Has the time come for Washington to consider requiring conjunctive labeling?
This is not without controversy, as it would require wineries to add wording to their labels, a notion that goes against my natural libertarian leanings of not liking to be told what I can or cannot do.
Conjunctive labeling is done most famously in California, where wines made in any of Napa Valley's 16 sub-AVAs must include "Napa Valley" on the label. In the marketplace, this is gold because Napa Valley has such a strong value to consumers who might not understand the significance of the Stag's Leap District, for example. Conjunctive labeling in Napa Valley became law in 1989. A similar regulation was required of Sonoma County (and its 17 sub-AVAs) in 2014.
The argument for conjunctive labeling in Northern California makes sense from a marketing perspective, promoting the state's two most famous fine wine regions.
It isn't quite so clear in Washington what conjunctive labeling might look like. Requiring, for example, "Washington" on every label brings its own set of issues. As every resident of Washington knows, most of the nation thinks "Washington" refers to our nation's capital rather than the 42nd state, and wine consumers often wonder what side of the Potomac River are Washington grapes grown.
Oregon, which is considering conjunctive labeling, has no such issues, since the Oregon's wine brand is so strong nationwide.
What might make more sense for Washington is to require "Columbia Valley" on every label. Of Washington's 14 American Viticultural Areas, almost all are within the Columbia Valley. Only Puget Sound, Lewis-Clark Valley, Columbia Gorge and a corner of Lake Chelan fall outside the Columbia Valley's 11 million acres.
If nearly every bottle of Washington wine carried "Columbia Valley" on its label, this could carry a strong message to the national and international wine stage. The Columbia Valley has an amazing story to tell. Those of us who live here know the magic of the region, the sun-drenched days that stretch nearly to Halloween each year. The weather and soil combine to create near-perfect conditions for growing world-class wine grapes.
Perhaps the sprawling nature of the Columbia Valley has diluted its message since its federal approval in 1984. Perhaps conjunctive labeling is the vehicle for telling that story.
I love the fact we have 14 different AVAs (with a purported six more grinding through the federal system). For wine nerds, these tell Washington's bigger story and allow levels of exploration and inspiration. When I see "Red Mountain" on a label, I have a pretty good idea of what I'll get in the glass. I am more likely to buy a bottle of any white wine from the Ancient Lakes region. A Riesling from the Columbia Gorge is hard for me to resist. I'd be hard-pressed to not be intrigued by anything from the Puget Sound; having grown up in the shadow of the Olympics, I understand the heroic efforts grape growers go through in this region.
Who would likely not approve of conjunctive labeling? Probably many who use "Walla Walla Valley" on their labels. Walla Walla has a lot of national cachet, perhaps the only Washington region to compete with Napa Valley on the national wine stage. Walla Walla wineries might view having to include "Columbia Valley" on the label as a dilution of the Walla Walla brand.
Why not, perhaps, requiring "Washington" on the label under a conjunctive labeling requirement? This, I think creates its own set of issues, starting with the "Potomac" issue. Also, nationwide perception of Washington might include salmon, Mount St. Helens and rainy Seattle (god bless Emmett Watson), none of which are images a world-class wine region wants to portray.
Conjunctive labeling already is nearly a default in Washington. With few exceptions, our two largest wine producers (Ste. Michelle and Precept) already use "Columbia Valley" on most of their labels, with some exceptions. I would guess more than half the wines in the state already are labeled as "Columbia Valley." Getting the rest of the industry on board would not be difficult and would benefit Brand Washington a lot in the long run.
I talked to knowledgeable wine folks in California who couldn't tell me what Northwest state Snipes Mountain was in. They knew where the Columbia Valley was, though. It's time to consider conjunctive labeling in Washington. The benefits are worth it.
I don't know how conjunctive labeling could work, however. Would it be required by the state Legislature? Is it a good idea to leave labeling decisions to Olympia? I'm dubious about that. If conjunctive labeling is an idea worth considering, it probably needs to go through the Washington State Wine Commission in Seattle.
How would it be enforced? A good question. But finding the right answer to these problems is worth the effort.
ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine and now is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and the wine columnist for The Seattle Times.