October 2009

State News: August 2009


Old Vines, New Chances

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Oregon Takes Wine to Greener Level

Like Idaho, wine is good for Oregon’s economy as well.
“Oregon’s grape and wine industry generates over $1.4 billion to the Oregon economy, and a great deal of that is through tourism,” said Farthing of the Oregon Wine Board. The largest winery in Oregon is still relatively small by the world’s standards—it produces 150,000 cases of wine a year, or 1.8 million bottles annually.
Farthing cited that information from an economic impact study on the industry commissioned in 2004.
That study also found the state had a certain niche within the grape and wine industry—and that’s the idea of sustainable wine.
An estimated 30 percent of the acreage in Oregon set aside to grow the grapes for wine is certified as sustainable by different national and state organizations offering certifications, Farthing said. And since that percentage is pretty high for one state, he said, the Oregon Wine Board wanted to make sure Oregon’s “greener” wine stood out.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing a good job of communicating what sustainable grape and wine production is all about.”
Sustainable wine basically means the grapes are grown and the wine is made with attention to greener practices or sustainable techniques ranging from practices that protect the land to even health and safety practices for employees. Sustainable wine practices also focus on water management and energy use.
So last year, the Oregon Wine Board launched a new wine label for qualifying wines called Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine. The program guarantees that any wine carrying the label with official logo meets with sustainability standards.
“We created an educational platform called Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine that really celebrated the common ground between all of these certification programs,” Farthing said. “There’s organic, biodynamic … something called LIVE (or the Low Input Viticulture and Enology certification), which is unique to Oregon. We found that (the different certifications) had an awful lot more in common than they did that separated them.”
To qualify, wineries must have their grapes, and ultimately the wine, certified by any of a handful of qualifying agencies. Certifications are made on a wine-by-wine basis, and the wine must be made with 97 percent certified grapes.
“Basically you’re growing the grapes in a responsible manner, all of your practices are geared towards allowing that land to be farmed for many, many more generations.” Farthing said. “And the same thing happens in the winery with the wines—you’re creating things in a way that allows this wonderful craft to carry on for generations. You’re leaving the land in better shape than you found it.”
For the state’s wine industry, the certification is launching a platform to let consumers know the benefits of sustainable wine. Those wines will be featured on a special Web site at www.ocsw.org.
The certification literally costs a penny a label to be Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, although there’s a lot more expense behind the scenes in proving that the grapes—and wine—are sustainable. There’s lots of rigorous auditing that must happen to prove the wine is sustainable, based on the grape and wine documentation, Farthing said, and the process could take years.
So essentially, once a winery is certified through one of the accepted state or national certification programs, it can apply for the Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine Label as well.
And although the cost of the certification to the wineries isn’t a major revenue producer for the state, the money from the certification goes to create a fund to protect the Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine trademark, according to Farthing.
There are now 13 wineries that have the Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine certification to date. As of mid-May, there were 15,000 cases certified, according to Farthing.
“There’s a lot more coming on strong,” Farthing said.
But Farthing said the growing certification program is more just to educate consumers about sustainable wine and to promote Oregon’s sustainable wine—it isn’t meant to help Oregon wine compete with the rest of the country’s wine, or even neighboring California’s mega wine industry.
“It’s really just meant to educate consumers. We celebrate any wines that are produced responsibly,” Farthing said.
Oregon is less than 1 percent of total U.S. wine production. “We are small and we’ll always be small, but we are very much satisfying consumers that are looking for new wines to discover,” Farthing said.

Changing Wines in California

While Oregon’s output is small, it neighbors the country’s biggest wine producer. California produces 90 percent of America’s wine. But even California is not immune to the downswings of the economy, although there are bright spots.
“In addition to wine sales, wine country has developed into quite the tourist attraction,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, the new vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry.
“Collectively it employs hundreds of thousands of people in California.”
In fact, some of the big wineries in California—such as Kendall Jackson—have had to let people go and have been forced to lay off some employees, Padilla said. That’s due to the down economy.
Jackson Family Wines—the largest wine group in Sonoma County, Calif.—is the parent company of the Kendall-Jackson winery. Jackson Family Wines was forced to lay off more than 100 employees, according to a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Windsor Vineyards, another winery in California, laid off workers earlier this year as well, “in response to the tough sales environment for high-end wines,” according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
That’s because in a down economy, the price points of the wine being sold are going down, Padilla said. Before, folks were purchasing $50 bottles of wine with dinner; now they are opting for the $20-$30 bottle of wine with dinner, he said.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom—trends in recent years indicate that per person consumption of wine is still trending upward, Padilla said.
So there’s a bright spot in that for California—and other wine states.
When California—that goes for other states as well—comes out of the recession, theoretically there will be more wine drinkers to boost the industry, Padilla said.
—Mikel Chavers is associate editor of State News magazine.
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