SEATTLE, September 24, 2014 — Not all in the Walla Walla Valley is as peaceful as it appears. It turns out there’s a giant loophole in the law that Oregon wineries are able to exploit to market themselves as “Washington wines”.
A recent issue of Seattle Met Magazine puts the issue front and center in its “Washington’s 100 Best Wines”. It’s just too bad that one of the wineries listed isn’t exactly a Washington winery.
There’s an issue that’s somewhat unique to the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area, or AVA; it’s one of the few AVAs in the country that crosses a state line. Long before the states of Oregon and Washington were even a proposal on a map, the Walla Walla Valley was carved out during the Miocene age. This beautiful valley produces world-class wines that are some of the best values in the world of wine today. But it also presents a unique challenge: How should the area’s wines be marketed and sold to consumers?
Seventy percent of the fruit in this AVA comes from the Oregon side of the border; many successful Washington wineries have vines on the Oregon side. Seven Hills Vineyard, for instance, managed by valley pioneer Norm McKibben and it supplies fruit to such leading wine brands as L’Ecole N° 41 , Seven Hills Winery and Pepper Bridge. These wineries are actually in Washington state and rightly market their products as Washington wines.
But then there’s the winery that earned the top spot on the list of “Washington’s 100 Best Wines.”
Christophe Baron started Cayuse Vineyards over 15 years ago. It was the first vineyard in the Walla Walla AVA to get a 100 percent biodynamic certification. Baron plows his vineyards with a horse; he is old school and has a passion for what he does. The accolades he receives from publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast Magazine have helped create long waiting lists for his wines.
But are Cayuse Vineyards products really “Washington wines”?
Both the winery and vineyards are in the state of Oregon. Note the large production facility behind the home at the site of the vineyards.(Click on images to enlarge)
The Washington State Liquor Control Board says that Cayuse is listed as a bonded winery on 17 East Main Street in Walla Walla, but that’s only a tasting room; it’s barely open twice per year. Here’s a picture of it from Google Earth Street View. It is not believable that the vineyard’s entire production comes from this shoe-box-sized tasting room.
A legal loophole allows Cayuse to hold a bond at this tiny, rented space as long as they can demonstrate they have some kind of production here. That can be a single barrel of wine, even if it is hauled up from their production facility in Oregon just to appease the Washington Liquor Control Board inspectors.
As anyone who works in the wine industry of that area will tell you, the wine is all produced and bottled at the Milton-Freewater facility. Here’s a picture of the label on a 2010 bottle of Syrah from Cayuse; it clearly says, “Produced and Bottled by Christophe Baron Milton-Freewater Oregon USA”.
So how this brand makes it into Washington Wine reviews and is listed on the Washington Wine Commission’s website as a “Washington Winery” simply escapes me.
We emailed the Washington Wine Commission regarding this issue and got back the following reply:
“Cayuse is licensed in Washington, so technically Christophe Baron can say that. Here is the licensing information for your reference:
Address: 17 E Main St, Walla Walla, WA 99362
License Start Date: 10-05-1999”
Washington State Wine
Additionally, the description on the Washington Wine Commission’s website states:
“As the first biodynamically farmed estate in Washington, Cayuse Vineyards owns five vineyards with over 50 acres of land currently planted. From this land we currently create 11 estate wines totaling 3500 cases.”
When we contacted the commission again about this issue, they said they would be making a correction as, clearly, the vineyards of Cayuse are not in Washington so it’d be impossible to say they were the “first biodynamically farmed estate in Washington”.
However, the TTB website shows that Cayuse is clearly an Oregon winery. Note that the TTB doesn’t list Cayuse as a Washington winery.
What we see here is a classic example of how a winery can go right through what appears to be a glaring legal loophole between the state and federal levels. Even though the rules are strict when it comes to how wineries market themselves and what can be put on the label, it’s not enough to stop a winery from getting a bond in a different state for whatever reason they choose to.
It’s hard to find fault with Cayuse for wanting to align itself with Washington; for many years, the Oregon Wine Board ignored its portion of the Walla Walla Valley as the overwhelming majority of the state’s wineries are in the Willamette Valley. That tide is shifting and we’re starting to see more marketing efforts from the Oregon Wine Board for this exciting region.
The focus here is to draw attention to one of the many loopholes that do nothing but create confusion for the consumer and in some cases, the wine trade and media.
So is Cayuse a Washington winery? I think the former President, Bill Clinton, has the best response: