Napa winery stuns Oregon with cancelled contracts

A Californian winery has left a number of Oregon growers shocked and angry after it cancelled its contracts over claims of “smoke taint” almost on the eve of the harvest.

Some 15 growers in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley had their contracts – with an overall value of US$4 million – cancelled by Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, leaving almost 2,000 tons of fruit to potentially rot on the vine.

On 22 September, the growers received a notice from the company which said: “We’re still pending more analysis, but the initial results and the sensory analysis came back positive for smoke taint. We have now sent rejection notices to all our growers in the Rogue Valley.”

But the growers have hit back saying the claim is “bogus” and a “smokescreen” for wiggling out of the contracts.

John Pratt, president of the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association, told Capital Press: “I think most everybody was stunned. It was devastating. Everybody feels very strongly that’s just a bogus smokescreen scapegoat reason for rejecting the fruit.”

He said that while there had been wildfires near some vineyards, the levels of guiacol and methylguiacol – the compounds released by burning wood which cause smoke taint – were well below levels that might cause concern.

Sam Tannahill, co-founder of A to Z Wineworks, has been quoted in several US articles that while there have been “pockets” of smoke taint “here and there”, “the numbers were super low”.

The grapes would normally be bound for one of two Oregon-sourced brands produced by Copper Cane, ‘Elouan’ and ‘Willametter Journal’, which are vinified and bottled in Napa.

Although labelled as ‘Oregon’, which is allowed, the cases the Elouan wines are shipped in mention the sub-regions of Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue which the Oregon Winemakers Association has said crosses the line and is in breach of federal labelling laws.

To bear the name of an Oregon AVA, at least 95% of the fruit in the bottle must hail from that region and the wine has to be made and bottled in-state.

Willametter Journal meanwhile states it is from “the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range” which winemakers and lawyers have also said stretches the law to breaking point.

Copper Cane and its owner Joe Wagner, meanwhile, say all their Oregon wines comply with Oregon’s labelling laws.

Those growers let high and dry by their contract cancellations however are now left struggling to find buyers for their fruit.

A few wineries in the state have stepped in to buy parcels here and there apparently but nowhere near enough to make up for this unexpected situation.

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