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Lodi vintners oppose proposal for huge coastal appellation

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Posted: Friday, April 6, 2001 10:00 pm

A battle is building over proposed boundaries that could dramatically shift the future of California's wine industry - and leave Lodi's vintners and grape growers as second-class citizens.

Lodi wine leaders are joining others in what they say is a battle to preserve the integrity of California's current system of labeling. At stake, say industry insiders, may be Lodi's growing reputation for quality wines, along with local wine-related revenues and jobs.

The proposal is "potentially so devastating" to local wine and grape interests that the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission recently broke from tradition to formally and forcefully oppose it, said Joe A. Cotta, commission chairman.

The skirmish lines are forming over a proposal to group coastal wine growing areas into one monster appellation, or territory.

One fear is that while coastal wineries and growers could prosper under the proposal, those from Lodi and other areas will be relegated to lesser status and consideration.

An overriding criticism: The proposal, by including such a sprawling area, flouts the traditional establishment of an appellation based on distinct local qualities.

A group of 16 California vintners, including the Robert Mondavi Winery, has filed a petition with federal officials to combine the state's three designated coastal winemaking regions into one expansive territory, ranging from Mendocino County south to the Mexican border.

Overall, the new region being proposed would blend 68 unique winemaking areas into a single, mammoth territory comprised of more than 22,000 square miles.

The proposal chafes many wine industry insiders, who point out that federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms rules call for areas to be incorporated into a single region only if they share common soil characteristics, climate and history.

"Obviously the larger a region is, the lower the likelihood that they will share any of these characteristics," said Mark Chandler, executive director of the local winegrape commission. "The region proposed by this petition is so large as to be almost meaningless."

Since its inception, the commission has remained neutral on political issues as required by its charter. But Chandler has sought and received special permission from the state for the commission to take a stand against the petition, an unprecedented move for the group.

As for the potential harm the coastal appellation could bring to Lodi growers, Chandler said it's impossible to tell with any degree of certainty.

"There are no numbers available that are going to tell you what will happen," Chandler said. "But I can tell you that hundreds of growers from Lodi will write against this."

Many in the wine world warn of the consequences such a change would portend for areas like Lodi, since it would be left out of the new appellation, which would contain the majority of the state's most highly regarded wine producing regions.

Rich Cartiere, publisher of Wine Market Report, a trade publication covering California's wine industry, thinks the petition has about a 50-50 chance.

"This is a very political decision for the ATF and there are some very powerful political forces lined up against this," Cartiere said. "It's a little surprising that Lodi was left out of the petition. Certainly, growers in Lodi do not want to be distinguished as being 'noncoastal,' since that will eventually not be a good boat to be in should this pass."

Brad Alderson is vice president of Mondavi's Woodbridge Winery in Acampo, which produces the lion's share of the wine

sold by Mondavi - not to mention most of the firm's profits.

Mondavi, which is among the signatories of the coastal petition, produces an upscale line made from coastal grapes.

Despite that, Alderson opposes the petition. He understands the frustration felt by wineries whose "coastal" designation has been hijacked at times by pretenders. Nonetheless, he feels that the coastal proposal is a poor way of going about protecting themselves.

"The word 'coastal' has definitely been misused," Alderson said. "As an industry, this is something we need to come to grips with.

"The ATF needs to show some kind of leadership in this matter. Everybody in the industry needs to be made to obey some set of rules, there's no doubt about that. But a patchwork, Mickey Mouse approach will serve nobody's interests."

Although Lodi is not included in the proposed district, it has more in common with many of the best coastal wine producing areas than many regions which are recommended for inclusion, Alderson said.

"The land around Lodi has as much maritime influence as a third of this proposed appellation," he said. "If you look at the boundaries of this proposal, it's plain to see that they have far more to do with politics than they do with any other factor."

The point of California's appellation system, modeled largely after the one found in France, which classifies agricultural products ranging from wine to chickens, is to communicate information to consumers about the unique characteristics of the product, Alderson said.

The coastal proposal has been put to ATF before - having been shot down in 1998, when the bureau refused to act on the petition.

"We weren't satisfied with the volume of evidence we'd been given when the petition was filed in 1998," said ATF spokesman Jim Crandall, who added that this time around, the petitioners have furnished ATF with a considerably bigger body of evidence in support of their request, "including a substantial amount of scientific research."

The ATF has formally invited public comment on the proposal, and even extended it at one point. But for opponents of the petition from Lodi and elsewhere, the clock is now ticking - written comments must be submitted to ATF by April 25 to be considered.

This deeply concerns many Lodi growers, who in recent weeks have mobilized against the petition en masse.

If put into practice, the proposal would be both misleading to consumers and harmful to the state's wine industry as a whole, said Bill Stokes, president of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association.

"We really need to come up with as much opposition as possible to this before the deadline," Stokes said.

Proponents argue the move is desperately needed to protect the reputation of wines made from grapes grown in California's coastal regions.

Some wineries claim their products are under siege by a rash of pretenders, which liberally display the word "coastal" on their labels - but in fact contain wine made from few if any coastal grapes.

Santa Rosa's Kendall-Jackson is among the wineries backing the petition.

Vintners who market bona fide coastal wines need the new designation to safeguard the integrity of their products, winery spokesman James Caudill said.

"Grapes grown on the coastal regions of California have special characteristics all their own," said Caudill, who added fears the new appellation would give some wineries the upper hand are unfounded.

"We have always been in favor of viticultural areas which educate the public, and believe the proposed Coastal Appellation will only strengthen public understanding of wine. Do Oakville and Rutherford (sub-appellations) hurt Napa? Of course not."

But a sizable body of opposition has been busy lining up to fight the petition. Opponents of the proposed California Coast Viticultural Area include many of the state's most influential wine organizations, like the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, Napa Valley Vintners Association and Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. These groups bring to the table both considerable political influence and some very deep pockets.

John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, an advocacy group with 525 California wineries on its membership roster, has enlisted the help of geological experts who have collected soil samples from throughout the territory which would be covered by the proposed wine region.

His experts are prepared to offer evidence to ATF that will demonstrate the diverse areas included within in the proposed area have little in common, De Luca said.

So far, the Wine Institute has ponied up in excess of $125,000 to prove its point, and De Luca said the organization is willing to spend even more to see the proposal defeated.

"If the appellation (wine labeling) system is going to mean anything in California, this proposal must be defeated," De Luca said. " It goes against everything we've worked for in getting the system established to begin with."

Mondavi's Alderson said the most important priority of the industry must be to protect the integrity of the labeling system, which consumers rely upon when shopping for wine.

"Attempts are being made to turn this (the appellation system) into some sort of marketing tool," he said. "And that's not what it's supposed to be used for."

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