Willamette Valley wine grapes

Wine grapes ripen in a vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission has fined a California winery $50,000 for mislabeling wines that improperly referenced specific geographic regions in Oregon. 

It is one of the largest alcohol fines ever issued by the OLCC, stemming from precise rules about what can and cannot be included on a wine's label.

Copper Cane LLC, based in Rutherford, California, purchases wine grapes from about 40 Oregon vineyards to make Pinot noir and rosé under the brand name Elouan. The fruit is then trucked in dry ice back to California where the wine is produced. 

Oregon winemakers and consumers began raising alarm in 2018 when they noticed boxes of Elouan mentioned the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua basins — regions that are federally designated as American Viticultural Areas for their unique wine growing characteristics. 

Under Oregon's labeling laws, wines must contain 95% of grapes from a particular viticultural area and be "fully finished" in that region to include its name on the label or marketing materials.

Though Elouan wines are made from Oregon grapes, they are technically produced in California and thus would not qualify to claim an Oregon viticultural area as its appellation of origin. 

OLCC initially recommended revoking Copper Cane's certificate of approval to sell wine to Oregon wholesalers, though the agency and winery instead agreed to a settlement.

In addition to the fine, Copper Cane agreed to abide by all wine labeling standards going forward. 

Steve Marks, OLCC executive director, said in a statement that alcohol regulators and the wine industry collectively must continue to ensure that the unique locations where wine grapes are grown and produced are protected in the market, so consumers can be confident they are purchasing a bottle of wine from where it actually came from.

"In this case we used the agency's limited regulatory tools to protect Oregon's brand, in the same way we would respect the brands from other wine growing regions," Marks said. 

As part of the settlement, Copper Cane did not admit to any wrongdoing. The company has argued it used labels that were previously approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It later voluntarily surrendered nine labels amid complaints.

A representative for Copper Cane could not immediately be reached for comment. 

While the OLCC dispute is now resolved, Copper Cane remains embroiled in a class action lawsuit filed by consumers over the alleged misrepresentation of its Elouan wines.

A federal judge recently declined to dismiss the case, which claims the winery violated state laws on false advertising, unfair competition and unjust enrichment, among others.

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