Musings on Greater Idaho

Ever since the very close results in Wallola County on the Greater Idaho – Ballot Measure 32-007 is around a difference of 8 votes, as of May 31 – I have been thinking about the effect of Greater Idaho on those Oregon wineries and wine-drinkers in the proposed new territory.

For those who aren’t aware, the Greater Idaho movement seeks to add more of Oregon’s counties to Idaho – simple as that. Those counties include those on the border and on those borders beyond- Baker, Malheur, Union, Grant, and Harney counties; Lake and parts of Klamath counties along California’s border; and Grant, Wheeler, Sherman, Morrow, and Jefferson counties in the interior of the state.

Crook County is voting soon; and Umatilla and Gilliam haven’t yet voted.

Of course – the final decision sits with Congress, Idaho, and Oregon – but these certainly present an indication of where any potential lines will sit.

I found only around a dozen licensed wineries in those counties, but it begs the question – what changes would winemakers and vineyard owners face if the Greater Idaho movement is successful and those counties leave Oregon?

Remember that the federal and state governments have concurrent jurisdictions – the Department of Treasury, through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”), regulates production of alcohol and federal taxation of wine that will move into the stream of commerce, while the state, by virtue of the 21st Amendment, gets to regulate who can sell alcohol within its borders.

The TTB has regulations for grape labeling which are straight-forward to most of us:

To use a designated American Viticultural Area on a label, the bottle of wine must be (1) 95% from that AVA and (2) the AVA must be in the same state as where production takes place. If you cannot meet both tests, you must settle for naming the wine with the neighbor state where those grapes are from.

So, if you’re in Malheur County and making pinot noir grapes grown in Willamette Valley, you can use Willamette Valley on the label. Not so post-Greater Idaho – you could only say the grapes are from Oregon.

And if you’re currently an Oregon vineyard and want to sell to any Oregon winemaker in the state, that winemaker files and pays for the $25/ton grape tax. But if those winemakers are in Greater Idaho, the responsibility shifts to the grower to pay that $25/ton tax.

There are three significant AVAs in the Pacific Northwest that cross the Oregon and Washington borders: Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley, and Walla Walla. These grapes have a premium and are rightfully known for their reputation in bottles around the world.

The Columbia Gorge AVA is in four counties: Hood River and Wasco, Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat, Washington. Neither of those Oregon counties have voted on leaving the state to join Idaho, so nothing for me to parse.

And the Walla Walla AVA is in Umatilla and Walla Walla, Washington – will those residents vote for Greater Idaho? We don’t know yet if they ever will, much less voting to leave Oregon.

But the Columbia Valley AVA, that’s the huge one. And I mean huge – it is over 11 million acres and consists of 99% of Washington state’s wine grape acreage.

The Oregon counties this AVA covers include Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, and Wasco counties. So if you buy grapes from a vineyard in Columbia Valley, Washington; and all of those five counties vote to leave Oregon; then bringing them to your “lesser Oregon” winery will not meet the test for being able to use the name.

THIS IS HUGE for Oregon winemakers! We love the Columbia Valley AVA for its rich syrahs, silky merlot, and intense cabernet sauvignons. The inability to specify that the grapes are from this world-class AVA would be a blow.

What to do? We need to keep an eye on this and be prepared to mobilize to petition the TTB to allow both Greater Idaho winemakers and Oregon winemakers the use of the name Columbia Valley AVA on labels.