Joe Wagner and his father Chuck have founded a number of hugely successful California wine brands, including Meiomi—which was sold to Constellation Brands for $315mi n 2015—and the legendary Caymus brand.
However, Joe Wagner's newly debuted Coper Cane Willametter Journal Pinot Noir brand is produced from Oregon fruit and made in California and has an Oregon appellation, according to Wagner. He wouldn’t be the first, or the last producer, to use fruit from another state to make California wines but has in this case raised eyebrows by sourcing from three different regions and intimating that all three have Coastal influences. The brand is sold as a winery direct, private label only at Total Wine & More chain and does not have its own website.
None of the three regions cited—the Rogue, Umpqua and Willamette Valleys—are actually coastal appellations. While many Oregon producers have been quick to express their concerns about the region’s integrity, Christian Miller, proprietor of Berkeley-based Full Glass Research, warns that all parties should proceed with caution until the complicated maze of out-of-state appellation and labeling laws are sorted out.
The Portland-based Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) has asked both the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) to investigate. “It's all speculative at this point, but OLCC will work to ensure protection of Oregon's unique AVA regions … and will be reviewing it to determine next steps, if any,” said Matthew Van Sickle, a public affairs specialist at the OLCC.
However, Napa-beverage beverage attorney John Trinidad, of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, said that the “Willametter Journal wines and marketing material raise multiple issues surrounding appellation and AVA labeling.” These include misuse of AVA names on labeling and packaging material and having a misleading brand name.
Wagner, who is the brand’s owner and winemaker, said that how the grapes are sourced should not pose an as issue, “As terroir is the most important factor in any wine, we want to clearly convey that these grapes were grown in the Willamette Valley.
He added that the name Willametter Journal name for the Copper Cane wine was chosen to “signify the region where the grapes are grown. As winemakers, we drive the character of the soil and climate from the grapes to the wine. That can be done anywhere.” He also shared his belief, despite the fact that these regions are not located on the coast, that the Oregon Coast “has a character impact on the wines due to the marine influence.”
Not everyone on the Oregon side of the fence sees eye-to-eye with Wagner. Jana McKamey, vice president of government affairs and operations for OWA says that the group’s priority is to “protect the integrity of Oregon’s prized appellations of origin.”
A handful of Oregon producers were also not pleased with how the brand’s wines are being marketed. “I believe Joe Wagner’s Oregon Pinots are both problematic and an indication of how strong and well-respected wines grown in the Willamette Valley,” said Kristin Marchesi, president of the Forest Grove, Oregon-based Montinore Estate. She then added that this type branding can create problems. “At a time when authenticity is valued above brand, he is taking advantage of both consumers and a region.”
While she, and other observers, of the brand launch may think that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” but hope that “the TTB and ultimately Joe choose to be transparent in the labeling of his Oregon Pinot Noirs.”
Liza B. Zimmerman