Mid-September 2018: Rogue Valley vineyards hung heavy with ripe grapes, sugars concentrating in the hot sun. For winegrowers like Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards, the summer had been heart in mouth (and smoke in eye), as haze from the Klondike wildfire, among others, wafted through the valley. With harvest imminent, Moore and his neighbors tested their fruit for signs of smoke taint: burnt, medicinal off-flavors that can ruin a wine. Luckily, lab results came back within acceptable thresholds.
“As a grower, you spend enormous amounts [of money] getting the fruit to the point when it’s ready for harvest,” says Moore. “The profit margin is razor thin.”
Then, on September 22, Moore and 15 other Rogue Valley winegrowers got a letter from their main buyer—a corporate California winemaker called Copper Cane—abruptly canceling all Southern Oregon orders. Smoke taint was the cited reason, from a single test from an unspecified vineyard. To some, the suspicion was that the winemaker—who just a week prior had been federally challenged by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission over mislabeling nine of its “Oregon” wines—was acting vindictively. (Out-of-staters co-opting Oregon wine’s hard-earned prestige is an increasing issue. Copper Cane’s Napa-finished wine was called “Willametter Journal”; another label advertised fruit from the Oregon coast, despite sourcing no grapes from that region.) Regardless, the 11th-hour rejection meant that 2,000 tons of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes had become homeless overnight, their growers out some $4 million in lost revenue.
Frantic, the Rogue Valley Vintners broadcast through its networks that tons of lovingly tended fruit—for many of its member growers, their entire harvest—was days away from literally dying on the vine. The plea caught the ear of Jim Bernau and Christine Clair at Willamette Valley Vineyards; within days, Christine and Jim, wine writer Jim Gullo, and Oregon House Rep. David Gomberg packed into a car, meeting Ed and Justin King of King Estate in Southern Oregon to see the situation firsthand.
One week later, an extraordinary plan was set in motion: first, a push to buy and harvest as many grapes as possible—prioritizing smaller outfits and vineyards that lacked crop insurance—with the fruit trucked to any Willamette Valley facility with space for immediate processing. They were able to save about a quarter of the rejected purchase—far from every grape, but still an amount that made a difference. Over the next several months, four wineries (Willamette Valley Vineyards, King Estate, Silvan Ridge, and the Eyrie Vineyards) worked as one to blend three wines from the fruit under a new collective label, Oregon Solidarity, with all profits to be donated back to the Rogue Valley Vintners.
By March 2019, Solidarity Rosé hit the shelves—and was nearly sold out within weeks. May was the release of Solidarity Chardonnay, gone within 20 days. This August, the final Solidarity wine hit retail shelves: a pinot noir that, with any luck for consumers, will still be available this fall.
“Usually when you’re planning a wine brand, it takes years. This took two weeks, and we released wine five months later,” says Clair. “I don’t hope that this situation happens again, but now we know how to do it. We can be the rescue team.”
Solidarity’s signal boost for community support, says Justin King, makes for timely messaging, as Oregon attracts new players who don’t always make Oregon-branded wine the Oregon way: up to state regulations, or even in this state. It’s also, he says, a direct contrast with the out-of-state business decisions that led to the need for Solidarity in the first place.
“We need to have a larger conversation about what these [companies] do to Oregon wine,” says King, referring to the vulnerability of Southern Oregon growers like Moore—many of whom are contractually obligated to sell Copper Cane their fruit in the coming years. “The culture in Oregon is, you don’t leave people high and dry.”