective type in which what is actually in the bottle is genuinely a product of Willamette Valley-grown grapes. The second kind of “authenticity” is the sensory impression that a wine produced from Willamette Valley-grown grapes produces on the palate.

I’m not that much interested in the first kind of authenticity. It’s a math problem. It’s the second kind of “authenticity” I’m really interested in Moreover, it’s the “5% difference” that needs to be explored.

In a recent article concerning legislation now before the Oregon legislature that would require Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to be made from 100% Willamette Valley grapes and 100% Pinot Noir, legendary Oregon winemaker David Adelsheim defended the change in law by saying “a 5 percent addition of grapes from a different region might not sound like much, but it transforms a Willamette Valley wine into something else — ‘it won’t taste like the place.'”

Currently, a Pinot Noir with the Willamette Valley AVA on its label must, by law, contain 90% Pinot Noir and the grapes for the wine must be 95% sourced from the Willamette Valley AVA. So, if the law passes in Oregon, the objective authenticity issue where Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is concerned will not be an issue at all. One will equal One. Period. That’s a good thing for those of us who were liberal arts majors and still wince a little at math problems.

What’s really interesting here, though, is Mr. Adelsheim’s contention that a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir containing 5% Pinot Noir from Southern Oregon isn’t authentic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, from either an objective standard or from the subjective sensory standard: “it won’t taste like the place”.

Again, clearly, this wine wouldn’t be objectively authentic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. It would be only 95% authentic. But…from a sensory and subjective perspective, is there really such a difference between a 100% Pinot Noir made with 95% Willamette Valley grapes and a 100% Pinot Noir made with 100% Willamette Valley grapes that “it won’t taste like the place [the Willamette Valley]?

For me, I approach this question first with the knowledge that a Pinot Noir grown in Napa Valley and Pinot Noir grown in the Willamette Valley will always taste and smell more similar than a Pinot Noir and a Syrah made from grapes grown in the same small Oregon vineyard. The sensory elements imparted by specific grape varieties are the determining factor in the character of a wine, particularly if winemaking techniques remain equal (but most often, even if they don’t).

But this points to another issue. So much of what is controlled by the grapegrower and winemaker has a huge impact on the eventual sensory character of a given wine. The brix at harvest. The pH at harvest. Were the grapes cold soaked? Was the wine’s fermentation started with indigenous yeast or with a cultivated yeast? How long did the wine spend in oak? And these are just five viticulture and winemaking variations of dozens that have large impacts on the character of the final product.

But also, consider the Willamette Valley itself. It’s a region that is more than 120 miles north to south. It includes 3,438,000 acres or 5372 square miles. And within the Willamette Valley AVA you will find a total of seven presumably distinct, non-overlapping sub-appellations. That’s a lot of microclimates that can also have huge impacts on wine.

The point is that with the Willamette Valley AVA there are a number of climatic, soil, viticulture and winemaking variation that is going to lead to a whole host of differences among the wines made in the area.

And this brings us back to the “5 percent” question. First, let’s keep this honest and accept that probably no more than 2-3% of American wine drinkers could accurately identify the geographic source of any Pinot Noir without relying on luck (whether it’s 75% or 100% Pinot). Of this small group, even far fewer could accurately identify a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir out of a line up of five different Pinots. And of this very tiny group, I’d bet only a handful of people could consistently distinguish between the 100% Pinot Noir made with 100% Willamette Valley grapes on the one hand and the 100% Pinot Noir made with 95% Willamette Valley Grapes and five Percent Rogue Valley grapes on the other.

The reason nearly 100% of human beings on the planet could not consistently and accurately make the distinction between a 95% Willamette Valley Pinot and a 100% Willamette Valley Pinot can be chalked up to a number of possibilities. 1) The vast majority of wine drinkers don’t have the education and experience to do so (this is undoubtedly true). 2) The wide variance in grapegrowing and winemaking technique makes it very difficult to attribute a particular characteristic to terroir versus a particular technique. 3) The difference between a 100% Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and a 95% Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is actually insignificant to the point that it really does not “transforms a Willamette Valley wine into something else”.

If I’m right about this, and I’m almost sure I am, then what’s happening with this legislation concerning Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a matter of making these wines more authentically Pinot Noir, not more authentically Willamette Valley. Again, this is a math problem. Not a question of the character of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

So, if this legislation mandating Willamette Valley Pinot Noir be 100% (not 95%) produced from Willamette Valley grapes and 100% Pinot Noir (not 90%) won’t create more authentic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, what kind of legislation would do this if that kind of subjective authenticity is the goal?

If this kind of homogenization of character is the goal, the Willamette Valley wine community could choose to back a proposal that mandates various grapegrowing and winemaking standards for the region—like Burgundy and a number of other French and Old World growing regions have done.

For example, a requirement for a minimum number of vines planted to an acre could be mandated. Or a limit on the tons of grapes that can be grown on an acre of vineyards could be regulated. For that matter, if a distinctive “Willamette Valley Wine” is what’s desired by local vintners, laws could be passed mandating that only certain grapes be made into wine that wears the “Willamette Valley” label. And of course, the option exists to mandate by law the use or non-use of particular wine aging vessels as well as how long the wine may or must rest in those vessels. All these requirements and others would aid in determining a style for the Valley’s wines

There are a number of things that could be legislated that would guarantee Willamette Valley Pinot Noir taste like the place. Increasing the percent of Willamette Valley grapes that must be used from 95% to 100% is not one of them.

Despite how the pending legislation will negatively impacting grapegrowers that have happily supplied Willamette Valley wineries with fruit to accommodate the current allowance of 10% non-Pinot Noir grapes and the allowance for 5% non-Willamette Valley grapes, it appears that Mr. Adelsheim and others promoting the new, more stringent rules for the Willamette Valley AVA have the honest intent of attempting to maintain and increase the positive reputation of the Valley’s wines as well as the legacy of the region’s remaining pioneers. Additionally, the new legislation should help somewhat in maintaining or increasing the price of Willamette Valley-grown grapes.

On the other hand, the new legislation will also likely increase the plantings of grapes on the floor of the Willamette Valley. This more fertile part of the AVA is likely to produce grapes of lower quality in greater quantities than the traditional hillside slope planting that has long been one of the important aspects to high-quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. It’s unclear what this will do to the AVA’s reputation. It’s also unclear how this inevitable result of the legislation will impact what Ken Wright, a strong proponent of this proposed legislation, sees as one of its goals: to “protect against ‘new entrants that would like to leverage and exploit’ the reputation built by the region’s pioneers.”

Willamette Valley has long been a source of very high quality, world-class wine, despite the fact that 100% Pinot Noir and 100% Valley-sourced grapes has not been the law. The reason for the extraordinary high-quality wines seems twofold to me. First, the climate and soils happen to very well suited to the production of high-quality grapes, particularly Pinot Noir. But equally important, the community of grapegrowers and winemakers attracted to the region over the years have always been committed to making high-quality wines and to cooperating in pursuit of creating a reputation for high-quality wines. This legislation will neither promote nor deter a continuation of that culture.





11 Responses

  1. Michael Barnes - March 26, 2019

    Great analysis and commentary!!

  2. Tom Wark - March 26, 2019

    Thank you, Michael!

  3. Jeff Swanson - March 26, 2019

    Agree with your comprehensive analysis Tom. Especially as it relates to increasing the price of Pinot Noir grapes.

    I am concerned with Ken Wright’s fears of “new entrants.”. comment. Do you think he is referring to Joe Wagner’s marketing exploits, or other large wineries like Kendall-Jackson moving into the state?

  4. Greg Ricks - March 26, 2019

    Thank you Tom for this even handed analysis.
    Sometimes the Law of Unintended Consequences indicates that the best course of action is to leave matters in status quo.
    The Willamette Valley has been producing high quality and distinct Pinot Noirs for many years even though the general wine drinking public only seems to be catching on to it now.
    I believe your conclusion that the culture of the Willamette Valley winemakers and grape growing encourages the production of high quality wines is far more important than the province of the grapes.

  5. Cameron Myhrvold - March 27, 2019

    I agree with the author’s analysis. To me this smacks of pure protectionism. If I owned a vineyard in the Willamette Valley I would want this too More support for higher grape prices. This has nothing to do with protecting new entrants of protecting the consumer or with making higher quality wines.

  6. Steve E. - March 27, 2019

    A good analysis of the situation. I would ask an additional question: Do the consumers care if a wine is 100% Willamette grapes or 95% Willamette grapes? Or is it the case that consumers want an enjoyable wine drinking experience?

    Why not legislate the addition of crystal sun, aka chaptalization, or sugar additions in the Willamette? That will have a greater impact on the expression of place than removing the 5% option. ; )

    This sounds like a case of “I have my prime site and I want to drive my values up, you stay out!”

  7. Kiley Evans - March 27, 2019

    Great read, Tom. I find it interesting that, according to the authors, this new legislation is actually old legislation in that the content and source requirements proposed used to be the rule. Also, if 5% of grape origin is as critical to wine identity and authenticity as is contended then shouldn’t the vintage requirement be addressed, too? Some would argue that vintage, especially in Oregon, has at least as much, if not potentially more, impact as blending 5% across AVAs.

  8. Miguel Lecuona - March 27, 2019

    Interesting analysis, Tom. I would also say, in the “5% difference” taste test you outline, one of the most influential factors in assessing any wine vis a vis the intended character is… basic serving temperature! Just a few degrees either way and you’ll successfully manipulate or blow out the entire decision process of the winemaker, and fool even the best tasters. That aside, law or no law, it is also possible for the winery to declare their own 100-100 authenticity (it could be grapes, it could be BIO or ORG or VEGAN etc) There are governing associations to certify a myriad of distinguishing attributes… but the integrity of the winery itself is what the winery can control. It could very well play out as a positive point of difference in price, reputation and presence to a particular audience. This is called segmentation, right? I make this point to my wine marketing students – take care of your own house first before focusing on what the rest of the world is doing.

  9. Matthew Perry - April 2, 2019

    I agree with so many of the comments here, some of which I have never thought of before. Kiley Evans made a great point noting that 10% of other vintage wine is legally allowed to be blended while maintaining vintage labeling requirements. Steve E made a great point about additives, how is adding water, acid, or sugar more indicative of “terroir” than blending in some other grapes?

    This whole thing screams protectionism. It also limits creative freedom in winemaking, and is completely unnecessary. After all, people have been lying about what they put in their wine for centuries.

    If you really want to protect consumers, mandatory ingredient labeling on wine seems like best way to go about this. If you add acid, water, mega purple, I want to know!

  10. Jason - April 4, 2019

    Even if it were 100% Willamette valley, the Willamette valley is pretty huge. Stuff from down by Eugene is not going to be the same as the Chehalem Mts. Way hotter, different aspect, different soils.

    When I worked in Chehalem mts. One of the things that I found interesting is that even though the region doesn’t have laws/ rules on how to make the wine, many of the producers that I met use very similar techniques (small 1 ton fermentations, manual punchdowns, small diameter hoses 🙂 a lot of gravity feed and sorting of fruit). Wheras in California, or elswhere I’ve been it seems that every winery has a totally different method and equipment etc.

    The winery that I worked for even separated the small vineyard of 10 acres into 4 seperate lots. I think that Pinot Noir shows the slight variations in aspect, soil, etc. “terroir” more than any other variety. For example, the center of the vineyard got a little more sun, and less water compared to the grapes on the south side of the slope.

    One of the things that I think is great about making wine in the U.S. We aren’t restricted as much on far as what you can plant where etc. legally anyways. Maybe making more laws to regulate winemaking technique, yields etc. could “maybe” make better wine, but at what cost? Some of those vineyards are super low yield anyways, and the cost of a good bottle of pinot can get pretty dang high as it is.

    As far as chaptalization, yeah we could make it illegal, but then you would just have these terrible vintages where the rain never stops, and the grapes don’t ripen properly.

  11. Shane - April 24, 2019

    Thanks for this Tom brilliant writing that is the best argument I’d heard yet against this – Sorry I”m just getting around to commenting. When the WVWA had a town hall on this subject I commented concerning my reservations with these proposed laws.

    My suggestion was this:

    If quality is the real concern why not create a tasting panel like the VQA of our neighbors up north? I think this would actually solve the issues that seem to be the concerns of the drafters of this legislation – I do not personally believe 100% varietal/AVA labeling or mandating will either solve anything or hold anyone to higher standards of winemaking. Put the glass in front of trained tasters let them decide if it’s quality and of varietal/place typicity or not. The VQA system is where it’s at.

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